Jacques Semelin, Je veux croire au soleil (Paris: les Arènes, 2016)
Part travel journal, part guide to living creatively with blindness, Jacques Semelin’s humorous description of his stay in Montreal is a charming and honest account of the day-to-day annoyances and joys of life as a blind academic.
Readers familiar with Semelin’s first memoir, J’arrive où je suis étranger (which I write about here) will remember that his gradual journey from sightedness to blindness was not an easy one. Semelin's internalised ableism meant that he spent many years doing his best to 'pass' as a sighted person before finally 'coming out' as blind. In Je veux croire au soleil he celebrates the new creativeness which his blindness has given him and reflects on how to make sense of his non-visual life for a sighted reader:
Je me suis mis en quête d’un autre vocabulaire, de métaphores, de mises en scènes, bref, de tous les moyens de mieux saisir le réel par l’imaginaire.
I found myself identifying particularly strongly with Semelin's description of the 'saut psychologique' (psychological leap) he had to make from independence to dependence. Like him I spent years finding ingenious ways of doing things for myself. And like him I resisted asking for help for as long as I could:
Se faire aider conduit bien plus tôt à reconnaître un effondrement de soi. On ne peut plus faire ceci ou cela. […] Se faire aider revient ici à devoir admettre son infériorité physique en quelque chose, une infirmité en somme.
Whilst the wealthy willingly pay for assistance as a way of asserting their dominance, Semelin recognizes that asking for - and knowing how to graciously accept - help is one of the hardest things a blind person must do. Having to be helped can feel like a loss of personhood and an acknowledgement of inferiority. But knowing when to accept help can feel like a liberation. I recognise in Semelin's references to pride and honour my own (sometimes unhelpfully stubborn) reluctance to ask for help. Perhaps this explains my dislike of taxis and my preference for public transport.
Il faut trouver la force de se pousser dehors. Quand on n’y voit pas il est toujours tentant de rester bien au chaud dans un lieu clos. L’extérieure reste angoissant. Mais la volonté de se prendre en charge et la curiosité de la découverte peuvent aussi vous attirer vers l’inconnu de la rue.
As well as learning how to fight his natural urge not to ask for help, Semelin also describes how he forces himself to leave his cosy flat and explore Montreal. His description of his solitary adventure down the busy rue Saint-Denis is a powerful illustration of the appeal of the sensual world he inhabits. His descriptions of snippets of conversation, cooking smells and the changing feel of the air on his face provide a non-traditional - but equally valuable - visitor's guide to one of Montreal's most famous streets. Semelin's sensual appreciation of Montreal is an evocative celebration not only of non-visual travel but also of the unexpected pleasures of being blind and alone in an unfamiliar environment. Semelin's wanderings are often punctuated by encounters with strangers and these chance meetings, and the stimulating and rewarding conversations which ensue, are a reminder that blindness's enforced dependence on others is a gateway to a shared humanity which is often denied the more self-reliant sighted traveller.
Les personnes qui n’ont pas l’habitude de côtoyer des non-voyants ont souvent tendance à craindre le pire pour leur sécurité à tort.
One of the most appealing aspects of Semelin's memoir is that it is not unremittingly cheerful. He is frustrated and annoyed by his landlady's pessimistic prediction of the problems he will have with dustbins and domestic appliances. Whilst appreciative of the new technologies which make his academic work possible, he is also right to point out that screen readers and talking smart phones are hampered by their reliance on sight-dependent software:
Ce sont les instruments quotidiens d’une dictature qui ne dit pas son nom et qui transcende les régimes politiques, celle de l’image.
In both Montreal and Ottawa Semelin was disappointed that museums - especially those dealing with the persecution of minorities - were largely inaccessible to him. I wonder what he would make of Canada's new human rights museum which recently opened in Winnipeg and which I write about here.
Pourtant une certaine amertume ne m’a pas vraiment quitté. Cette promenade a-t-elle ravivé la mélancolie que je sais toujours au fond de moi comme une nostalgie pour ce monde dont j’ai dû abandonner les rives voici bien longtemps ? Cela fait des années et des années que j’en suis exclu mais quoi que je fasse, une vieille douleur se réveille de tems en autres, comme en ce moment.
Semelin's work made me both smile and cry out in recognition. But it also made me nostalgic. Unlike him, I do not miss the sighted world, but I do miss the time when I too was a lone traveller in a francophone land. Maybe I'll go alone to Montreal one day. And maybe like Semelin I'll do battle with a recalcitrant microwave, relish the sounds and smells of the rue Saint-Denis and explore the wonderfully multisensory Cour des Sens at the Jardin botanique.