Darkness Visible: the predicament of blind writers and artists

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Darkness Visible: the predicament of blind writers and artists

Their eyes, from which the divine spark has departed,
 as though they were staring into the distance,
 remain lifted towards the sky…
Thus they pass through the boundless dark,
the brother of eternal silence.
—Charles Baudelaire, “The Blind”

Many unusually intelligent and articulate painters and writers have described the gradual or abrupt deterioration of their vision, and gave sighted people a greater understanding of the blind. They revealed the psychology of the blind and spoke for those who have not been able to express their frustration, anger and grief, their fear and hopeless despair. When confronted with the loss of sight, these major artists felt defenceless and vulnerable, stigmatised and depressed. Though all but one of them lived into the twentieth century, their medical treatment often exacerbated the disease. They felt unjustly punished and, like social outcasts, withdrew into their own hermetic world. Their personal histories explain how they dealt with blindness, found ways to live with it and even continued their creative careers.

The artists’ loss of vision, in childhood or later in life, could be congenital or caused by accident, war wound or disease. As they reacted to disaster, they told how their attitude changed from regret to adjustment, to rejuvenation and to a brave devotion to work. Painters could shift from bright outdoor sun to indoor studio painting. They could blur their once-detailed pictures or change to different media.

In an era when modern surgery and voice-assisted computers did not exist, it took considerable courage and faith to keep on writing. Art motivated them and gave them a reason to live, and blindness, paradoxically, also had positive aspects. Writers concentrated their attention, learned to listen more attentively and intensified their insight. Loss of vision also provided a rare and unusual subject in both paint and words.

The American humorist James Thurber, shot in the left eye by an arrow during a boyhood, became blind in middle age. Though he did not explain how he was able to filter out the negative and see only the positive aspects of the real world, that perennial outsider and observer claimed: “a blind man benefits by lack of distractions; my one-eighth vision happily obscures sad and ungainly sights, leaving only the vivid and radiant.”

The three Impressionist painters felt bitterness and grief, but reacted differently to blindness. The American Mary Cassatt stopped painting, Edgar Degas changed his technique, Claude Monet blurred into abstraction. Cassatt (1844-1926) had the first of many cataract operations in September 1915, and always remained uncertain about whether they would restore her failing vision. Two years later, isolated by the encroaching darkness, she exclaimed: “I shall be very lonely, and as my sight gets dimmer every day, the operated eye will not help my sight much even if the secondary cataract is absorbed altogether, which is very doubtful.”

In March 1918 the art dealer René Gimpel, visiting her in Grasse, in the south of France, found her almost blind. Like Edgar Degas, who would run his sculptor’s hands along the body of his model, she also stroked the potential subjects she could no longer see: “She who so loved the sun and drew from it so much beauty is scarcely touched by its rays. She lives in this enchanting villa perched on the mountains like a nest among branches. She takes my children’s heads between her hands and, her face close to theirs, looks at them intently, saying: ‘How I should have loved to paint them.’”

By the fall of 1919 Cassatt had endured five cataract operations — each one beginning with hope and turning to bitter disappointment. She could scarcely read large print, and the following year began to wear thick spectacles to improve what little vision remained. In 1925 she could see only light with her left eye and was just able to read the clock with her right. An artist-friend who saw her that last year, recalled her tragic state: “There she lay, quite blind, on the green painted bed. She was terribly emaciated. At times her memory failed her.”

Cassatt remained physically and mentally alert into her eighties and tried to write her own letters until the year before her death, but as she grew older she became increasingly isolated. Near blindness not only prevented her from painting or reading, but also made her suspicious and imperious. Cut off from other people and withdrawn into herself, she lived with her memories, and was tended by her faithful servant Mathilde until she died of diabetes.

The effects of increasing blindness on Edgar Degas (1834-1917) were eerily similar to Cassatt’s loss of vision. As early as 1870, when he was thirty-six, Degas had lost the sight of his right eye. For the rest of his long life he suffered from myopia, blurred vision and intolerance of bright light. He had impaired central vision, lived with the constant threat of blindness and endured “the torment that it was to draw, when he could only see around the spot at which he was looking, and never the spot itself.”

His sight deteriorated during the Prussian siege of Paris in 1871 when cold air from an open window blew down on his face as he slept. That September he first expressed the fear that he would go blind: “I have just had and still have a spot of weakness and trouble in my eyes, being unable to read or work or go out much, trembling all the time lest I should remain like that.” Living under the bright semi-tropical sun of New Orleans when visiting his family the following year, he noted the limitations of his vision, yet still felt he could go on painting: “My eyes are so greatly in need of care that I scarcely take any risk with them.”

