Monday, November 07, 2005

The Country Of The Blind - H. G. Wells

I actually managed to read something from start to finish, so I thought I should write it up. Country of the Blind is a short story, just thirty-four pages and is to be found in a book with two other short stories (published by Penguin, £1.50) or in electronic format here. Lady Bracknell mentioned this book some months ago and so I was keen to read it when another friend offered to lend to it me.

The Country of the Blind referred to is an isolated valley in the Andes. Settlers came here and were cut off from the outside world by a series of landslides. At some point in their history, they experienced some sort of infection or other and over several generations the entire population has become blind.

By the time our story begins, fifteen generations have passed since the last person had sight and indeed, the entire concept of visual experience has faded from memory. When Numez, a moutaineer, falls from a mountain path and finds himself in the Country of the Blind, he assumes that, as they saying goes “In the country of the Blind, the one eyed man is king.”

But it doesn’t quiet work out like that.

H. G. Wells has created a realistic world where blindness is no impairment and indeed, sight is. The community choose to work when it is cool and sleep when it is warm; thus they are working at night, where our hero can but stumble about. None of the buildings have been built with windows and there is no lighting of any kind.

However, the chief way in which sight is an impairment is that the community think Numez is both mad and stupid. He of course uses nonsense words; talks about light and colours which are entirely alien concepts. Rather than assuming authority over them, he finds himself tolerated as an unfortunate eccentric.

Wells is not always convincing when it comes to Numez’s attempts to persuade other people of his sight. It seems unlikely that he would not have found a way to demonstrate some kind of - what was for the natives - extra-sensory perception.

Nor was I entirely happy with some aspects of the community’s mythology and how they explained Numez’s presence in the valley. They didn’t believe in an outside world at all, and yet they fairly quickly accepted that Numez had been magically born out of the rocks. I thought much more could have been made of how people might come to understand the world around them in the absence of sight, how religious beliefs brought by the first settlers may have changed and how language might evolve in the absence of the written word.

The Country of The Blind is not a terribly moving story. I am not an avid reader of short stories generally, but I was not in the least invested in any of the characters, nor did I learn much about them. It was more about expressing something about the human condition as opposed to telling a story about this specific group of people.

But at thirty-four pages, I can't not recommend it.

The other stories in the book are called The Remarkable Case of Davidson's Eyes and The Stolen Bacillus. I ought to have read them as well but I was rather chuffed at my completion of a single story with my current difficulty.

11 Comments:

Blogger Charlesdawson said...

Actually, Goldfish, I found the inhabitants' dismissal of Nunez rather convincing: as if a set of sturdy common-sense Brits, for example, were asked to believe in palmistry or divination by tealeaves. If there were any results, they would be dismissed as sleight-of-hand trickery. It nicely pointed up Nunez' sense of essential helplessness.

A nice anticipation of The Social Model!

5:06 PM  
Blogger marmiteboy said...

I have to agree in part with Mr D on this one. It's been a while since I read the story but I like to think of it as Charles said an anticipation of the social model. In fact I have mentioned it in passing in disability awareness courses as a way of enhancing the message of the social model.

This is not to say that it is a great story however. Wells' writing is of its time and I find it a bit slow and laboured even for a short story. I have tobe fair never been a fan of his writing, this might be because of my general antipathy to SF though.

I cannot deny the power of the message in the story. Whether Wells intended it as a social comment on disability is doubtful however.

8:07 PM  
Blogger The Goldfish said...

It wasn't the reaction to Nunez that I didn't buy, it was (a) the fact that he chose such inadequate ways of trying to prove he had this ability and (b) the rest of the mythology; the world is a bubble in rock and the valley is all that exists. How and why would such a restricting world view have evolved? And how did they so easily accept that another human being was 'born out of the rock' as opposed to coming from another world.

If all the inhabitants of the Earth were accounted for and someone new turned up, would we believe that (a) this person sprung up from the ground or (b) this person came from somewhere else something like the place we inhabit?

In John Wyndham's The Chrysalids, folks have lost sight of global geography following nuclear holocaust and a return to a much more primitive way of life. But they did have a sense of their being a world beyond, even if their land was the only place people were. If you look at myths and legends, the idea of other places where no-one's ever been and other people living there are common place - indeed, today we have UFOs.

It didn't matter very much, I just thought that a little more care and attention should have been paid to these points.

But yes of course this all relates very nicely to the social model - not sure I managed to write a review without mentioning that. #-)

11:23 PM  
Blogger Charlesdawson said...

Well, Goldfish, there's nothing I like better than a good old academic argument, with teeth and eyeballs flying and blood staining the snow, so I'm going to come back at you on this one.

