Tag Archives: blindness

A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 5)

Ah!  Wherefore with infection should he live,

And with his presence grace impiety,

That sin by him advantage should achieve,

And lace itself with his society?

Why should false painting imitate his cheek,

And steal dead seeing from his living hue?

Why should poor beauty indirectly seek

Roses of shadow, since his rose is true?

Still readable under the artist’s painstaking whitewash, these lines from the sixty-seventh of Shakespeare’s sonnets afford a point of entry into a body of work that borrows them, with respect, for purposes of its own.  Their consecutive rhetorical questions begin insistently to develop – like a photograph, perhaps – some of the whys and wherefores of the work that inscribes them:  matters of invention and imitation, truth and falsehood, blindness and insight, life and death.  Not reducible to themes, these concerns operate rather as the pivotal topoi around which each component of Andrews’ Sonnets, positioned in a complex constellation with the others, turns.  Each work in this series, while retaining a singular and idiomatic status, offers itself to the viewer as exemplary:  irreplaceable in its form and effects, but addressing (as Shakespeare’s sonnets address, even as they are addressed) broader concerns of a theoretical as well as a practical order.

For brevity’s sake, then, one image (if it is one) may serve as example:  the 1994 diptych that Andrews calls “Picture This,” a composite gouache portrait layered over partially whitewashed photocopies of sonnets forty-eight through sixty-nine.  For the viewer who is of necessity also the reader of this characteristically palimpsestic text, the title’s imperative translates as a pressing question that is not rhetorical:  Picture what?  For the digitalization of the photographic “original” that preceded its systematic manual reduplication in a subtle palette of greys and yellows renders the question of what appears – the who, what, when and where of reference – indeterminate.  In fact, what we see (or think we see, for even at first glance one’s perception of this work depends to an extraordinary extent on one’s relative proximity to or distance from it, fostering a distinct skepsis or doubt) is an effect of the artist’s superimposition of two images, an act that collapses space as well as time in the diptych’s two dimensions.  A photograph of director Jonathan Demme on the set of the 1993 AIDS-themed film Philadelphia, reproduced in the New York Times, is projected, as in a dream or a hallucination, onto a Polaroid portrait of Andrews’ late lover and muse that was staged in the artist’s studio.  The hands, then, do not properly belong to the head, or with it.  They do not reach out in advance of the unseeing eyes, feeling their way forward through space, anticipating some possible contact to come.  [I am indebted here to Derrida’s analysis in Memoirs of the Blind of the function of the hand in a range of drawings of the blind:  “These blind men explore – and seek to foresee there where they do not see, no longer see, or do not yet see.  The space of the blind always conjugates these tenses and times of memory – but simultaneously” (5-6).]  Rather, they frame the gaze of an absent other.  What may first appear as a portrait that, however mediated and manipulated, retains a mimetic relation to its model, emerges instead as an invented tableau.

Most notoriously and explicitly debated in the second preface to Rousseau’s epistolary novel Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloise, the relation between portrait and tableau has generally been presumed, in the western aesthetic tradition at least, to be antithetical, mutually exclusive.  According to this conventional wisdom, an image or a text may imitate a particular referent – a person, place, object or event – and so constitute itself as a portrait of sorts.  The tableau, on the other hand, can lay claim to no specific extra-textual referent and hence is fictive, primarily self-signifying.  Underlying the terms of the distinction is the largely uninterrogated faith of the reader in the possibility of determining the referential status of the work at hand.  When we read an image or a written text, seek to understand it, we assume knowledge of and control over its referential and rhetorical modes (as we do when we read the question in Shakespeare’s sixty-seventh sonnet as rhetorical, rather than as real, and possibly urgent).  As Paul de Man argues in his analysis of the prefatory debate over whether Rousseau’s novel is a portrait or a tableau,

The innumerable writings [and images – Ed.] that dominate our lives are made intelligible by a preordained agreement as to their referential authority; this agreement is merely contractual, never constitutive.  It can be broken at all times and every piece of writing [and every image – Ed.] can be questioned as to its rhetorical mode.  Whenever this happens, what originally appeared to be a document or instrument becomes a text and, as a consequence, its readability is put in question.  The questioning points back to earlier texts and engenders, in its turn, other texts which claim (and fail) to close off the textual field.   [Allegories of Reading, 204]. 

