Recently I read a fantástic book. It is Antonio Buero Vallejo’s En La Ardiente Oscuridad. In calling it “a book”, I think most who read this would imagine that it is a novel, but no, it is a stage play. I myself didn’t know what it was when I bought the copy I read over a decade ago at used book store somewhere in the world, I don’t remember where. I think I bought the book simply because it was cheap, old and in Spanish. Somehow the book sat around for a long time until the other day when I decided to take with me on the train.
Briefly, the play has to do with students at a school for the blind. A new-comer (also blind) upsets the standing order of the school.
What fascinated me about the story, was not only the extremely adept story telling that it comprises, but that the stage play gives us a view into the world of the blind by means of dialogue. As such, we can imagine the limitations, structure and power of sound-based communication. As I read the story with great fascination, I did not forget that Buero Vallejo himself was a vidente as they are called in the story –a seeing person. Certainly, the same stage play written by a real blind person would offer a better insight into the communicative world of the blind. Insight.
However, it occurred to me that I had never really read or “consumed” any amount of media about blind people and as such know very little about how life is different when blind. While reading, I thought about my friend Ko, whom I met when I was in university –a blind graduate student from Korea. I hadn’t thought of him in a decade! We used to play a game –initiated by him– where at night he would point his walking stick (at random I presume) and find a shining light. We, of course, would marvel at this ability and would ask him if he had any ability to see light and shadow to which he would always reply no.
Over the years, I have met and briefly interacted with several blind or nearly-blind people. Most recently I had two multi-minute encounters with a blind man who is also an Olympic athlete. I met him as he was trying to negotiate Kadıköy’s streets and sidewalks –no easy task for those who can see.
Despite my dozen or so brief and superficial encounters with blind people and the few hours or so that I spent with Ko (in total), like I said, I have never put myself in the shoes (the ears) of the blind.
While the Buero Vallejo’s story stirred something I might tentatively call compassion in my heart, the moral of the story (if there is one) is that blind people are people like anyone else. In fact, the central question of the book –one which is not resolved, is the question of “what are blind people –creatures to be pitied or normal human beings?”
My understanding of literature is superficial and simplistic, perhaps someone trained in literary analysis and familiar with the works of Buero Vallejo could make a more correct appraisal of the “meaning” of the play.
However, as I alluded to above, what struck me most about the play is how blind people –more correctly people who are practiced in being blind, use their sense of hearing for much more than language. Relatedly, it occurs to me that they must use language differently. Given that we as humans derive much meaning from the facial and body muscle movements that are part and parcel of the vocal muscle movements we call spoken language, you can imagine that when this information is gone, listeners work to derive the missing information from the former behavior –the movements of the vocal tract –a.k.a the human voice.
If you followed the last paragraph (I may not have) you understand that when I speak of the linguistic differences that are present in the speech of people who have been blind for a long time, I am not necessarily making reference to the phrasal and periphrastic structures that we often use that make reference to sight but do not actually convey any information about the “seen.”
In conversation in English (and in many languages) the words we use to make sure whether or not those we are speaking with (our interlocutors) have understood us are words that make reference to sight.
“You see what I am saying?”
Here the verb “see” stands in place for the concept of understanding. In fact the listener cannot see what is being said because without sophisticated machinery or impossible weather conditions, sound waves cannot be seen (although much of the muscle movements of human communication can be).
I have no reason to believe that blind people as a group don’t use these set phrases such as “I see what you mean” and “seeing is believing.” Some, for obvious psychological reasons, may chose to avoid them, but I can’t imagine that the community of blind people have opted for “hearing versions” of these typical phrases? “D’ya hear what I am saying?”
The changes that must happen have to do with how much attention is placed on the “way” things are said –those changes in tone, muscle tension, duration, articulation that betray our sentiments just like our facial expressions do. Do blind people learn to be more “expressive” with their voices to compensate for the lack of visual information?
I don’t obviously know the answer to this question, and well, given the chance I would love to do research into it. One thing I do know, the word obviously is a metaphor of sight.
This title much like the movie I discussed in an earlier post (Children of A Lesser God) has provided me with a tiny insight –like a keyhole does into a locked room– that I did not have before. This speaks to the great power and therefore need for art, literature, film and other forms of media to interconnect us makes the human race a race of brothers and sisters, not one of strangers.
In closing, the meaning of the last paragraph is based on a metaphor or sight.
What are your thoughts on the subject? Do you have blind friends who have shared a bit of their lives with you? Are you blind yourself? If so please comment below.
Links: A piece of a student production of En La Ardiente Oscuridad: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x4i6f0f
The Wikipedia on Antonio Buero Vallejo: https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Buero_Vallejo
The play itself from la bibioteca virtual universal: http://www.biblioteca.org.ar/libros/88622.pdf