I would remind you that Nunez meets the tribe after they have been isolated for fifteen generations: about 300 years.

Any anthropologist or social historian will tell you that it is frightening how quickly folk memory is lost, particularly when the society is illiterate, unless they have made special arrangements to have a "remembrancer", eg Greek bards,
African and Amerindian rememberers. The Romani writer Dominic Reeve recorded his frustration at being unable to elicit more than the vaguest reminiscences from most of his fellow travellers: history is reduced to anecdotes, what you can remember of what your Granny told you.

Moreover, it is in the nature of the human brain to try to make sense out of the chaos that is reality by tidying it up into schemes: Yggdrasil, sun going round the earth, economic determinism, Chosen People, whatever. Wells was trying to construct such a system from what he could imagine of total universal blindness.

As to his inability to impress the tribe, first, he is not supposed to be a particularly intelligent, articulate man as I recall: in fact, a peasant like themselves. So there is his inability to understand fully their situation, society and consequent mental mindframe, for a start, added on to which is his own personal inadequacy. I think also that Wells
is trying to point up the dramatic irony, here; in fact, he has chosen a very Aristotelian tragedy framework complete with fatal flaw and hubris brought to book.

12:10 PM  
Blogger The Goldfish said...

Blood on the snow then, is it? (rolls up sleeves)

I acknowledge that 'folk memory', particularly in the absence of written information, can be lost very quickly indeed. But these are an isolated people, and at the point they became isolated, they were in trouble. First of all, they had to set up the farming community from scratch and then they had the phenomena of this disease which was gradually robbing everyone of their sight. Remember a legend of The Country of the Blind had made it out of the valley when one member attempted to fetch help and buy a shrine. "In those days…men did not think of germs and infections but of sins."

Ring any bells? Isolated community, low population, primitive beliefs, facing a crisis. You have surely read The Book of Leviticus? Leviticus is the most puritanical book of the Bible because Moses and his posse were stuck in the dessert. People, animals and behaviour was considered clean and unclean - they didn’t understand disease, but they did work out for example that bodily fluids of any variety may carry danger. As late as last century, women were not allowed in certain areas of a Christian church when they had painters in.

Now of course the Semitic religions have loads of documentation and when you look at the journey of Christianity, incidences like the mistranslation of the Hebrew "young woman" to the Greek "virgin" etc, things can change very rapidly indeed.

However within such a small, immobile group of people who have undergone such a massive collective trauma, I personally felt that they were likely to have very significant religious structures even if they had completely forgotten everything about the experience of sight.

"Oh we’re a bubble in the rock and the only world there is and Nunez has obviously been born out of the rock which accounts for why he’s a bit thick." struck me as rather lazy.

Secondly, although Nunez is not the sharpest tool in the shed, he is described as "a reader of books in an original way, acute and enterprising." He makes two main attempts at demonstrating his sight. One is recounting the events of the village from a point on the hillside which fails because the main events took place indoors. Fair enough. But the other one, when he tells them that Pedro will be here in a moment, well it was just bad luck that Pedro turned off his path and went another way. At which point it seems he reaches the end of his tether.

I think it unlikely that Nunez would have ever made the natives understand that they were blind, but I find it unlikely that he would not have at least sewn the seeds of the idea that Nunez had some sort of something going on with him. Some sort of 'supernatural' ability to know things he had no way of knowing.

5:32 PM  
Blogger Charlesdawson said...

With respect, Goldfish, the villagers did conclude that Nunez had "some sort of something going on with him." They thought he needed exorcism by removing his eyeballs to cure it.

I agree with you that it is likely the tribe would have some kind of religion: what I don't see is why that religion should be at all sophisticated.

The Jewish Bible, remember, is not a contemporary account of events. It was written many generations after (if) the events happened and had been interpreted and re-interpreted many times, not least in the light of contacts with other religions. It has been suggested that a lot of the Mosaic law and post-Mosaic accretions have their origin less in "common sense" than in a reaction against the practices of other local religions, notably the worship of Bel [Baal].

I would suggest that a small illiterate colony as suggested by Wells would be more likely to have a pretty basic, crude if you like, philosophy.

And I think it is psychologically likely that Nunez would lose his rag at the Pedro incident: he's had all his cherished preconceptions upset, he's beginning to realise that these people are not as harmless as he's assumed, he can't get through to them; I think the Pedro incident is a reasonable last straw.

7:21 PM  
Blogger The Goldfish said...

Fair enough Charles, I guess I have a slightly different, perhaps more optimistic perception of human nature, different references perhaps - and there's every chance that such references are inferior to both yours and Wells'.

And I certainly don't mean to detract from the central message of The Country of the Blind which was effective enough. It just wasn't real to me.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Katie said...

