"Und nun stehe ich einer grundlegenden Frage gegenüber: Welchen Wert hat das Sehen für uns? Wozu dient uns das Sehen? Und ich bemerke, daß niemand darauf ernsthaft antwortet, weder die Sehenden noch die Blinden." - Jacques Lusseyran
"Wer sehen will, muss die Augen schliessen." - Paul Gauguin

James Holman: Voyage around the World, Including Travels in Africa, Asia, Australasia, America, etc. etc. from 1827 to 1832

four Volumes, London 1834-1838

Volume one, Chapter one

The passion for travelling is, I believe, instinctive in some natures. We have seen men persevere in their enterprises against the most formidable obstacles; and, without means or friends, and even ignorant of the languages of the various countries through which they passed, pursue their perilous journeys into remote places, until, like the knight in the Arabian tale, they succeeded in snatching a memorial from every shrine they visited. For my own part, I have been conscious from my earliest youth of the existence of this desire to explore distant regions, to trace the varieties exhibited by mankind under the different influences of different climates, customs, and laws, and to investigate with unwearied solicitude the moral and physical distinctions that separate and diversify the various nations of the earth.

I am bound to believe that this direction of my faculties and energies has been ordained by a wise and benevolent Providence, as a source of consolation under an affliction which closes upon me all the delights and charms of the visible world. The constant occupation of the mind, and the continual excitement of mental and bodily action, contribute to diminish, if not to overcome, the sense of deprivation which must otherwise have pressed upon me; while the gratification of this passion scarcely leaves leisure for despondency, at the same time that it supplies me with inexhaustible means of enjoyment. When I entered the naval service I felt an irresistible impulse to become acquainted with as many parts of the world as my professional avocations would permit, and I was determined not to rest satisfied until I had completed the circumnavigation of the globe. But at the early age of twenty-five, while these resolves were strong, and the enthusiasm of youth was fresh and sanguine, my present affliction came upon me. It is impossible to describe the state of my mind at the prospect of losing my sight, and of being, as I then supposed, deprived by that misfortune of the power of indulging in my cherished project. Even the suspense which I suffered, during the period when my medical friends were uncertain of the issue, appeared to me a greater misery than the final knowledge of the calamity itself.

At last I entreated them to be explicit, and to let me know the worst, as that could be more easily endured than the agonies of doubt. Their answer, instead of increasing my uneasiness, dispelled it. I felt a comparative relief in being no longer deceived by false hopes; and the certainty that my case was beyond remedy determined me to seek, in some pursuit adapted to my new state of existence, a congenial field of employment and consolation. At that time my health was so delicate, and my nerves so depressed by previous anxiety, that I did not suffer myself to indulge in the expectation that I should ever be able to travel out of my own country alone; but the return of strength and vigour, and the concentration of my views upon one object, gradually brought back my old passion, which at length became as firmly established as it was before. The elasticity of my original feelings being thus restored, I ventured, alone and sightless, upon my dangerous and novel course; and I cannot look back upon the scenes through which I have passed, the great variety of circumstances by which I have been surrounded, and the strange experiences with which I have become familiar, without an intense aspiration of gratitude for the bounteous dispensation of the Almighty, which enabled me to conquer the greatest of human evils by the cultivation of what has been to me the greatest of human enjoyments, and to supply the void of sight with countless objects of intellectual gratification. To those who inquire what pleasures I can derive from the invigorating spirit of travelling under the privation I suffer, I may be permitted to reply in the words of the poet,

"Unknown those powers that raise the soul to flame,
Catch every nerve, and vibrate through the frame;
Their level life is but a smouldering fire,
Unquench'd by want, unfanned by strong desire."

Or perhaps, with more propriety, I may ask, who could endure life without a purpose, without the pursuit of some object, in the attainment of which his moral energies should be called into healthful activity?

I can confidently assert that the effort of travelling has been beneficial to me in every way; and I know not what might have been the consequence, if the excitement with which I looked forward to it had been disappointed, or how much my health might have suffered but for its refreshing influence.

I am constantly asked, and I may as well answer the question here once for all, what is the use of travelling to one who cannot see? I answer, Does every traveller see all that he describes?--and is not every traveller obliged to depend upon others for a great proportion of the information he collects? Even Humboldt himself was not exempt from this necessity.

The picturesque in nature, it is true, is shut out from me, and works of art are to me mere outlines of beauty, accessible only to one sense; but perhaps this very circumstance affords a stronger zest to curiosity, which is thus impelled to a more close and searching examination of details than would be considered necessary to a traveller who might satisfy himself by the superficial view, and rest content with the first impressions conveyed through the eye. Deprived of that organ of information, I am compelled to adopt a more rigid and less suspicious course of inquiry, and to investigate analytically, by a train of patient examination, suggestions, and deductions, which other travellers dismiss at first sight; so that, freed from the hazard of being misled by appearances, I am the less likely to adopt hasty and erroneous conclusions. I believe that, notwithstanding my want of vision, I do not fail to visit as many interesting points in the course of my travels as the majority of my contemporaries: and by having things described to me _on the spot_, I think it is possible for me to form as correct a judgment as my own sight would enable me to do: and to confirm my accuracy, I could bring many living witnesses to bear testimony to my endless inquiries, and insatiable thirst for collecting information. Indeed this is the secret of the delight I derive from travelling, affording me as it does a constant source of mental occupation, and stimulating me so powerfully to physical exertion, that I can bear a greater degree of bodily fatigue, than any one could suppose my frame to be capable of supporting.

I am frequently asked how I take my notes. It is simply thus: I keep a sort of rough diary, which I fill up from time to time as opportunities offer, but not from day to day, for I am frequently many days in arrear, sometimes, indeed, a fortnight together: but I always vividly remember the daily occurrences which I wish to retain, so that it is not possible that any circumstances can escape my attention. I also collect distinct notes on various subjects, as well as particular descriptions of interesting objects, and when I cannot meet with a friend to act as my amanuensis, I have still a resource in my own writing apparatus, of which, however, I but seldom avail myself, as the process is much more tedious to me than that of dictation. But these are merely rough notes of the heads of subjects, which I reserve to expatiate upon at leisure on my return to old England.

The invention of the apparatus to which I allude is invaluable to those who are afflicted with blindness. It opens not only an agreeable source of amusement and occupation in the hours of loneliness and retirement, but it affords a means of communicating our secret thoughts to a friend, without the interposition of a third party; so that the intercourse and confidence of private correspondence, excluded by a natural calamity, are thus preserved to us by an artificial substitute. By the aid of this process, too, we may desire our correspondent to reply to our inquiries in a way which would be quite unintelligible to those to whom the perusal of the answer might be submitted. This apparatus, which is called the "Nocto via Polygraph," by Mr. Wedgwood, the inventor, is not only useful to the blind, but is equally capable of being rendered available to all persons suffering under diseases of the eyes; for, although it does not assist you to commit your thoughts to paper with the same facility that is attained by the use of pen and ink, it enables you to write very clearly and legibly, while you have the satisfaction of knowing that you are spared all risk of hurting your sight. It is but an act of justice to refer such of my readers as may feel any curiosity on this subject, to Mr. Wedgwood, for full particulars respecting his various inventions for the use of the blind.

Having given these personal explanations--rendered necessary by the peculiarity of my situation, and the very general curiosity which appears to exist on the subject, if I may judge by the frequency of the interrogatories that are put to me--will now conclude my preliminary observations.

James Holman 1834

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