The Brain-Smashing, Pity-Bashing Art of Blind Punks

“You must sing like an angel,” a woman said to me as I prepared to go onstage with my “Avant Accordion Brain Smash” act in a Brooklyn warehouse performance space. She either did not notice my hand-sewn black bustier, or decided that my white cane rendered all the badassery surrounding it null. When I began bellowing about some murderous renaissance dude with the refrain, “He left the people stunned and satisfied,” she got the message: I was not that kind of blind person.

Although I know more than my fair share of angelic blind singers with perfect pitch (four, to be exact!), this is not about them. This is about blind punks—slamming and screaming, defying authority, getting into trouble, getting drunk, getting angry, getting even. This is about using the white cane to (metaphorically) smash people’s brains.

Punk does not protect one from physical injuries, but it does a great job of protecting one from the psychological hurt arising from pity.

While my act with accordion and loop pedal was not punk in the strict sense of the musical genre, it represents my life-long obsession with the aesthetics of anti-establishment ugliness, with pushing the limits of tolerable. In losing my vision over the course of decades, my ability to move through life with a confident, boisterous stride constricted. I felt blindness creep into my posture, my presence. It is sometimes hard not to cringe when your default mode of getting about is pinball. I am not always strong enough to embrace bashing as a way of life, but when I do, I feel the pity others may feel for me shatter.

Avant Accordion Brain Smash at Carnivale in Brooklyn. Godin lying down with mic, loop pedal and accordion.

“I can honestly trace punk through everything I do whether I want to admit it or not!” blind sound artist, performer, musician, and disability advocate Andy Slater told me in an email leading up to our recent phone conversation. He sent me recordings of “nineteen-year-old Andy screaming like an eleven-year-old girl” in a band called Jarts (named for the lawn darts banned in the ’80s for impaling children), in such heart-pumping ditties as “By the Way, I Fucked Your Mom Today.”

Andy Slater has since parlayed his youthful screaming rants—he couldn’t read his lyrics, so he’d make shit up and no one could understand what he was saying anyway—into sound art, which, even if exhibited and performed in such established venues as the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, and the Ian Potter Museum of Art in Melbourne, is less distinct from his early punk as one might imagine. His most recent field-recording project Unseen Reheard uses “the sounds of modern, antiquated, & experimental accessibility technology, echolocation, and spatial recordings of his white-tipped cane.”

Andy lives in Chicago and I spoke to him over the phone about punk and art and the weird, unstable stance of losing vision over decades. “The first time I remember distrusting authority,” he told me “was when I was ten.” He loved space and astronomy—what kid doesn’t?—but he even “had the National Geographic Atlas of Our Universe book, which is this huge coffee table size book of the universe, and I fucking loved it.”

So he was super excited to visit the planetarium with his class: But the powers that be decided at the last minute that he could not go: “Oh Andy, we don’t have a chaperone for you and you can’t see in the dark. You’re gonna stay here.”

Instead of putting him in the library or with another class or letting him go home, they put him in a nine by twelve room—“Prison-size shit”—and gave him an encyclopedia and paper and “had the fucking gall to say, ‘Why don’t you write a report on space?’”

Ten is a striking age for a lot of kids, I think. It is the year that many of us begin shaping ourselves in accordance with, or in opposition to, the authorities that dictate our world. When those authorities tell lies and manufacture excuses for their own inabilities, their own unwillingness to admit ignorance or ineptitude, mistrust bubbles up from the depths of our yearning.

For me, it was the men in white coats that covered over their impotence with silly non-diagnoses that caused me to think twice about their trappings of knowledge. They didn’t know why I couldn’t see the blackboard from the back of the classroom and so they started making shit up: “Her eyes are growing too fast for her body,” or perhaps it was that “her body is growing too fast for her eyes.”

And the greater their power, the less equipped to deal with ignorance. The head of ophthalmology at the Letterman Army Hospital in the now-decommissioned Presidio of San Francisco scolded my mother: “Maybe she can’t see because you’ve been taking her to so many eye doctors.” It was out of frustration at not understanding the problem, of not being able to help or assert his deep knowledge of the eye, but it taught me quick that people in authority have fragile egos. And thus the men (they were all men back then, it seemed) in white coats ushered me into a world of distrust. Protective of their superior positions in the world, their superior knowledge of the world, when their façade cracked it was not pretty.

This was the early eighties in San Francisco, where the Dead Kennedys were pissing people off with thrashing satires such as “Holiday in Cambodia” and “Too Drunk to Fuck.”

Further south in a bedroom community ripe for instilling mistrust in a certain kind of kid with an eye for inconsistencies and falseness in the American Dream, Agent Orange was blending punk and hardcore with surf guitar. They released Living in Darkness the same year I received the diagnosis of degenerative retinal disease. They were my favorite. I would chant their punk anthems “Bloodstains,” “Everything Turns Grey,” “Living in Darkness,” over and over in my room in my mom’s apartment in the Outer Richmond—the far west of San Francisco, just a few blocks from where Hunter S. Thompson set up his office in the Seal Rock Inn (a family style motel), in which he wrote his author’s note to Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72: “Dawn is coming up in San Francisco now: 6:09 a.m. I can hear the rumble of early morning buses under my window at the Seal Rock Inn . . . out here at the far end of Geary Street: this is the end of the line, for buses and everything else, the western edge of America.”

Thompson’s disillusionment with the American dream—that it stops in a spluttering of buses and barking seals, prophesied the California punk scene, distinct from the East Coast varietal. Less glamorous perhaps and more overtly, pointedly political.

In ’85 or so, my friend and I were supposed to see Agent Orange at The Farm (a real urban farm by day and punk venue by night), but the show was mysteriously canceled. We were so young, we may have been crushed—physically, not just metaphorically, as we were—if we’d gone, but we stayed in her room and did acid instead.

