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Virginia Stem Owens

Led by the Blind

Visionary writing despite the loss of sight

Science, art, philosophy, even politics—it all started with the Greeks. At least that's what my pre-multicultural schooling taught me. And the Greek who gave Western literature its initial push was Homer, the blind bard who, in the eighth century b.c., wandered from one rich man's table to another, reciting the adventures of heroes and gods. Today, most classical scholars deem those epics previously attributed to Homer to be the composite creation of many poets. Unfortunately, the scholars never mention those putative poets' ophthalmic condition.

How blindness affects writers has been a salient concern of mine ever since I began losing my sight five years ago. Americans, whatever their work, fear blindness more than any other physical affliction except cancer. Of course, affliction is not a word often applied to such conditions anymore. Instead, we use "disability," though even that term is challenged by the more militant wing of organizations representing the interests of—to use biblical taxonomy—the maimed, the halt, and the blind. And though I am more sympathetic with such concerns than I was five years ago, I nonetheless find the monosyllable that designates my own condition appropriately blunt. Blind.

Disabled certainly doesn't fit Homer's seer, Tiresias of Thebes, who was struck blind by Athena for peeking at her while she bathed. To compensate for the loss of his sight, the goddess generously granted him the gift of prophecy. A dubious reward, as Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex makes clear. Whoever believes prophets, blind or otherwise, in literature?

Nevertheless, in many and diverse cultures, prophets are often blind, as if not being able to look out at the world, they are endowed with special powers of looking inward. Like the fools who speak much sense in Shakespeare's plays, blind literary characters often fill the paradoxical role of seer. And whether or not Homer existed, the poems traditionally attributed to him have influenced other blind writers of note, ...

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