From Homer to Fante: Blindness and Literary Vision
Introduction: Jorge Luis Borges as a Case Study
There are countless writers who are considered innovative, but there are precious few who actually deserve this bold labeling. Cormac McCarthy might be one of the most distinctive writers of our time, but where would he be without William Faulkner’s impressionistic, Southern-fried prose? Franz Kafka is so engrained in popular culture that the term “Kafkaesque” is casually used in conversation, but it is clear that Nikolai Gogol was on Kafka’s reading list during his impressionable teen years. If one writer from the past century can be considered truly singular, it is the Argentine short story master Jorge Luis Borges. He never wrote a novel, which perhaps is the culprit behind his lack of mainstream recognition. This lack of a published novel is far from a gaping void, as his short stories, essays, and plays constitute the richest and most self-referential novel ever published.
What is perhaps most remarkable about Borges’ output is that every single word was written when his vision was severely ailing, and many of these words were written when he was completely blind. Rather than limiting his ability to create literature, Borges instead seemed to view his lack of sight as liberating. His literature is constructed in a labyrinthine structure like that of no other writer. Paradoxically, Borges’ prose is among the most cinematic and visual in the Western canon. Blindness and literary greatness may appear to be incompatible, but Jorge Luis Borges is far from an isolated case. From ancient Greece to the contemporary United States, writers who could barely see the words they were typing have created transcendent literature. These instances indicate that perhaps sight is restrictive and constricting, and that it must be removed in order for true vision to emerge.
Homer: The Founder of the Western Canon’s Vision Exceeded His Sight.
In order to begin this survey of blind writers, one would have to time travel from 20th Century Argentina to Ancient Greece. For centuries, the Roman Virgil, with his clearly Greek-derived epic The Aeneid, was regarded as the master epic poet. After all, it is Virgil, not Homer, who leads Dante on his tour of the Inferno, and it is the Romanized Ulysses, not Odysseus, which graces the title of James Joyce’s masterpiece. Yet, during the past century, Homer’s preeminence has been re-discovered, and it is The Iliad and The Odyssey which now dominate high school and university curriculums. There are historians who insist that it is unlikely that Homer actually wrote these epics, while others argue that he even may be a mythical character. Similarly, it must be remembered that these stories were passed down through oral tradition, rather than simply being secreted in Homer’s imagination.
Allowing these factors, and assuming that Homer did indeed write these twin epics, it is safe to say that these two works overflow with imagination, humanity, intense imagery, and above all, vision. The trojan horse, the song of the sirens, and Odysseus’ battle with the Cyclops, to name just three images from Homer’s work, are deeply entrenched in the collective consciousness. These images may appear so archetypal now that it is easy to believe that they always existed. Yet, someone had to put these intricate, grandiose narratives to words. It is difficult to imagine another writer improving on Homer’s handling of these complex works, let alone another blind writer. Like other aspects of Homer’s muddled biography, his blindness continues to be debated by historians. The overwhelmingly vivid imagery and plotting seem to indicate that only a writer with complete sight could construct such extensive works of poetry. Yet, conversely, perhaps this lack of sight is what lent Homer’s poetry its intensely visual aura. This certainly appears to be the case with the next writer in our chronological journey. Luckily, there is no debate that the following poet was blind, and the fact that he existed is without an iota of doubt.
John Milton: Paradise Found, with a Little Help from His Daughters.
The case of John Milton, whose Paradise Lost is widely considered the most accomplished epic poem in the English language, is slightly different from the other writers mentioned in this piece. After all, it is well documented that his work was transcribed with the help of his devoted daughters. (This is ironic, considering that, then and now, Paradise Lost has been condemned as virulently misogynistic.) Akin to countless writers throughout history, Milton struggled for years in poverty and obscurity before suddenly rocketing into literary fame. Before he began Paradise Lost in 1658, Milton had merely a single, modest collection of poems to his name. Also before the composition of his most renowned work, he maintained full use of his sight. As he reached his 50s, his sight quickly began to vanish, while his vision simultaneously erupted in full bloom.