LSD was a major part of my growing up. I sometimes wonder what my brain would be like if it hadn’t spent so many hours sizzling just like that iconic egg in butter: “this is your brain on drugs” ad of the ’80s. I will never know, because, during my early teenage years, like fourteen and fifteen, every Friday was a FryDay.

At no point in my youth did I consider not doing drugs. I also did not stop to consider why I found brightly colored hair—green and blue and pink—shaped into mohawks or liberty spikes so appealing. These days brightly colored hair is everywhere (as are tattoos), but not so back then. It was ugly and beautiful and raw and mixed up with some honest anger and anxiety.

Perhaps the most cliché moment of my teenage years was being stoned and listening to Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized.” And my mom walked in and said, “what’s wrong with you?” and I said, “I’m all right, mom, just get me a Pepsi.” Just kidding. I didn’t ask for a soda as the kid in the song does, but my mom saw right away that something was wrong and said, “You’re on drugs!” She tells me to this very day that I gave her a smile that made her blood run cold. I was not institutionalized, but I did get sent to a drug counselor and marked “unsafe to self.”

And all this while the eyes were getting worse. I found it hard to read and couldn’t do well in school. I pretended to not give a damn. And the drugs and the punk and the anger and the lashing out was part of the feeling that I was going blind and couldn’t do a thing about it. What I knew for certain was that I would never use a white cane. I saw blindness as a terrible end, but I was young enough that aging was just as terrible. I liked to say, “I’m gonna die before I’m thirty.”

Needless to say, I did not.

Slack Jaw by Jim Knipfel book cover.

Instead, age brought a cringing and a fear of being watched—a paranoia—that shunted aside the rebel. Perhaps being a girl was part of it. I was afraid to bash my face. Once I did run drunkenly into a tree protector on the way to a school dance, and was quite proud of my near miss—the bloody scratch was just under my right eye, and I proceeded to make out with some boy despite or perhaps because of the gash. But that was the exception.

Despite the inner anti-authority workings of my core, the default became a kind of shriveling shame.

I trailed my friends in the record shops, squinting at covers, trying to recognize a name I wanted. At first difficult and then impossible. I could only read the letters if they were very big and clear. But when I saw a name I knew—a Black Flag or Skinny Puppy—I’d buy it. Album covers still appear as inchoate square landscapes in my mind’s eye. I can still see jagged red letters or an x-ray luminous fist on black background.

The lack of the printed word made it hard to keep up. I could not read zines and music rags. I could not follow the anti-establishment underground with its bits of paper photocopied with wacky font or even more established rags like the Bay Guardian or Spin—they simply were not accessible to me. Books on tape were extremely limited and braille books even more so. I followed accessibility into the established and mainstream. It was not where I wanted to go, but where I was allowed.

“Tap and Roll” from Unseen Reheard by Andy Slater

We blind punks did not know each other growing up, but Andy and I and a handful of others have been able to find each other through the wonderful world of the digital—the much-maligned Facebook and ebooks have been very good for blind people. We were all stuttering down similar paths, all with degenerative eye disease, which caused us to spend much of our lives as visually impaired people before going blind—not that this is a requirement!—but it seems not unrelated.

In ’90s Vancouver, for example, another retinal degenerative blind guy Ryan Knighton was forcing his bad eyes into mosh pits. “You might think an appetite for something called a night-club would be a bad idea for someone called night blind,” he writes in his 2006 memoir Cockeyed. “You would be right. Equally wise would be me joining a gun club. Nevertheless, to this day I owe a debt to punk rock. Its culture helped me become as blind as I was but couldn’t admit to being.”

I followed accessibility into the established and mainstream. It was not where I wanted to go, but where I was allowed.

Like basically every going-blind person I know, Knighton steadfastly rejected the white cane long after it was wise to do so, and his crashing around—the daily humdrum of visual impairment—was covered over by the chaos of the scene. “The culture camouflaged my inability to cooperate with other bodies. In growing blindness I became, oddly enough, safer and more like the postpunk scenesters around me than I was like my peers at school. Booze helped. Everybody was bent, legless, gassed, rat-arsed, and every other word for blind drunk. Bumping into people was acceptable, even expected, and I was practiced at bashing into folks on a regular basis, whether I was in my cups or just spilling them.”

But before Andy, and Ryan and me, there was Slackjaw—Jim Knipfel, misfit stepfather to all us blind punks.

In Green Bay Wisconsin, Jim Knipfel was starting his path down blindness and rejecting mediocrity. He hit fifteen in 1980, and “despite a loving family and a stable home life,” he wrote in his 1999 memoir Slackjaw, “as I entered my middle teens things started to go very wrong. Not just with my eyes, which were noticeably worse, but inside my head as well. I became a grim and lonely youth, who spoke little and had few friends . . . I became filled with the contempt and hatred for the world and humanity so common among bright young boys who read too much and listen to punk rock.”

Later as a disenchanted philosophy major at University of Wisconsin, Madison, Jim met ne’er-do-well pal Grinch and, after their political Nihilist Workers’ Party blew up, after Jim was dubbed Slackjaw, after the weeks of dizziness from walking into a lamppost and slamming his head, they founded the Pain Amplifiers. Their grand finale was opening for the Mentors (a band not widely known until, during the Parents Music Resource Center hearings in the mid-eighties, Tipper Gore brought them instant notoriety by citing and reciting their lyrics as perfect examples of the kind of garbage that children needed to be protected from.”

The Pain Amplifiers had, by the time of that last show, worked out some songs like “Superbowl Sunday,” “Blood-Sucking Freaks,” and “Thuggery and Buggery.” “All too long,” writes Jim, “all intolerable, most of them based on found texts.”

Andy told me that during Jim’s recent visit to Chicago, where Grinch also now lives, he recorded some of their old tunes because they never recorded. I told Andy he needs to get me those tracks when he finishes mixing, and he promised he will.