“Picture This,” like the other components of the Sonnets sequence as well as the portraits in Facsimile, unsettles not only the question of its own referential status (in a way that does not allow for the closure of a final reading), but the very logic of mutual exclusion, the either/or that has long governed our understanding of the distinction between portrait and tableau.  No less than Rousseau’s novel, “Such a work can be read as the ‘portrait’ of its own negative gesture.  It follows that, if the work indeed represents objects qui ne sont point, then it is the ‘portrait’ of the subject’s initiation to this knowledge…the portrait of an impossible tableau”  (de Man, Allegories of Reading, 199).

It may be that Andrews’ own initiation to this knowledge is legible in the allegorical self-portrait incorporated in the series under the title “W.”, the cryptic initial that serves as his self-inscription and signature.  It is allegorical in that it “portrays” a certain blindness on the part of the artist to the predicament figured in the work.  Like the beloved in “Picture This,” the bereaved lover depicted here is unseeing, whether wittingly or not.  In this instance, it is a question of neither the “dead seeing” nor the “false painting” cited in Shakespeare’s verses.  Rather, the work is rigorously true to the terms of The Draughtsman’s Contract, enunciated by the draughtsman himself in a memorable speech that draws upon the “ambiguous evidence of an obscure allegory” in Peter Greenaway’s film to situate the figure for the artist “in the space between knowing and seeing.”  It is a contract that proves binding for the viewer as well:  “Painting,” like drawing, “requires a certain blindness…. Perhaps you have taken a great deal on trust”  (London, BFI, 1982).



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Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 11)

Neither does Blue spare us the related task of accounting for the other crucial incommensurability it renders:  that between the time of its recorded testimony and the time of the experience to which it testifies, with which it cannot coincide.  Blue‘s blind address to the blind summons us to hear the difference as the spoken soundtrack reverts to the past tense:

The virus rages fierce.  I have no friends now who are not dead or dying.  Like a blue frost it caught them.  At work, at the cinema, on marches and beaches.  In churches on their knees, running, flying, silent or shouting protest.  It started with sweats in the night and swollen glands.  Then the black cancers spread across their faces – as they fought for breath TB and pneumonia hammered at the lungs, and Toxo at the brain.  Reflexes scrambled – sweat poured through hair matted like lianas in the tropical forest.  Voices slurred – and then were lost forever.  My pen chased this story across the page tossed this way and that in the storm. [Blue, 7-8]

It calls us as well to register the prophetic cadences of the outraged witness:

How did my friends cross the cobalt river, with what did they pay the ferryman?  As they set out for the indigo shore under this jet-black sky – some died on their feet with a backward glance – did they see Death with the hell hounds pulling a dark chariot, bruised blue-black, growing dark in the absence of light, did they hear the blast of trumpets?  David ran home panicked on the train from Waterloo, brought back exhausted and unconscious to die that night.  Terry who mumbled incoherently into his incontinent tears.  Others faded like flowers cut by the scythe of the Blue Bearded Reaper, parched as the waters of life receded.  Howard turned slowly to stone, petrified day by day, his mind imprisoned in a concrete fortress until all we could hear were his groans on the telephone circling the globe. [Blue, 16]

Or again,

We all contemplated suicide

We hoped for euthanasia

We were lulled into believing

Morphine dispelled pain

Rather than making it tangible

Like a mad Disney cartoon

Transforming itself into

Every conceivable nightmare  [Blue, 17]

In a journal entry dated August 1993, written contemporaneously with preparations for the release of Blue, Jarman alludes to the temporal asymmetry between perception and attestation in experiential rather than conceptual terms:  “The stinging eyedrops are in, the reading chart which has a flaw – as if you read with your good eye first you can remember the letters, to whose benefit?  My illusions…. Eleven o’clock and still waiting for the dragging minutes to pass…. I feel less and less like fighting, giving up, giving in.  Writing blind now…. Yawning void”  (Smiling, 224).  For the blinded Jarman, of course, visual perception belongs to recollection, as the editor’s preface to the posthumously published Smiling in Slow Motion confirms:  “In the final diary he wrote without vision, his semi-legible scrawl only possible from his memory of the scratch of nib on paper” (Smiling, np). 

