So much the rather thou, celestial light,
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from hence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.
John Milton’s classic poem, Paradise Lost, contains the quote from which springs There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness. It’s a handy guide, covering a wide array of voices through the many perspectives of science, philosophy, the arts, anecdotal highlights, and historical timeline and reflections.
Dr. M. Leona Godin is a blind writer, performer, and educator. While pursuing a PhD in Early Modern Literature from NYU, she became interested in studying all about blindness and culture, and blind culture, as she learned to adapt to her own gradually evolving world of changing sight. After finishing her dissertation on technologies of sight in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Dr. Godin immediately dove into writing and performing two one-woman shows: The Spectator and the Blind Man, which explored the invention of braille, and The Star of Happiness, about Helen Keller on the vaudeville stage. All this has led her to the writing of There Plant Eyes, a much needed text on the blindness perspective, published in June from Pantheon Books.
Dr. Godin has written for the New York Times, Playboy, and a column in Catapult called “A Blind Writer’s Notebook.” She founded the online literary journal Aromatica Poetica, which examines the arts and sciences of smell and taste and accepts submissions from both blind and sighted writers. Since her book’s publication, Dr. Godin has launched a valuable online resource, also titled There Plant Eyes.
In the midst of Dr. Godin’s virtual book tour, we had a fascinating conversation over Zoom about the difference between blindness as a perspective versus a subject; the spectrum of light, dark, and dappled sight; and ocularcentrism.
The Rumpus: Ocularcentrism sounds obvious enough, thinking about its parts, but maybe we best break it down anyway, before proceeding: what is ocularcentrism? Why is the term one you use throughout There Plant Eyes to assist you in presenting your arguments?
M. Leona Godin: Critical, historical scholar Martin Jay uses the term ocularcentric in his book Downcast Eyes. I don’t even think he coined it, but that’s where I first encountered it. Being a visual person is not the same as being ocularcentric. Ocularcentrism comes into being when you are not just visual but you think that being visual is the only way to be. And, if you’re not visual because you are blind, that you are in a lesser state of being. It also is about not just people, but our culture generally.
When I had a conversation with this perceptual psychologist named Lawrence Rosenblum, who’s also in my book, he said in his field of perceptual psychology the big questions were always asked about sight, maybe hearing. Ten years ago, nobody in Rosenblum’s field was interested in asking questions about smell or taste or touch. So that’s where ocularcentrism is not just about individuals being in the position of being a lesser human being, because we can’t see or can’t see as well, but also how our culture at large tends to be ocularcentric, to the detriment of all. If we’re not entertaining and studying all of our senses with equal vigor, then we’re missing out as a culture. Lots of self-fulfilling prophecies about this suggest, Oh well, we don’t know how to describe smell. It’s like, how often have you ever read a description of smell in a novel? We think that it’s a natural state, that it must be true that we are all more visual. We only create a culture that is visually interesting, but at the same time, we don’t try and teach our other senses. In grade school, how many of us ever learn to distinguish the smell of an orange from a Mandarin from a grapefruit? We think we can’t put it into words, because we’ve not been trained to. It is both thinking of the individual as being lesser by missing a sense, but then also training our entire cultural imagination to be visual as opposed to being visual, as well as, having other senses.
The big problem for us as blind people is then it puts us in the position of either conforming to the ocularcentric culture at large. Or not fitting in at all. And not fitting in at all feels so scary because it’s so stigmatized. The more you look blind, the worse off you are. We’re congratulated all the time for not looking blind. And we’re supposed to say, um, thank you? It’s like, I’m not supposed to look like what I am? There you go. That’s ocularcentrism at work. It’s ableism, and ocularcentrism is a flavor of ableism. We, as blind people, have also thought that the visual is the most important. So, we try and approximate that.
Rumpus: What do you mean when you speak of the “metaphorical weightiness of blindness?”
Godin: It’s something I’m trying to unravel—that it’s almost like it weighs upon us as blind people, as walking, breathing humans with complex lives. Those metaphors, because they’re so strong and so ingrained in this Western culture of ours, they weigh so heavy on our cultural consciousness. I wanted to constantly make them bump up against the realities of blindness as experienced by myself, but also I bring in so many blind memoirists, to show how diverse and how messy and complex and interesting and dynamic are the lives of blind people that get flattened into these ingrained metaphors that we, as blind people, are constantly forced to negotiate. On the one hand, the poet-prophet; now, the superhero. It’s the super blind on the one hand, and then the pitiable specimen beggar on the other. It’s this wild oscillation between the metaphors and then the stigma. What’s missing in all of it is that vast in-between that we all live in. That weightiness of the metaphors is something we’re all fighting in our own ways.