In 1873 he fatalistically exclaimed, “I shall remain in the ranks of the infirm until I pass into the ranks of the blind. Sometimes I feel a shiver of horror.” Five years later a friend lamented that Degas “spends hours in a dark and desperate mood, matching the gravity of his condition.” By 1884, at the age of fifty, he had still not come to terms with his disability. He said a painter was “often tempted to give it up and go to sleep for ever” — to close his eyes, accept darkness and wait for death.

A decade later doctors tried to improve his ever-failing sight by covering his right eye and allowing the left one to see through a slit in the spectacles, but strong light still hurt him. At the turn of the century, at sixty-five, he portrayed himself as a living corpse: “I am a dead man, or all but dead, for the thought of going blind is death to a painter… I must learn a blind man’s trade now.” If he lost his sight, he bitterly reflected, “there will be nothing left for me to do but to re-cane chairs.” By 1906 he could see only patches of colours, outlines of forms.

Though Degas kept working until near the end of his life, his infirmity filled him with rage, regret and self-pity. Looking at his early work with Mary Cassatt, he sadly remarked, “When I did that I had my eyes!” He told another painter-friend, “I envy you your eyes which will enable you to see everything until the last day. Mine will not give me this joy; I can scarcely read the papers.” A third friend described Degas’ gradual withdrawal from society and the depressing effect of his illness, as well as his fighting spirit: “His eyes are getting worse and worse and he wears special glasses which embarrass him very much; all that saddens him and I suspect he remains alone to hide from our eyes the melancholia against which he has striven so hard.”

As Degas’ vision deteriorated he changed from oil-painting to pastel, which did not require mixing of pigments, drying time or varnishing. As his drawing became freer and wilder, he built up layers of pastel, achieved painterly effects and seemed to be carving solid images into paper. Edmond de Goncourt, minimising Degas’ disease, said that his limited vision had somehow sharpened his attention and increased his ability to capture the exact movement of his subject: “An original fellow, this Degas, sickly, neurotic and so ophthalmic that he is afraid of losing his sight; but for this very reason an eminently receptive creature and sensitive to the character of things. Among all the artists I have met so far, he is the one who has best been able, in representing modern life, to catch the spirit of that life.”

A friend wrote that in his last years the grey-bearded Degas “lived alone and almost blind, seeing nobody, without any kind of occupation.” Daniel Halévy, who resumed close relations with Degas after their quarrel during the Dreyfus case, was shocked “to see him dressed like a tramp, grown so thin, another man entirely.” He described Degas as a decayed magician, “a dirty, disheveled, sordid Prospero in his studio filled with bizarre sculpture, shriveled wax figures crumbling into dust, and unfinished, unwrapped canvases leaning against the wall in sad disorder.” After Degas’ death his sculpture, including “The Little Dancer”, was greatly admired.

In 1908 Claude Monet (1840-1926) found that his sight was failing and lamented, “I see less clearly. It’s been better for two days, but I saw the moment when I was going to be forced to stop work.” Four years later he fearfully wrote, “as I was setting to work, I realised with terror that I could see nothing with my right eye. A specialist told me that I had a cataract and that the other eye was also slightly affected. It’s in vain that they tell me it’s not serious, that after the operation I’ll see as before. I’m very disturbed and anxious.” In 1914 the threat of blindness through cataracts continued to hover over him. Six years later, with his sight weakening, Monet boldly worked on. The American painter John Singer Sargent observed, “The old man is so blind now he sees nothing but colour.” By 1922 the right eye was virtually blind, the other had only ten per cent vision.

Monet’s biographer Charles Mount recorded his sharp decline: “By February 1923 his eyes reached such a bad state that, unable to see certain colours, unable to work and threatened with complete blindness,” he underwent surgery at his home in Normandy. His politician friend Georges Clemenceau “urged the most radical treatment but Monet, fearful that he might lose what vision remained, refused to risk total blindness. After twice undergoing surgery, he was left in a state of half vision… The terrible tragedy of absolute blindness had been averted, but Monet’s eyes remained veiled.”

Two operations in 1923 for the removal of the cataract in the right eye were only partially successful. There was no improvement in July and spectacles were a disappointment. Monet frantically and nostalgically reported, “all is deformed, everything is doubled, and it becomes impossible to see… The deformations and exaggerated colours drive me absolutely mad… I would prefer to be blind and keep the memory of the beauties which I’ve always seen.” He at first rejected spectacles and explained, “Good God, I would see like Bouguereau,” a mediocre naturalistic painter. But as he became aware of “how intimately sight was part of his being… operations, eye-drops and spectacles gradually gave him ‘new’ sight which he recognised as his own, and he painted until the end.”