(In his Memoirs of the Blind, Derrida poses “a thoughtful question:  what would a journal of the blind be like?  A newspaper or daily of the blind?  Or else the more personal kind of journal, a diary or day-book?  And what about the day, then, the rhythms of the days and nights without day or light, the dates and calendars that scan memories and memoirs?  How would the memoirs of the blind be written?” [33].  Smiling in Slow Motion answers Derrida’s questions by and for example, in chronicling the rhythms of Jarman’s final days and nights without day or light.)

In his journal of the blind, as in his film without images, Jarman attests that he has finally seen enough.  “The blind man thus becomes the best witness, a chosen witness.  In fact, a witness, as such, is always blind.  Witnessing substitutes narrative for perception.  The witness cannot see, show, and speak at the same time, and the interest of the attestation, like that of the testament, stems from this dissociation.  No authentification can show in the present what the most reliable witness sees, or rather, has seen and now keeps in memory” (Memoirs of the Blind, 104).  Nearing the end of his journey without direction, with no prospect of an afterlife beyond the horizon, Jarman finds that no image can show in the present what he has seen and now keeps in memory.  In place of the “pandemonium of image,” he bequeaths to his viewers an imageless archive:  one that preserves a time that was “all awry,” along with its own fundamental incommensurability, as testimony, with the awful devastation of AIDS.

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Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 10)

Because, as Jarman attests, “we don’t lack images – just good ones,” because “The image is a prison of the soul, your heredity, your education, your vices and aspirations, your qualities, your psychological world” (Blue, 15), Blue forgoes visual imagery, presenting its viewers instead with a blue after-image sustained beyond its ephemeral lifespan for seventy-seven minutes:

In the pandemonium of image

I present you with the universal Blue

Blue an open door to soul

An infinite possibility

Becoming tangible  [Blue, 11]

The supplanting of image by the “infinite possibility” of Blue is further linked to Jarman’s own history, and specifically to his ambivalent sense that (like Yves Klein’s) it is drawing to a premature close:  “Some part of me dares this blindness to progress, it says I’ve seen enough” (Smiling, 230).  It is perhaps the same part of him that seeks relief from the “cacophony,” the “pandemonium of image”:

Over the mountains is the shrine to Rita, where all at the end of the line call.  Rita is the Saint of the Lost Cause.  The saint of all who are at their wit’s end, who are hedged in and trapped by the facts of the world.  The facts, detached from cause, trapped the Blue Eyed Boy in a system of unreality.  Would all these blurred facts that deceive dissolve in his last breath?  For accustomed to believing in  image, an absolute idea of value, his world had forgotten the command of essence:  Thou Shall Not Create Unto Thyself Any Graven Image, although you know the task is to fill the empty page.  From the bottom of your heart, pray to be released from image.  [Blue, 15]

Saturating the screen with “the universal Blue,” Jarman releases his viewers from image as an affront to sore eyes, but not from the obligation to read.  His caveat to the commandment invokes the ongoing “task” of writing, and with it the inevitable, invisible images in the language enlisted “to fill the empty page” and destined for our ears:  the images we hear rather than see in Blue.  As Derrida reminds us in his Memoirs of the Blind,

One must always remember that the word, the vocable, is heard and understood, the sonorous phenomenon remaining invisible as such.  Taking up time rather than space in us, it is addressed not only from the blind to the blind, like a code for nonseeing, but speaks to us, in truth, all the time of the blindness that constitutes it.  Language is spoken, it speaks to itself, which is to say from / of blindness.  It always speaks to us from / of the blindness that constitutes it.  [Memoirs of the Blind, 3]

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Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 8)

Waves of icy sulphadiazine breaking on the farther shores after we have crossed over in a blizzard of pills, a rainbow-coloured confetti of serpent poisons, sharp-toothed as the adder.  Words, no longer strung out on the lines of narrative, escape and hang round corners waiting to jump out of the dictionary, restore primal disorder.  The emerald apple sits on my bedside table, its perfection disordered in my mind’s eye…. Apple of my eye.

