Some years ago at an outdoor art festival, I sought shade inside a booth that sold blown-glass jewelry. The artist, a kind woman in her late sixties, encouraged me to touch each of her creations and welcomed my tactile perspective. She placed earrings in my outstretched palm with a detailed description: “These are small rose quartz, almost translucent…Now these are larger, blue-green Swarovski crystal—like the ocean really—and surprisingly light when you wear them.” She understood that I came to know each earring by its weight in my palm, its texture beneath my fingers.
Though she didn’t doubt my ability to appreciate her pieces, she was surprised and pleased when I called her jewelry “pretty.” To her, “pretty” was reserved for instances of visual pleasure. When I used “pretty” to describe the silky-smooth texture of round crystal beads or the subtle ridges of blown-glass shapes, she embraced my view as novel and exciting. But she couldn’t shake the strangeness of hearing me use her visual words in nonvisual ways, a strangeness emphasized by our environment. The booths around us overflowed with paintings, delicate glass sculptures, tapestries—all created by artists who discouraged touching. This festival celebrated vision’s undisputed claims on the beautiful.
Relegating beauty to the eye of the beholder sets blind people at a disadvantage. Some of us are unable to appreciate the visual pleasure of sunrises, starry nights, flawless diamonds, double rainbows, and exotic orchids. To the sighted individual reveling in daily encounters with visual wonder, our world must seem a dark and barren place. Vision is a greedy sense that claims a central position in our culture: it demands control over all beautiful things. So where do the blind find beauty?
You will encounter a significant number who think that blind or visually impaired people cannot find beauty at all. This fear of a beautiless life veils blindness in tragedy. To live without seeing sunsets, the faces of your children, the sparkling waves lapping at the beach’s edge is to be cheated by beauty just out of reach. When the canvas of your world is wiped blank by vision loss, especially later in life, you forget that the world continues to exist.
Others may prefer the mystical conception of blindness, in which the blind are compensated for their loss by the gift of spiritual guidance—the ability to understand beauty in anything: a crust of bread, an empty can, a puddle of rainwater. In this view, the beauty we find in birdsong or the smell of impending rain is elevated to a saintly epiphany—a miraculous gem we find only because of our physical deficit. Our blindness shields us from worldly cares and wrenches our minds open—transforming us into vessels for the extraordinary and the divine. Every phrase we utter is a mantra to be treasured and practiced; every struggle we experience is justified as part of our sanctifying pilgrimage.
Whether you see blindness as eternal banishment from beauty or fortifying holy laurel, both views enforce the same ostracism: they command you to draw a line that blind people cannot cross. I cannot say what occurs on your side of the line, but I can describe the activity on mine.
I don’t see the line (did you see that coming?), so I will venture my thoughts on what beauty is.
Beauty cannot be confined to one sense, one organ; it resides in the being of the beholder. To experience beauty, you have to be, to exist—mind and body aware. Even the most glorious sunset must be placed within the context of our human experience. We cannot separate ourselves from our perceptions.
Nor can we claim to be only our sensory observations. You do not see the beauty in a sunset by virtue of your eyes; it is your mind, soul, spirit that translates beauty. Just as lively piano music speaks to your hands, your ears, your heart, even your feet, the smell of jasmine or freshly baked bread reaches beyond your nose. Your senses don’t monopolize pleasure; they convey it.
The eyes, like the purveyors of the other senses, are only one way for beauty to enter into your body and mind: they are not the best way. But there is no best way. This is why the blind person is no more saintly for finding beauty through the other senses. If a room has five doors, you choose one. If a room has four doors, you cannot choose a fifth—unless you create it. But creating that extra door is a lot of work. It’s far easier to choose one of the portals already provided.
The sense-door is a clunky metaphor. I doubt whether each of our senses corresponds to one door only. I often “see” with my fingers, understanding the beauty of an object first by touching it and then seeing it. With my hands, I understand dimensions and geography much more quickly. I run my fingers all over a thing and, suddenly, I know where to look to appreciate its color, its brightness, its contrasts. In this way, my hands and my eyes help create knowledge: neither is independent, I use two doors at once.
Nonvisual beauty is not the domain of only blind saints and sages. What stops the average sighted person from exploring the tactile, the olfactory, the auditory, is a preoccupation with the eyes. We have much more body in the world. Why not put it to work seeking beauty?
Another problem lies in the cliché itself: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” The “beholder” transmits an image of someone looking outward, only capable of seeing herself with a mirror. So throw away the mirror and the need to “see” yourself. Look, if you must use that word, look inward. Perceive inward. Explore yourself, starting with the spirit and the soul. We’ve all heard that mirrors lie. Be guided by your feelings and not your eyes.
It is much easier to be the spectator looking on than to make yourself the spectacle of your own hungry vision. Foremost among the senses, vision exists to create “safe distance”: we see imminent danger and avoid it. We can “look away” when situations become too painful. We “see” others as different from ourselves by not seeing ourselves as we really are.
To smell, to hear, to feel, to taste requires closeness, immersion, the chance to run our senses all over the thing we want to know. Couple this closeness with vision and we have a propensity for immeasurable beauty. Without vision, we still have that propensity. To find beauty, you must use your whole self, even if you don’t think that self is whole.