Down There featuring Godin on drums looking a bit aloof in her red slip at Checkpoint Charlie’s in New Orleans with her best friend Indigo Verton as lead singer. Photo by Jason Quinn.

I was in New Orleans when I founded my first band—an all-girl punk band called Down There. It was short-lived but loud and obnoxious. A friend said, “you guys are kind of good and kind of suck, and all awesome!”

Yet, I could not get over the self-consciousness I felt on stage. I did not use a cane or a dog. I did not get help from my bandmates. I felt discomforted by the loudness in unfamiliar places. I was shy about my awkwardness in these dark places.

I felt similarly when I founded my second band in NYC when I was already in grad school. Though I was better able to articulate my needs to my bandmates, I never felt comfortable. The fear of looking incapable or awkward was too engrained by then.

We were Gutter & Spine, a little bit country, a little bit punk, and all nerdy—the gutter and the spine being parts of a book. I played drums and shouted punked-out interpretations of the Renaissance literature I was reading: “Sludge,” a reworking of a Mary Wroth poem, “Dorca,” a retelling of a brutal Machiavellian anecdote, and “Ode to a Motherfucker,” which was, I believe, inspired by some Shakespearean sonnet. So yeah, I should have felt free to be loud and obnoxious and brain-smashing, but instead I felt blind and awkward, pinned to the wall by the gaze of the sighted audience. I wish I would have had my cane and said, “fuck it.” It surely would have made life easier.

In all the stories and memoirs of those in my age group going blind slowly, acquiescing to the stigmatized white cane is always pushed off until danger threatens or worse. For Andy, a car had to hit him to make him pull the cane out of the bag, and use it full time. Since then, it’s become a catalyst for art. The sound of its tap banging describes the audible space, which he records, mixes, and plays back.

In 2018, he was invited to Australia to record the sounds of his white cane slamming around an old, abandoned jail outside of Melbourne, Australia. Old Castlemaine Gaol was built as a kind of audio panopticon. Although the guards could not see into the individual cells, they could hear every whisper. The inmates were not to speak to one another. The inmates often went to the gallows. The inmates’ voices and movements were amplified, then squashed. It is powerful to hear Andy slicing through the dark confinement with the stigmatic white cane.

Paranoia of the sighted gaze is my most imprisoning disability. I feel those sighted eyeballs like the inmate of the panopticon prison. But I believe there is a way to turn my own discomfort against the panopticon of the sighted gaze. Or rather, there are ways. Not conforming and not giving a damn about what the sighted world thinks about my abilities and disabilities. In fact, using that ubiquitous judgey gaze to disarm its power, which is why Moses, my cane, figures in so many photos of me these days. Embracing the stigma and using it as a weapon feels punk.

While training with my most recent mobility instructor in Denver, I was meant to cross a fairly major four-lane street. I had the light, but my mobility instructor gave me the heads-up that a car had overstepped its bounds and pushed into the crosswalk. When I hit the car with Moses, instead of stepping aside quietly, I continued along its contour, banging as I went. I heard some teenage boys laugh heartily along with my instructor, who told me after the crossing that the woman in the car looked horrified. Hopefully, she will not overstep in front of a blind person again.

In 2019, Andy Slater and two fellow blind sound artists put up a performance installation at the Chicago Art Institute involving a cacophony of disabled voices called “Is It Cool That We’re Here?” The intelligibility of each voice surfaces out of the jumbled, pitch-shifted recorded and electronic soup, and then fades back under. One memorable soundbite seems to be addressed to a museum guard: “Are you afraid that my cane is going to knock something over?”

“That performance was totally punk and totally radical because the whole thing was a critique of museums and art,” says Andy. and it was performed in what used to be the Chicago Stock Exchange, a huge marble room in a building containing amazing works of art. “And they never ever have anything to do with sound.”

This lack of sound art in museums is one thing Andy addresses in his SOVISA (Society Of Visually Impaired Sound Artists) Manifesto: We need “to get more sound art into these places so that blind people don’t need to have a dictated experience.”

When I asked him my final, loaded question “does punk fight pity?” I received a few seconds of wind sound effect like a small gust blowing through an empty hall. Then, “So I think that I can answer that. In my experience, taking a punk aesthetic or being punk about something controls the narrative. So there. Is. No. pity.”

*For more on my thoughts about blind punks, check out my interview with the CBC’s Tapestry: How Punk Rock Helped One Woman Find Power in Her Blindness

*This essay was first published last fall at Catapult in A Blind Writer’s Notebook.

“LEE GOODIN, SAN FRANCISCO” Dad’s Letters to the Editor, 2007

On the first anniversary of my father’s death, I’m grateful to my stepmother for sending me three of his letters to the editor, clipped from the San Francisco Chronicle. One of them—from August 19 , was published eleven years to the day before his death. It’s humor apparently hit the mark, as the editors used his words “erector set” to title the section. My dad was not alone in abhorring the proposed building sketches, he just said it best! This letter and the others remind me how much he changed in his last years, and how much he stayed the same.

Once, during one of our “liquid lunches”—sitting for hours drinking (and eating) in the window booth of Fior d’Italia—which we indulged in every time I visited San Francisco, he mentioned that he had an idea to put all his letters to the editor together and write a book around them. I encouraged him, but did nothing to forward the ambition. A couple years later, when he was feeling much more downcast, much more sedentary, and house-bound (except for Fior downstairs and the doctors), I asked him about the idea, and he shrugged it off as something that was no longer interesting to him, or no longer possible. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to fulfill that particular book idea, but at least I can share his words here.

In the three letters from 2007, his interests range from the homeless to the monstrous aesthetics of a planned skyscraper to expressing his fears about a radical conservative court—a painfully prescient thought.

In these concise bits of his politics, my dad’s witty and reasonable voice talks to me from his tumultuous watery grave in San Francisco Bay, reminding me that, although in his last years he took little pleasure in the arts or travel that he’d once loved so much, he never stopped thinking about politics at the local and national levels.

