The Blind and the Lame
By George R. Elder, 10/3/23
This essay is about an image—a marble statue entitled, “L’aveugle et le paralytique”—that won a first class medal at the Paris Salon of 1883. It was sculpted by Jean Turcan who was already known for his studies of classical figures and who would go on to sculpt portrait busts. But this is his most famous piece. Indeed, in 1918, an American art critic wrote that one day we would read on the “temple” of art history, “Pheidius—Michaelangelo—Turcan.” That is not likely, but the overstatement prompts us to realize what an excellent work of art this is. (Look at the bottom of this essay.)
We see a somewhat larger-than-life nude youth carrying on his strong back a clothed old man. That man’s legs are dangling, an indication that he is lame. And then we see that the upturned head of the youth—and the empty sockets of his eyes—are an indication that he is blind. Together, however, these two disabled figures are visually moving ahead. The blind youth is taking a step while the lame man, looking down intently, is grasping the youth’s hand and pointing the two of them in the right direction. It is a particularly complex arrangement of two figures close together—yet aesthetically satisfying, beautiful.
There were actually three statues of “The Blind and the Lame” at the Salon. That suggests everyone was familiar with the theme, perhaps even with the literature behind it. Rooted in ancient folklore of uncertain date, we find Antiphilus of Byzantium writing in the 1st century: “Each serves the other; for the blind man taking the lame one on his back walks gingerly by the aid of eyes not his own. One nature supplied the needs of both; for each contributed to the other his deficiency to form a whole.” The Greek poet’s point was that cooperation among human beings serves society as a whole. Renaissance Europe would tell the same story and claim that mutual assistance is a great virtue. That is how the image is usually understood.
That interpretation, however, puts the figures’ disabilities in the background. In less happy uses of the image, it is more obvious that each figure is impaired. In a first century apocryphal book of Ezekiel, a king had neglected a lame man and a blind man who were not pleased. They got their revenge by joining forces—piggy-back—to steal figs from a favorite garden. When the theft was discovered, each claimed himself incapable of such a crime. But the king was clever, put the two together, and the miscreants confessed.
In fifth-century India, Buddhaghosa explained that in Buddhism the relationship between “mind and body” is like that of “two men, the one blind from birth and the other a cripple”—journeying through life (Visuddhimagga 18.35). But surely he had heard of verse XXI from the much earlier Sāṃkhya-kārikā: “For the perception of Nature [prakṛti] by the Spirit [puruṣa] and for the isolation of the Spirit, there is union of both—like that of the halt and the blind . . . .” This verse from Hindu philosophy is obscure, but it makes the same point that there are two essential entities that depend upon each other—and are “isolated” or discriminated by the wise.
We now have enough material to make some Jungian observations. For one thing, the motif of the “blind and the lame” cooperating with each other is archetypal—i.e., a very “old” and “typical” image found in widely disparate times and places. Imagery of the kind was a clue to Jung that the human mind is not tabula rasa but contains structures that express themselves similarly or collectively—telling us what the mind itself is like and what we need to do to live well.
Our sculpture, however, is “showing” its truth and not just telling it, as if to “say” that we are not really prompted to behave as we should by good advice but by imagery (or art of all kinds) depicting it. That is certainly true for therapy where good advice by the therapist is seldom heeded, while a penetrating image from a dream can change a person’s life.
Furthermore, cooperation—socially, or in any personal relationship—is not likely to occur if the parties concerned are unaware that they need each other. That, in turn, requires an admission of “disability”—of being blind in some way, of being lame about some things. Conversely, self-sufficient, arrogant persons do not cooperate with others and do not serve the social good.
The Buddhist prompt that the “mind and body” of an individual belong together on life’s journey is also a truth. We have been learning this ever since the Christian (and, actually, the Buddhist) denigration of the natural body has been called into question. Put differently, Spirit cannot forever try to control Nature without serious consequences. One of my favorite sentences from Jung is this one: “Nature must not win the game, but she cannot lose.” (CW 13, par. 229) Turcan’s sculpture expresses that dynamic, imaged as a “natural” youth who is naked joining forces with a “spiritual” or civilized man who is clothed.
Sāṃkhya philosophical “dualism” appears to be teaching the same lesson. Except that upon examination, we find that Prakṛti (“nature”) includes the “mind and body.” The Puruṣa (“spirit;” literally, “person” or divine “Person”) is something else—the object of knowledge of those who are able to discriminate, who are Enlightened.
Let us take this obscure teaching to mean that the body and ordinary ego consciousness (that “sees”) cannot live well together, even survive, unless they cooperate with something else—namely, the unconscious (that, by definition, cannot “see” but is very powerful). That this unconscious is “divine” in Hinduism means that it is not the personal unconscious shadow but the archetypal unconscious that structures the psyche itself. It is what Jung calls “God,” i.e., the God within. He wrote in a letter, “My inner principle is Deus et homo. God needs man in order to become conscious . . . “ (Letters 1.65). A beautiful sculpture exhibited at a nineteenth-century Salon shows us that fact—and deserved its first prize.