‘Notes on blindness’: the book and the movie

This week, I came a cross the memoirs of the academic John Hull and soon discovered that the book had been made into an award-winning documentary as well. Both the book and the movie consist of extracts from a cassette diary kept by John in the first years of his blindness. They both works are gorgeous (one visually so and the other in terms of prose) explorations into the world of blindness.

John Hull started to go blind in the late 1970s. By 1983, he was entirely blind and could not even detect changes in light like many other registered blind person. This new disability impacts every aspect of John’s life: his family life, his job, his interactions with friends and physical world around him. As the academic that he is, John sets out to philosophize on and reflect on blindness in order to understand what it really is; What does it mean for a person to be blind? Through his well written diary, John explores how his dreams change, how his communication with others changes, how is ideas of what someone ‘is like’ after he can no longer see faces, how an acoustic world differs from a visual world and how other acquaintances (new and old) react to his blindness.

The film also explores the same thoughts, but does so visually. By focusing on the sounds that surrounds John, but also exploring what the world looks like inside in John’s mind. It is a fascinating film language they develop to describe John’s journey from refusing to identify as blind (in the early entries, he says he is ‘registered as blind’ and claims that he will never submit to blindness).

Paralell to John’s inner journey as an adult to understand disability, he records his son Thomas’ road to understanding blindness from a toddler’s perspective. Thomas has never experienced having a sighted father, knows from since he is a baby that if he wants to show his father something he cannot just point, but must placed the object in his daddy’s hand. Still he does not understand that his father cannot see. The boy observes that his father does not behave any differently when it is dark in a room and, from his comments, his parents gather that their son thinks his father can see in the dark. Which seems entirely possible to a three year old of course! One of the most poignant scenes in the book is when Thomas asks John ‘Daddy? Are you blind?’, and John cannot bring him self to say yes.

In one way, the book reminds me of the philosopher Elizabeth Barne’s thoughts on disability; she approaches the topic through metaphysics and epistemology and John Hull seems more interested in the phenomenology of the blindness, but they booth consider what challenges are caused by the disability itself and what are challenges created by society’s lack of understanding. John does not shy away from the difficult aspects of the changed circumstances of his life: when he feels that he looses controls of his surroundings, he gets panic attacks, and that he will never see his children’s faces causes John continuous sorrow.

“Who had the right to deprive me of the sight of my Children at Christmas time?”

I cannot do justice to the beauty of the book and the movie, or the number of topics they explore, nor to the thoughtful way they present John’s thoughts. I can only recommend them to everyone who are interested learning about an entirely different way of knowing the world.

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