To be sure, since 2016 at least, things were going in a direction that once would have made his blood boil, but at the end just kept his mental state set to a slow burn. The upshot being that his impending death seemed less dire than it might have if Trump had not soiled the White House.

My dad had his opinions till the end, even if he lost some of his fighting spirit. As you can read in my personal obituary for him, or in this essay I wrote a few months before his death. In his last years, his body made war on him, and there was not a lot of energy left for politics. Even so, his interest could not be extinguished. There was at least enough curiosity to know how bad things were going to get him out of bed every morning—despite the considerable pain—and into his wheelchair. Then he’d belly up to the dining room table, where he’d spend hours grumbling and griping over the newspaper in his endearingly grumpy way.

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR – MONDAY, JULY 9, 2007

Battle of the activist courts

Editor – August Goddard’s comparison of a “conservative activist” court with a “liberal activist” court is a typical knee- jerk reaction by those who would have us return to some dark medieval fantasy world (Letters, “The Supremes and ‘a living Constitution, ” July 6).

The liberal court always moved our country in the direction of more civil rights more freedoms. A court unlike the Bush/Cheney-appointed court that will be chipping away at those hard-won rights and freedoms for the next 20-to-30 years. I hope Goddard enjoys living under a Constitution rewritten by the extreme religious right. I shudder at the thought.

LEE GOODIN
San Francisco

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR – Sunday, August 19, 2007

An Erector Set

Editor – Regarding the Transbay Terminal high-rise proposals: Unlike John King, The Chronicle’s urban design writer, I guess I don’t understand what the neighborhood needs.”

His selection, the Rogers design, looks like the contractors forgot to remove the construction elevators-giving it an “erector set” appearance, and the thing on top looks like an apparatus in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory.

The other two designs look like screwdrivers and would give the city a San Diego-look—the locals call their downtown “the toolbox” because the Rogers Stirk Harbour buildings all look like chisels and screw- drivers standing point up (except one that looks like an electric shaver). At more than 1,200 feet in height, any of the proposals would become a tempting “terrorist target.”

LEE GOODIN
San Francisco

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR – Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Advocates aren’t helping

Editor – Regarding “If you want to help the homeless, just say yes,” by C.W. Nevius (Dec. 23): Once again, the Homeless Coalition and other so-called homeless advocates prove themselves to be part of the problem.

Are they professional “do-gooders” whose own means of support relies on maintaining a homeless population? Or are they amateur “feel-gooders” who are clueless as what needs to be done other than handing out blankets and passing out turkey sandwiches? Homeless and poverty have become buzzwords to cover a variety of individual situations. A family temporarily homeless because dad was “downsized” or they had catastrophic medical bills is different than the individual described in the column. He was homeless in front of a liquor store that cashed his check (for a price) and then gave him the remainder in bottles of cheap booze. In the first instance, normal social services can help the family to recover; there is an assumption that they are willing and able to be helped. In the latter case, the chronic alcoholic (who had an income) needed some “tough love”: detox, placement in one of the mayor’s full-service hotels and on-going rehab. Instead, he ended up dead. Nice going, homeless advocates.

Care Not Cash needs a big dose of tough love to get the chronic homeless off the streets and into appropriate settings to deal with their myriad problems. If it takes changes to the law in order to move them off the streets into appropriate environments, then let’s get busy on legislation that will do just that.

LEE GOODIN
San Francisco

My Pitch Video and Application for the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition 2018

I learned about the Holman Prize from my Friend Laurie Rubin last year, but did not have the time, nor a clear project to pitch, but this year I was ready and waiting!

I managed to talk Alabaster into being my videographer, and we learned so much in the filming and editing of this little video, that I’m pleased to leak the possibility of some Alabaster Rhumb music videos coming soon… Speaking of Alabaster’s music, it is his song “Bird in a Tree,” that plays in the background of my Holman Pitch video, sped up and with a French horn taking the vocal line.

I also enlisted my long-time film collaborator, David Lowe, to help with the audio described intro sequence, but he went far beyond the call of duty by adding magic to our final cut, including somehow making our rather uninspired hill appear truly golden!

And without further delay, I urge you to watch, and like (the social media winner is guaranteed a spot in the final round of the competition), our 90-second Holman pitch video:

 

What is the Holman Prize?

The Holman Prize is the amazing brainchild of Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco, which was coincidentally the first blind organization I ever had anything to do with, as I grew up and started losing my vision in that city. For a little more on those early days of visual impairment, check out In the Beginning Were the Eye Doctors.

In fact, I even volunteered one summer at their Enchanted Hills Camp, which was partially destroyed in the recent California wildfires, so please consider a donation to that worthy summer camp for blind and visually impaired children and adults.

Last year was the first of this annual international competition, which awards up to $25,000 to each of three blind or visually impaired winners to help them make their dream projects come true. Here’s a short video about the 2017 winners:

The pitch video is the main component of the first round of the Holman Prize competition, which also includes a written application with short answers that helps to give context to the video, and introduce the candidate and her project.

So I thought I’d include some of my application answers here, just in case you also would like to have my pitch video contextualized!

Enter the basics of your project and give us any details that aren’t in your video pitch. Max 200 words.

Aromatica Poetica is my new magazine dedicated to the arts and sciences of smell. It is not especially for blind people, but, as a blind person connected in the community, I will encourage blind and visually impaired writers. Thus, the annual writing contest is vital to this project, which seeks to offer an alternative to sight-centric writing.

With the Holman Prize, I’ll be able to publish the first issue and have a launch party. I feel confident that after that initial issue, we’ll be self-sustaining and eventually profitable. The advertising possibilities are endless: fragrance, wine, spices, sweets, coffee, tea aromatherapy…

The trip component is inspired by James Holman, and will seek out strange new smells–from flowers and wine to volcanic rock and olive oil. It will provide the fodder for the feature story for the inaugural issue of Aromatica Poetica.