While it is unclear how large a percentage of Milton’s involvement was compromised by the transcribing of his daughters, it is remarkable that his most fully realized creation did not occur until he lost his ability to see. Before losing his sight, Milton’s poetry was pleasant, charming, and surprisingly workmanlike. Paradise Lost, however, is a sprawling, maddening, and undeniably brilliant epic poem. Like the work of the other writers discussed in this piece, it is truly a singular literary achievement. The premise- an updating of the Adam and Eve myth, complete with contemporary political parallels and genre revisionism- seems stale and derivative. The execution, however, is truly inspired. The characterizations and plot points are so vivid and visceral, one could reach out and touch them.
This illusion of tangibility appears to be a direct result of Milton’s blindness. Milton’s poetry written while his sight was intact seemed restrained and stifled. Apparently what was restricting him was the very ability to see. Akin to Homer and Borges, the lack of sight produced a profound and ingenious sense of vision in the mind of John Milton, and the result was one of the most immortal pieces of literature ever written. If Milton had died before Paradise Lost was published, it is unlikely that he would be remembered today. Yet, by unleashing the full powers of his craft despite his lack of sight, Milton finally discovered the extent of his vision.
John Fante: Palm Trees, Mountains, and Oceans Viewed Through a Blurred Lens.
In comparison to the aforementioned Borges, Homer, and Milton, the Colorado-born writer John Fante is hopelessly obscure. Fante never won a major literary prize, and his work is unlikely to be taught at most high schools and universities. Although two film adaptations were produced of his novels, both were piddling misfires that did nothing to boost his audience. However, his literary output, as relatively scant as it is, is ultimately as distinctive as the work of the previously noted scribes. Fante’s magnum opus, Ask The Dust, an intensely personal account of a struggling writer in 1930s Los Angeles, was written nearly two decades before Fante’s sight began to fade.
Yet, if one compares this work to his final novels, constructed when Fante had lost 100% of his eyesight, the stylistic similarities are striking. His penultimate works, The Brotherhood of The Grape and Dreams From Bunker Hill, unsurprisingly recycle the thematic concerns and West Coast working-class setting of Ask The Dust. Fascinatingly, however, the distinctive prose style Fante exhibited in his most iconic work is fully intact. In many ways, Fante is as singular as Borges or Milton. His prose is as intensely descriptive as Henry James or Thomas Wolfe, yet as lean and economical as Hemingway and Raymond Carver. It is no surprise that Fante was a cited influence on writers as diverse as Charles Bukowski, Carey McWilliams, and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Robert Towne.
Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Fante’s literature is its strangely off-kilter perspective. If one were to read Ask The Dust without realizing that Fante lost his eyesight years after the novel’s publication, it is natural to assume that the writer was already blind. The imagery, full of placid oceans, far-off mountaintops, bustling urban markets, and the luminous sight of a Mexican waitress’ legs at a grungy diner, are vivid yet oddly hallucinatory. At times, the novel seems written by somebody with a vague idea of what the world looks like, rather than an individual who has seen life first-hand and up-close. The skewed perspective evident throughout the novel re-appears in his final works, and by this point it is all too clear that Fante’s sight has faded. This tilted view of life reflects the disquieting, subtle surrealism inherent in even the most banal daily minutia, and speaks to the universality of Fante’s novels.
The fact that these four writers were able to produce indelible works of literature while afflicted with blindness is not merely a tear-jerking inspiration. Nor is it a strange enigma or baffling paradox. Instead, it is an affirmation that every loss is offset by a surprising gain. A lack of physical sight greatly enhanced the vision and unique precision in which Borges, Homer, Milton, and Fante constructed their idiosyncratic works of literature. Only a single writer could have written Ficciones, The Iliad, Paradise Lost, or The Brotherhood of the Grape. That these four works were written through the ardors of blindness is a testament to the clarity and singularity of vision produced by losing one’s sight.
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