Homer, the author generally credited with the composition of The Iliad and The Odyssey—two of the oldest works of Western literature—is in large part responsible for the tradition of the blind bard, and yet so little is known about him and his life that most scholars believe him (and his blindness) to be legendary. Most accounts of Homer come to us from centuries after he purportedly lived, and even in the ancient world there existed skepticism regarding his blindness, as succinctly represented by Proclus (a philosopher of late antiquity), who in his Life of Homer turned the doubt into a kind of aphorism: “Those who have stated that he was blind seem to me to be mentally blind themselves, for he saw more clearly than any man ever.”
Although this kind of ocularcentrism (how can a blind person speak clearly about the visible world?) will be echoed about other blind writers from John Milton to Helen Keller, the idea that Homer was blind has endured.
The two great epic poems associated with the name Homer were probably composed in the 8th or 7th century BCE, about events during (The Iliad) and after (The Odyssey) the Trojan War, which itself, if historic, took place a few hundred years earlier in a distant heroic age. These epics as they’ve come down to us should be understood as a kind of tapestry of older legends and stories sung by many bards in many different versions, some of which were codified under the authorial name Homer.
The tradition of the blind bard in Western literature originates not in histories or biographies of Homer, but in The Odyssey itself. When Odysseus meets the blind bard Demodocus in the court of King Alcinous (leader of the Phaeacians) the moment feels rather meta: the fictional blind bard of the Odyssey as stand-in for the legendary blind author Homer: “The house boy brought the poet, whom the Muse / adored. She gave him two gifts, good and bad: / she took his sight away, but gave sweet song.”
This is from Emily Wilson’s 2018 translation of The Odyssey. The famous passage sets forth the concept reiterated in Western culture again and again: the poetic gift is compensation for the physical lack of sight. Both the lack of sight and the gift of poetry come from the gods. The invocation of the Muse at the start of all great epics announces the poet’s receptivity, and that receptivity is a matter of ears, not eyes. The poet demands not that the Muse show but tell: “Sing to me, O Muse!”
I first remember reading, or rather attempting to read, The Odyssey in the tenth grade, but by then my eyesight had deteriorated to such an extent that I did not make it very far. I confronted endless blocks of text (so perhaps it was a prose version created for high school readers) and, after just a few pages took me hours—the words breaking apart before my eyes, making comprehension nearly impossible—I attempted to write an essay about the book without having come anywhere near finishing it. I received a D for the paper, my first, and it was terrible. As an English honors student and a once-avid reader, I blamed and hated the teacher for my failure. I would not finish The Odyssey for several years—not until I found myself studying Greek and Latin at UC Santa Cruz (Go, Slugs!). Only then, as this anomalous creature—a classics major at a school best known for redwood groves and marijuana—did I first begin to identify with blindness in all its complexities and contradictions.
In fact, it was my Greek and Latin tutor (paid by Disabled Students Services to give me extra help outside of class) who first made me realize that blindness was not just my future calamity, but also a cultural phenomenon. “Did you know,” he said, “that the ancients revered the blind as poets and prophets?”
By then I knew about Homer, of course, but I hadn’t really thought about what the blind bard might have to do with me. With my CCTV—a cumbersome magnification system involving a seventeen-inch monitor that blew my Greek and Latin texts up into inch-high characters—at home, and the bulky packets of passages printed in forty-point type—which were still hard for me to read, but helped me to follow along in class—I did not feel very much like a poet or a prophet. I surely did not feel the compensatory powers set forth in The Odyssey and reiterated again and again in Western literature. I did not know then that my tutor’s words would set me on my path to read metaphorical blindness against its realities. I did, however, have an inkling that this other blindness—the metaphorical kind—might provide some compensation after all. That I might do well to identify with metaphorical blindness in order to mitigate the intense shame I’d felt throughout my teens.Accessing the tools of the trade—the work of other writers, the means of writing—has hardly been easy for the blind writer.