How do we post about books on here? I'm a eager bookworm who enjoys reading and would like to be considered as a member of here, if that's possible!

H.G Wells was a great author of his time.

5:19 PM  
Blogger Sunshine said...

One question is, of course, does a story have to be one hundred per cent realistic to make a point?

The Pedro incident is interesting in a way no-one has mentioned yet. Pedro denied that he had been where Nunez said, and was hostile thereafter. Perhaps he was off on some nefarious errand, and didn't take kindly to being exposed?

Try this: One definition of insanity is a lack of contact with, or the possession of delusions about, reality. The definition of madness in a given culture thus depends on that culture's definition of what is reality. Imagine that you arrive somewhere or other where they think the world is flat. Are they mad because they think the world is flat, or are you mad because you know it's round? Bear in mind that they are in the majority.

Take a trip to your nearest bible belt, try explaining Darwin on the basis of empirical evidence and then see how far you get. Try explaining that fossils of marine organsms in mountainous regions are the result of the folding of the earth's crust rather than the Great Inundation (a myth that goes back to Gilgamesh). Try also explaining the millions of years of geological and biological history of the earth to someone who knows that the earth and the universe were created around four thou years ago in the course of seven days (well six actually).

We live in a world where biology teachers hesitate to discuss evolution because of the controversy, and we aren't blind and living in a valley with no discernible outside world.

The inhabitants of Easter Island can give no account of the advanced culture they obviously once had. However, they knew one thing. The statues had walked from the quarry to where they now stand. This was pooh-poohed and dismissed as a myth by sensible, rational, down-to-earth people until Heyerdahl worked out that it was the case, and demonstrated it. So who was right abot reality?

The situation depicted here is a bit more general than the Social Model as such. Handling reality is a combination of handling both the physical reality and the social reality surrounding one, and the social reality can take precedence within the situation, which can make one really handicapped or really dominant.

"Reality" in a given situation is that reality, real or constructed, that can be mobilised in that situation. That means that reality that, when invoked, gets the right result because people subscribe to it (the skipper can't leave harbour because the weather forecast says so), or because the physical world forces itself upon them (the skipper can't leave harbour because the waves are pushing him back).

Perhaps the Social Model is a special case of what is described here. Who is handicapped within the context of this local situation, Nunez or the locals (they aren't as harmless and ineffectual as he thought? It just confirms the tired old cliche that "everything is relative."

2:47 AM  
Blogger Sunshine said...

a story have to be one hundred per cent realistic to make a point?

The Pedro incident is interesting in a way no-one has mentioned yet. Pedro denied that he had been where Nunez said, and was hostile thereafter. Perhaps he was off on some nefarious errand, and didn't take kindly to being exposed?

Try this: One definition of insanity is a lack of contact with, or the possession of delusions about, reality. The definition of madness in a given culture thus depends on that culture's definition of what is reality. Imagine that you arrive somewhere or other where they think the world is flat. Are they mad because they think the world is flat, or are you mad because you know it's round? Bear in mind that they are in the majority.

Take a trip to your nearest bible belt, try explaining Darwin on the basis of empirical evidence and then see how far you get. Try explaining that fossils of marine organsms in mountainous regions are the result of the folding of the earth's crust rather than the Great Inundation (a myth that goes back to Gilgamesh). Try also explaining the millions of years of geological and biological history of the earth to someone who knows that the earth and the universe were created around four thou years ago in the course of seven days (well six actually).

We live in a world where biology teachers hesitate to discuss evolution because of the controversy, and we aren't blind and living in a valley with no discernible outside world.

The inhabitants of Easter Island can give no account of the advanced culture they obviously once had. However, they knew one thing. The statues had walked from the quarry to where they now stand. This was pooh-poohed and dismissed as a myth by sensible, rational, down-to-earth people until Heyerdahl worked out that it was the case, and demonstrated it. So who was right abot reality?

The situation depicted here is a bit more general than the Social Model as such. Handling reality is a combination of handling both the physical reality and the social reality surrounding one, and the social reality can take precedence within the situation, which can make one really handicapped or really dominant.

"Reality" in a given situation is that reality, real or constructed, that can be mobilised in that situation. That means that reality that, when invoked, gets the right result because people subscribe to it (the skipper can't leave harbour because the weather forecast says so), or because the physical world forces itself upon them (the skipper can't leave harbour because the waves are pushing him back).

Perhaps the Social Model is a special case of what is described here. Who is handicapped within the context of this local situation, Nunez or the locals (they aren't as harmless and ineffectual as he thought? It just confirms the tired old cliche that "everything is relative."

2:51 AM  
Blogger Sunshine said...

Oh Gawd - Please forgive the double post - sorry all.

3:00 AM  

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