In his painting Monet moved to blurred brushwork that dissolved into abstraction. His vague style corresponded with the depredation of the cataracts that prevented him from accurately seeing colours, especially subtle variations of the same colour, though he could still distinguish between dark and light.

Despite defective vision, he continued to paint. But he expressed his frustration and fury about his visual and artistic decline: “What I painted was more and more dark, more like an ‘old picture,’ and when I compared it to my former works, I would be seized by a frantic rage, and slash all my canvasses with my penknife.” At the end of his long life he felt suicidal and told Clemenceau: “It’s all over. I am blind. I have no further reason to live.” “Monet once wished that he had been born blind so that, when his sight was restored, he could see everything with a completely new vision.”

Blind writers could at least dictate to secretaries and continue to work. The biographer of John Milton (1608-74), the greatest modern blind poet, described his condition: “Milton’s forehead and temples seemed to be the seat of chronic mists, which constantly oppressed and weighed down his eyes with a sort of sleepy heaviness, especially during the afternoon. When he stood still, objects seemed to float about to one side or another.”

Milton, on his third and now difficult marriage, completely lost his sight in 1651 and often referred to blindness in his poetry. He had the resources of memory and cadences of poetry to keep the work in his head instead of on paper. In a triumphant achievement, he memorised long passages from his epic poems and recited them to his devoted daughters who served as amanuenses. In Paradise Lost (1667) he poignantly wrote, “But cloud instead, and ever-during dark / Surrounds me… darkness visible , (3.45-46,1.62). The blinded biblical hero in Samson Agonistes (1671) was “Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves.” His vision, like Milton’s, was “dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon, / Irrevocably dark, total Eclipse.”

Milton wrote the first sonnet on his lost vision in 1652. This intensely personal and religious poem expresses, with deep feeling and powerful diction, tragic doubt about his future as thinker and artist. He wants to serve God but wonders if he still has sufficient power to “Bear his mild yoke.” He finally accepts his affliction, humbly submits to God’s will and joins those that “also serve who only stand and wait”:

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide.

In the sonnet of 1658 he dreams with “fancied sight” of his recently dead wife, now in heaven, and hopes to regain “full sight” of her after his own death. As she leans down to hold him, he’s suddenly shocked and jolted back into the real world of darkness. He hopes the rewards in heaven will compensate for the pains he has suffered on earth:

Methought I saw my late espoused saint…
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind;
Her face was veiled, yet to my fancied sight
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shined
So clear as in no face with more delight.
But Oh! as to embrace me she inclined,
I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.

The childhood tuberculosis contracted from a wet nurse damaged the vision of Samuel Johnson (1709-84), who was almost completely blind in his left eye and had only partial sight in his right. He was so near-sighted in boyhood that when he tried to cross the street by himself he had to grope his way on his hands and knees, and a servant was needed to escort him to and from school.

His close vision remained indistinct and, he dismissively said of his bad eye, “the dog was never good for much.” He took a few dancing lessons to improve his coordination, but remarked that “my blind eyes showed me I could never make a proficiency.” For many years he supported in his household the intimidating poetess Anna Williams, who provided a vivid and immediate example of the frailties of the blind.

Johnson (above) disliked the portrait by his friend Sir Joshua Reynolds (1775, Huntington Library). Absorbed in his reading, Johnson tightly grips a book and holds it close to his eyes as if he were devouring the print and physically squeezing out the words. After scrutinising the portrait, he complained, “I would not be known by posterity for my defects only, let Sir Joshua do his worst. He may paint himself [with an ear trumpet] as deaf as he chooses; but I will not be blinking Sam.” Despite his blindness, he did not believe spectacles would help him and tried to improve his vision by squinting.

Also disappointed by his travels in Wales, Johnson punned on “seen” and turned his disability into a fine phrase: “I am glad that I have seen it, though I have seen nothing, because I now know there is nothing to be seen.” It’s amazing, since he had severely defective vision and did a great deal of reading in dark rooms by day and by candles at night, that he managed to read so much and acquire an encyclopaedic knowledge of books.