In the making of this pitch video, I’ve developed a healthy appreciation of audio description. I would have liked to provide more, but 90 seconds is not very long. For you blind judges out there, please know that I’m toasting you with a lovely-smelling glass of red wine at the end, and that accessibility is always on my mind.

Tell us a little about yourself: write a short bio, tell a funny story, tell us about your passions, or do whatever you like! We want to know who you are. 150 words.

I received my PhD from NYU in 18th century English Literature, then promptly turned around and wrote and produced two plays: about Helen Keller’s time on Vaudeville, and about the sexy history of the invention of braille.

As an actor, I’ve landed a national commercial as well as other smaller gigs. As a writer, I’ve written for O Magazine, just sold a story to Playboy, and have work in many less notorious literary and commercial publications. As a publisher, I’ll be able to encourage diverse voices and aesthetics.

Smell, “the fallen angel,” as Helen Keller put it, has become a passion of mine since metamorphosing from visually impaired to blind, and I want to share that passion. Smell needs vocabulary and great writing–fiction, nonfiction, poetry. The underdog sense can expand the world of blind and sighted alike, and Aromatica Poetica is here to help!

If you plan to travel, please enter those locations in a simple list.

France (Paris, Bordeaux, Grasse), Italy (Florence, Sicily/Mount Aetna), Greece (Athens), Bulgaria (Kazanlak/Valley of the Roses), Turkey (Istanbul).

Please tell about your visual impairment (100 words).

I have a cone rod dystrophy that started when I was ten, which has, very slowly, pushed me along the sight/blindness spectrum from normal sight to near complete blindness. Most of my life was spent as a visually impaired person, but in the past few years–perhaps 5 or six, I have considered myself a blind person, as I have no usable vision. These days, I can see an occasional chink of actual light in my far periphery, but other than that, it’s all kinds of pixelated snow fuzz with occasional hallucinations, courtesy Charles Bonnet Syndrome.

Ok, that’s it! What do you think? Before you decide, I suppose I should invite you to check out my competition

Cheers to all the blind ambition in the world!

Flaubert’s Rule for Artists: Be Regular? Settled? Ordinary as a Bourgeois? Essay 28 of #52essays2017

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” –Gustave Flaubert

I first encountered this quote a few weeks back in my Catapult Advanced Writing Workshop with the amazing R.O. Kwon. I liked it and it felt right. Having no set schedule as a writer makes it very hard to allow for the indulgences of friends with location-specific jobs–when you have to show up somewhere, for pay, you do, painful as it may be. But when you wake up destroyed by life and world events and have some stuff to write with tomorrow deadlines, you may be inclined to pull the blankets over your head. In addition, I’ve found that mad debauchery in one’s youth is helpful for expanding one’s mind, or having a certain amount of savvy vis a vis the underbellies of things, but in the days of aging, merely distracts from the difficult job of putting stories and articles together.

This quote of Flaubert seemed to me a perfect invocation of moderation for art’s sake, but when I shared it with Alabaster, he said, “Didn’t Flaubert die of syphilis?”

And I was like, “Did he?” and promptly busted out the Flaubert Wikipedia page in which I read:

“Flaubert was very open about his sexual activities with prostitutes in his writings on his travels. He suspected that a chancre on his penis was from a Maronite or a Turkish girl. He also engaged in intercourse with male prostitutes in Beirut and Egypt; in one of his letters, he describes a “pockmarked young rascal wearing a white turban.”

Gustave Flaubert photographic portrait by Nadar.At first glance, I took this to indicate a lack of order, at least of the sexual variety, and suspected that Flaubert’s quote was more a prescription of how he would like to live than a description of how he did. But as I used to tell my NYU students, Wikipedia is a start not an end in research, so I got ahold of some books.

The first and very beautiful was The George Sand-Gustave Flaubert Letters, in which the two friends and “troubadours” write to each other about the quotidian, art, politics, family, death, disillutionment, hope, and their love and admiration for one another, despite their differences. Throughout, it’s clear that in his later years, of which these letters are representative, Flaubert was a self-imposed recluse. In 1867, his friend grows suspicious of his solitude:

“And the novel, is it getting on? Your courage has not declined? Solitude does not weigh on you? I really think that it is not absolute, and that somewhere there is a sweetheart who comes and goes, or who lives near there. But there is something of the anchorite in your life just the same, …”

To which he responds:

“…no ‘lovely lady’ comes to see me. Lovely ladies have occupied my mind a good deal, but have taken up very little of my time. Applying the term anchorite to me is perhaps a juster comparison than you think.

I pass entire weeks without exchanging a word with a human being, and at the end of the week it is not possible for me to recall a single day nor any event whatsoever. I see my mother and my niece on Sundays, and that is all. My only company consists of a band of rats in the garret, which make an infernal racket above my head, when the water does not roar or the wind blow. The nights are black as ink, and a silence surrounds me comparable to that of the desert. Sensitiveness is increased immeasurably in such a setting. I have palpitations of the heart for nothing.

All that results from our charming profession.”

Ah yes, I can relate! (Except for the rats, and of course, I have a lovely companion in Alabaster.)

George Sand photographic portrait by Nadar, 1864.Alas, the quote in question did not originate in that book of intimate and useful letters. Though the quote seems to be repeated ad infinitum on the internet , I couldn’t find its context. More tantalizingly, I could find other translations that made me want to see the French for myself, for example:

“Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.”

What? Fierce? I think I like fierceness even more than violence.

Then there’s the matter of the omitted “like the bourgeois,” which occasionally creeps in. More often, the English translations ignored the reference to the class of people that Flaubert, under most circumstances, disparaged, although he himself was a member. In Flaubert, a biography by Michel Winock, I read:

“His hatred for his era settled on the bourgeoisie, which in his eyes embodied the debasement of mind, mores, and taste. This criticism reveals some contradictions because Flaubert himself belonged to this class; but for him, the bourgeois was first and foremost the modern man made stupid by utilitarianism, bloated with preconceptions, deserted by grace, and impervious to Beauty.”

