At least in one passage from Gulliver’s Travels (1726, 1735), where a blind painter in the Academy of Lagado is able to distinguish colors by touch:

There was a Man born blind, who had several Apprentices in his own Condition: Their Employment was to mix Colours for Painters, which their Master taught them to distinguish by feeling and smelling. It was indeed my Misfortune to find them at that Time not very perfect in their Lessons; and the Professor himself happened to be generally mistaken: This Artist is much encouraged and esteemed by the whole Fraternity.

The “esteem” of “the whole Fraternity” is the praise of the other scientists in the Academy, all of whom are working on similarly ridiculous projects, like extracting the sunlight out of cucumbers for use on cloudy days. Swift means to twist the satiric knife in the wild hopes of early modern scientists, who looked forward to miraculous results with a zeal that sometimes rivaled the the kind of incredulity Gibbon discovered among early Christians concerning the return of Christ.

And it must be admitted that the Royal Society nourished some pretty kooky ideas at the time, as the footnotes to any good edition of Gulliver’s Travels will reveal. The footnote in the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Gulliver, written by Ian Higgins, locates several possible sources for the passage about the blind paint-mixer. The passage is “probably meant to reflect on Newton’s corpuscular theory of light reported in Philosophical Transactions, but is specifically based on Robert Boyle’s account of a blind man at Maastrict who could tell colours by touch. Boyle believed he really did it by smelling (different coloured dyes had different scents). Martinus Scriblerus was the first to find out ‘the Palpability of Colours and could distinguish ‘Rays of Light’.”

I try to teach Gulliver as often as I can, slipping it into courses on satire, eighteenth-century literature, and even occasionally the survey. And in the past I’ve always used this passage as an example of an experiment self-evidently doomed to failure.

But–and this is the interesting part–apparently it is possible to mix paint by touch:

John Bramblitt didn’t start painting until he lost his sight. It was a difficult time. Bramblitt was in his late 20’s and unaware that his sight was seriously degrading until he was sideswiped by an unseen car. He was also worried about having the severe epileptic seizures that had already taken their toll on his vision. And he was angry. In fact, he believes that taking up painting after losing his sight was mostly an act of defiance.

While Bramblitt’s twenty-five years of visual experience provided him with mental images of what he wanted to paint, he was uncertain how to render these images on a canvas he couldn’t see. Then he discovered ‘puffy paint’. Puffy paint is typically used for decorating fabric and leaves a thin raised line, a line Bramblitt can touch. Using puffy paint allows Bramblitt to produce an initial outline of his subject on the canvas. He then feels his way across the raised lines with his left hand, as he fills-in the colors using a brush held in his right.

For color, Bramblitt uses oil paint, which has proven critical to the process. While oil paint is messier, more pungent, and dries much slower than acrylics, it offers something that no other paint can: idiosyncratic viscosity. According to Bramblitt, “White feels thicker on my fingers, almost like toothpaste, and black feels slicker and thinner. To mix a gray, I’ll try to get the paint to have a feel of medium viscosity”. In fact, he has learned to recognize and mix all the colors he uses by his sense of touch. And the colors are the first thing one notices about Bramblitt’s work (www.Bramblitt.net). While the subjects of his paintings are immediately recognizable, proportioned, and smartly stylized, the colors are supremely vibrant, and nearly psychedelic in their rendering.

John Bramblitt has developed his touch skills in particularly impressive ways. But the enhancement of the touch sense is known to generally occur for blind individuals. Research has shown that regardless of training in Braille, the blind have better touch skills than the sighted, especially when it comes to touching complex spatial patterns. This cross-modal plasticity is thought to be a result of the blind’s visual cortex being reassigned to other senses. Brain imaging shows that when touching complex patterns, the visual cortex of blind, but not sighted individuals is activated in systematic ways. Moreover, inducing a transient brain lesion (using transcranial magnetic stimulation) in visual cortex will disrupt some of the tactile skills of blind, but not sighted subjects.

Of course Bramblitt wasn’t born blind like the artist in Swift’s satire, so the fit is not perfect. He has a mental picture of white or blue, and a quarter century of visual experience probably doesn’t hurt either.

Still, this is going to change the way I teach this chapter of Gulliver. I can’t rely on this as a go-to passage anymore, because I would inevitably get sidetracked into a story about how you really can mix paint by touch!

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