By Tim Gebhart
In 1856, on a road just outside the quaint, medieval town of Winchelsea near the coast of southern England, John Everett Millais painted a scene titled The Blind Girl.
The Blind Girl takes us into the world of two girls who have opposing abilities. Not revealing any specific meaning in his painting, Millais left it to the viewer to glean from the painting what they will. No doubt though, he captured and highlighted a central part of our shared human experience, that we are wholly dependent upon each other to make it in our lives.
Establishing the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Millais sought an alternative to the stiff and heroic neo-classical themes that were the staple of his time. He and his fellow Pre-Raphaelite companions explored narratives in their works that brought us into the feminine world of nurturing care, empathy, and intuition.
The work guides us into the scene and the story of the two girls’ relationship with one another through our senses. The warm rays of the sun soak the motionless blind girl, the viewer clued in by the butterfly that safely rests on her shoulder without any trepidation. A sign “Pity the Blind” hangs around her neck as a concertina rests on her lap. She moves blades of grass through her fingers on her right hand and clasps the other girl’s hand tightly with her left.
The two girls are beggars, possibly orphans, a common sight throughout England in the mid-nineteenth century. The scene conveys a bit of commonly held wisdom that our hyper-individualised society might do well to reflect upon, we live in the same situation as these girls with every aspect of our lives being mutually dependent.
In the traditional view of the world, the family and the bonds with others were one of the most important facets of a person’s life and served many of the crucial needs a person would have, physically, psychologically, and spiritually, so even an impoverished family could live a contented and purposeful life.
The emphasis was put on service towards the other and away from the self. Millais beautifully illustrated the two girls complimenting and looking out for each other, not revelling in a comfortable life, quite the opposite, while being fulfilled and enriched with a shared bond that goes beyond the value of money or material wealth.
In our modern culture, the shift away from the importance of family and marriage, to the commodification of relationships has left many to face the world alone. The careful consideration, valuing in honour, being truthful, and respecting vows of marriage, for instance, have become an afterthought to emotional impulses.
The removal of these sacred institutions that lifted humanity into living a noble and reverent life but were purposely maligned steers humanity towards depravity. Marxism and Materialism were the culprits that began to spread in the 19th century across Europe and England during Millas’ time and wreaked havoc on society, ridding people of their sacrosanct ties to each other.
In the Theses on Feuerbach, Karl Marx stated, “therefore after, for example, the earthly family is discovered as the secret of the holy family, the former must itself be theoretically and practically destroyed.”
Vladimir Lenin, the Marxist dictator of Soviet Russia, set out to break familial bonds and replace them with the ‘state’.
From Marxists came the feminist movement which pitted the sexes against one another in endless struggle which broke the sacred bonds that connected both in service to each other. Lenin pushed an agenda to demean and disparage any devotion to family as oppression, and force in an irreverence towards life. Lenin compared marriage, familial piety, and child-rearing to slavery.
In his 1918 treatise Prophetic Words, he stated, “Human childbirth is an act which transforms the woman into an almost lifeless, bloodstained heap of flesh, tortured, tormented and driven frantic by pain.”
After World War II, Marxist influence spread to the United States in the cultural sphere, via the Frankfurt School under Herbert Marcuse and Theodor W. Adorno. Their beliefs soon spread through universities, the entertainment industry, and the arts. The effects of their influence on our culture was a breakdown of the once sacred bonds and importance we placed in relationships. The celebration of drug abuse, free love, abortion, and many more cultural ills, along with the privileges allowed by modern technology, have increasingly dampened the warmth of connection and societal bonds.
Millais’ painting offers a meditation back into that important aspect of the human condition that our traditional wisdom and values have given us, for us as a society to honour the bonds that tie us together by selflessness, and in service to others. A beautiful and richly rewarding life is one where we can unequivocally, and safely, put our lives in others’ hands. Like the girls in the painting, they can go through life, even in its many setbacks, and confide in and enrich each other’s spirits.