Few books inspired me as this one did. A Sense of the World by Jason Roberts is the biography of the British James Holman, whom you probably have never heard of and whom I never knew about until I picked up this book. It is quite a travesty considering the life that he led, as well as his attempts to contribute to world history by traveling around the world and documenting his experience.
Circumnavigating the world is no longer such a feat except James Holman lived in the late 18th century through the early 19th century (1786-1857, to be exact). And he was blind—an important qualifier, although I’m sure Mr. Holman wouldn’t be happy about such a distinction. He lived his life as normally as possible: aside from his travels, which he did alone, he graduated from the University of Edinburgh with degrees in medicine and literature, where there were no special classes for people like himself. (Braille wasn’t invented at the time; he hired people to read books to him so he could memorize them.)
He lost his eyesight at the age of 25 and he described it as the deprivation of “‘heaven’s prime decree,’ a quote from John Milton’s Samson Agonistes, in which the newly blinded Samsom bewails his exclusion from God’s first command: ‘Let there be light.'” According to the author, experts he interviewed could only surmise that his blindness was the result of optic nerve death, which is the result of uveitis, the inflammation of the middle tissue of the eye. In most cases, the author continued, the cause remains unknown.
Instead of bewailing this cruelty, James Holman made it his mission to make the most out of his life, even beyond those of his contemporaries. At that time, blindness, particularly one incurred during adulthood, had the stigma of being the result of an immoral, sexually active life. By some technicality, he managed to secure membership in the Naval Knights of Windsor, and with his military history, he was accorded the respect which he deserved even without the uniform and title.
It was his travel adventures, a huge chunk of the book, that made this a pleasurable read for me. Against the backdrop of maritime war between Britain and France, plus the increasing slyness and power of the United States, his story proved to be a veritable history lesson, details which I never learned in school. The book also supplemented information I’ve learned from movies, particularly when the monarchy of Queen Victoria was discussed. Naturally, I pictured Emily Blunt as I read those parts in the book.
James Holman was described as jovial and an optimist; he also fought for the rights of slaves, at a time when buying one was normal. Even when he was attacked by begrudging explorers, who scoffed at Holman’s travelogues, he responded with chivalry and wit, implying that he was, therefore, immune to overly romanticized prose:
I cannot make panoramas to amuse and gratify… The luxurious atmosphere of the East, tinting the clouds and trees with its own delicious hues—romantic defiles and lofty mountains—the surging lake and the virgin river, over which a vessel never yet sailed—the gloomy forest and arid desert—these magnificent sights do not make pages of pictures in my work.
So with all his accomplishments, why did he fall into obscurity? I may be hastily generalizing it but it seemed that it became harder for the public to ‘buy’ the idea that a blind person as Holman can be a decent geographer and historian, without being dependent on hearsays and anecdotes. It was also a time when Britain began to modernize itself, with railways and telegrams: with Holman’s travels keeping him out of the country for intervals of 5 to 6 years, it came to a point that he became out of touch with society; the author described him to be ‘anachronistic.’ It didn’t help that his autobiography, which he completed a week before he died, disappeared and was never published.
I do find that sad, although Roberts offers some consolation. “There will never be another James Holman,” his concluding paragraph said. “But there will always be people who must summon the courage to plunge, wholeheartedly, into a world complex beyond our illusions of comprehension.”
Thanks to the book, those people may just find their inspiration.