James Joyce, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Aldous Huxley, Jorge Luis Borges and Wyndham Lewis showed admirable persistence and courage. On January 16, 1916, while returning from a combat flight against the Austrians, the airplane of the Italian writer D’Annunzio (1863-1938) was hit by anti-aircraft fire. As the damaged plane made a rough landing, he was violently jolted around the cockpit, smashed his head against the machine gun mounted in front of him and lost the sight of his right eye.

His biographer recorded his agonising condition: “His right eye saw only a purple cloud, his other very little. Looking in the mirror, all he could see of his face was a small part of his forehead. Immobile on his sickbed, D’Annunzio repeatedly imagined himself buried. Sweating, dehydrated, his mouth tasting of iodine and steel, and filling with the tears streaming continually from his damaged eye, he struggled with claustrophobia. He seemed to have a butterfly trapped in his eyeball, its fluttering a torment to him… A black spider [seemed to be] squatting on his eye, blocking out the world.”

In 1920 “his blind eye was still hurting, as it would for the rest of his life. Worse than completely sightless, it baffled and distracted him with light flashes and blurred hallucinations.” His vision in his good eye was “distorted. Flat planes appeared to be sculpted in relief. Colours are oddly pronounced. He saw double.” Finding it difficult to judge distances, he would pour a drink, miss the glass, and spill wine and water on his papers.

Forced to remain in bed and in the dark for several months, D’Annunzio composed one of his best books, Nottorno (Nocturne, 1921), an enthusiastic celebration of war. He described not only his diabolical blindness, but also the blazing pain in his damaged eye: “Once more the demon has kindled all the fires deep in the depths of my eye; and he blows on the sinister pyre with all of his madness, during the most desperate hours of this remorseless martyrdom. The burning in my eye reduces my whole wretched body to a bundle of brushwood just at the edge of the flame.”

He wrote with large letters on single slips of paper (just as the half-blind Joyce and the blind Wyndham Lewis would later write): “I have bandaged eyes. I lie in bed on my back, my torso immobile, my head thrown back, a little lower than my feet. I raise my knees slightly to tilt the tablet resting against them. I write on a strip of paper wide enough for only one line. Between my fingers I hold a soft lead pencil. Thumb and middle finger of the right hand set on the edges of the strip make it glide as the words are written. With the last phalanx of the little finger I can feel the lower edge and use it as a guide to keep a straight line.”

He eventually recovered sufficiently to become a war hero and lead the Italians in the 1919 occupation of Fiume. When D’Annunzio became a popular political rival to Mussolini, he was pushed out of a high window and fell to his death.

James Joyce (1882-1941) had poor eyesight from childhood, and suffered acutely from inflammation of the iris, glaucoma (damage to the optic nerve) and cataracts. Between 1917 and 1930 he endured twelve agonising, expensive and unsuccessful operations without general anaesthetic, and became what he called an “international eyesore.” In his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), the autobiographical hero Stephen Dedalus is accused of lying after another schoolboy breaks his glasses. “Blinded by fear” and staring into the “noncoloured” eyes of the cruel priest, he’s unjustly and painfully beaten with a flat wooden bat.

Joyce’s biographer, Richard Ellmann, described the severity of his blindness. In 1921 “he suffered another attack of iritis, and spent five weeks recuperating with the aid of repeated doses of cocaine to relieve the pain.” During a tormenting recurrence in 1922, there was always blood inside his eye. The following year, when he was threatened with glaucoma, leeches were applied to drain the blood from the eye. His eyes always looked red, and bright lights and crowded places made them worse.

In February 1925 he suffered from conjunctivitis (infection of the membrane between eyelid and eyeball) and episcleritis (inflammation between the conjunctiva and white of the eye). In September he felt dizziness and increasing pain, and his left eye became blind. The next year he could perceive objects with one eye and began to wear his distinctive piratical black patch. On a beach in Holland in 1927 he was repeatedly attacked by dogs (his lifelong fear) and his glasses were broken. He wittily recalled that, like two dogs, “his master and I spent a chatty time afterwards groping on our knees in the sand for the debris of my glasses.”

In 1928, when he submitted to injections of arsenic and phosphorous, the treatment was worse than the disease. In 1929 he lugubriously discussed eye problems with his fellow-sufferer Aldous Huxley. With an astonishing lack of compassion, the Irish writer George Moore insisted, “one eye is quite sufficient; a man is as well off with one as with two.” Talking to Hemingway in Paris, Joyce’s wife suggested that the timid “Jim could do with a spot of that lion hunting.” To which Joyce replied, “The thing we must face is that I couldn’t see the lion.”

