A vivid and disorienting experience

Dr Allan Dodds watches 'Notes on Blindness'.

The English poet, Alexander Pope, believed that our task as human beings was not to explain life, the universe and everything, but to explore the microcosm that is the self. ‘Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of mankind is man.’

Professor John Hull, whose loss of sight changed his life forever, follows in this Delphic tradition. An academic theologian by profession, Hull records every detail of the experience of losing his sight and coming to terms with the fact that he is now a blind man. Unsurprisingly, given his religious persuasion, Hull consciously or unconsciously adopts the position of those who believe that adjustment to sight loss can only be achieved by being reborn as a new person, rather than by acquiring alternative means of maintaining a continuity of personal identity.

From a psychological perspective, Hull employs phenomenology and introspection: methods alien to modern psychologists. So that, rather than arriving at general truths applicable to a blind population, he instead gives us a vivid portrayal of his own experiences and changing beliefs, initially through his words in ‘Touching the Rock’ (1990) and now through images, thanks to James Spinney and Peter Middleton’s screenplay and visual interpretation of the book.

The film immerses the viewer in dark, out of focus images and odd perspectives that disorient and draw one’s experience as close to that of Hull as one could imagine. Sometimes the screen goes black; at other times it is simply pure white, and it caused this viewer to drift off into a private reverie on more than one occasion. As a consequence of this I missed some bits, but the fact that it happened at all testifies to the technical success of the film in addressing Hull’s contention that dreaming and waking are variations of consciousness that remain a mystery.

I was reminded of Kierkegaard’s concept of a subjective truth when Hull describes how space, time, objects and people become devoid of meaning and reality as his visual memory fades. For a number of years Hull becomes withdrawn and fearful as he strives to regain his personal identity through minute examination of his experiences. With the loss of visual information about objective reality, he finds that his very self becomes unmoored and when he turns inwards for answers he initially finds nothing more than further confusion.

Nonetheless, after years of struggle Hull eventually experiences his Damascene moment and, as a result, he reframes the curse of blindness as the divine revelation that it is a gift, albeit an unwanted one. However, the film ends before showing us how he uses that gift, other than communicating his journey to us.

Lip-sync acted from Hull’s own audio tapes, the actors Dan Renton Skinner as John Hull, and Simone Kirby as his wife Marilyn, present as a highly plausible loving couple living in fear that their marriage might not survive as John journeys into a private world into which Marilyn is unable to accompany him. Sadly, John Hull died after only a few weeks into the filming, but the film ends with a shot of Hull himself against an ocean vista that brings the world to him on waves of sound.

Hull’s struggles in coming to terms with his blindness are faithfully conveyed in the film, which, together with its subtle soundtrack, takes the viewer into a dark and disturbing place. Yet in my own experience of working with blind people, Hull’s journey is a highly individualistic one, and few blind people whom I know well would easily identify with it. As a good American friend of mine who lost his sight in childhood once admitted to me, ‘Blindness is just a pain in the ass’. But then Hull was an intellectual and his response was more existential and poetic than pragmatic.

A virtual reality event accompanies the film, and I was keen to experience the simulation of sight loss. Although the experience was forceful, I was not convinced of its veridicality. It does, however, assist the listener in becoming more aware of the audible landscape and Hull’s recorded voice accompaniment adds an emotional tone to the experience. Why not take on board yourself the world of this blind man and make of it what you will?

- Dr Allan Dodds is Former Director of The Blind Mobility Research Unit, University of Nottingham.

'Notes on Blindness' is playing at cinemas throughout the UK and is available on demand. Find out more, including the VR experience, on the website.

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