Sobre a Deficiência Visual

James Joyce: On his Blindness

Jan Leendert van Velze

James Joyce após mais uma operação aos olhos - foto no sul de França, 1922  [Rosenbach Museum and Library]
James Joyce - após mais uma operação aos olhos - no sul de França, 1922 

In view of the apparent conception of James Joyce as a blind bard and the corresponding stock remark that his compensatory aural acuity largely informed his ultimate novel, the neglected fact that Joyce clearly belongs to a tradition of blind bards, including Homer, Dante, and Milton, calls for critical recognition. An additional reason for uncovering the promising field of thematic blindness lies in the advantage of joining together various autonomous aspects of Joyce scholarship, such as the theory of the senses, the notions of prophecy and epiphany, and the question of the father-son reconciliation that lies at the heart of Joyce’s 1922 novel.

Rather than formulating a general taxonomy of possible case-studies and research methods, the present study consists of various preliminary explorations of a relatively new field of study. By focusing on the literary resonances of Joyce’s defective eyesight and correlating the (prophetic) implications of his near-blindness with the literary tradition of the blind prophet, we can extend in both time and space the critical parameters of Joyce scholarship, thereby adding new dimensions and unforeseen interrelationships to the extensive critical industry of James Joyce.

Let me state beforehand that an adequate treatment of the literary work of James Joyce, in particular his later prose fiction, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, would require far more space than can be given here. Following some characteristics of the Dutch critical reception of Joyce, I largely “favour a non-theoretical approach in which close reading takes centre stage.” In the light of my original intention to unearth a relatively new field in Joyce scholarship, I therefore merely expect to work in a preliminary fashion, since “[t]o attempt to do more than scratch the surface of […] Finnegans Wake, [for example,] would clearly exceed any reasonable limits of time and space.”


The present study starts from the relatively simple premise of regarding the ocular disorder Joyce developed during his life as a clear influence on Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, epitomized by the striking correspondence between sign and reference in the case of ‘irisitis.’

Although the common designation to describe an inflammation of the eye is ‘iritis,’ a word generally employed by Joyce and the majority of his critics to refer to the writer’s eye troubles, the alternative spelling ‘irisitis,’ an etymologically more exact orthographic rendering to be found in nineteenth-century medical lexicons, constitutes a proper denominator for the subject at hand, simultaneously conveying a distinct sense of Joyce’s textual play and extreme use of polysemy. Linguistically speaking, the word ‘irisitis,’ a derivational compound made up of the originally Greek morphemes ‘iris’ and ‘-itis,’ contains three unstressed syllables next to the stressed penult. Apart from the denotation of ‘irisitis,’ which refers to the inflammation of the colored part of the eye surrounding the black pupil, the term obviously echoes two defining elements in the life and art of James Joyce, namely his distinctly Irish background and his progressive loss of sight. According to a homophonic correspondence, the latter also echoes the (in)distinct historical geography of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake and refers to the extensive intertextual references to be found in both works, which have excited such a vast amount of intellectual despair.

Interestingly, the obsolete term as a whole sounds much like the self-referential pronouncement “I recite this,” which denotes the predominance of sound and musical qualities in both Milton’s poetry and Joyce’s later prose, a fact that prompted T.S. Eliot to proclaim James Joyce the greatest master of the English language since Milton, whom he considered mainly to be a writer for the ear. Contrary to the more common denomination for the inflammation of the iris, iritis (read: ‘I write this’), which clearly accommodates Gottfried’s genetic reading of and semiotic approach to Ulysses, the term ‘irisitis’ fully characterizes Joyce’s compromised eyesight and eventual near-blindness that progressively led him to dictate his ultimate novel to various assistants.

Milton dita o poema Paradise Lost - Eugene Delacroix, 1826
Milton dita o Paradise Lost - Eugene Delacroix, 1826

Immediately related to the deficiency of sight and greater musical ear of both Milton and Joyce, ‘irisitis’ reads like a circular proposition, which designates the overall conjunction of ear and eye in Ulysses and the Wake. When we suppose, in fact, that ‘irisitis’ consists of four monosyllables that make up a pair of trochees, and the first word starts with a long Gaelic vowel, as exemplified by the phrase “talk earish with his eyes shut,” then the line would run as follows: ear is sight is. Besides the fact that ‘irisitis,’ in this way, aptly summarizes the tenor of our argument, it also successfully evokes the circular structure and infinitely suspended last sentence of the Wake.

When viewed in the light of temporal/spatial relations, moreover, the proposition’s implied modes of the audible and the visible, which Stephen Dedalus, following Schopenhauer’s example, designates as respectively Nacheinander (an image of time) and Nebeneinander (an image of space) in the “Proteus” section of Ulysses, immediately relate to Joyce’s revolutionary poetical program.

Already questioning the basic assumptions of temporal and spatial reality in his modernistic masterpiece, Ulysses, the linguistic cosmogony of Joyce’s ultimate novel would infinitely expand the relatively narrow parameters of fictional time and space. In “Circe,” for example, the invocation of Paddy Dignam’s servile ghost, who cannot but respond to his master voice, prompts Leopold Bloom to remark triumphantly, “You hear?” Echoing Dante’s startling encounter with his former mentor Brunetto Latini in the seventh circle of hell, the passage alternately summons up the modality of the audible (time) and the unity of place. Through the allusion to Dante, which transmigrates the scene and its protagonist into the past, and numerous acts of metempsychosis, involving for instance the image of a beardless William Shakespeare superimposed upon the reflection of Bloom and Stephen gazing in the mirror, Joyce crosses the traditional boundaries of time and space, although Ulysses as a whole remarkably adheres to the neoclassical principles of dramatic structure. It should be remembered that the polysemous affliction Joyce repeatedly suffered from partakes of a general tendency of mistakes and contingencies in his personal life which he, as a “man of genius,” deemed “volitional” and designated as “portals of discovery.”

As famously exemplified by Frank O’Connor’s anecdote about Joyce placing a picture of Cork in a cork frame, Joyce’s lifelong attempt to “establish a direct correspondence between substance and style” makes up one of his major artistic techniques. Accordingly, the meaningful coincidence of irisitis illuminates the important relationship between form and content in the literary work of James Joyce.

It is important to recognize, furthermore, that any artistic notion of chance Joyce may have had, whether observing in his life meaningful coincidences or downright ‘luck of the Irish,’ presupposes an intricate relationship between life and art. To be sure, the personal events of Joyce’s life are so inextricably woven into his work, that many believed his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, to be a genuine autobiography. Even Joyce’s ultimate novel, which exhibits an apparent meaninglessness in the verisimilitude of everyday life, has been read by some as his confession and autobiography.

According to Thornton Wilder, for example, “Finnegans Wake is […] an agonized journey into the private life of James Joyce.” As Roy Gottfried, among others, has amply demonstrated, the systematic uncertainty and obscurity of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake run parallel to Joyce’s pathology. In this sense, the notion of blindness can be seen as more than an analogy, since Joyce “wrote over every square inch of the only foolscap available, his own body.”

Therefore, rather than attempting to deconstruct life’s intricate relation to art, we will proceed instead from the basic assumption regarding the significant mutual influence of Joyce’s personal life on the development of his fiction. Ultimately, the imperative mood of ‘irisitis’ (read: ‘Eye, resight this’) alludes to the notion of second sight which, following the internal logic of a subsequently primary and secondary order of vision, makes up the alternate, albeit related, point of departure for the present study.  

On His Blindness

A further observation that has instigated the current research has to do with the tradition of the blind, prophetic bard to which the historical figure of James Joyce arguably belongs. Extending from Homer, with whom the blind bard has become synonymous, the literary tradition of the blind seer or the sightless poet who has been accorded the gift of prophecy includes the illustrious cases of Tiresias, “the Theban seer whose blindness proved his great illumination,” and John Milton, the blind epic poet who turned blind in mid-life and subsequently used his own biography to develop the theme of blindness in his literary work.

O Cego Tirésias com um Rapaz - John Flaxman, c.18th  [imagem Bridgeman]
O Cego Tirésias com um Rapaz
John Flaxman, séc. XVIII

In his “Defence of Poetry” (1821), Shelley praised the latter as the third great epic poet after Homer and Dante, and he closely connected Milton’s Paradise Lost with La Divina Commedia. To be sure, it remains a singular fact that two of the three greatest epic poets of Western literature were blind, while the third, Dante Alighieri, suffered from a considerable visual impairment in his later years. When we consider, furthermore, the fact that the novel has replaced the epic as the major literary form in English, as well as Georg Lukács’ definition of the novel as “the epic of an age in which the extensive totality of life is no longer directly given,” the destiny Joyce shared with Homer, Milton, and Dante becomes all the more intriguing. In this light, their respective blindness can be “interpreted as a threshold between physical mortality and literary immortality.” As stated before, the literary tradition of the blind bard originated with Homer, the Ionian bard who has been credited with the authorship of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

As Adaline Glasheen puts it in her offhand way, “[i]t probably mattered to Joyce that Homer was blind.” The extent to which Joyce was preoccupied with the striking analogy is difficult to retrace, although, in any case, Joyce, in 1922, had to be reassured by his ophthalmologist Dr. Borsch that there was no imminent danger of glaucoma foudroyant, “the disease which […] was probably the cause of Homer’s blindness.”

A Apoteose de Homero - Ingres, 1827
A Apoteose de Homero - Ingres, 1827

By itself, the ancient life of “[b]lind Melesigenes, thence Homer call’d,” interwoven with mythography and ancient popular etymology, remains a matter of strong controversy. Even though it has been virtually impossible to retrace the original author of both epics handed down by oral tradition, the cultural archetype of the blind bard nonetheless has firmly taken root in Western literature. Whether or not Homer, in his rendering of Demodocus, utilized his own sightless experience, the blind bard who recites in the eight book of the Odyssey a couple of Ulysses’ adventures, including his ploy of the Trojan horse, has constituted the age-old association between the topic of blindness and the inward vision of the bard.

In Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros (1990), for example, the rich allegory of the blind poet is celebrated in the title character, who possesses the gift of inner vision. In particular, Homer’s St. Lucian avatar, a blind old sailor named Seven Seas, presents “a fascinating genealogy composed of Homer, Demodocus, Joyce, as well as distant echoes of the mythical figure of the blind Argentine poet, Jorge Luis Borges.” When James Joyce, in a discussion with his language pupil Georges Borach in 1917, answered for his lifelong preoccupation with Homer’s Odyssey, he observed that “[t]he most beautiful, all-embracing theme is that of the Odyssey. […] Dante tires one quickly; it is like looking into the sun.”

Interestingly, Joyce’s observation regarding the blinding effect of Dante’s literary work precisely echoes the great symbolic value the latter attaches to light, darkness, vision, and blindness in his Commedia. In the twenty-fifth canto of Paradiso, for instance, Dante loses his sight when he looks into the luminous presence of St. John the Evangelist. In the following canto, the eventual restoration of his sight by Beatrice ends the account of his examination by St. John on the virtue of love. In the thirty-second canto of Purgatorio, the pilgrim Dante is likewise temporarily blinded, when he stares, for the first time in ten years, into the face of Beatrice. Subsequently, “her enamelled eyes” transmit the divine light that in effect will raise Dante to the first sphere of heaven, “indergoading him on to the vierge violetian.”

There is reason to believe that Dante had chronic eye troubles. Like Milton, who went blind by excessive study, Dante sometimes strained his eyes by “[p]oring over manuscripts late into the night by candlelight, as well as [by] naked-eye gazing at the stars.” In Il Convivio, after discussing at length the Aristotelian diaphane, to which Stephen Dedalus refers in the “Proteus” episode of Ulysses, Dante lists the painful experience of temporarily losing his sight as a result of an intense period of reading: [B]y greatly straining my vision through assiduous reading I weakened my visual spirits so much that the stars seemed to me completely overcast by a kind of white haze. But by resting at length in dark and cool places and by cooling the surface of my eyes with clear water, I regained that power which had undergone deterioration, so that I returned to my former state of healthy vision. Interestingly, Dante’s description of his convalescence closely resembles the incapacitating blindness Joyce repeatedly suffered from during the strenuous materialization of Ulysses. At such relapses of his earlier ophthalmological symptoms like iritis and glaucoma, Joyce, in fact, would lay immobilized in a darkened room, while Nora generally would stay at his side, “dipping a cloth into ice water and applying it to his eyes.” Apart from the fact that Dante occasionally overstrained his eyes by excessive study, it remains unclear whether he, like Joyce, suffered from a visual impairment that reached deplorable proportions. In any case, the Florentine poet’s real or imputed eye troubles, added to the recurrent theme of occluded and remediated vision in the Divina Commedia, underlines his distinct association with the literary tradition of the blind bard.

Comparable with the pilgrim Dante who, deprived of outer light, looks at the inner light of divinity through the eyes of Beatrice, the blind bard in the third book Milton’s Paradise Lost, through the medium of the heavenly muse, “may inhabit a landscape he cannot see and can be invited into the celestial vision that none of the seeing world can directly experience.”

Drawing upon extremely personal references, since his own eyes would “roll in vain / to find [God’s] piercing ray and find no dawn,” John Milton, in the so-called “Hymn to Light” at the beginning of Book Three, “is using his own biography to develop the principal themes of the digression, relating the paradoxes of deprivation of light to the hymn’s salutation to Celestial Light.” Evoking the figure of Maeonides (Homer) and emphasizing their biographical convergence, Milton creates a blind bard who, like the pilgrim Dante, “is a visitor to the realms of Chaos and Eternal Night, returned safely to the realms of light.” In line with the sharpened inner vision that traditionally compensates the visually impaired bard or seer, Milton further invokes the Celestial Light to “shine inward and the mind through all her powers / irradiate; there plant eyes; all mist from thence / purge and disperse, that I may see and tell / of things invisible to mortal sight.”

As stated before, the theme of blindness has become a twofold expression in the literary tradition. Especially with the definition of the Romantic ideology of poetic vision, “the topics of blindness and second sight [became] closely linked.” As Patricia Novillo-Corvalán puts it, “[w]hat the unseeing, inert eyes of the poet cannot perceive is compensated for by the vast, unlimited vision afforded by the eye of the imagination, as the poet exchanges eyesight for the craft of versifying.”

In Romanticism, the seer might therefore be easily confused with the bard, since the prophetic or poetic vision attributed to the artist immediately relates to divine inspiration or inspired divination. Apart from the literary tradition of the blind bard, which originated with Homer, Joyce’s physical blindness as an appropriate indicator of his poetic vision has a distinct cultural background much closer to home.

In “The Celtic Bard of Romanticism,” Edward Larrissy, in fact, states that the topics of physical blindness and ‘second sight’ have been associated with the Celtic bard since the early eighteenth century, even before the appearance of MacPherson’s Ossian. According to Larrissy, “Irish tradition played a small but indubitable part in fashioning the image of the visionary, and sometimes blind, bard.”

The belief in ‘second sight,’ furthermore, “was part of the common inheritance of Ireland,” as famously rendered by Synge’s Riders to the Sea or Yeats’s folklore writings. The present study, in short, will not attempt to trace Joyce’s literary precursors or any precedent for the sightless poet in English literature or elsewhere, for that would be an unending task.

Apart from the fact that the important literary relationship between Joyce and respectively Homer, Dante, and Milton clearly lies beyond the scope of this thesis, various scholars, furthermore, have already explored a range of (intertextual) connections and formulated, through detailed parallel readings, significant theories of influence and intertextuality.

In the light of Joyce’s progressive eye troubles and his related affiliation with the literary tradition of the blind bard, this study will neither attempt to recover his private thoughts on these matters. We shall be concerned, instead, with Joyce’s explicit references to the topics of (figurative) blindness and myopia in his literary work, and especially with the sensory apparatus in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Rather than touching upon matters that have really been worked into the ground, such as the use of music or the aural mode in Joyce’s later prose fictions, or copying a simple study of influence from authoritative critical contributions, I will attempt to unearth a relatively new field of study in which blindness as a twofold expression constitutes a framework for the thematic discussion of Joyce’s occluded vision.


James Joyce Leopold Bloom Sketch
In January 1926, to demonstrate his improving vision, Joyce picked up a thick black pencil and made a few squiggles on a sheet of paper, along with a caricature of a mischievous man in a bowler hat and a wide moustache –Leopold Bloom -, the protagonist of Ulysses.

James Joyce's Eyesight and Blindness

  • c1888: (6 years old) glasses prescribed for nearsightedness (broken but replaced)

    He had tried to spell out the headline for himself though he knew already what it was for it was the last of the book. Zeal without prudence is like a ship adrift. But the lines of the letters were like fine invisible threads and it was only by closing his right eye tight tight and staring out of the left eye that he could make out the full curves of the capital. [in "A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man"]

  • c1894: (12 years old) advised by 'foolish doctor' to put aside glasses (Richard Ellman 26) / school medical officer (Peter Costello 129)

  • 1904 June: can't tell if it's Nora at rendezvous

  • 1905 Feb to Stannie: "I was examined by the doctor of the Naval Hospital here last week and I now wear pince-nez glasses on a string for reading. My number is very strong -- could you find out what is Pappie's." [E192]

  • 1907 Jul: rheumatic fever initiates eye problems; Lucia named after patron saint of eyesight (E262, 268)

  • 1908: iritis (Costello 276)

  • 1909 Dec: iritis in Dublin (Costello 290)

  • 1910: drinking in Pirano (near Trieste) later blamed for eye problems (E535)

  • 1917 Aug: attack of glaucoma, insensible with pain for 20min, iridectomy by Sidler on right eye for glaucoma, exudation permanenty reduced vision (E417)

  • 1918 Jul: iritis returns in both eyes, almost incapacitated for a week or more "dangerously ill and in danger of blindness" (E442)

  • 1918 Nov: eye troubles recur

  • 1919 Feb: "my eyes are so capricious... This time the attack was in my 'good?' eye so that the decisive symptoms of iritis never really set in. It has been light but intermittent so that for five weeks I could do little or nothing except lie constantly near a stove" (E454)

  • 1921 Jul: five weeks recuperating from iritis attack w/cocaine, lying in darkened room, came to a head in three hours (E517)

  • 1921 Aug: "I write and revise and correct with one or two eyes about twelve hours a day I should say, stopping for intervals of five minutes or so when I can't see any more." (E517)

  • 1922 May: iritis recurs, spread to left eye (E535) "a furious eye attack lasting until [October]" (E538)

  • 1922 July : Berman advises complete extraction of teeth (E536)

  • late 1922: everything (or eyes themselves?) looks red (E537)

  • 1922 Oct : leeches and dionine from Dr Collin (E538)

  • 1923 Apr: teeth extracted, Borach performs sphincterectomy on eye, unable to read until June (???) (E543)

  • 1924 Apr: Borsch notices secretion forming in conjunctiva of left eye (E564)

  • 1924 June: second iridectomy on left eye, nightmarish visions after (E566)

  • 1924 Jul: eyepatch (E567)

  • 1924 Nov: sight dims again, cataract removed from left (E568)

  • 1925 Feb: conjunctivitis in right, pain, leeches and morphine (E569)

  • 1925 March: fresh trouble in right "one eye sightless and the other inflamed" (E570)

  • 1925 April: operation on left, slight return of vision; right can read print w/magnifying glass (E570) scopolamine treatments

  • 1925 Aug: sight too poor to walk on beach (E572)

  • 1925 Oct: eyes better (E573)

  • 1925 Dec: operation on left, quite blind after (E573)

  • 1926: switches to large writing (E573)

  • 1926 spring-summer: eyes better

Fonte: Jorn Barger


excerto de:
Joyce’s Myopia, Irisitis, and Blind Prophecy
autor: Jan Leendert van Velze
Dissertação em Literatura Comparada
Universidade de  Utrecht, Holanda
Fonte: Igitur Bibliotheek - Universiteit Utrecht


Publicado por MJA