Through the Darkness, to God : TOUCHING THE ROCK; An Experience of Blindness By John M. Hull (Pantheon: $18.95; 176 pp.)

Leithauser's third book of poems, "The Mail From Anywhere," recently was published by Alfred A. Knopf

In June of 1983, about three years after having been declared legally blind and a few months after the outer world's final, wan flickers had dissolved into a uniform blackness, John Hull began to keep a journal. The result, "Touching the Rock," is therefore less concerned with the encroachment of the dark than with the acceptance of an unchanging, irreversible calamity.

In his preface, Hull informs us that before undertaking his own memoir, he read nearly 20 autobiographies by blind people, most of them "inspiring stories of triumph and reconciliation." Although he does not specify their titles, I can't believe that any of these other books offers a more compelling portrayal of blindness than does Hull--who, for all the grief and anguish in his pages, somehow manages to examine his condition with a cool, deductive methodicalness. He dismantles, as it were, his blindness, focusing in turn on the way it affects his self-image, his love for his children, his sex life, his job at an English university, his other senses. Most readers will come away simultaneously admiring his trenchancy and thanking their lucky stars for the blessing of vision.

Fate conspired to give Hull a long time in which to accustom himself to a world without light. He was born in 1935 in Victoria, Australia, a region evidently striking for its large and memorable vistas. When he was about 13, he remarked one day to his mother at breakfast that it was a misty morning; she pointed out that the sky was quite clear, and soon sent him off to his first eye specialist. Cataracts, detached retinas, a variety of tests and treatments, a succession of eye operations--it was nearly three decades before "the last eye specialist signed me off."

As "Touching the Rock" makes painfully clear, sighted people are likely to harbor a misguided impression that they have some genuine understanding of blindness. Most of us, at one time or another, have consciously experimented with sightlessness--have attempted, perhaps, to negotiate a familiar sidewalk with our eyes shut. Because blindness can be simulated much more easily than deafness--one can shut down one's vision at any moment--we may feel that the blind are our confederates in a way that the deaf are not.

But "Touching the Rock" conclusively demonstrates how long and thoroughgoing is that process by which the once-sighted adjusts to the condition of sightlessness. The habits and preconceptions of vision are tenacious. As Hull wryly notes, in an entry written more than three years after he'd been declared legally blind, "I have been thinking to myself that I am not a blind person, but a sighted person who cannot see."

Hull's strengths as a writer--his lucid intelligence, his flair for imagery and simile, his manifest love of family and general decency--make this book, perversely, something of a difficult read. It is an irony of this sort of memoir that the more powerfully the author conveys his experience, the more oppressive his book becomes. Hull has a talent for--in the words of the blind poet John Milton--making the "darkness visible," as when he recounts this nightmarish daydream:

I am in a little coal-truck in a mine shaft. This opens off the side of a hill. In I go, being trundled deeper and deeper into the hillside. Looking back, I can still see the light . . . The little round circle of daylight is getting smaller and smaller. I know that whoever is driving the train of little coal buckets will stop soon. At any moment trucks will slow down, pause and reverse. The little well of light will start to enlarge . . . But no, this does not happen. Are we out of control? Is there nobody driving? . . . Now I become aware of the weight of mountain overhead. It hides the light, the day, the air. I am still trundling deeper and deeper into the weight, into the solidity of it. I cannot even orient myself by the slightest pinprick of light. I know now that between me and the world there lies this mountain of rock . . . .

Hull is an unshakeably religious man. His father was a Methodist minister. He himself is a professor of religious education at the University of Birmingham. As an aid in dealing with blindness, his faith provides him with a twofold benefit: It offers the solace of a universe in which individual tragedy is subsumed by ultimately benign forces, and it fosters an optimistic conviction that through solid inner effort--through prayer, contemplation, self-examination--even the darkest and most intractable mystery may give way to revelation.

The suffusing presence of God gives "Touching the Rock" something of the aura of those uplifting Christian tracts that get swept under the heading of "Devotional Literature," but Hull's book is too tumultuous and heart-sore to lie comfortably under that designation. "Is blindness a gift?" he asks in the book's concluding pages, and bleakly answers: "If blindness is a gift, it is not one that I would wish on anybody." Still, for all the book's fear and despair, Hull never descends to accusing or cursing God. He never loses sight of the notion that, as he says in the book's final lines, "If a journey into light is a journey into God, then a journey into darkness is a journey into God."

If the journey toward God represents, in the last analysis, the resolution of all paradoxes--the realm in which black and white are one--Hull nonetheless shows a keen eye for the paradoxical conditions that blindness imposes on the God-seeker. He is particularly affecting on the subject of women: "It makes a difference to the way I feel about a new female acquaintance if a colleague, having caught sight of her, remarks on her beauty or her plainness. There is a double irrationality in this. In the first place, my feelings should not be so dependent upon a woman's appearance. I know that, and I apologize. But I still feel it. The second thing is that it is surely a deplorable lack of independence on my part to be so affected by a criterion which can be of no significance to me."

Again and again throughout the book, Hull is drawn to the subject of chance. He traces with delight the line of coincidences by which his father, Jack Hull, an "active atheist" in his mid-20s, happened to come to his faith by way of a stranger who (prefiguring Hull's son's fate) had lost his sight in adulthood. In the reader's mind, the thought naturally arises (though the author modestly leaves it unstated) that the faith of Jack Hull's blind son may likewise unpredictably touch and quicken some remote soul.

By way of extolling the role of coincidence in our lives, I might mention that "Touching the Rock" happened to come my way while I was spending a couple of weeks in Iceland in the dead of winter. At that time of year, when the sun rises at about noon, Iceland's forbidding landscape naturally reminds us of how close we all stand--the sighted and the sightless--to permanent darkness. And reminds us of the need to discover, as Hull so hearteningly has, some fortress against the dark's insidious despair.

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