Dying of the Light

November 29, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, essayist Roger Rosenblatt admires a new book about going blind.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Henry Grunwald, former editor-in-chief of Time, Incorporated and former U.S. Ambassador to Austria, has written a book called “Twilight” about the dying of the light– his light. Grunwald is losing his eyesight.

There is no self-pity in this book. Rather, it is the clear-eyed inspection of an erosive disease, macular degeneration, and of the life that is lost when one’s vision is taken away, and of the life that is gained. Sometimes nearsightedness becomes farsightedness.

On the subject of beaches, for example, Grunwald notices this: “A beach is not only a sweep of sand, but shells of sea creatures, the sea glass, the seaweed, the incongruous objects washed up by the ocean.” It is also an insistent reminder of change and of the need to look many times. It is possible to miss the forest for the trees, but the greater danger is to miss the trees for the forest, to miss the individual sunflower for the whole field of sunflowers.

The acuity of such observations is not all that rare in talented people who go blind. John Milton wrote a famous sonnet on his blindness, the one that ends “They also serve who only stand and wait.” But the sonnet begins, “When I consider how my light is spent,” a line that suggests how precious the light is. Jorge Luis Borges, the great Latin American writer who died in 1986, wrote a beautiful essay on blindness in which he cited the realm of the blind as “inconvenient.”

Colors were confused for him. Worse, he was losing his eyesight just at the moment he was appointed director of the national library in Argentina. It was the job of his dreams, which were dimmed by irony. “There I was,” he wrote, “the center, in a way, of 900,000 books in various languages. But I found I could barely make out the title pages and the spines.”

Testimonies such as that of Borges and Grunwald remind those of us lucky enough not to be suffering a dying of the light how important eyesight is. As a writer, my principal responsibility and my desire is to make the reader see. I don’t mean understand, I mean see– shape, action, gesture, a door, a face.

How much more difficult that would be if I did not see myself. On the other hand, there was blind Homer, who made the world envision the indispensable sea voyage, the fundamental war; and James Thurber, who saw into the magnificent nonsense of the mind most clearly, even as his own light failed.

I grew up living next to a blind writer, a clever and generous man named Hector Chevigny. He wrote for radio, “Mr. and Mrs. North,” a good medium for the blind, and produced a wonderful autobiography centered on his seeing-eye dog called, “My Eyes Have a Cold Nose.” Love is blind. Justice is blind. Samson was blinded. The absence of sight can be made into a virtue, but reality bites. “I was blind, but now I see,” goes “Amazing Grace.” But the truth is that one wants to see actually as well as spiritually.

I don’t know if the great blind people of history would’ve traded insight for sight, but in any case, they had no choice. So one is left staring inwardly at all the astonishing objects they discovered in the dark. In a way, they became remarkable sights themselves. One could not take one’s eyes off Helen Keller in her struggles, watching a human being deprived of the essential senses displaying what being human is about– adjustment to misfortune, courage in the night.

This is the season of the dying of the light. From now through the end of the century, the sky closes down and the world comes up with faith to see it through the winter solstice. Henry Grunwald would say that this is a valuable time of year, when one is aware of how much light means and yearns for the light as all creatures do.

But his book makes a less abstract and more useful point. “One must measure and conduct one’s life on its own terms,” he writes. No one sees clearer than that.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.