The Parable of the Blind

The Parable of the Blind

One of my favorite books from the 1980s is Gert Hofmann’s The Parable of the Blind (1985). It’s an extraordinary novel, told from the point of view of six blind men in search of the painter, Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Parable of the Blind. 1568. Oil on canvas. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy

 Hofmann sets obstacles and limits for himself and overcomes them, and I know of no other novel that tests the limits of language and the visual like this one. He limits the number of senses he can utilize to tell the tale . . . We can not see beyond the world of the six blind men. We can not see outside of their world of alternative vision. There is no “normal” description of surroundings and actions in this novel. Sound is heightened. Doubt is more frequent. But the concise, confident prose carries us with the blind on their journey of discovery on their way toward immortality.

Perhaps “confidence” is the key. Hofmann has imagined what it might be like for the blind to lead the blind on their way toward the execution of the visual, the imprint of the sighted. The reader can imagine what a sighted author would imagine a blind person might feel and think and construct on their way into that proverbial ditch. Knowing that he gets it wrong. Knowing that he can’t do otherwise. Knowing, of course, that the painter and the author are outside that world, looking in on those who can’t see what they see, and so on and so forth.

We all know that the metaphor is all wrong. That it is unfair. That we probably take it for granted, like a thousand other proverbs and parables and folkways we toss around without really “seeing” their source or ramifications. Still, Hofmann arrives at that special place within language and imagination. He touches the mystery of projection, the mystery of our mixed up vision of compassion, empathy and ignorance.


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