M. Leona Godin began losing her sight when she was 10 years old. She couldn’t see the chalkboard at school, and glasses didn’t fix the problem. Her mother took her to optometrists and ophthalmologists, who were stumped but couldn’t admit it. One doctor told them that Godin’s body was growing too fast for her eyes. Another suggested that the problem was too many eye doctor appointments. In fact, the cause was a genetic mutation. In her first book, There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness (2021, Pantheon, 352 pages, $26.95), Godin begins with this story “because it beautifully illustrates the relationship between literal and figurative blindness: the nearly invisible beginning of eye disease led directly to the doctors’ unwillingness to admit ignorance, causing them to grow frustrated and spin yarns.”
Godin is a writer, performer, and educator with a doctorate in early modern literature from New York University. She’s the founding editor of Aromatica Poetica, an online magazine exploring the arts and sciences of smell and taste. In There Plant Eyes, Godin dispels the binary between being sighted and being blind. She mixes autobiography, history, the arts, and cultural criticism in chapters that discuss the irresistibility of blindness as a literary trope; the invention of braille and advances in accessibility for the blind; the one-woman play she wrote and performed about Helen Keller; and the “pervasive ocularcentrism” of our culture, among other topics.
In literature and art, Godin writes, sight is often linked to wisdom, blindness with ignorance. Sight is equated with light, blindness with darkness. But blind people don’t usually live in complete darkness — light frequently invades perception, and visual impairment exists on a spectrum — so metaphors that depend on this either/or framing miss the mark. And, in the context of religion and spirituality, blindness so often signifies a kind of transcendent vision that it’s become a cliché.
The title of Godin’s book comes from Paradise Lost, by John Milton, a blind bard from the 17th century.
So much the rather thou, celestial light,
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers,
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.
Chicago’s Women & Children First bookstore hosts a free virtual author reading by Godin at 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 10, followed by a conversation between Godin and romance-suspense author Laurie Alice Eakes, who is blind. womenandchildrenfirst.com