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Art can help when you lose your sight, says Russell Smith (Thinkstock)
Art can help when you lose your sight, says Russell Smith (Thinkstock)

Russell Smith: On Culture

How art's vision heals when eyesight fails Add to ...

Almost two years ago, I published a column here that I had dictated because I had gone partly blind due to a retinal tear. I never recovered all the sight in that eye, but have been able to make do with strong glasses. Last week, my remaining good retina detached and I had emergency surgery to reattach it. So I am dictating a column once again. Last time, the temporary disability occasioned a reflection on great works of dictated literature. This time, impaired vision has presented me with a few more revelations about kinds of art.

Recent columns by Russell Smith

One. Architecture aids healing. I have been back and forth between two hospitals during this ordeal - emergency departments, clinics and an assortment of waiting rooms - and I have felt my fear and anxiety balloon in the older and darker buildings. The medical care was uniformly excellent regardless of physical surroundings (twice now, overworked surgeons have done their best to save my sight in extremely tight schedules), but my recent surgery was done in a newly renovated hospital with natural light and high ceilings opening up even the fearful final antechambers before the ghastly neon of the operating room. The soothing effects of daylight apparently never occurred to mid-20th-century hospital planners and so the stress of a physical failing and its corollary periods of anxious waiting are compounded by a feeling of entrapment in narrow, grimy, low-ceilinged, dim labyrinths. Here is the clearest link I have ever perceived between a society’s architecture and its mental health. Consider this when tough public funding decisions have to be made and the field of aesthetics is dismissed as frivolous.

Two. There is not much entertainment for the sightless. Even music you have to type and click to download. CBC Radio One is still the most dependable and stimulating companion, regardless of all the clever other podcasts that people tell you to listen to. Those too, remember, require good eyes to seek out and download on a computer screen. You do need the radio within reach, however, so as to quickly squelch the insanely frequent periods of saccharine pop music.

Television, it turns out, can be followed from the soundtrack alone without any loss of subtlety. And it is not at all bad for me to be forced to understand more about the complexities of television drama, its finely honed narrative conventions.

The other day I watched/listened to the final act of one of our most famous and successful Canadian-made cop dramas, a show I had always heard massively praised. The situation was a standoff between armed policemen and a madman with a time bomb. The bomb was going to kill him and the officer standing with him. The brave officer was trying to talk the madman into giving him the code that would disarm the bomb. There were only 60 seconds left. His fellow officers outside were yelling at him to clear the building, now, or face certain death! The patient officer, using uncanny psychological ability, guessed the code and disarmed the bomb with seconds to spare. This narrative device is I believe known as the “ticking time bomb.” Those are about all the lessons from television I can withstand for now.

Three. I call bullcrap on audio books. I don’t care how many you claim to have enjoyed: You couldn’t possibly have absorbed them. I read, write and teach fiction for a living, and I find it difficult to read a full page of any mildly sophisticated narrative without losing my focus - even on a silent page - once or twice. We all stop, start and rewind when reading, we all forget which character is which, in the most focused of situations. Listening, you lose track for two sentences and the text is from that moment incomplete, damaged. There is no way you – driving, looking for the dish soap, wondering for a second what that bang was on the street - are engaging with it as completely as this very dense and difficult genre demands. If I do go blind, I will have to learn to improve my concentration to be able to do this but I don’t see why anyone would voluntarily choose to.

Suggestions or experiences with art and healing? Send them to me at rsmith@globeandmail.com.

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