Someone else says losing your sight must be frightening.  Not so, as long as you have a safe harbour in the sea of shadows.  Just inconvenient.  If you woke on a dark day, had only the mind’s eye with which to see your way, would you turn back?

My drip ticks away a long afternoon.  The sulphadiazine battles with the cysts to bring me second sight.  By tea time the migraine takes over.  They play the ‘theme tune’ from Death in Venice as I enter the brain scan….

My eyes are back, I can read.  Though the grey shadows circle at the periphery, and the drugs make me dizzy and disorientated…. I could be out by Saturday.  I’m stronger, have put my weight back on; but feel like an invalid.  I can’t believe I’ll ever be well again.  The drugs have brought on a rash.  I’ll be on them for life, and how long will that be?

The lilies Lynn sent me have lasted eight days.

A woman leads a blind child slowly down the stairs.

In the vision field you gaze for an eternity at small bright lights and press a buzzer each time lights flash on and off.  It is confusing and my eyes, heavy with antihistamine, fall asleep.  An eye for an eye.  I return to the waiting room….

I wish I had brought a video and recorded these last weeks here….

What the eye doesn’t see the mind doesn’t grieve for….

The day of our death is sealed up.  I do not wish to die…yet.  I would love to see my garden through several summers….

I view the world through drunken eyes….

The horizon has closed in….

X-rays take an age.  I hate this waiting room…. A sign says Come Early, Save Time.  [Modern Nature, 304 ff]

The language of these journal entries and others like them affords an opportunity – and imposes a certain obligation – to read Jarman reading, as it links the threat of blindness posed by HIV not merely with a de rigueur clock-watching “during the long hours” in hospital waiting rooms and wards, but with an imperative to read the time even as he continues to record “across the empty page” a time that is “all awry” (“My weakness is my inability to grasp that literate and intelligent people could do anything but agree that this time is all awry” [Smiling, 111]).  And the responsibility to read the time is not Jarman’s alone.  Indeed, its urgency is not confined to those already suffering the incalculable effects of the virus, among them the foreclosing of life’s horizon.  The journal’s intermittently apostrophic mode – here, “If you woke on a dark day, had only the mind’s eye with which to see your way, would you turn back?” – directs the imperative not only to its eventual readers, but more generally to all persons of voice:  first, second and third.  By way of a question that, once again, is neither simply rhetorical nor strictly hypothetical, the prospect of blindness evokes the perhaps compensatory and certainly allegorical figuration of a supplementary “vision” (the “mind’s eye,” “second sight,” an “eye for an eye”), allowing for the possibility that “blindness may be a blessing, even the gift of poetic and political clairvoyance, the chance for prophecy” (Jacques Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind, 1993, 128).  All as the drip delivers the drugs that Jarman will be on “for life, and how long will that be?”, even as it “ticks away a long afternoon.”  Appearing three years later, his last film will allude (again apostrophically) to the long duration of the brief time remaining:  “This illness knocks you for six / Just as you start to forget it / A bullet in the back of the head / Might be easier / You know, you can take longer than / The second world war to get to the grave”  (Blue, 26).

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Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 7)

But in Blue, crucially, the IV drip is also more and other than a medical technology, for “The drip ticks out the seconds, the source of a stream along which the minutes flow, to join the river of hours, the sea of years and the timeless ocean” (Blue, 18).  It functions here as a kind of prosthetic timepiece that measures or marks the time remaining, on the order of a watch, a clock (at this stage, the soundtrack reproduces the differential ticking of multiple clocks), and eventually a calendar.  [In 1991, Jarman published Today and Tomorrow, a perpetual calendar that featured reproductions of a number of his paintings.  Cf. Blue:  “The darkness comes in with the tide / The year slips on the calendar” (20).]  Indeed, the passage recalls a series of journal entries dating from July 1990, when “I was taken into hospital…for an emergency brain scan, which picked up the toxoplasmosis that had destroyed my sight in the previous days” (Modern Nature, 304).  Modern Nature records an early stage in Jarman’s gradual loss of vision under the assault of successive opportunistic infections, chronicled further in Smiling in Slow Motion and both thematized and figured in Blue.  In part because the language of the journals informs so much of the artist’s subsequent writing, painting and film, it warrants citation at some length.