For it was shame that was—from about the age of twelve—my dominant feeling with regard to my visual impairment. Shame for the things I could not do. Shame at not being able to recognize faces, shame at not being able to see street signs, and above all, shame at not being able to read. If I had been a different kind of kid with different kinds of friends, I might have been bummed not to be able to catch a ball—and to be sure, there have been times in my life when play eluded me because of my poor sight. Mostly, however, my friends were the type of people who smoked, drank, made art, read, and frequented used record and book shops. So much of my time was spent trailing them around Green Apple, a used-book shop on Clement Street in San Francisco, inhaling that familiar scent of old paper everywhere, scrutinizing the covers in hopes of being able to find some words—a title or an author’s name—large enough to recognize and perhaps purchase, maybe even show it off.
For some years to come, I would still be able to read (very) large print, and I could recognize my books by their covers, but by eleventh grade, most printed pages held only decorative lines of black ink for me. I could see the shapes of words dancing along, but without extreme magnification, no matter how much I squinted or maneuvered the page I could not read a single word.
My inability to read The Odyssey when I was in high school—before I was introduced to all the technology (the CCTV, the computer with speech output, later my braille display) that makes digital books accessible today, and even before I was introduced to recorded books when I was eighteen—echoes an irony at the heart of the blind Homer tradition. The books that have come to us as The Iliad and The Odyssey are written documents derived from a much older oral tradition. The dominance of the written word over that oral tradition made the reality of a blind reader, let alone a blind writer, a near impossibility, at least until the invention of first raised type and, later, braille in the 18th and 19th centuries. Even then, accessing the tools of the trade—the work of other writers, the means of writing—has hardly been easy for the blind writer.
“Believe me,” Jorge Luis Borges said in an interview a year before his death, “the benefits of blindness have been greatly exaggerated. If I could see, I would never leave the house, I’d stay indoors reading the many books that surround me. Now they’re as far away from me as Iceland, although I’ve been to Iceland twice and I will never reach my books.”
This quote is heartbreaking, coming from a man who headed up the Argentinian National Library and wrote such intricately wrought, book-oriented stories as “The Library of Babel.” The quote is also, however, surprising and a bit odd, coming as it does from someone who continued to have a wonderful career long after losing his ability to read. If reports of the benefits of blindness have indeed been exaggerated, Borges himself is not innocent: “Blindness has not been for me a total misfortune,” he explains in “Blindness.” “It should not be seen in a pathetic way. It should be seen as a way of life: one of the styles of living.” This reminds me of the rallying cry of the actor and playwright Neil Marcus, who has helped to reify disability culture: “Disability is not a brave struggle or ‘courage in the face of adversity.’ Disability is an art.”
Borges continues this train of thought by affirming that “being blind has its advantages,” and credits it with many gifts, including another book “entitled, with a certain falsehood, with a certain arrogance, In Praise of Darkness.” Then he moves on to “speak now of other cases, of illustrious cases.” Beginning with the “obvious example of the friendship of poetry and blindness, with the one who has been called the greatest of poets: Homer,” he goes on to mention others that we will encounter in this book: John Milton, whose “blindness was voluntary,” and James Joyce, who “brought a new music to English.”
However, even with his illustrious forebears showing him the way, Borges admits elsewhere that his blindness did adversely affect his writing. “Of course,” Richard Burgin says to Borges in a 1968 interview, “it must be much more difficult for you to write now because of your blindness.”
“It’s not difficult, it’s impossible,” answers Borges. “I have to limit myself to short pieces. Yes, because I like to go over what I write; I’m very shaky about what I write . . . so I write sonnets, stories maybe one or two pages long.”
Although Milton famously used several amanuenses to take down and revise the epic Paradise Lost—Borges seemed to allow blindness to affect what and how he wrote. Why did he not use an assistant to read longer works aloud, and work with that assistant to make the necessary corrections? It remains a mystery to me. While I had a computer with speech output by the time I finished college, I often had to contend with professors’ comments scribbled in the margins. When I was working on my dissertation, I liberally used human readers to slog through the chicken scratch in my revisions. Now I can read Word comments with my screenreader, and do not generally use any help in my writing process beyond the usual sorts that most writers appreciate. One exception is a final eyeball check for formatting mishaps by my sighted life partner, Alabaster Rhumb.
