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The Kingdom Of The Blind

( Originally Published Early 1900's )


AFTER a visit to St. Dunstan's, Regent's Park, the hostel for blinded soldiers and sailors, I am inclined to say that only the blind really see. Or, if that is putting it too strongly, that the rest of us have to learn from them how to use our eyes. At any rate, "blind leaders of the blind" will never again mean anything to me but a proverb of human help-fulness.

For that is the ruling principle at St. Dunstan's. The guides in the kingdom of the blind that must now be patiently explored by many of our brave soldiers and sailors are blind themselves. In that kingdom eyes are an impertinence, and even partial sight is an occasion of stumbling. We who have eyes are at such a disadvantage in it that the best we can do is to guard its neutrality in our quarrels about seeing, and secure its right to be governed and developed in its own way. It would be idle and ungrateful to pretend that loss of sight is not a cruel deprivation ; but let us not too complacently " pity the poor blind." They have the freedom of a whole world that we, distracted by the pride of the eye, know nothing about. It is a world of sounds and touches and odours ; or, rather, a world that by the gradual development and co-ordination of hearing and feeling and smelling discovers itself to a new compound sense that, since it can form mental images, may truly be called " vision." In this world, wherein we stumble and lose our way, the blind man learns to move with freedom and security ; but only by the initiation of those who have, so to speak, renounced the errors and excesses of seeing with their bodily eyes. This world, busy, fertile, and, if we may judge by the almost universal cheerfulness of its familiars, beautiful, is the kingdom of the blind.

St. Dunstan's might be regarded as one of the frontier posts of this kingdom ; customs house and quarantine in one. It is not a place for curing blindness, but rather for curing the malady of seeing. Sight is contraband, and hopelessness in that sense is the condition of remaining. The history of St. Dunstan's has been told in the Press, but a few words of recapitulation will do no harm. Once the villa of the third Marquess of Hertford, one of the founders of the Wallace Collection and the " Marquis of Steyne " of Thackeray's " Vanity Fair," it was lent by Mr. Otto Kahn to the Blinded Soldiers' and Sailors' Care Committee, under the chairman-ship of Mr. C. Arthur Pearson. The moving spirit of the hostel, Mr. Pearson is also our most enlightened ambassador from the kingdom of the blind and best interpreter of its needs and policies.

There is poetic justice in the transformation of a one-time stall in " Vanity Fair," snare of the vacant eye, into a porch of the kingdom of the blind. An interesting " property " is the clock, with two hammering giants, which the Marquess of Hertford bought from the church of St. Dunstan's-in-the-West because his nurse used to take him to see the giants strike the hour " when he was a good boy." In his time an almost prophetic ornament of the villa was

" The Vision of St. Helena," by Veronese, now in the National Gallery.

St. Dunstan's is white, long, and low ; a true " villa " set in a landscape of that ordered beauty which comes nearest to realising " the heart of the country." When I went there the aftermath, symbol of serenity, was lying in swathes under the mellow September sunlight on the further lawn, which is penetrated by an arm of the lake in Regent's Park. The first thing that struck me was the unsentimental gaiety of the place, a place of high ceilings, red, white, and gold walls, and open doors and windows. It reminded me a little of Mr. Cayley Robinson's " Hall of the Future " in " The Blue Bird." There was the same effect of people waiting eagerly to be born into a new life; and there should have been a ship at the terrace. The presence of nurses for many of the soldiers are not only blinded but wounded men completed the impression of looking forward.

The next thing that struck me was the extreme simplicity of such aids as we, seeing, can lend to the blind ; an umbrella stand full of stout walking-sticks the extended arms of the blind paths of matting on the broad floors and of sheet lead across the stone paving of the terrace, sounding boards to warn foot and ear before obstacles and at every turning, and light handrails along the narrower walks. Nothing else in the way of material direction. Indeed, in moving about the place I felt that directions were needed rather for the seeing, lest they confused the orderly progress of the blind. Speech, I noticed, takes on a new value in the kingdom of the blind ; it becomes firm, explicit, and concise, with a slight emphasis on proper names, as if to ensure the grasp of identity.

