The Use and Abuse of Blindness (8)

This is the eighth, last, and longest in a series of posts.

*     *     *

Moments of Restoring Vision: Cases of Vision Restoring

No matter their story and immigration status, shame and guilt are what Hispanic children are taught to feel in America. The depth of psychological and emotional abuse perpetrated against them by institutions and people is unfathomable.

 --Valeria Luiselli

That passage comes from the same recent New York Times column I cited at the beginning of the preceding post of this series. What I cited there was the opening passage of the column, in which Valeria Luiselli describes a moment in which she was at last allowed to see the shame her own young daughter had been made to feel for just being herself—an utterly undeserved shame forced upon the child by the racist ambiance of the society into which the little girl had been born just a few years before. The quotation above comes from later in that same column. 

Later yet, just before the final two brief paragraphs of her piece (to which I will eventually return below), Luiselli goes on also to describe an extended moment of vision that was later given to the daughter herself. It was an extended "moment" that restored the girl’s faith in herself, and set her upon a new path, opening before her the possibility of developing her true potential. Luiselli's description, which also shows why she called her column "The Littlest Don Quixotes Versus the World," is worth quoting in full:

In 2016, the children started reading and translating “Don Quixote” from Spanish into English. They decided to reimagine Don Quixote, an old man in 16th-century Spain, as a group of Spanish-speaking immigrant children living in contemporary New York.

[. . .] 

They also turned the project into a musical, “The Traveling Serialized Adventures of Kid Quixote,” which they perform in homes, offices and college classrooms. We hosted an early performance. The troupe arrived with props, a keyboard, a ukulele, a disarmingly humorous script and a handful of deeply moving songs the children had written.

Since then, I have continued to observe the students at work on this project. In my years of experience as a writer and as a college professor, I have never seen anything like this: the love for language, the passion for discussion. During one session, the children were collectively writing a song about the sense of belonging and not belonging, of being themselves and having to live up to expectations.

We all sat around a large table full of etymological dictionaries and thesauruses, and the children were discussing a line about being born in Mexico. Suddenly, a girl of about 5 or 6 raised her hand and, very seriously, told all the others: I wasn’t born in Mexico, I was born on the moon. We all giggled at the candid eloquence of her remark. But she was in fact right. One theory about the origin of the word “Mexico” is that it is Nahuatl for “navel of the moon.”

*     *     *

Whatever the expectations others may lay upon us, we all have a natural tendency, one to which for the most part we are ourselves blind, to fulfill those expectations. Drawing upon that tendency, expectation itself tends to engender the very thing it expects. 

Not only do we have a tendency to try to live up to whatever high expectations of us we experience others as having. We have no less of a tendency to to try to live down to whatever low expectation we experience them as having for us, as well. 

Jean Genet offers one famous French example of living down to low expectations. Born and raised in the lower, least socially advantaged segments of twentieth-century French society, Genet obliged that society by becoming just the sort of person it expected those of his class to become. In Genet's case, he became a thief in fulfillment of that low expecation, and was eventually sentenced to long imprisonment.

            Fortunately for Genet, he was not only adept as a thief, but also as a writer. While in prison, he used his writing capacities to write such richly experimental works as the autobiographical Our Lady of the Flowers. Eventually published, his work gained him well derserved fame and praise in French cultural circles. After a time, and through the intervention of a number of esteemed French intellectuals, including most famously Jean-Paul Sartre, his writing achievements even won Genet back his freedom--not only from prison but also from the compulsive fulfillment of society’s low expectation of him.

Another example of someone’s coming first to fulfill society’s low expectation of him, but then eventually finding an unexpected moment of liberation, also comes from the downtrodden of French society. This time, however, it comes from the nineteenth-century rather than the twentieth, and is fictional rather than biographical. That is the example of Jean Valjean, the central character in Victor Hugo’s long novel Les Miserables, first published in 1862.

At an early point in Hugo's story, Jean Valjean, born into poverty, finds himself forced by poverty to steal some bread. The bread is not even to feed himself, but to feed his destitute sister and her children. 

Valjean is apprehended and, of course, thrown into prison. There,  he spends nineteen years being taught to become no more than the thief his society has been insistently telling him he is.

Once finally released from prison in the purely physical sense, Valjean continues to enact his own far more binding imprisonment in the behaviors that have by then been so deeply imprinted upon him. His enforced blindness shows him no alternative. 

But then, one day something altogether unexpected happens. 

