Would the One-Eyed Man Really be King?

It was raining when the alarm went off yesterday morning — and I don’t mean a gentle rain, either. No lightning, but still enough of a storm that my next door neighbors had a river in their backyard. I kid you not. The thing had a current.

It didn’t take more than a quick glance out the window to decide that Chad and I weren’t going for our morning walk. I didn’t want to skip working out completely, though, so I did a 21-minute ride on the exercise bike. I didn’t plan to go 21 minutes; that’s just how it worked out with the way my iPod shuffled songs that morning.

One of the songs I listened to was “Singapore” by Tom Waits, which has marvelous lyrics like:

I danced along a colored wind
Dangled from a rope of sand


While making feet for children’s shoes


Wipe him down with gasoline
‘Til his arms are hard and mean,
From now on, boys, this iron boat’s your home.

I love the vividness and imagination in those lines — and the rest of the song. I first heard it as part of a fire dance troupe’s play at Castle Carnivale earlier this year. I was so captivated that I came right home and bought it on iTunes. But there’s one line that pulls me up short every time I hear it:

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

It comes right after the bit about the one-armed dwarf captain throwing dice on the wharf, and I know it’s an old saying by Erasmus. But it’s not right. I mean, not really, if you think about it.

For one thing, our society has formed around having five senses — and the one we rely on most is sight. Most of our communication is written — books, magazines, newspapers, text messages, grocery lists. Even this blog post is a visual communication. So are TV shows and movies. Traffic signals, from red lights to yellow yield signs, are visual. Walk down the paint chip aisle at any home improvement store, and you’ll have no doubt how much of a visual society we are.

But would any of that exist if none of us could see? If none of us ever had?

I think it’s safe to say that in the land of the blind, no one would think to create patterned upholstery or roadside billboards — but saying that a one-eyed man would be king assumes vision would be just as important there as it is in a society that relies on sight.

Instead, the land of the blind would have developed more toward the other senses: touch, taste, smell, and hearing. I imagine there’d be more music — but probably no music videos. Or if there were, instead of pictures it’d be patterns of raised lines and bumps changing on a tactile screen. There’d be more sculpture. And we’d have to talk to each other instead of texting (although I’m sure they’d develop some form of written communication. After all, even our society has Braille. By the way, if you’ve never seen a Braille writer, they’re very cool.)

I like to think there’d still be dancing, in the Land of the Blind, and maybe I’d be better at it because I’d be used to feeling the music and which way my partner was leading me instead of watching my feet to make sure I didn’t step on his toes.

Plays would still be around, I’m sure, but they’d use things like raising or lowering the temperature, releasing scents into the air, or blowing a gentle breeze (or gale-force wind) through the theater to make it come alive. Costume designers and set dressers might not be out of work, but instead they’d focus on using materials that created certain sounds when the actors moved — from silks that swished to metal disks that jangled and clanked.

Self-scooping litterboxes would have been invented much earlier.

In a society like that, focused on everything except sight, would a man with one eye really have such an advantage that he could best everyone around him? Or would he, at most, be on level ground with everyone else, because that’s the world he grew up in so he was used to living in it?

Probably not — to both. You know the old saying: lose one sense, and the others get stronger to compensate. Well, it turns out that the Montreal Neurological Institute of Canada’s McGill University did some experiments on that, and it appears to be true — up to a point. The study found that people who were born blind or had lost their sight by age five did significantly better at determining the pitch of a sound than those who were sighted or lost their sight after they were ten. Those who were born blind also surprised the researchers by being able to pinpoint the location of a sound when one ear was plugged — something sighted people can’t do (at least not very well). So there’s one more disadvantage the one-eyed man would have in the land of the blind.

Another study looked at whether blind people have better memories than sighted ones — and the results suggest that, yes, they do, possibly because they have to memorize routines more often simply to navigate the world around them, such as remembering that the strawberry yogurt is the third row from the left on the top shelf while the mayonnaise is the second jar on the middle door shelf in the fridge; because they memorize things as a sequence based on routes instead of as a point on a map seen from above; or because they use more than one sense to remember something, which makes for a more dynamic, better-imprinted memory. Like when you smell chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven and are suddenly reminded of your fifth-grade bake sale. Or when you taste raspberry freezer jam and remember going to your grandmother’s for Christmas — even the way she had her hair cut, the apron she wore, and that the den where they put up the tree was off the kitchen on the left and had wood-paneled walls.

The brain has a plasticity up to a certain age where it can re-wire itself to accommodate things like the fact that a person is never going to use their eyes to get around. In fact, in that first study they did PET scans that showed the blind subjects who were able to locate a sound with one ear blocked still had activity in the visual cortex — something the study really didn’t expect. These people were still using the part of their brain that’s responsible for sight, but they were using it in a different way. Our hypothetical one-eyed man couldn’t do that; his visual cortex would be too busy, you know, letting him see with his one eye.

So, not only would a one-eyed man in a world where no one else could see have to navigate a world that relied on every sense except sight — giving him none of the visual cues we use in our world to get around and therefore no real advantage from being able to see — but he’d be at an actual physical disadvantage because everyone else would have developed better hearing, at the very least, and better memory.

Honestly, I think they’d pity him.

There’s a story in there somewhere, or at least a character. I just haven’t found it yet. I’m getting closer, though. I picture the Land of the Blind being somewhere close to Endland and the Neitherworld, a couple of places that showed up as typos in spam that I got in my email or blog comments. I’ve never heard of either before, but now I want to set a story there. They sound fascinating.

So, the next time you wonder where a writer gets her ideas from, there you go. We make ’em up, pretty much from anything we stumble across.

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