The Beauty Myth

"Untitled #3889" (Bill Jacobson)

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By Stephen Kuusisto
Sunday, November 12, 2006

Because I am blind and cannot see faces , I must imagine them. I am helped in this daily round by the fact that I can see colors. Many blind people can see something of the world; my own small portion is essentially a kind of abstract expressionism: I live inside a Jackson Pollock painting, and I live there while walking the ordinary streets. This brand of walking and seeing is both maddening and lovely. I see faces like the shining leaves of jade trees -- wind-tossed and set against black boughs -- and I wonder what you look like. "You" are all friends and strangers alike. Occasionally, I allow myself to imagine that I see the inestimable and charged faces that we all suspect lie just below the surface. But in any event, I know you differently than do your hand mirrors or photographs. One thing I won't know is whether you are, in the ocular sense of the word, beautiful.

It's not that I'm inured to beauty. Imagine that you're talking to a woman who is sitting across a table from you. When you look at her, all you see is a shimmering cloud of light. On the one hand, you are able to observe people as mystical emanations of divine radiance. On the other hand, you don't know what this woman looks like. So you pour some pinot grigio, and you listen. She's talking about hats: late 19th-century "Gibson girl" hats with the flowers and jaunty brims. She's talking about the first great era of catalogue fashion and a new kind of innocent loveliness. A sighted person might have trouble believing this, but if you're having a nice time in a cloud of light, and you're talking about beauty, the person opposite you is, in fact, beautiful.

I recently traveled to London with nine female students from Ohio State University. We were on a 10-day tour of British historical sites and museums. The students had taken a course with me back in Columbus on the Victorians and the development of 19th-century institutions designed to house people with disabilities. We'd read texts on cultural history and viewed David Lynch's classic film about Joseph Merrick, "The Elephant Man." We'd read Dickens. And then we flew to the United Kingdom to see Queen Victoria's old hospitals and to ponder the history of medicine and its relationship to what we now call disability.

Together, my students and I saw thousands of strange things: everything from Charles Dickens's cigar cutter to the Rosetta stone. We descended into the Tube and traveled long distances under the city. But even now, I do not know what my students look like. I wouldn't be able to describe them physically. And then again, in an odd way, I do know a thing or two. I taught them how to guide me with their outstretched elbows, how to help me locate the steps of the Underground, how to find curbs. We traveled as a group and worked our way through the rush hour throngs of Trafalgar Square. Each student had a chance to guide her blind professor in the unfamiliar city. Each also had the opportunity to describe what she was seeing, whether we were on the street or deep inside the Victoria and Albert Museum.

I think it's safe to say that the visually impaired are willing and even happy to know you by means of imagination and some good, old-fashioned common sense. For me, this means listening with my best attention. Walk with someone for a while, and listen with ardor. You will know that her face is resilient, taxed, sharp, soft, lean, wide -- and as mobile as circles on the water.

Many people today do not know that the concept of disability was essentially invented by the Victorians. They were celebrating a new kind of body -- one that could work in the factories or look good wearing the trappings of new wealth. Queen Victoria presided over the first modern wave of leisure-class staring; her great city of empire was built around the emergent middle-class obsession with appearances. From Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum to countless impromptu street circuses, Londoners grew accustomed to the body as spectacle. Their new pastimes -- sitting at cafes, strolling in parks -- owed at least some popularity to the pleasures of seeing and being seen. Almost overnight, people with disabilities were transferred from the village square to newly built hospitals, asylums and workhouses. In fact, the term "disability" was first used by Karl Marx to designate those who couldn't be functional workers or consumers in a new machine age.

As I walked with my students and held tight to each elbow, I knew that we were traveling together through Victoria's funhouse, where the perfect body and proper fashion first became economic necessities. We discussed how looking at others has been thoroughly commodified since the Industrial Revolution and the arrival of disposable income. Today, most sighted people are dragged through the world by envy because they spend their time looking at the faces in the new cafes of the middle class: television, advertising, magazines. This is sad. It signifies the poverty of imagination that characterizes our age.

I suppose I'm lucky: I don't live with the tyranny of celebrity photographs in my interior life. Someone asked me not long ago how I could write about the world if I can't see it. I rely on words. Poetry and nonfiction are richly influenced by the work of other writers. In my case, I don't know exactly what a willow tree looks like. But in my mind, I'm always thinking of the classical Chinese poet Tu Fu, who described a willow tree as being graceful as a girl of 15. And when I think about the full moon, I remember these lines by Federico García Lorca: "One doesn't eat oranges under the full moon. The right fruits are green and cold." You can feel the pear juice running down your chin.

So, on the one hand, I'll never know what Julia Roberts looks like. On the other, I loved when, during a viewing of "Erin Brockovich," my wife leaned close and said, "Oh, I wish you could see what they've done with Julia Roberts's cleavage." I admit that I will always have to imagine Ms. Roberts's achievement. But I do have a good imagination. I don't mind the work.

I get turned on by your accent, your fragrance, your laugh, your enthusiasm for almost anything. Strictly speaking, I don't even know what my wife looks like. Instead, I live for the thrill of the touch of her lips, and my hands are privileged to see her. My wife lives in a luminous blue corona of light, and that is good enough for me.

And so there we were : a 51-year-old blind man with a white cane and his students, all of whom were 20 or 21 years old, all of them doing their best to help him make his way through some of the world's busiest traffic. I clung tenaciously to them. They, in turn, learned the art of being "sighted guides." They counted off the final steps as we descended into the Tube. They eased me around iron lampposts and perambulators.

As we walked, my students discovered that they were being stared at in a new way. The staring is filled with appraisal and assumptions. It's nearly continuous. I have been out to dinner with my wife at least a hundred times when she -- a woman who is athletic, handsome and apparently not disabled -- has been observed dining with a blind man. Men stare at me, then at my wife. Then they stare some more at my wife. They look for quite a while. Blindness is hard for sighted people to imagine. Most people believe that an admiring gaze is absolutely and necessarily to be requited with another. Without a return glance, the tennis match of courtship is believed to be hopeless.

In London, the stares had a sentimentality about them. A cabdriver called out to the woman who was guiding me across an intersection in front of the British Museum: "Good job, luv!" The woman knew she was being sized up for her loveliness of limb along with her charitable act of forbearance.

I was guided for 10 days by luv after luv. By means of my damaged retinas, I saw flashes of gold, spirals of periwinkle blues, sudden specters that might have been people. The students, in turn, could see how old habits of Victorian staring were fixed toward them when they walked with me. Such staring is antagonistic to what the Greeks called "eros." To the Greeks, the capacity for passion was not limited to a certain type of body. The idea that the young should not be seen with the old, that those who are beautiful and stylish should not be paired with disfigurement -- they would not have understood that. They would not have understood us as a society.

When you are being guided through the Underground, with all its pools of alternating light and darkness, you tend to see your escort in a postural way, rather than through the aggression of the libidinous eye. I saw my students without living under the despotism of fashionable staring.

Here is how I saw them: They were upright, confident, green as the jade plum trees in spring.

Stephen Kuusisto teaches English and disability studies at Ohio State University. His latest book, Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening, has just been published by W.W. Norton. His Web site is www.stephenkuusisto.com.


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