In December 1911 Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) was stricken by an infection of the cornea (the transparent front part of the eye) and was nearly blind for eighteen months. Huxley recalled: “It happened when I was about sixteen and a half, and I got this attack of keratitis which left one eye about nine-tenths blind and affected the other quite badly. I was unable to do any reading for nearly two years.” He learned Braille and had private tutors, and “was able, after about two years, to read with a rather powerful magnifying glass and went through Oxford University on that basis.” Rejected by the military, he was at least saved from injury or death in war.

As a schoolmaster at Eton in 1917, the Old Etonian Huxley taught the young George Orwell, who was fascinated by the highly eccentric and rather miserable figure who vainly tried to teach English and French. Half-blind, insecure and unable to keep order, Huxley hated every moment he had to spend in the classroom. One pupil recalled that the boys treated their disabled instructor with appalling incivility: “Poor Aldous! He must have been one of the most incompetent schoolmasters who ever faced a class. From time to time Aldous would pause, look up, and say, in an imploring tone, ‘Oh! Do be quiet!’ No one took the slightest notice.”

In July 1939 Huxley’s vision improved, and he began to read and write without glasses. But in March 1951 a virus attacked his poor right eye and “he lost all sight in that eye for a period. The treatment intended to break down some old scars covering the pupil produced some disturbing side effects and great pain.” The next month a friend saw him “wearing his ‘Chinese glasses,’ black cellulose goggles with perforations in place of lenses: they force the pupils to perform a kind of stroboscopic movement and consequently prevent staring. Aldous has taped a bandage over the pin-holes on the right side, which means that he no longer has any sight at all from his opaque right eye.”

Huxley practiced and advocated in The Art of Seeing (1942) W. H. Bates’ method — condemned by all medical experts — of exercising the eye to improve defective vision. Huxley’s biographer noted “the contrast between the searching, lucid, rational intelligence which was his most obvious characteristic and the credulity with which he greeted each new Southern California fad of mind and consciousness.”

The congenitally poor eyesight of Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) lent him the aura of an otherworldly, sightless bard. In March 1928 he underwent the first of eight operations he would endure. He had other operations for cataracts in 1941 and 1942, and feared he might go completely blind. His biographer wrote that in 1954 “he had all but lost the sight in one eye, the other was still sound enough to permit him to read and write, even though he now had to bring the text to within a few inches of his eyes.”

On a seaside holiday that year he fell over and detached the retina in his good eye. “From now on, his sight would become rapidly weaker, and within a few years, both eyes would cloud over and he would make out only the rough outline of things and had no sense of colour except for yellow and orange.” His mother now took care of him as she had taken care of her blind husband. “Borges’ reaction to his blindness was not anger — he was well beyond anger by now — but stupor, a kind if dazed incomprehension at the inscrutable fate that seemed to have destroyed all possibility of salvation by writing.”

Borges’ blindness forced him to give up fiction and concentrate on short poems that he could easily memorise. In his ironic “Poem of the Gifts” he is both given and deprived of precious rewards:

Let no one debase with tears or reproach
this declaration of the mastery
of God, Who with magnificent irony,
gave me both books and the night.

“In Praise of Darkness” portrays the extinction of his vision and the inability to recognize friends:

I live among vague whitish shapes
that are not darkness yet…
To think, Democritus tore out his eyes…
This growing dark is slow and brings no pain…
My friends are faceless.

In the powerful “Of Heaven and Hell” he cannot see the cruelty of hell and invokes the heroic spirit of Milton:

When, at the end of things,
Judgement Day resounds on the trumpets
and the earth opens and yields up its entrails
and nations reconstruct themselves from dust
to bow down to the unappealable Judgement
eyes then will not see the nine circles…
nor the violence of metals, not even
the almost invisible blindness of Milton.

At the University of Colorado in 1977 I spoke to Borges. The frail old writer, with a long upper lip and pushed-up tilted nose, had the glazed look of the blind and was cautiously led around by his keeper and biographer. His opaque eyes stared vacantly into space as he answered questions from his readers who waited patiently in the long receiving line. I also attended a graduate seminar in Spanish, in which he tried hard to help baffled students understand his enigmatic stories. But he remained distant, remote and enclosed in his own hermetic world, and made vatic pronouncements that were cryptic and incomprehensible.

Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) observed that “plenty of writers go mad but surprisingly few become blind.” Yet he belonged to the tradition that included Milton, who had the same kind of brain tumour, and whom Lewis alluded to in his essay on blindness and his portrayal of the Underworld in his novel The Human Age. Lewis was an equally brilliant as artist and writer; when he became blind and could no longer paint, he continued to write.

