H.G. Wells’ nightmarish mediation on the proverb “in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” is fitting for our times.
It is the story of the Ecuadorian mountaineer Nuñez, “a man who had been down to the sea and had seen the world, a reader of books in an original way, an acute and enterprising man” (564) 1. Hired by a group of English climbers to scale the summit of Parascotopetl (a fictitious mountain in the Andes), Nuñez plunges to what ought to have been his death.
The snow cushions his fall and he awakes, unharmed, near the Country of the Blind, a valley settled generations ago by people escaping Spanish tyranny. A disease had taken these people’s vision and their children were born blind. Nonetheless, they thrived, shaping their environment to fit their needs as their hearing and smell becoming more acute. Over generations, they lost any conception of vision.
When Nuñez realizes that he has chanced upon the Country of the Blind, he remembers the proverb about the one-eyed king. Fully sighted, he vows to rule and enlighten these people who he expects will be astonished by his superior senses. Instead, the villagers neither understand nor believe anything he says and his attempts to prove his sight prove futile. They think he is mad and daft, suited only for rude tasks and what rudimentary education he can absorb:
The voice of an older man began to question him, and Nuñez found himself trying to explain the great world out of which he had fallen, and the sky and mountains and sight and such-like marvels, to those elders who sat in darkness in the Country of the Blind. And they would believe and understand nothing whatever he told them, a thing quite outside his expectation. They would not even understand many of his words. For fourteen generations these people had been blind and cut off from all the seeing world; the names for all the things of sight had faded and changed; the story of the outer world was faded and changed to a child’s story; and they had ceased to concern themselves with anything beyond the rocky slopes above their circling wall (571).
The intellectuals and philosophers have buttressed this world view with arguments so that the blind villagers are even more convinced that their perception delimitates the world:
Blind men of genius had arisen among them and questioned the shreds of belief and tradition they had brought with them from their seeing days, and had dismissed all these things as idle fantasies, and replaced them with new and saner explanations. Much of their imagination had shriveled with their eyes, and they had made themselves new imaginations with their ever more sensitive ears and finger tips (571).
Nuñez fall in love with a girl Medina-saroté who “was little esteemed in the world of the blind, because she had a clear-cut face, and lacked that satisfying, glossy smoothness that is the blind man’s ideal of feminine beauty” (580). He courts her, but her family opposes the marriage to a deluded simpleton, despite his progress in learning their ways. They consult with a doctor:
“His brain is affected,” said the blind doctor.
The elders murmured assent.
“Now, what affects it?”
“Ah!” said old Yacob.
“This,” said the doctor, answering his own question. “Those queer things that are called the eyes, and which exist to make an agreeable soft depression in the face, are diseased, in the case of Bogota, in such a way as to affect his brain. They are greatly disteneded, he has eyelashes, and his eyelids move, and consequently his brain is in a state of constant irritation and distraction.”
“Yes?” said old Yacob. “Yes?”
“And I think I may say with reasonable certain that, in order to cure him completely, all that we need do is a simple and easy surgical operation – namely, to remove these irritant bodies.” (582)
Medina-saroté urges Nuñez to undergo the operation and he contemplates it. But in the end, he flees into the mountains. We do not learn his fate.
The obvious predecessor to Well’s tale is Plato’s allegory of the cavefrom The Republic. In Plato’s allegory, men are chained in cave, unable to move their heads so that all they see are the shadows on the wall cast by puppets behind them. One man breaks free. At first, his eyes hurt and he angrily denies the reality of the objects reflected on the wall, insisting that the shadows are reality. But as he goes stumbling out of the cave into the sunlight, his eyes adjust and he sees the world as we see it.
And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?
And if they were in the habit of conferring honors among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honours and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer, “Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?”
Yes, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.
Imagine once more, I said, such a one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?
To be sure, he said.
And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death. (516c-517a) (my italics)
The end of Plato’s allegory alludes to the fate of Socrates, condemned to death by the Athenian democracy. The Republicis in some respects a hopeful work – there is at least the possibility of enlightened rule by philosopher kings, though it is unclear what status readers should give to the Socrates’ utopia or its desirability.
Well’s “Country of the Blind” offers a much bleaker and I fear truer vision.
2I can’t resist quoting Tom Wait’s twisted fantasy “Singapore” from Rain Dogs :
We sail tonight for Singapore
Take your blankets from the floor
Wash your mouth out by the door
The whole town is made of iron ore
Every witness turns to steam
They all become Italian dreams
Fill your pockets up with earth
Get yourself a dollar’s worth
Away boys, away boys, heave away
The captain is a one-armed dwarf
He’s throwing dice along the wharf
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King
So take this ring
We sail tonight for Singapore
We’re all as mad as hatters here
I’ve fallen for a tawny moor
took off to the Land of Nod
Drank with all the Chinamen
Walked the sewers of Paris
I danced along a colored wind
Dangled from a rope of sand
You must say goodbye to me