Rumpus: What are the “spirit guides” for you in this book and why do you say in the book that, “blindness is not a subject but a perspective?”
Godin: I took up with the spirit guides, people that I was able to draw from, those that have a strong memoir voice that I could also use to help me dismantle that metaphorical weightiness of blindness. What started me on my path of the modern blind experience was when, in graduate school, I ran across this book called The Radical Lives of Helen Keller. She had performed in vaudeville from 1922 to 1924. I decided that I wanted to explore that as a performer. I read all of her autobiographical writings, and because I think most people are only familiar with The Miracle Worker, how the story ends with her gaining language. I wanted to use her voice to help me say things about all the metaphors and tropes.
Once I realized that blindness is not just a subject but also a perspective, it allowed me to tell all kinds of stories. The problem is that if blindness is a subject, then we only have one thing to talk about, which is our blindness. This plays into both the fact that almost always blind people are forced into writing memoirs and that when blind characters come up in books and movies, it’s as the subject, a plot point for a sighted protagonist to move along on their journey. This is extremely limiting because then it doesn’t allow us to be intersectional beings.
If somebody’s going to say to me, When are you going to stop writing books with women characters? Or, When are you going to stop writing books about, I don’t know, being human? The idea is, move on from blindness because it’s a subject, as opposed to me being a woman in the world. Being a woman colors my perceptions of the world just as much or as little as my sight or my lack of sight. Realizing that it’s about perspective means we can write about anything. Blindness is probably going to, to some extent, influence how we write or what we’re writing, just as our gender and ethnicity or race does. Even if we’re not necessarily writing about blindness. There’s fear that if you have the blind poet-prophet on the one hand, you must have the blind buffoon on the other. We’re all afraid of that because it’s ingrained humor there as well that we haven’t had control over either.
Rumpus: Why do you say you didn’t want to write this as strictly memoir?
Godin: I love memoir. I love reading memoir, but the problem is that, too often, memoir makes the blind person into an isolated case. For a lot of sighted people, if they read a blind memoir, that’s one. Wonderful, but they’re probably not going to read any others. There’s a feeling that, in presenting the isolated case, a Stevie Wonder or Helen Keller, that’s where you have the problem of inspiration porn. It feels like it’s just one story that manages to be lifted above the muck of blindness generally, which is our otherwise deplorable state.
That is why I really wanted to bring in these voices—showing that this is not just one inspirational story, but that these are actual opinions and perspectives that help us to understand the metaphorical, and what’s really the cultural significance of blindness. And then show it by doing, right: that I could have these real life voices, these real people arguing, in their own ways, against the kind of collapse into metaphor, and into the stigma that follows. When you read a lot of memoir by people that have some similarities, or one glaring similarity like some kind of lack of sight, it helps to situate yourself in a larger conversation. That’s what I wanted to do in this book—situate my voice into a tapestry of other blind voices.
Rumpus: You speak of a tapestry or a cacophony of blind voices in the book. What is the significance of this?
Godin: I like the idea of blind pride and blind culture. Why not? It was important for me to write something that would bring together all these different voices in order to demonstrate blind culture and the dynamics between blind people.
I didn’t want to write a memoir; that was never really on the radar. Mostly because I don’t feel like I have an arc to my story at this point, a good memoir arc. I personally love reading memoir, but I also really love reading books that are what my book is. You learn a ton of stuff, but you have a firm and clear-voiced narrator, somebody taking you on this journey to learn these things but you’re going to meet the narrator as well, like in Paradise Lost.
Probably the first time I recognized this style was in the work of Oliver Sacks. He gives us some fascinating characters, some amazing stories about neurology, but you definitely get to know Oliver Sacks through his accounts. I think he was one of my first influences, in terms of how I wanted to approach this material—very much wishing to tell a story that’s not about me, but knowing I am going to influence the story and not try and hide that I’m going to be a clear and obvious blind guide through this history.
Rumpus: Tell me about your title, the obscure-sounding There Plant Eyes, and about the cover design of this book. What does it represent to you, and of you?