Lewis had injured his left eye when he was fifteen years old and could never see very well with it, but he served as an artillery officer in World War I. He first noticed that something was seriously wrong with that eye in 1937, and his visual problems recurred when he was living in wartime Toronto in 1941. He sceptically wrote that a doctor “informed me that one of my eyes (which had always been weak) was practically extinct. My other eye he said would be the same in six months time — if I had what he thought I had: namely glaucoma… But it turned out he was a crooked doctor and one of my eyes at least is still 100 per cent strong.”

But he was still profoundly affected by the danger of blindness, which threatened to extinguish his career as a painter and writer: “If my eyes go, I go too. Loathsome as the world is, I do like to see it. That sort of blackout I could not live in.” A colleague recalled that when Lewis was lecturing at Michigan State University in March 1945, he scrawled “two or three words in a large hand on each page — because of his near blindness — which resulted in a huge manuscript, very tricky and unwieldy. At one point it escaped from his grasp, and I had a hard time retrieving the scattered pages.”

When he returned to England in August 1945 an ophthalmologist warned him about a growth in his skull that he had ignored for at least five years. He had been practically blind in his left eye for many years, but darkness continued to encroach on his right eye. Certain that his condition was much worse than glaucoma or cataracts, he was determined to find a cure: “I have never at any time, in my worst dreams, imagined myself deprived of my sight.”

In 1949 his vision began to deteriorate rapidly and he had difficulty seeing the people he was painting. The next year he finally recognised the pituitary tumour that was pressing against his optic nerves. But an operation was now considered too dangerous, and he had to rely on radiation to reduce the pressure and prevent the worsening of his condition. Though he had a good chance of surviving, he could no longer work as a painter.

Lewis had a chromophobe adenoma that grew downward behind his nose from the pituitary gland at the base of his brain, gradually pressed on the chiasma, or crossing of the optic nerves, and caused optic atrophy. (His brain was preserved and is now a teaching specimen in the Pathology Department of Westminster Hospital in London.) Lewis could have retained his impaired vision if the tumour had been excised in the early 1940s, but his nerves were now permanently damaged and could not be regrown. Desperate to complete his greatest novel, Self Condemned (1954), he refused to have surgery, and preferred to risk darkness rather than brain damage and death. Ezra Pound referred to Lewis’ stoical decision in a moving tribute to his friend in Canto 115: “Wyndham Lewis chose blindness / rather than have his mind stop.”

In the early 1950s, Lewis said, “Milton had his daughters, I have my dictaphone,” but he was unable to use the machine. He defiantly exploded when a journalist asked if he intended to write more books: “You insult me! I am still alive. I work up to midnight if I feel like it. Life is still rich and fascinating. I am not locked up in a dark room. The mind has many chambers.” When blind, he wore a protective green eyeshade (as Joyce wore a pirate’s patch) and would write thousands of pages in longhand, with painstaking care and infinite courage. Using a hard board resting on his lap, with a wire stretched across it to keep the lines straight, he would carry on until his pen dropped off the right edge of the page, then move the wire down to the width of three fingers and begin the next line.

In April 1951 he bravely told Joe Ackerley, editor of The Listener, where Lewis had been art critic for five years, that he could no longer see a picture: “We are all going into some even darker room after all: we none of us ever give a thought to that, so why should I anticipate my more limited black-out?” On May 10 he informed his readers about the exact nature of his disease in “The Sea-Mists of the Winter” (which recalled Milton’s “chronic mists”), the most perceptive, poignant and perfect work of his entire career. Imagining the inexorable extinction of his vision, Lewis raged against the dying of the light and, as his spirit triumphed over his tragic fate, relied on the electric power of his imagination:

“You have been going blind for a long time,” said the neuro-surgeon. And I had imagined I should go on being blind for a long time yet: just gradually losing the power of vision. I had never visualised mentally, a sea-mist. The failure of sight which is already so far advanced, will of course become worse from week to week, until in the end I shall be able to see the external world only through little patches in the midst of a blacked-out tissue. On the other hand, instead of little patches, the last stage may be the absolute black-out. Pushed into an unlighted room, the door banged and locked for ever, I shall then have to light a lamp of aggressive voltage in my mind to keep at bay the night.

Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, has published Disease and the Novel, Impressionist Quartet: The Intimate Genius of Manet and Morisot, Degas and Cassatt, Samuel Johnson: The Struggle and The Enemy: A Biography of Wyndham Lewis

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