Blind Columnists

Wyndham Lewis self-portrait, from when he could see

Many columnists are blind, but only metaphorically so. Charles Krauthammer and George Will are as eyeless as Samson, with a similar appetite for inflicting retributive mass slaughter on the residents of Gaza. But Russell Smith, the novelist whose cultural ruminations appear in the Globe and Mail, is actually blind, although thankfully only temporarily so. Smith has written a wry, jaunty column about his current sightless state. I’ve posted excerpts from the column at the end of this posting (The column can be found here; fair warning: the Globe usually yanks its online content after 2 weeks; Smith’s piece deserves e a longer afterlife.)

In his little essay, Smith discusses other writers who were blind or wrote about blindness: Joyce, Henry Green, Borges, and Milton. I was a bit surprised that Smith didn’t mention Wyndham Lewis, the great modernist novelist and painter who also lost his vision in old age; the omission was unexpected because the columnist’s father, the late literary critic Rowland Smith, wrote so well on Lewis.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lewis worked as an art critic for the Listener magazine. His eyesight went into severe decline in 1951, leading him to write one last grimly witty column, titled “The Sea-Mists of the Winter.” Lewis noted that, “The failure of sight which is already so advanced, will of course become worse from week to week until in the end I shall only be able to see the external world through little patches in the midst of a blacked out tissue. On the other hand, instead of little patches, the last stage may be the absolute black-out. Pushed into an unlighted room, the door banged and locked forever, I shall then have to light a a lamp of aggressive voltage in my mind to keep at bay the night.”

Like Smith, Lewis looked back to his literary ancestors in darkness: “Well, Milton had his daughters, I have my dictaphone.” Admitting that his career as a painter and art critic were over – with the proviso that many English artists might have been better if they were born blind – Lewis took comfort in the fact that he could still write novels.

Here is an excerpt from Smith’s column:

I am writing this column using some archaic voice-recognition hardware: a human being. In other words, I am dictating it. I have temporarily (I hope) lost my sight. (Giant retinal tear, retinal detachment, vitrectomy – please look up spelling. Google those terms and imagine my pleasure. Actually worse than a wasp sting.)

The hardware I am using is called an amanuensis – from the Latin for something to do with hand (please go get the dictionary in the study). This hardware comes pre-coded with vast and sophisticated software. The platform can run in many different languages and run many applications simultaneously. For example, my unit is concurrently processing a bag of what sounds like chips, as well as running the vastly memory-consuming baby-care program in the background.

Amanuenses have been used by much better writers than I: James Joyce’s prose grew more impenetrable as he grew blinder possibly because he was using this hardware. He once famously included the phrase “Come in” in a sentence when someone knocked on the door. He allegedly barked “Let it stand” when having the draft read back to him. (Do a quick search to see if this was in Finnegans Wake .) Louis-Ferdinand Celine was another famously blind writer (please double-check this), as was Huxley (better put Aldous Huxley as the copy editor will insist he is unknown – maybe even force me to put “novelist” Aldous Huxley, or worse “British novelist” Aldous Huxley, seriously, you put Napoleon and they insert Napoleon Bonaparte, famous French emperor, I’m hardly exaggerating. Don’t put all that in). Henry Yorke, who published brilliant modernist novels under the name Henry Green also, I think, went blind.


So the amanuensis, although archaic, is serving to lead me into the most modish of styles. One thing that remains archaic about this system is the embarrassing and in this case coincidental convention of gender roles. The male thinker lies prone and is rewarded with publication of his thoughts.

The beautiful female muse and assistant (also, embarrassingly, a cliche of literary history) is rewarded by having to delay the downloading of the laundry. Some things never change.

Now let’s add the corrected facts: It turns out that in ancient Rome any servant within hand’s reach was originally called an amanuensis. I can’t find any evidence that Celine was blind. Don’t know where I got that idea.

Neither was Henry Green; he wrote a novel called Blindness. Stupid memory.

Joyce was definitely blind. I can’t believe I forgot Borges and Milton, of course (the copy editor will put in their first names)… The person taking dictation from Joyce who wrote “Come in” was Samuel Beckett. Imagine being in that room.

The amanuensis hereby swears to an accurate transcription with no unapproved additions (Amanuensis must reveal that the dictator was convinced that Ezra Pound was blind too and was saved by making this obvious mistake by the undersigned).

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