No books to read, no newspapers.  So, what did I think about during the long hours?

I watched the clock.

On the first day its face was a fuzzy halo, the digits telescoped and disappeared.

On the second day I could see the red second hand move in a jumble of black.

On the third day I paused, looked and looked again and read the time.

On the fourth day I could read the numbers round the dial….

Beware of very hot water reads the sign above the basin.  The number 13 in the corridor slowly came into focus.  It’s 11:25, I have written three pages.  My writing is illegible.  It is remarkably easy to lose your sight:  a bad headache on a Friday evening and words slide off the pages.  Within a few days they disappear altogether.

In the waiting room of the West London Eye Hospital I was barely aware of the drip sticking in my arm watched by curious children.  I read the flashing dot in the machines and longed to get back into my bed….

I feel I should be able to record more than I have or more deeply and find I cannot….

My symptoms are a first.  I will be written up in the BMJ….

I see the blue sky veiled with shadows….

The nurse said today that this must be a frightening experience.  It isn’t, just aggravating – so silly to lose your eyes.  I can write clearly and in straight lines across the gloomy page.  How many aftershocks must I endure until my body, broken, desiccated and drained of colour, fails to respond.  I live in a permanent hangover, after years of good health.  A little green light flashes in the drip, the cool poison runs into my arm….

Blind as a bat he took to finding his way with sonar, flitting this way and that across the empty page, the starchy whiteness of a page of St. Mary’s foolscap.  Silent as the salt lakes, dazzling, blinding white to the horizon.  [Modern Nature, 304 ff]

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Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 6)

The intravenous drip, long since a fact of life for Jarman, is here the mechanism that delivers one of his medications, the Gancyclovir (DHPG) that targets the encroaching blindness, and whose side-effects the voiced soundtrack enumerates in a harrowing passage punctuated by the rhythm of an oxygen machine:

The side-effects of DHPG, the drug for which I have come into hospital to be dripped twice a day, are:  Low white blood cell count, increased risk of infection, low platelet count which may increase the risk of bleeding, low red blood cell count (anaemia), fever, rash, abnormal liver function, chills, swelling of the body (oedema), infections, malaise, irregular heart beat, high blood pressure (hypertension), low blood pressure (hypotension), abnormal thoughts or dreams, loss of balance (ataxia), coma, confusion, dizziness, headache, nervousness, damage to nerves (paraesthesia), psychosis, sleepiness (somnolence), shaking, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite (anorexia), diarrhoea, bleeding from the stomach or intestine (intestinal haemorrhage), abdominal pain, increased number of one type of white blood cell, low blood sugar, shortness of breath, hair loss (alopecia), itching (pruritus), hives, blood in the urine, abnormal kidney function, increased blood urea, redness (inflammation), pain or irritation (phlebitis).

Retinal detachments have been observed in patients both before and after initiation of therapy.  The drug has caused decreased sperm production in animals and may cause infertility in humans, and birth defects in animals.  Although there is no information in human studies, it should be considered a potential carcinogen since it causes tumours in animals.

If you are concerned about any of the above side-effects or if you would like any further information, please ask your doctor.  [Blue, 18-19]

As New York Times critic Stephen Holden observed after a screening of Blue at the New York Film Festival in October 1993, “The recitation of the possible side effects of an experimental drug is horrifying:  many sound far worse than the blindness the drug is intended to thwart”  (A Movie Where All the Motion is Metaphorical,” Oct. 2, 1993).  The uncertain prospect that unfolds with this enumeration leaves the patient facing blindness in a cognitive predicament figured in the narration in terms of visual perception:  “In order to be put on the drug you have to sign a piece of paper stating you understand that all these illnesses are a possibility. / I really can’t see what I am to do.  I am going to sign it”  (Blue, 19).

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