What Happens When an Artist Loses His Sight

A few years ago, I began having trouble with my vision. Shapes became indistinct, colors muted. The world started to look like a grainy 1940s movie mystery, and I was the detective — a clumsy one.

I bumped into people. I stumbled over curbs and thresholds. On my morning walks with my dog, Molly, I could sense her frustration with my hesitant, halting gait. Dogs don’t see that well as it is, and being tethered to a slow and unsteady man must have been unnerving. Molly kept turning around as we crept forward, as if to say: What are you, blind?

Eventually diagnosed with cataracts, I went to see an ophthalmologist, Charles Cole, for treatment. During one of my appointments, we got to talking, and Dr. Cole told me about work he does in Tanzania, where cataracts are quite common. Some of his Tanzanian patients have cataracts so thick that they are legally blind, and it is not unusual in parts of the country to see people leading one another around with sticks: A sighted person holds one end of the stick and gently pulls a friend or neighbor from place to place.

After Dr. Cole performs the surgeries to remove the cataracts, a pile of discarded sticks rises on the floor of the clinic — an accidental monument to a time when the patients couldn’t see and, in a way, a monument to the imagination.

Losing your sight forces you to rely on your other senses, and on the help of others, to navigate the world around you. But it also forces you to go inward, to use your creativity to conjure a world you can no longer see.

Around this time, I began to consider all the invisible forces that govern our lives. Gravity, electric currents, magnetic fields — but also love, grief, morality, faith and creativity. The presence and power of invisible things, and of a secret music — of the spheres and of ourselves. As ever, my daughter Amy came to mind. Amy, a wife, mother and pediatrician, died 15 years ago, and her absence remains a constant presence for my wife Ginny and me. Invisible, inaudible, alive.

And so I began working on a book, titled “Cataract Blues,” about the seen and the unseen and the imagined — about mystery, memory and music and, perhaps unexpectedly, the color blue, which came blaring into my life after Dr. Cole’s surgery. (Blue is particularly shaded by cataracts, and once Dr. Cole worked his magic, each blue I saw was a revelation.)

I write quite a bit about jazz in the book, figuratively sitting at the piano and inviting the reader to sit by my side and see what is to be found. And I rove — from thought to thought, image to image, memory to memory. Of course, I often blunder. In jazz improvisation, if you make one mistake, you deliberately make another, until you make a whole tune composed of mistakes, like life.

Fittingly, the book was illustrated by my lifelong friend Jules Feiffer, a legendary cartoonist who, now 94 years old, is having vision problems of his own — ones much worse, and much less treatable, than mine, I’m afraid. Jules has advancing macular degeneration, which has progressed to a point called “wet macular,” when the eyes’ blood vessels swell and one can see only out of the corners of their eyes. The only way Jules can see what he is drawing is by tilting his head from side to side. Beyond that, he sees with his limitless imagination.

Because Jules can no longer see well enough to read, his wife, Joan, the writer J.Z. Holden, read the book aloud to him while he drew. I wrote, Joan read what I had written and Jules imagined the rest.

And like all great artists, Jules saw invisible things.

At one point, Joan told me that Jules saw his drawings as riffs on my words. “He was trying to come up with a poetic style that matched yours,” Joan said, “as if he were accompanying you musically.”

Illustrations from “Cataract Blues”: At left, Fats Waller plays the piano. At right, people dance in pairs.Credit…Jules Feiffer

As I worked on the book, my vision dramatically improved. I no longer tripped when I walked. And I found myself overcome by blues — the robin’s egg blue of the sky out my window, the blue denim of the East River. At the same time, Jules’s vision steadily worsened. But his drawings remained gorgeous as ever.

In fact, if you ask me, he left me in the dust. I could just as easily have tried to write a book accompanying Jules’s work, so rich and complete a world did he create. And the musicality — every time I look at Jules’s drawing of the great jazz composer Fats Waller, whom I write about in the book, I hear Harlem stride.

In his 1821 book, “A Defense of Poetry,” Percy Shelley writes that an artist must learn to imagine what he knows. For many artists, the verdict of macular degeneration might have been disabling, or at least discouraging. For Jules, it was an invitation to imagine what he knew.

Of course, Jules has been doing that all his life. His cartoons for The Village Voice — where he produced a weekly strip titled “Feiffer” for over 40 years — not only changed cartooning, they gave us a whole new way to see our fragile, dismal, laughable selves. His creativity leaped across genres, like one of his totemic dancing Fred Astaires, from children’s books to graphic novels and plays.

Looking at Jules’s art today, it is clear that it emerges from the same original font, the same wit and conscience that produced all the work he made over his long and dazzling career. The work is no less funny now, no less wise or irreverent. The quality of the lines is no less sure. But there is something new about it, too, something looser, more gestural, more melodic.

As for me, I’ve never before let myself go in a book the way I did in “Cataract Blues.” I improvised a bit in other books I’ve written, but after a while I always pulled back and imposed a calm where there had been wildness. But this time, for whatever reason, I let it all fly — the images, ideas, memories, hoping everything would come to some orderly end on its own. I can’t swear it did, but I enjoyed the ride, especially since I took it with Jules.

Jules studied my dream, absorbed it, imagined it, and realized it at the same time. So there I am on the cover of the book, hunkered down over the keys and under a cloud of music, paying passionate attention to the shifting chords of “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.”

Thanks to Dr. Cole, my eyes are like a falcon’s now — except perhaps on the days when I recall the deep talent and courage of my old friend, when a tear or two develops at the corners.

Roger Rosenblatt is the author of several books and the winner of the 2015 Kenyon Review Award for Lifetime Literary Achievement. His book, “Cataract Blues,” is a collaboration with the artist Jules Feiffer.

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