Writers & Company

M. Leona Godin on the metaphor and reality of blindness, in literature and in life

The American writer and performer spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about representation, accessibility and questioning notions of disability.
“Leona Godin Faces Her Portrait” is a photo of American author and performer M. Leona Godin. (© 2020, photograph by Alabaster Rhumb, painting by Roy Nachum)

From the "blind bard" Homer of classical literature, to writers such as John Milton, Jorge Luis Borges and James Joyce, blindness is associated with artistic genius. It's also connected to prophecy and to stories of spiritual transformation. Amid these stereotypes, the actual experience of blindness is too often misunderstood or misrepresented.

Writer and performer M. Leona Godin began to question our notions of blindness while gradually losing her own sight. In her new book, There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness, she examines the images of blindness in great works from the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex to Shakespeare's King Lear to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. The book has been described by Publishers Weekly as "by turns heartfelt and thought-provoking ... a striking achievement." 

Godin spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from San Francisco.

Inner sight, inner vision

"The title, There Plant Eyes, comes from Milton's Paradise Lost. It comes at a moment in the beginning of Book III, where the narrative voice, which most people think of as having a very close relationship to Milton's own voice, moves from describing the goings on in hell to describing what's going on in heaven. Milton takes many lines to describe how, even if he is moving from a place of darkness to a place of light, that this is about metaphorical vision. 

"He is a blind poet, and this is where he drops that ball in the narration that this is a blind speaker who is not physically seeing the goings on of hell or heaven any better because he's using his inner vision. 

Milton takes many lines to describe how, even if he is moving from a place of darkness to a place of light, that this is about metaphorical vision.

"This is what they usually call this very long invocation to the muse."

English poet John Milton (1608 - 1674) composes the epic poem 'Paradise Lost', circa 1666. He is forced to dictate the poem to his two daughters, having become blind. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The blind bard

"Homer begins the whole tradition of the blind poet. There's this idea of the blind poet that has been influential on people like John Milton: It's doubtful whether he would have, after blindness at age 42, decided to compose Paradise Lost in the dark at night — and have an amanuensis transcribe it — if there hadn't already been this idea of the blind poet from Homer.

"On the other hand, Homer came from a pre-literate age. Ever since we've moved past the oral tradition, and everything has been in print, it's been very difficult for an actual blind writer or poet to have a career because so much has been inaccessible — unless you're John Milton.

Homer brings up these interesting dichotomies between the ideology of the blind bard and the realities of a blind bard.

"I like beginning with Homer, because he's so important. Homer brings up these interesting dichotomies between the ideology of the blind bard and the realities of a blind bard." 

Homer is the author of The Iliad and The Odyssey. (WW Norton)

Complexities and contradictions

"There was a moment when, being sort of a masochist, I decided, as a visually impaired kid, to study Greek and Latin. I got a bit of help from tutors. One of the things that you do in a classics class is that you basically read and translate on the fly. 

"This was pretty hard for me because I had to blow up my Greek and Latin texts into very large fonts. But even then, it was still hard. At home I had a CCTV, which was like an electronic magnifying system, and I could blow my texts up even larger. It was my tutor that said to me, during one of our sessions, 'Did you know that the blind were revered by the ancients as poets and prophets?' 

There was a moment when, being sort of a masochist, I decided, as a visually impaired kid, to study Greek and Latin.

"It was an interesting moment. I knew about Homer and I knew about Tiresias. But he had said it in the context of me and my struggles with these texts, as a visually impaired person trying to read. 

"It made me realize I could take some compensation for this idea of sight beyond sight, but also that there were these logistical realities. At that point, I was visually impaired, but I couldn't read standard-sized print. Being print-impaired was never addressed in these kinds of texts. There's this dichotomy, this metaphoric sort of blindness which is revered — and then there's the logistics of blindness, which are often denied by actual blind people."

Accessibility and the digital age

"The digital age has been quite amazing for blind people. But when the Internet first existed, most of us didn't know about it: I was still getting books on tape, and that was about as good as it got in terms of accessibility. 

"There were very limited braille books, and I hadn't really been taught braille as a young person. It was very difficult to get braille instruction if you were visually impaired. Back in the 80s, when I was in high school and moving into college, I really didn't get any kind of help at all. 

The digital age has been quite amazing for blind people.

"That's why it was so stark to me to be kind of confronted with these metaphors of blindness, when I was struggling so much just to get access to the books that I was reading." 

M. Leona Godin's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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