A Roman Catholic bishop (appropriately named Monseigneur Bienvenue, French for  "welcome") has shown him kindness and taken him in off the streets. Valjean, however, has repaid the bishop's generosity just as he has been conditioned to repay it: He steals from his benefactor, and sneaks away to sell the goods. 

He is once again apprehended by the police, however. They bring him back before Monseigneur Bienvenue, where Valjean receives a surprise. The bishop does not seek to have Valjean punished. Instead, he tells the police that he gave the goods to Valjean. Once the police leave, the bishop even lets Valjean keep the things he had stolen, and tells him to use the proceeds from selling them to start a new life.

The bishop thereby not only sets the thief free from custody, but also from his enforced habitual thievery. He sets Valjean him free from the "evil" that has theretofore owned him, as the bishop puts it, so that Valjean might henceforth belong "to what is good." 

It is just such a transformed life that Valjean then comes to live, after some initial hesitation and a temporary relapse into acting in the old "evil" ways he has all his life been taught society expects him to act, a relapse that unleashes a sense of shame and guilt in Valjean. From then on, he turns his life around, just as Monseigneur Bienvenue had given him opportunity to do.

Those interested in seeing how the subsequent story develops, with Valjean eventually being returned to prison, but with very different consequences than the first time, may consult Hugo's novel. Suffice it to say that Valjean never regrets his decision, nor ever again loses himself and his freedom--not even when he is finally thrown back behind bars.

*     *     *

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and best-selling author. He is also a social activist and a teacher. His ongoing teaching work today is primarily in fulfillment of a long-standing commitment to teaching prisoners--primarily African-American ones, of course, given the state of our current society--in a New Jersey maximum-security prison.  

More than one and one-half centuries after Victor Hugo's Les Miserables was first published, Hedges taught it in his prison classroom. In a column* published less than a month before Valeria Luiselli's about her daughter, Hedges describes what happened when his class of prisoners read about the life-changing moment of restoring vision that Monseigneur Bienvenue's act of forgiveness brought to Jean Valjean. He writes:

"Who would do this?" a student asked.

"No one," another student answered.

Several students dismissed the scene as improbable.

And then from the back of the room a student, speaking in emotional undertones, told this story.

"I came back to my [prison] bunk one day," he said. "There was a new Bible on it. Inside was a letter. It was from my victim's sister. She wrote, ‘I forgive you. Now you must forgive yourself.' I broke down. I could be more than a criminal. I could change. She  made that possible."

My students will spend their lives condemned as felons. They, like Valjean, will never completely wash away the mark of Cain. Transformation, even if it occurs, will not free them from the criminal caste system. Transformation must be carried out not for what it will achieve, for often it will achieve nothing, or how it will be perceived, for most of the wider society will not perceive it. Transformation is about rising above the hatred many feel with justification, for a society that has betrayed them.

*     *     *

Valeria Luiselli's daughter, Jean Genet, Jean Valjean, and Chris Hedges' imprisoned African-American student: all four suffer from enforced blindness. None of those four cases, three real and one fictional, involve motivated blindness in the sense I have given that phrase, the sense of being motivated either "negatively," by some form of self-interest, or "positively," by some form of love for others, hope for one's collective community, or similar non-self-centered interest. In contrast to all such motivated blindness, the blindness about themselves from which all four of the instances I have considered in this post suffer is an enforced  blindness, one forced upon them by the coercive societal power than dominates their lives.

Correspondingly, the moments that remove their enforced blindness and bring them, for the very first time, genuine clarity in how they see are moments that genuinely restore them to themselves. They are moments of restoring vision that liberate them from their chains and open them at last to their own genuine power--a power that is a matter of capacity rather than force: a conducive rather than a coercive power.

Such restoring vision brings new and genuine hope to those to whom it is granted. What is more, that hope is itself as open, as capacitous, and as potentially liberating for others, and for the entire universal community of all human beings, as it is for each individual to whom it is singularly granted.

Here are the closing paragraphs of Valeria Luiselli's piece about her daughter being first robbed of, but then eventually restored to, herself:  

Few people know that the United States is the second-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. Smaller than Mexico’s 124 million, but larger than Spain’s 47 million, the Spanish-speaking population in the United States is estimated to be more than 50 million. 

Perhaps America — not the real America, but that white-only, English-only America — does indeed have a reason to fear the new generation of Hispanic children, these new Quixotes. They are beautiful, brilliant, well educated and multilingual. And they have had enough.

May that be so--for the sake of us all! We have nothing to lose but our chains. Our only hopes lies nowhere else.


*Chris Hedges, "Teaching Les Miserables in Prison," Truthdig 5/28/18. ( prison/)