In Winock’s biography I discovered that, not only is the bourgeois ignored, but orderly is not the thing at all, but ordinariness, which seems to me much worse! Here’s the translation in Flaubert:

“Be settled in your life and as ordinary as the bourgeois, in order to be fierce and original in your works.”

With this biography I also finally got a date 1876, just a few years before Flaubert’s early death. The date and a few words that I thought I could assume in French helped me find the original. So here we go, Flaubert’s “rule for artists” (“une règle pour les artistes”), en français, written in an 1876 letter to Madame Tennant:

“soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire comme un bourgeois, afin d’être violent et original dans vos oeuvres.”

Gertrude Tennant, ne. Collier. met Flaubert when they were young and flirtatious. Later in life, when this letter was written, Flaubert was 55, George Sand was no longer among the living, and Gertrude was 57, a mother fretting about her adult children, in particular her son. Consolation regarding that son prompted Flaubert to offer the famous quote.

According to her Wikipedia page, Gertrude Tennant helped to edit Flaubert’s correspondence, the very correspondence in which she is memorialized. It makes me a little sad and wistful for the letter writing that brings these long-dead people to me with such intimacy. They seem the very essence of a life. Our written correspondence is rarely so detailed anymore. People are generally put out by long emails.

That said, I do not lament email, the internet, Facebook or even Twitter. They all lend themselves to the propagation of electronic texts. And, as I’ve written before, and will continue to celebrate, the digitization of words has given me access to truckloads of ephemera and substance too. It is an amazing time to be a blind reader, a blind writer, who is able, with a little diligence, to sniff out the original of a quote that so many sighted people were content merely to reiterate.

*This is #28 of #52essays2017. Read #27, about Helen Keller’s opinion of Trump HERE*

Touching Egypt: Art Accessibility

*Recently Artsy reached out and reminded me of this article (written last August) and the importance of art accessibility. Also, I should note that things are continually improving, as exemplified by my friend Claire Kearney-Volpe who offered a Co-Lab through the NYU Accessibility Project, to help Cooper Hewitt bring art accessibility to their design museum*

“You can’t touch the artifact!” said a female voice in an urgent museum whisper. In fact we’d been directed to the pieces in The Met’s Egyptian collection that are touchable by blind patrons by another museum guard, who clearly had great love of his job generally, and this aspect of it in particular. He shushed his alarmed colleague and explained to her about art accessibility. You’d think all the guards working the Egyptian wing would be informed of this unique aspect, or at least that they would have looked at the exhibits they were guarding over and learned what the signs clearly state, but people don’t read.

My boyfriend Alabaster told me that several people stood staring aghast during the course of our tour, and that one woman nearly screamed when she saw me with my hands on a sarcophagus until her husband pointed out the braille title card and the printed sign explaining that the object may be touched by BLIND PATRONS ONLY to enhance their museum experience.

You may be jealous and confused, but don’t be! Out of the approximately 26,000 artifacts in the Egyptian collection, only a handful may be touched. The rest must be explained verbally, which is just not the same thing.

I have been on several “sense” tours at NYC museums over the years and, while I appreciate the impulse, it often feels like they are phoning them in in order to check the accessibility box. Take for example a sense tour at The Met wherein our tour guide described almost every object as “very colorful.” Or the time at MOMA, when, at the top of a tour of Soundings, an exhibit of contemporary sound art–perfect for blind people right?–we found ourselves sitting on portable stools in front of a silent piece–the only silent piece of the exhibit–with a tour guide who, in an effort to encourage us to commune with the art, sat on the floor with her back to us and began to meditate.

I haven’t a very long fuse for the unbearable and soon I was fuming, not the least because I could hear the happy buzzing and whirring and chattering of a dozen or so other pieces–and as you may have noticed I like soundscapes a lot! Still, I felt somehow guilty for not appreciating the effort, so instead of having a tantrum, I handed my headset to the tour coordinator, claiming a terrible back spasm, and Alabaster and I got out of there to enjoy the museum in our own way.

He described in great detail some of his favorites–Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian –and I was able to ask questions when I didn’t understand. Even though I used to see and can readily access visual memories, I find it difficult to assemble descriptions into an art object visible to my mind’s eye. But, with great effort, enthusiasm and empathy on the side of the describer, and intense and artistic concentration on the side of the listener, it can happen that a heretofore-unseen object can manifest in the mind’s eye and occupy mental space as vividly as any object once-seen. As with all translations, this one is not perfect but it is wonderful.

Friends of ours with a similar dynamic–Caroline (visually impaired) and David (sighted)–went to Paris and were delighted to find that all museums were free for blind people. It made so much sense that this should be the case, since, really to get anything out of the museum experience, only a few objects can be described and integrated at a given visit. There are no cursory glances for blind people. All must be savored and chewed slowly if it’s to make any impact, and so what might take a sighted museum-goer a single trip to see, could take several for a blind person and her trusty describer.

Godin presents crushed lockers at the Whitney MuseumBack in the states, it never hurts to ask about art accessibility. At the Whitney, we were pleasantly surprised when, upon asking if there’s a discount for blind patrons, we received the good news that it would be free for me–whether this was policy or not was unclear, but it was nonetheless welcome and, in addition to having a fine time talking through the art, with many articulate gestures on the one hand and far-flung questions and analogies on the other, we apparently attracted attention. More than once, Alabaster caught strangers filming or photographing us.

Which brings us back to our Met tour on Saturday in which I was able to touch Ancient Egypt. It was really cool to feel the mane of the lion goddess, and squeeze the nose of a king’s sarcophagus, but my favorite part of the tour, and the reason it far surpassed the tour the Met organized a couple years back of the very same objects, was spending time reading the hieroglyphs with the help of our personal Egyptologist (and voiceover artist extraordinaire), Lloyd Floyd.

