Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness (John Hull) - Book Review
Reviewed by Heather Boagey, Queen’s College
Eyesight is the sense upon which we rely most; for safety and problem-solving in a changing environment, and to enrich our communication with others. For some theologians, it is our most miraculous sense, its complexity lending weight to the existence of a higher power. Vision loss is unimaginable to most, yet the RNIB reports that almost two million people in the UK live with some degree of sight loss.
When John Hull, Emeritus Professor of Religious Education at the University of Birmingham, began to lose his sight, he used a tape recorder to reflect upon his experience. Born in Australia, Hull developed childhood cataracts and underwent a now-obsolete needling procedure, causing bilateral retinal detachments before the age of fifty. His recordings, dictated with clarity and charm, describe his initial change in outlook and identity as a husband and father, and later loss of visual memory and dreams, as he enters the dark tunnel from which there is no return. As Hull ventures deeper, he finds a rawer, more concrete sense of being he describes as ‘touching the rock’, the title given to the chronological anthology of these transcribed extracts.
As Hull’s reflections flit from the philosophical to the mundane, the reader inevitably reflects on how we impose our own perceptions of blindness upon the blind. Any of us could be the well-meaning member of the public quick to point out stairs as a trip hazard, without indicating whether they travel upwards or down.
In 2016, a year after Hull’s death, his original tape recordings were used to soundtrack the film ‘Notes on Blindness’. No additional voice audio was recorded, and seamless miming creates a poetic and immersive illustration of Hull’s experience, rich in metaphor. Enlightening for any visitor or witness to the parallel world of vision loss.