The last thing I saw with complete clarity was a glint of light in the flood of acid that engulfed my face. I recall reeling back, gasping for air with my nose, mouth, and eyes full of the stuff, coughing and spluttering. It tore off my conjunctivas, the thin film covering the corneas, in an instant and then began rapidly to eat its way into both eyes. I no longer had even a split second of clear sight; there was only a jagged, broken, dirty-glass effect, as though at night a passing truck had splashed muddy water across my windscreen and the wipers couldn’t clear the mess. Unaware that I had also swallowed a mouthful of the solution and that my vocal cords were being eaten, and with the evil cascade still coming at me, I spun around, beginning to notice a fast-thickening fog passing over my eyes. At this point my consciousness exploded in a sense of catastrophe. There was no thought in that instant, just fragments, faces of people dear to me, and a sickening feeling of this being the end. Then the fog closed in.
How simple it sounds, and how terrible it was, sucked by a relentless force ever deeper into darkness. It was the destruction of the visual world and my life in it.
The accident that changed Zoltan Torey’s life forever took place in a factory in Sydney, Australia, on a wind-whipped winter night in 1951. While he was hauling a forty-four-gallon drum of battery acid along a track overhead, the plug suddenly failed and came loose, showering his face with corrosive fire. Vision splintering, unable to speak above a whisper, he slowly felt his way along the floor. The seconds passed by in surreal procession. Tick. Down the stairs. No time for panic or pain. Tick. The foreman found him and helped him to the locker room, where they tried to wash his eyes out under the shower, clothes and all. It was useless. Tick. Complicated. They were driving in a car. Tick. At the hospital. Everything was falling inward, shouts and silences, snippets of questions he couldn’t answer. “What did you say the acid was?” Tick. Do something, he thought, collapsing toward unconsciousness. He was only twenty-one years old.
Laying cramped and feverish in his hospital bed, slowly deteriorating toward death, Zoltan Torey pondered his predicament. This Hungarian émigré, who had escaped the darkening clouds of the Cold War little more than a year earlier, would never see again—at least not in the old way. His doctors explained that instead of shutting down with the loss of sight, the visual cortex often goes haywire, conjuring up vivid hallucinations that can disorient and overwhelm the newly blind. For this reason, they warned, it was imperative that he leave all visual imagery behind and rebuild his mental representation of reality using hearing and touch. But Torey balked at this advice. With no one to guide him, no plans or maps to follow, he actually went in the exact opposite direction. He would train himself, he decided, to simply picture the world around him through his now hyperactive visual imagination. It was an act of shocking originality and creative courage, and with it, his extraordinary journey beyond the limits of blindness began.
“From the moment his bandages come off,” writes neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks in his foreword to Torey’s autobiography Out of Darkness, Torey “sets himself, with extraordinary tenacity, to taming his now heightened imagery, shaping it into a supple, reliable tool for living and thinking. In doing so he not only compensates himself for the loss of his sight, but develops what is almost a new sense, a new faculty of mind.” That new sense—in essence, the ability to see without seeing—would enable him to live a life unlike any blind person had ever lived before, going sightseeing, enjoying tennis on television, composing elaborate prose on a typewriter, even climbing up on his rooftop by himself, to his neighbors’ amazement and alarm, and replacing all the gutters. It carried him through honors degrees in psychology and philosophy, brought him success as a professional psychologist, and ultimately made it possible for him to tackle one of the most intractable problems known to science and philosophy alike—the riddle of the nature and origins of consciousness.
In fact, Torey would eventually embark on a painstaking twenty-five-year quest to decipher the workings of the conscious mind, an all-consuming mission that finally bore fruit with his publication of The Crucible of Consciousness (1999). Boldly attempting to demystify the physical process by which the human brain gives rise to self-reflective thought, his magnum opus was praised by Nobel laureates and favorably compared to the break throughs of both Darwin and Einstein. Yet interestingly, this major work of materialist science was inspired by a seemingly nonmaterial event—a vision of literally cosmic proportions that came to him late one night during his first few weeks in that Sydney hospital bed. Laying all his doubts and questions on the table, he began to reflect on his situation in light of a context far beyond his own small life, catalyzing a profound state of contemplation in which the very structures of the evolving universe began to open before him. It was a revelation that made visible what Torey calls the “unmistakable directionality” behind the evolutionary process, and it galvanized his passion to further that process through better understanding human consciousness, which he saw as its leading edge. As he describes in his autobiography, it was the power of this experience that pulled him back from the brink of death.
Torey is a hard-nosed scientist, and he refuses to interpret this life-changing event in religious terms. Nevertheless, it has many of the characteristics of a spiritual awakening, not least because it blessed him with an unshakable energy and confidence that seem to have stayed with him ever since. Whatever we call it, it was the source of his drive and determination to fathom, through the unique window of his inner vision, the active role each of us has to play in the creative unfolding of the cosmos. “Fate is one thing,” writes this unusual blind man who has seen so deeply into the mysteries of life and evolution. “What we make of it is another.”