Wednesday April 4, 2012
As children, we learn that there are five human senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. Upon reflection and memory, I realize that sight is always listed first in the list of senses. It may just be a reflex or a habit to do so, or maybe it’s just human nature to place high emphasis on sight. Sight is taken for granted by most of us, and when we encounter non-sighted individuals, we have an emotional and physical reaction that we’re relieved the non-sighted cannot see. Reading Oliver Sacks’ case “To See and Not See”, about a man named Virgil, gives me a new and interesting perspective on blindness. I have a friend who is partially deaf. She and I communicate with visual cues and our communication is helped by the fact that she can hear some sound and can read lips. In contrast, I cannot say I have had an occasion to spend time with a non-sighted person. While reading about Virgil, however, I felt that I was given an opportunity to learn about the life of someone who lives in a world of only four senses. Virgil was born with sight, he briefly lost it at the age of 3 while ill, and at age 6 developed cataracts which blocked his vision and made him functionally blind. The life he lived was a modest one. He “had a steady job and an identity, was self-supporting, had friends, read Braille papers and books...Life was limited but stable in its way.” (112) He accepted his blindness as simply part of his existence; Virgil’s life was imbued with passivity. At the age of 47, Virgil became re-acquainted with an old girlfriend named Amy. Their relationship evolved into a committed one within 3 years. With Amy’s insistent encouragement, Virgil assented to have surgery to remove one of the cataracts, despite his family’s misgivings over the disruption to his already stable life and identity as someone who is blind. There is a distillation of Virgil’s state of being; as I see it, his life is not his own, other people are making choices for him, and he is not asserting himself. Amy and his mother have strong opinions about if he should live with sight or without sight. Virgil himself sits, waiting for them to make a decision about his destiny. And so began Virgil’s passive journey into seeing – again. Virgil’s situation is not unlike Greg’s from Sacks’ case “The Last Hippie.” While Virgil was about to regain his vision, Greg, by contrast, was losing his; the result of a stealthy tumor slowly stealing his sight. But Greg, like Virgil, initially had concerns when confronted by his differently sighted future. For Greg, he accepted the explanation of his swami about the loss of his vision being due to “a deeper spirituality, an inner light.” He was “an illuminate,” a great honor. (43) This explanation pacified him about his vision, as it also brought him to a deeper spirituality. Despite their concerns, both Greg and Virgil came to accept their destiny being written by other people in their lives. Amy brought Virgil to her ophthalmologist who reviewed his case and ascertained that the old diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa may not have been accurate and he agreed to operate. Before the surgery, Virgil “could still see light and dark, the direction from which light came, and the shadow of a hand in front of his eyes…” (108) Dr. Hamlin did the cataract removal on his right eye, inserted a new lens implant and after the bandage came off, Virgil could see but only after hearing the surgeon speak to him to attract his attention. The first thing that Virgil saw was not concrete or a firm image, but light, motions and colors. This was only a brief indication of the tangled web of sight that was ahead. Sacks states:
“Everyone, Virgil included, expected something much simpler. A man opens his eyes, light enters and falls on the retina: he sees. …though there had been a careful surgical discussion of the operation and possible...