Sonia Tilson reviews Beyond Vision by Allan Jones (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018, 311 pages, hardcover).
In this extraordinary autobiography, Beyond Vision (McGill-Queen’s University Press 2018), Allan Jones describes how he overcame the combined effects of a deeply troubled childhood, personal identity problems, the gradual development of total blindness, and of serious and painful illnesses, to live a full and satisfying life. His aim in writing this profound and often dryly humorous book is that others might be helped by his story.
Jones suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive condition for which there is as yet no cure. He describes the moment when, as a young man, he first heard the fateful diagnosis:
So here I am with the doctor, frozen in his gaze, the test results spread out upon his desk. The silence stretches on. “I said,” he finally intones, slowly and carefully as though I may have misunderstood him the first time, “that you are going blind. You may as well get used to the idea.” After a few moments my eyes slide to the window, but I am not looking at anything out there. It is as though I were becoming aware of an enormous dead-white eminence, something like the sheer face of a great chalk cliff, one that I am going to have to climb. (Beyond Vision, p. 33)
While still able to see a little, Jones first went to Japan in 1968 on a one-year teaching contract in Kofu, during which time he became interested in Buddhism as well as in the changing structure of Japanese society. He loved his time there: the courteous, friendly people, his little tatami-mat apartment and the serene, still faintly visible raked sand and rock gardens in Kyoto. In the following year, white cane in hand, he went pack-backing in India, where in Calcutta he encountered poverty such as he had never before imagined:
I threaded my way among the prostrate forms on the sidewalk and their sorry little bundles, not wanting to see any of this. At one point I found that the body around which I was edging seemed to be a corpse. I lurched away and almost fell over a woman who was sitting up nearby, stopping just in time. I stared down at the bowed figure wrapped in a greyish rag that once might have been a sari. Then she raised her face, and we were looking directly into each others eyes. (Beyond Vision, p. 45)
A few years later, in 1974, Jones was in Yokohama on a Killam Doctoral Fellowship studying the political culture of Japan. In 1977, as Canada’s first blind diplomat, he was posted to Tokyo, first as a cultural affairs officer, and then as a political affairs officer concentrating on Japanese party politics. His next posting was to New Delhi in 1987 as political counsellor reporting on national politics and security concerns, particularly with regard to the destructive phenomenon of Hindutva or “Hinduization,” the funnelling of Hindu fundamentalist religious energies into militant mass movements bent on achieving political power over Muslims and low or no-caste Christians.
While in India, he became increasingly fascinated and challenged by the philosophical tradition of Advaita Vedanta. He describes how the study of Advaita slowly enabled him to grasp the distinction between the ego and the deep self, thereby revealing the liberating truth that our essential identity transcends the physical body; that the self does not go blind: “According to Advaita, the true self or Atman that is one and the same for all of us remains unbound and untouched by the vicissitudes of Karma.”
Incidentally, Jones’s blindness throws an interesting light on his experiences in Japan and India. We get a sense of his surroundings not of course from pictorial details but from descriptions of the sounds, smells and physical texture of his postings: the dense crowds and, to him as a very tall blind man, the dangerously low-hanging street posters in Tokyo; the “omni-tonal white noise’” of parakeet flocks, the horns and smells of unmufflered cars, the street cries, and the silken dust that lay over everything in Delhi.
While Jones writes from the point of view of a blind man, this beautifully written book should be of interest to a much wider readership. The vivid and fascinating autobiographical material and strong narrative flow make Beyond Vision an accessible and invaluable resource for all who seek to understand how to transcend their limitations and live a serene and fulfilling life.
Sonia Tilson is from Swansea, South Wales. After emigrating to Canada, she taught English at high school and university level in Ottawa. She has published two novels: The Monkey Puzzle Tree (Biblioasis 2013) and The Disappearing Boy (Nimbus Publishing 2017).
[feature photo credit of Dover: Debra Martens]