Before we learned which artifacts I could touch, we started the tour at a colossus where Lloyd Floyd described the pharaoh’s many titles, spelled out in hieroglyphs, and I found it difficult to concentrate, but later, with my hands on the hieroglyphs, the meanings that he explained corresponded to a sense impression–just as you, my dear sighted reader, may take information in through your sense of sight while listening to information regarding that description.

I realized how incredibly enlightening it was to hear what the signs meant when I was not splitting my brains trying to keep the image just described in my head at the same time as incorporating information about the object described. In other words, incorporating two abstract concepts into my poor pickled brain at the same time is exponentially harder than incorporating one abstract and one concrete–or in this case granite!

That’s not to say that, as mentioned above, it is not wonderful to receive a description of an art object, but it takes a long time, and when the description of what is seen comes at you alongside esoteric context, the brain easily boggles! However, with my hand on the hieroglyph my ear became very attentive. Besides, feeling the shapes and being able to participate in the discussion of whether the thing under my fingers, and their gaze, represented, as the archaeologists claim, a horned viper or, as our senses suggested, a slug, was a precious moment, not to be underestimated.

Not all museum pieces are made of virtually indestructible granite, but there are other ways of creating environments of art accessibility. Through models and replicas and many other ingenious tactile analogies as described in an article at Art Beyond Sight. Mentioned in that article is a brief warning to be careful not to make the experiences segregated:

“Some museums offer visitors in-depth tactile investigation of selected works, Godin experiences art accessibility at The Metfrequently in an alternate space. It is crucial that this not become a “segregated” program, but rather a supplementary educational approach to gallery programming.”

I agree with this, and believe the experience of others to my even being in a museum makes the whole experience educational in a multi-faceted and fun way–nothing like freaking out sighted people on a Saturday afternoon at The Met!

From Derrida to Diderot: The Philosophe’s Dream, Essay 20 of #52essays2017

Thinking back to where The Spectator & the Blind Man all started–and by all I mean dissertation, stage production, literary endeavor–it was probably with Diderot. And I believe I discovered Diderot in the pages of Derrida:

Diderot by Louis-Michel vanLoo, 1767.“I write without seeing….. This is the first time I have ever written in the dark . . . not knowing whether I am indeed forming letters. Wherever there will be nothing, read that I love you.”

-Diderot, Letter to Sophie Volland, June 10, 1759

I first encountered this quote in a book called Memoirs of the Blind, a perhaps ironically beautifully visual book about blindness and the self-portrait by Jacques Derrida, written for an exhibition that he curated at the Louvre.

Denis Diderot, one of my all-time favorite dead white guy writers, would definitely be at my fantasy dinner table for witty repartee and bon vivantism. As I’ve now surely quoted a million times and cannot even remember where I originally read it, he died reaching for the cherry compote (the dessert), that is, he died wanting more of the good stuff.

Encyclopedie de D'Alembert et Diderot Premiere Page.Diderot is probably most famous as one of the editors and main contributors to the Encyclopédie (1751-66), a work that flouted notions of high and low disciplines by putting Christianity alongside Chemistry , Farm Laborer alongside Poet.

But even before that great endeavor of promoting equality, an endeavor that often seems to sing the early song of revolution, Diderot was a young man with man of letters stars in his eyes and he wrote a book inspired by the thoughts of the great Voltaire and other early luminaries of what would come to be known as the Siècle de Lumière. The Age of Enlightenment is much maligned in certain circles for its idealization of rationalism and all the woes of modernity, but Diderot (as our opening quote suggests) reveled in the dark and unfathomable parts of humankind.

Diderot’s Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See (1749) suggested, among other things the doubtfulness of God (Diderot dabbled in deism), and put his controversial notions into the mouth of a real life person, an English mathematician named Nicholas Saunderson, who inherited the Lucasian Chair from none other than Newton, but not his quirky but nonetheless strident beliefs. Saunderson was famously irreligious, but the deathbed conversation Diderot puts in his mouth–not to mention the glorious prophecy of Darwin’s theory of evolution–was indeed fabricated.

Here’s a little sample of the offensive dialogue:

”Consider, Mr. Holmes,” he added, “what a confidence I must have in your word and in Newton’s. Though I see nothing, I admit there is in everything an admirable design and order. I hope you will not demand more. I take your word for the present state of the universe, and in return keep the liberty of thinking as I please on its ancient and primitive state, with relation to which you are as blind as myself. Here you will have no witnesses to confront me with, and your eyes are quite useless. Think, if you choose, that the design which strikes you so powerfully has always subsisted, but allow me my own contrary opinion, and allow me to believe that if we went back to the origin of things and scenes and perceived matter in motion and the evolution from chaos, we should meet with a number of shapeless creatures, instead of a few creatures highly organized. I make no criticism on the present state of things, but I can ask you some questions as to the past. For instance, I may ask you and Leibniz and Clarke and Newton, who told you that in the first instances of the formation of animals some were not headless and others footless? I might affirm that such an one had no stomach, another no intestines, that some which seemed to deserve a long duration from their possession of a stomach, palate, and teeth came to an end owing to some defect in the heart or lungs; that monsters mutually destroyed one another; that all the defective combinations of matter disappeared, and that those only survived whose mechanism was not defective in any important particular and who were able to support and perpetuate themselves.

” Suppose the first man had his larynx closed, or had lacked suitable food, or had been defective in the organs of generation, or had failed to find a mate, or had propagated in another species, what then, Mr. Holmes, would have been the fate of the human race? It would have been still merged in the general depuration of the universe, and that proud being who calls himself man, dissolved and dispersed among the molecules of matter, would have remained perhaps forever hidden among the number of mere possibilities. If shapeless creatures had never existed, you would not fail to assert that none will ever appear, and that I am throwing myself headlong into chimerical fancies, but the order is not even now so perfect as to exclude the occasional appearance of monstrosities.” Then, turning towards the clergyman, he added, “Look at me, Mr. Holmes. I have no eyes. What have we done, you and I, to God, that one of us has this organ while the other has not?”