I can only account for Borges’s path by reminding myself that we blind writers are not all alike. Moreover, as can be seen by his rather wild oscillations between bravado and insecurity, boasting and excuses, Borges illustrates how the metaphor of blindness offers solace even as dealing with its practicalities can feel overwhelming.
It is not only blind people who harbor such contradictory feelings about blindness; it is also—perhaps to an even greater extent—the sighted. What I’m wrestling with in this book is the concept of blindness that our ocularcentric culture extols on the one hand and dismisses on the other. The blind either converse with the gods or are incapable of performing the simplest tasks. The admiration sometimes mitigates the ridicule, but as we’ll see when we come to the blind seer Tiresias, who prophesies doom in the many Greek tragedies he inhabits, the sighted will shift their attention to the latter just as soon as the literally blind point out their metaphorical blindness.
For now, we are in the happy realm of the compensatory structure of the blind bard, wherein the sighted extend a helping hand in exchange for the gift of song. Here’s how respectfully the blind bard Demodocus is treated in The Odyssey, despite his disability:
The wine boy brought a silver-studded chair
and propped it by a pillar, in the middle
of all the guests, and by a peg he hung
the poet’s lyre above his head and helped him
to reach it, and he set a table by him,
and a bread basket and a cup of wine
to drink whenever he desired.
Once the blind bard is satisfied by food and drink, the Muse prompts him “to sing of famous actions, / an episode whose fame has touched the sky.” The episode concerns Odysseus and Achilles, and it will cause our titular hero to weep because he is reminded of all his dead friends back in Troy. The tears of Odysseus prompt his host (and the employer of Demodocus), King Alcinous, to send them all outside for games, and then a different kind of song. Demodocus is not only a teller of tales but also a musician who gets people dancing:
The house boy gave Demodocus the lyre.
He walked into the middle, flanked by boys,
young and well trained, who tapped their feet performing
the holy dance, their quick legs bright with speed.
Here, Demodocus presents as something that may feel more familiar to modern ears: the popular blind singer-songwriter, not so different from talented musical artists like Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. Throughout the ages, music has offered employment for blind people who are gifted in that way, but in the time of The Odyssey the poet and the singer were synonymous. As Borges says, the blindness of Homer has everything to do with the idea that poetry is a musical art, and in the days of Demodocus and Odysseus it was literally so.
The character of Demodocus has been, in large part, responsible for the idea of Homer’s blindness—a blindness that says much more about our preference for, and suspicion of, sight than it does about the man credited with the creation of the texts of The Iliad and The Odyssey. The author or authors who pulled together these scraps of legend and song into a codified written version were unlikely to have been blind, as it was the oral, not the written, culture in which the blind poet was most likely to thrive. Homer, as is sometimes suggested, could have been a wandering singing bard, the most famous representative of the oral tradition that lost its teeth as the written word took hold. But as the introduction to Wilson’s translation suggests, the relationship between the purveyors of the oral tradition and those practicing literacy remains mysterious; it has been given a name, the Homeric Question, and it has fueled much academic discourse.
There are scholars who argue that The Odyssey was composed by a single person. This person may have been familiar with the oral tradition and then gained literacy, making it possible for him (or her) to write the epic down. Alternatively, it could have been a group effort—several oral poets coming together with scribes to set their spoken words into indelible print. If so, this raises more questions about the relationship and the influence of these literate scribes on the final work. Were the scribes entirely passive, or did they help to shape the songs into something more in line with the new written format? It is, as Wilson’s introduction cheekily asserts, “difficult to adjudicate between these various possibilities, in the absence of any solid evidence, or a time machine.”