Godin: I actually sold the book as Seeing and Not Seeing: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness. I originally had a title, From Homer to Me, but that was quickly dismissed. Once we were moving towards the final stages of the edits, they said the Seeing and Not Seeing was not selling enough, which was the jargon. It was one of those moments where I was thinking that the best kind of title comes from an important text. There are so many amazing modern texts that I draw upon in this book, but thought I might as well take something from a classic. I was reading through Paradise Lost because it seemed like that might be a good place to mine for a poetic phrase. And there it was: “there plant eyes.” It’s in the middle of this beautiful passage in Book III where the narrator comes to the foreground. The speaker leaves hell and enters heaven and waxes poetic for many lines about how, even if he’s poetically leaving darkness, he’s not actually entering the light in any physical way. But he is entering, talking about how he’s going to rely on his inner eye—his mental eye, or his poetic eye.
I said to my partner, how about There Plant Eyes? I don’t know how many other ideas I had thrown out as we were going about our days. It’s like settling on a band name. Like, no, that is really terrible. Let’s just not put that on the list kind of thing, but as soon as I said, There Plant Eyes he said, whoa, yes. And then we worked to get the publisher on board.
It is so grammatically strange and it’s not immediately apparent what it means. They liked it, but they were so confused at first. They wanted to stick a comma after “There.” I had a knee-jerk reaction, which was like, that’s not very punk rock you know. Then I sat back and thought about it, and I wrote this long letter to them. The gist of it was, let’s not change Milton. He’s done really well for himself and the Milton purists would not be happy if I was to stick a comma there. It’s cool because it’s so metaphoric, but it does take people a bit to get it.
When I was recording the audio book, the director said, “What does it mean? What does There Plant Eyes mean?” I said, well, it’s almost implicitly suggesting a gesture, like an invisible finger that is pointing to the heart, or to the gut, or to the mind. Maybe to the head even and saying, there plant eyes. They’re not pointing at your eye sockets right. That is what Milton is doing. He’s trying to point people away from the outer vision and toward the inner vision.
Evocative, a bit obscure, but all the words are quite plain—that’s three one syllable words. I like it and I say it’s a little bit punk rock because it has a feel to it that extends beyond the meaning that is a little obscure for sure.
Rumpus: Braille is incorporated into your cover. How did braille on the cover come to be?
Godin: I think it was the publisher’s idea. I think I would have asked for it, but you don’t have a lot of control over covers as author. The first version was much simpler than what we have now. It was a green band, a swath of green. And then it had the braille, but slightly larger braille. In the book I say novelty braille is not really braille because you feel it. That’s what braille invented, this nice finger gliding, finger-appropriate sized dots.
At first they sent me a proof of the cover to check it. They did a beautiful job. They had all the grade 2 braille correct, but somehow they forgot to put spaces between the words. I think that they thought the little capital six dots were spaces. I don’t know, but I was like, we’ve got to put some spaces in there.
Then I said how green has nothing to do with anything. I don’t know if they were going on the plant part, but this is a metaphor. I was like, if we’re going to have this kind of swath of color, I want it to be reminiscent of the electromagnetic spectrum. I wanted it to have a hint of the colors that are beyond human vision. The ultraviolet is what I was always wanting to go on. They took it to another dimension and made it into a swirly, misty thing, which seems reminiscent of how I see. I know a lot of blind people have a perspective of a lot of this world in pixelation.
Rumpus: It’s about how we all see the world, visually or otherwise, and you describe it as a “vast in-between.” You talk about darkness and light throughout, but really you start and end the book with the word “dappled.” What’s the significance of that word for you here?
Godin: It feels loosened from the negativity and the positivity and the binaries of darkness and light. I really liked the in-betweenness of it and the fact that it has such a poetic feel, very much like how I see the world. I usually call it pixelated, but I think dappled also works well.
The idea is that it’s neither one thing nor the other, right? There’s neither darkness nor light. It’s all mixed up in some varying degree that probably has a lot to do with your own feelings about that particular dappled thing. Like, is there more light or more darkness?
I feel it also speaks to, in a physical way, how so many of us are visually impaired people. We see something of the world, but so many people who look like they’re blind because they’re carrying a cane are actually seeing some portion of the world that might be dappled. It’s a mixed sense that sounds quite beautiful to me. Like that mixing of darkness and light is beautiful; I guess I wanted to explain that in this book.
Photograph of M. Leona Godin by Alabaster Rhumb.