Lettre sur les Aveugles (Letter on the Blind).So this, along with his bawdy yet still philosophical tale The Indiscrete Jewels–about a prince who gets his hands on a ring which, when turned upon the nether regions of ladies, gets them to talk, indiscreetly about their escapades–published around the same time, landed Denis Diderot in the dungeon of Vincennes, which is where we find him in the following piece. My literary offering is the first in The Spectator & the Blind Man series.

Diderot, a lover of women, music, the theatre and all that Paris had to offer did not relish his time in prison and, in order to avoid a future return, did not publish his literary works, such as Jacques the Fatalist and d’Alembert’s Dream, for which he is mostly known today. In other words, Diderot may have helped to sow the seeds of the Revolution, but, after Vincennes, he mostly avoided angering the regime by keeping his potentially controversial works in private circulation. Diderot enjoyed a good long life and died just five years before the storming of the Bastille.

The following is my piece of flash fiction imagining Diderot’s explanation to a friend for why he would do his best to never piss the authorities off again. The reading is by George Ashiotis with musical composition by Alabaster Rhumb.

 

THE PHILOSOPHE’S DREAM

Dungeon of Vincennes, 1749

No. I am no Socrates, no martyr to truth. A fishmonger of truths more like. My mistake was in allowing the odors to reach royal nostrils. Henceforth, I peddle my stinking truths underground or, if they are compliant truths, I shall dress them in suitable costumes, sufficiently powdered and pinned to ingratiate themselves to this foolish and frivolous city of mine. Ah Paris! How I adore your decadence. Let me die reaching for the cherry compote!

I digress. I must tell you about last night’s dream that frightened me nearly to death, for, though you may still despise me, I wish you to understand why I scrape the dirt floor with my chin, why I will do or say or write anything they ask of me in order to be out of here. Why I will denounce, without regret, my little Letter on the Blind.

Last night I woke out of sleep into the body and mind of Saunderson. Yes, my blind mathematician whose deathbed non-confession has stirred so much ire. I awoke into his blindness and found myself confronting not only the fumbling clergyman Holmes, but also the governor who has seen fit to thrust me into this cell.

The blindness I experienced was like that of Milton’s darkness visible, a blindness not of eyes but of mind. Understand me. I felt sharp as a whip, as brilliant of intellect as Saunderson must have been to inherit the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics (a seat held by no less a luminary than Newton) but there were no longer any images, no colors, no pictures of beauty or ugliness to be found in this Diderot-head of mine. All memory of seeing had evaporated, and it was this blankness that frightened me almost to distraction. The deprivation terrified me even as I enacted the very dialogue that has landed me in prison.

Nicholas Saunderson.As Saunderson I said, “Ah, sir, don’t talk to me of this magnificent spectacle, which it has never been my lot to enjoy. I have been condemned to spend my life in darkness, and you cite wonders quite out of my understanding, and which are only evidence for you and for those who see as you do. If you want to make me believe in God you must make me touch Him.”

“Sir,” returned the clergyman, “touch yourself, and you will recognize the Deity in the admirable mechanism of your organs.”

I countered, “All that does not appear so admirable to me as to you. But even if the animal mechanism were as perfect as you maintain, what relation is there between such mechanism and a supremely intelligent Being? If it fills you with astonishment, that is perhaps because you are accustomed to treat as miraculous everything which strikes you as beyond your own powers. I have been myself so often an object of admiration to you, that I have not a very high idea of your conception of the miraculous. You think a certain phenomenon   beyond human power and cry out that it must be the handiwork of a god.”

Next came his most persuasive argument, “Men of the highest genius, even Newton, have been impressed by the wonders of nature and recognize an intelligent being as its creator.”

As determined by my folly, I answered, “Seeing nothing, I will acquiesce to you and Newton an admirable design and order. I hope you will not demand more. I take your word for the present state of the universe, and in return keep the liberty of thinking as I please on its primitive state, with relation to which you are as blind as myself.”

Finally, as I have written to my sorrow so I spoke in my dream, “If we went back to the origin of things and perceived the evolution from chaos, we should meet with any number of shapeless creatures. In the first instances of the formation of animals some were perhaps headless and others footless, some stomachless and others lacked intestines. Only those not defective in any important particular survived and perpetuated themselves.”

I stopped his protestations before they started, “Perhaps you will assert that deformed creatures never existed and that I am throwing myself headlong into chimerical fancies, but the order is not even now so perfect as to exclude the occasional appearance of monstrosities.”

I turned, my Saunderson, towards the clergyman and performed what is, in my Letter on the Blind, the coup de grâce. “Look at me, Mr. Holmes. I have no eyes. What have we done, you and I, to God, that one of us has this organ while the other has not?”

Suddenly my fanciful dialogue shifted to nightmare and, instead of the tears gushing from the eyes of the sympathetic clergyman, the menacing voice of the governor materialized from the void. “these are lovely sentiments my dear blind philosophe. They will nicely condemn you in the court of God and man. We will take your deformity into consideration by removing the mask that we offer unblind (if such things exist) heathens. It will do the people good to see your vacant eyes roll with your head. Such a treat to see a monster (as even you have named yourself) demolished.”

With the demonic intoning came the arms out of hell to lift me onto the block where my neck was stretched. The whoosh of the upswept blade penetrated my too-sensitive ears and the steel crashed down. Only then did I wake once more into this seeing body, screams strangling my throat with mingled horror and relief.

*This is essay 20 of #52essays2017. Read #19 Sometimes a Snake is Just a Snake*