The general policies of the kingdom of the blind were explained to me by its ambassador. He said that, with loss of sight, the other senses do not become spontaneously more acute. They are developed because they are relied upon. They rise to the occasion. As one had supposed, the faculty of inner vision is, if anything, increased. Certain illusions about the blind were corrected. Thus, though blind women are able to distinguish different coloured wools, it is not by any miracle of touch, but by nice discrimination of the effect of dyes upon the substance of wool. White wool is the softest, black the harshest, and red comes halfway between. Green wool is known by its peculiar smell, and blue by a process of elimination.

The particular policies of this porch in the kingdom of the blind are simple. Since all are blind together they are not objects of idle compassion, but subjects of practical sympathy, with a view to self-support, under the spur of emulation. Their rapid progress in the kingdom of the blind is due partly to their own character of healthy, alert, and disciplined men, but mainly to the fact that their teachers are blind. From the first they are in the hands of men and women who know the kingdom, its possibilities and resources, and the quickest and most direct way of making use of them. At the moment there are more than one hundred immigrants at St. Dunstan's, many from the Dardanelles. For some unexplained reason an unduly large proportion of them are Lancashire men.

Our first visit was to the lounge, where recreation is combined with the teaching of Braille : reading, writing, and shorthand writing ; and the use of the ordinary typewriter.

The Braille shorthand machine has seven keys which print on a " tape " the necessary combinations and permutations of raised dots as they are pressed together or singly. To illustrate, a blind lady took down the words of my blind guide. They so perfectly expressed the spirit of the whole place that I quote them in full :

" This spell of fine weather makes it seem as though we are going to have another of the beautiful Septembers which have been so common of late years. People are rather too apt to grumble at the weather ; as a matter of fact, this summer has been quite a wonderfully fine one we have only had three bad weeks since the beginning of April."

From the lounge we went to the workshops, where carpentry, boot-repairing, mat-making, and basket-making are taught, each by blind experts of the trade. Thence to the poultry farm and the market garden ; and, finally, to what is one of the most remarkable features of the place the last two combined. Here, by a most ingenious arrangement of wired enclosures radiating from the four walls of the chicken-house, with a door in each wall, the blind man learns to rear his chickens, with orderly change of run, and grow a succession of crops. Massage and telephony are taught to the tenants of the hostel at the National Institute for the Blind. Thanks to the arm of the lake rowing is a possible recreation at St. Dunstan's. Rowing is an ideal exercise for the blind, because " it gives them the rare sense of helping instead of being helped."

In everything I saw there was the spirit not of despair, nor even of resignation, but the eager, questing spirit of " blind man's buff." All the time I was being taken about St. Dunstan's I was conscious of receiving vivid and firm impressions not so much through my own eyes as from the words of my blind guide. Sight for the moment had become a superfluity a distraction. That seems to me to illustrate not only the principles of the place, but the special resources of the kingdom of the blind. We who see are apt to squander our vision for poor returns. We " glance and nod and bustle by," and not only " never once possess our soul," but fail to take in the essentials of what we see. To the blind man, through the education and co-ordination of his other faculties, vision as distinct from mere " seeing " comes back purged and rectified. His mind retains only the essentials. The gain is human as well as practical. It is a psychological truth that sight, owing to different ways of seeing, keeps us apart : only the inner vision brings us together. That vision the blind retain, with added power. Our blinded soldiers and sailors deserve all the practical sympathy and support that we can give them, and, for the cause in which they were blinded, all our gratitude ; but in our sympathy and gratitude there need not be any taint of that compassion which comes from the feeling of superiority. They have lost much, but they have gained a self-possession which reproves alike our wanton use of the gift of seeing and our neglect of our other faculties.

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