I think what can be asserted without question is that if Homer was the author of the written poems with which he is credited, then he was not blind, and that if there was a blind Homer, who, like Demodocus, entertained the great lords and ladies of his age, then the texts that we know as The Odyssey and The Iliad were not sung by him in the form in which they come to us; they are too long to be performed.
It is, perhaps, the age-old desire of readers to inject autobiography into fiction that has allowed Homer’s blindness to trickle through the centuries. Even if we learn in school that Homer is more an idea than a person, for blind people, especially blind writers, the name Homer holds a kind of talismanic power, and for most everybody, I think, Homer is the quintessential blind author. He tops Wikipedia’s “List of Blind People” in the writers section, for example, even though his entry clearly states in its introductory paragraph that his existence is but legendary. This suggests that what we know intellectually about the mysterious authorship of the great epics of Western literature cannot hold a candle to the powerful image of the blind poet. But why?
In other words, why is blindness tied to artistic creation in our imaginations? How is it that blindness, in a largely ocular-centric culture such as ours—such as the Greeks’—holds such (metaphorical) power? As we shall continue to witness, the blind bard will morph, or divide, into the blind prophet of Classical Greek theater who points out the metaphorical blindnesses of tragic heroes, and the philosophy of Socrates, whose paradoxical stance regarding sight suggests that it actually imperils clear thinking with its superfluous distractions. And, as we shall—dare I say—see, these two aspects of blindness together suggest the dangers of sight when it comes to seeing invisible (spiritual) truths.
Having tied blindness to transcendence—artistic, philosophical, spiritual—Western culture from the days of Homer onward has made much of the blind guide. Take, for example, Mark Danielewski’s 2000 novel of obsession and filmic horror, House of Leaves, which invokes the blind bard on many levels. Homer, Milton, and Borges seem to be inspirations for the novel’s blind guide, the character named Zampanò. I think it’s not irrelevant to point out that House of Leaves is a perfect example of how far a sighted author will go in drawing a blind character for a presumably sighted reader. With its several fonts, multicolored print, insane repetitions of words or crossed-out phrases, pages with a single word or two, the novel is virtually unreadable—at least as the author intended—by a blind person.
I read Danielewski’s haunting masterpiece several years ago and was riveted. I was also shocked to learn, after the fact, just how much I’d missed out on as a listener to the electronic book. (For obvious reasons, perhaps, there does not seem to be a commercial audio version, and for less obvious reasons, no commercial ebook either.) When revisiting the novel, I make sure to have a physical copy on hand as well, so that when it comes to specific passages, I can have Alabaster check the look of them, but it’s sometimes hard to know what to have him look for when it is not described. Once when I asked him generally about what he saw on the pages of the novel as he casually flipped through, he suddenly said, “There’s braille on this page!” I had no idea; it was visual braille.
In House of Leaves, Zampanò—the blind, relatively minor character whose death before the start of the novel sets its events in motion—stands in strange relationship to the two protagonists. Johnny Truant is the hapless inheritor of the blind man’s trunk, and Will Navidson—a filmmaker whose work is the record of a dark, fathomless infinity ostensibly enclosed within his house—is the creation of the blind man’s imagination.
The irony of the blind graphomaniac creator of a film that exists only in words (as well as much of its attendant criticism) is not lost on Johnny. As he examines the former tenant’s apartment, wondering about “these strange, pale books” and “the fact that there’s hardly a goddamn bulb in the whole apartment, not even one in the refrigerator” he discovers the strange truth: “Well that, of course, was Zampanò’s greatest ironic gesture; love of love written by the broken hearted; love of life written by the dead: all this language of light, film and photography, and he hadn’t seen a thing since the mid-fifties.”
Johnny concludes, “He was blind as a bat,” which, of all the clichéd phrases used to disparage blind people, seems most inept. But we’ll let it go, assuming the imprecision to be that of a startled young man just beginning his journey into the dark.
Excerpted from THERE PLANT EYES: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness by M. Leona Godin. Copyright © 2021 by M. Leona Godin. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.