4.4. Attending to the World with New Eyes
Lusseyran's story presents a mystery for us sighted people, who speak so naturally of the "night" of blindness. It's not easy to understand what he means by "seeing." Throughout his book he tells how his freedom of movement was restricted by his blindness, and how he spent much of his time guided by friends as he walked or ran through city and countryside. But at the same time these friends quickly learned to take it for granted that, in some ways, he saw more of this passage than they did, so that he was often at least as quick as they to warn of danger or to announce what lay over the next rise.
He tells how objects in his environment would come to life on his "inner canvas," how his senses of hearing, smell, and touch gained revelatory qualities that departed in wildly unexpected ways from the "normal" performance of these senses, and how all objects exert a kind of "pressure" even from a distance a pressure one can respond to in an intimate sensory dance that blurs the visually enforced boundaries commonly felt between object and perceiver. As to his "seeing" in particular, here is one of his attempts to describe it:
As I walked along a country road bordered by trees, I could point to each one of the trees by the road, even if they were not spaced at regular intervals. I knew whether the trees were straight and tall, carrying their branches as a body carries its head, or gathered into thickets and partly covering the ground around them.
This kind of exercise soon tired me out, I must admit, but it succeeded. And the fatigue did not come from the trees, from their number or shape, but from myself. To see them like this I had to hold myself in a state so far removed from old habits that I could not keep it up for very long. I had to let the trees come towards me, and not allow the slightest inclination to move towards them, the smallest wish to know them, to come between them and me. I could not afford to be curious or impatient or proud of my accomplishment.
After all, such a state is only what one commonly calls "attention," but I can testify that when carried to this point it is not easy.
All this may remind some readers of the ancient doctrine that we actually see by virtue of two lights, one of which, more subtle, streams out from us, and the other of which streams from without into our eyes. It may remind others of the findings of twentieth-century studies in perception.
In his book The Organism, neurologist Kurt Goldstein demonstrated that the senses (like all other parts of the organism) never deliver isolated and local performances. For example, every visual sense impression corresponds to a different muscle tension:
If one asks a patient, preferably a cerebellar patient (who exhibits these phenomena, often exceptionally clearly), to raise his arms forward so that they are in a somewhat unstable position, and if one exposes him to various colors (e.g., large sheets of colored paper), we notice that green and blue stimulation lead to a change of the position of the arms in the opposite direction as that induced by yellow or red stimulation.
More generally, color influences our volitional movements, so that, depending on whether a light is red or green, "movements are carried out with a different speed" even though the difference is not subjectively experienced. Likewise,
the estimates of traversed distances vary as to length; seen and felt distances, time intervals and weights are judged differently under the influence of different colors.
Goldstein notes that stimulation of the skin by different colors can also lead to different effects. In sum, "It is probably not a false statement to say that a specific color stimulation is accompanied by a specific response pattern of the entire organism." This is even true when the stimulation does not involve sense objects in the usual sense of the term, as when infrared or ultraviolet light is experienced.
All this stands to reason. If the organism is a unity, a whole in the deepest sense, then every effort precisely to define a deficit a missing piece or a missing function is problematic. Given a true organism, you can, to one degree or another, without predefined limit, arrive at the whole through any of its parts, because the whole is immanent in each of the parts. All our senses form a unity that can be gotten at with more or less success depending on our inner resources through any combination of them.