Thursday, October 21, 2004

Losing my Senses, First: Sight

Susan asked -- relayed, I guess -- the question, "Which of the five senses do you think is most important?"

I was surprised when I went back to look at it, because I found I had converted the question, in my mind, to "which of the five senses would it distress you most to lose?"

And my first response was, "I am already losing all of them." Which is true.

In the past few years, my sight has deteriorated. First I needed reading glasses for books with small print. And gradually I found that more and more books were written in small print. Now I don't even read the comics without my reading glasses.

When I was in grad school, I was hired briefly by Cleanth Brooks. Does anyone remember who he is, now? He was an ancient gray eminence, back then. He had been one of the New Critics when they were the young lions of Literary Academia, and a generation later every young Deconstructionist pup took potshots at his book "The Well-Wrought Urn," as emblematic of all the stupid old assumptions of standard literary criticism. A beautiful essay, much easier to argue with than their own muddy writing could ever be, because it was so easy to tell what he meant. I feel still that to be clearly wrong is better than to be vaguely right. Clarity and precision were what Brooks loved. They were what he found, pre-eminently, in poetry. If you want to find any one man who turned the tables and convinced the 20th Century world that poetry was more exact, more rigorous, and more conceptually demanding than prose -- a commonplace now, but not one in his youth, when poetry was commonly thought to be decorative, but fuzzy and self-indulgent -- that man would be Cleanth Brooks.

I was hired to be his eyes. He was writing a lecture for some distinguished society, using a typewriter with a huge typeface. He wore enormous glasses, and he peered at these words -- letters as thick as my pinkie -- and couldn't distinguish them. He chafed at having to rely on an ignorant grad student to read his own words. Winced when I mispronounced "Sewanee."

He was still in the ring, but just barely. The written word was being taken away from him, and only the spoken was left. And he could only taste his own words read back, his own beautiful sonorous southern accent replaced by my flat, generic, toneless Western ignorance. I only remember helping him that once. The experience was painful for both of us, I think. I remember walking through a book-lined living-room to the front door, when I was leaving. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on three walls, thousands of books, and not one that he could read.

No. I don't want to lose my sight.

No comments: