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The Enlightenment and visual impairment

Blindness is a recurrent image in Enlightenment rhetoric. It is used in a political context to indicate a lack of awareness, seen in a letter from Edmund Burke to the chevalier de La Bintinnaye, in poetic rhetoric, with the stories of the blind poets Milton, Homer, and Ossian circulating among the intelligentsia of the time, or simply as a physical irritation, when writers with long lives and extensive correspondences frequently complained of their eyesight deteriorating.

The reception of those with total blindness, however, changed during the course of the long eighteenth century. The experiences of three people (acknowledged as blind) serves to show the ways Enlightenment thinkers, and eighteenth century society in general, responded to those who were rendered separate by their blindness.

The first is John Vermaasen, who plays a small but fascinating role in the evolution of Enlightenment epistemology, appearing as a living thought experiment in Robert Boyle’s Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours (1665). An organist, Vermaasen was blind from the age of two. He came to the attention of Robert Boyle when it was discovered that he had what may be considered a case of synaesthesia; he was able (allegedly) to experience colours using his sense of touch. When presented with a selection of coloured ribbons, and asked to give their colour, Vermaasen would “place them betwixt the Thumb and the Fore-finger…his most exquisite perception was in his Thumb, and much better in the right Thumb than in the left” (Robert Boyle, Experiments, p. 45) and then describe the colours to Boyle and his companion, determining them on the basis of the asperity, or roughness, of the material. Boyle was also sent another anecdote about an encounter with Vermaasen by Henry Oldenburg, in 1665.

Boyle would go on to use this experiment to hypothesise a continuity between the experiences of the five senses, a concept that would have a profound impact on the investigation into the nature of empiricism conducted by figures such as David Hume, George Berkeley, and the French Philosophes in the eighteenth century, most notably Denis Diderot, who in 1749 would write his Letter on the Blind, advancing a theory of education for the blind based on these principles.

A less endearing postscript to this story comes from Jonathan Swift, who included a possible reference to Vermaasen in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), as part of his satirical portrait of the Royal Society in the academy of Lagado (Bk. III: Ch.5), implying that Swift, at least, didn’t believe a word of Boyle’s story:

“There was a man born blind, who had several apprentices in his own condition: their employment was to mix colours for painters, which their master taught them to distinguish, by feeling and smelling. It was indeed my misfortune to find them at that time not very perfect in their lessons, and the professor himself happened to be generally mistaken. This artist is much encouraged and esteemed by the whole fraternity.”
— Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, Bk. III: Ch.5

We can see the identity of Vermaasen being torn between the theoretical implications of his synaesthesia and his own playful means of adapting that synaesthesia into a self-representation of his own. Ultimately though, as far as we can tell, his blindness does not appear to have damaged his professional or social life. It was transcended by the unique and philosophically interesting sensory experiences he had in place of sight.

Thomas Blacklock (1721-1791), nineteenth-century engraving based on eighteenth-century painting. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Thomas Blacklock (1721-1791), nineteenth-century engraving based on eighteenth-century painting. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The same cannot be said for the second of our cases, however: Thomas Blacklock. Blacklock was a Scottish poet and clergyman who lost his sight to smallpox in infancy, but went on to become an advocate and pioneer of unique educational techniques for the blind. In 1760, he was nominated to the ministry of Kirkcudbright, only to find his potential congregation turned against him because of his blindness, creating an environment so toxic that his ordination was delayed until 1762, and he was only able to hold the position for three years, before resigning in 1765.

Blacklock’s understandable outrage at this rejection manifested itself in a satirical poem which he wrote in 1765, but which remained unpublished until 1903, so damning was it of the members of his congregation who had rejected him, out of nothing more than a prejudice against his blindness. This satire, called ‘Pistapolis’, is filled with evocations of the aural nature of sermonizing, highlighting the degree to which sight is irrelevant. A typical stanza runs as follows, addressing the poetic Muse:

“…if in thy view their procession should pass,
Though thy Tongue were of Iron, and thy Lungs were of brass,
To praise them in strains, like thy subject refin’d,
Were to p—ss in the ocean, or f—rt at the wind.”
— ‘Pistapolis’, (1765), unpub.

Though he was clearly embittered by his experiences, Blacklock went on to re-invent himself under the patronage of the poet and essayist James Beattie, becoming an expert on Scottish musical culture at Marischal College, Aberdeen, again exploiting his finely tuned ear.

In the case of Blacklock, we can see the liberating potential in the Enlightenment, particularly in Scotland. Blacklock was able to realize his secular, religious, and pedagogical potential by turning to the figures of the Scottish Enlightenment like James Beattie. He was able to move towards improving society for those marginalized like himself through a programme of pedagogy and publication, an early form of disability rights activist.

Later in the eighteenth century support for the blind became institutionalized. However, this also had its limitations. Anna Williams (our third case) was a Welsh poet who lost her sight later in life, and was given an annuity to support her by the bluestocking socialite and Shakespeare critic Elizabeth Montagu. In a letter of thanks, Williams says:

“I may with truth say I have not words to express my Gratitude as I ought, to a Lady whose bounty has by one act of benevolence doubled my Income, & whose tender Compassionate assurances, has removed the future anxiety of trusting to Chance, the terror of which only Could have prompted me to stand a publick Candidate for Mr Hetheringtons Bounty.”

Elizabeth Montagu, mezzotint engraving, John Raphael Smith, after Sir Joshua Reynolds, mezzotint, published 10 April 1776 (1775). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Elizabeth Montagu, mezzotint engraving, by John Raphael Smith, after a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, published 10 April 1776. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

It is the reference to Hetherington’s Bounty which is particularly significant here. This was an annuity of £10, to be given to one of 50 blind people “objects of charity, not being beggars, nor receiving alms from the parish” (London Evening Post, 29 March 1774–31 March 1774) from a bequest of £20,000 given by Hetherington to Christ Church Hospital. While Hetherington’s intentions were praised as noble, the extent to which his charitable donations were able to ameliorate the conditions of those both poor and blind in London as a whole was called into question.

The celebrated philanthropist Jonas Hanway quantified the blind poor of the metropolis, organizing them into categories based on age and ability to sustain themselves. Hanway finds that the poor urban blind in need of Hetherington’s bequest amounted to over 600, concluding that “we must turn our thoughts to a more practicable mode, distinguishing the most distressed, and appealing to the most affluent and charitable” (Jonas Hanway, Defects, p. 262).

Anna Williams is clearly aware of the excessive demand being placed on the Hetherington annuity, as well as its informal process of deciding who was a valid candidate, claiming that submitting to it would be “trusting to Chance”, making it little more than a lottery.

Thus we can see, in these three stories, the ways in which those recognized as blind responded to the changes in society within their own communities and times across the period of the Enlightenment. Vermaasen recognized the public and philosophical potential of his unique sensory gift, and exploited it to build an identity in the early Enlightenment scientific drive to investigate and elucidate the strange or unknown of the previous generation. Blacklock saw the potential in new secular power structures developing in the universities and formal or informal circles of intellectual patronage to develop a political and pedagogical identity outside of the church. Williams, while herself benefitting from the informal patronage of the eighteenth century social network, was witness to the burgeoning impersonal, “telescopic philanthropy”, which would become a standard model of Victorian social enterprise.

A different version of this blog post appeared on Electronic Enlightenment.

Featured image credit: ‘The Dark Streets Of Bokeh’ by A Guy Taking Pictures. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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