By Jose Saramago.
Translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero from the 1995 Ensaio sombre a Cegueira.
London: The Harvill Press, 1997
Comments of Bob Corbett
How are we to imagine a world in which some central part of our meaning system suddenly disappears? I've played with the idea in thinking about having survived an atomic war which destroyed most humans, and all the basic infrastructures of everyday life. The problems one runs into even in such a game of imagination is to be consistent and being able to step far enough away to see what it is that really changes. In my day-dreaming imaginings I never went so far as to even dare to consider the inner changes in my person or the other survivors around me. It was much more than I could do to even anticipate and manage the physical problems of change and how to deal with them.
Jose Saramago presents us with exactly such a problematic, yet his masterful analysis deals not only with the physical aspects of change and how his characters deal with them, but he inters into the psychological realm and astounds us with his insights and brilliance.
A man is sitting at a traffic light one day waiting for the light to turn green and he suddenly goes blind. This is the "first blind man." Slowly this mysterious form of blindness, the like not known in the literature of modern medicine, spreads to the whole nation. As best we know, there is only one sighted person left in the realm. We follow a cast of fewer than 10 characters in detail. We have no names, only descriptors. After all one character tells us "blind people need no names." There is the first blind man, the first blind man's wife. The blind man had a seeming good semaritan who helps him home and but then steals his car and is thus called the man who had stole the car. There is the doctor whom he consults and the doctor's wife, the girl with dark glasses, the boy with the squint and the man with the black eye patch. There are a few others, but these become our key characters, later on adding the dog of tears.
In the early days of the white blindness in which each person seems only a white creamy mass, the government freaks out at the quick contagion of it and inters a large number of the blind in an old insane asylum. There, in scenes which are quite reminiscent of Golding's The Lord of the Flies, pure anarchy reigns and a gang sets itself up to control the government delivered food.
Soon however, the 7 central characters have escaped the asylum when it turns out that all the guards who are keeping them interred have themselves gone blind and they simply walk out into a world of all blind people.
All blind people that is, save one. The doctor's wife somehow remains sighted and she is able to give this small group the advantages that allows it to survive when others could not. She can locate places, keep them all in line and, most importantly, find food and water in a world gone blind.
What is this odd book of Jose Saramago? Is it an allegory? If so an allegory of what? Of the dependency of humans on basic systems of order in the manner of Thomas Hobbes? Is it a condemnation of humans as being only on the edge of civilization and being shown to be ready to plunge into barbarism at the least shaking of central systems of order? Or on a more positive note, is the tiny group of 7 the hopeful core that even in such catastrophic circumstances would maintain humanity and re-create a safer environment? Were this latter the case then the critic has a difficult time explaining the presence of the one sighted person who survives and leads. Or does this problematic suggest that leaders are essential to the continuation of the human species?
Or, abandoning the allegory theory, is this simply an astonishing tour-de-force of imagination, being just what it is literally and no more, the investigation of the logic of life when something such as sight disappears and the sighted woman is necessary as a sop since no other believable mode of survival would be easily available. This view would harmonize with the direction one finds in other Saramago novels especially The Stone Raft and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, perhaps even of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. Saramago seems to have a passion for playing with alternative realities and attending with care to the logic of the system he once sets up.
I believe I lean much more to this notion that we are to understand Blindness not as an allegory, but as an exploration of an alternative reality. On his view we are freer to remain inside the story as given and just marvel at how he unravels the story and develops not only the physical ramifications, but especially how he deals with the inner realities and changes in the character's minds. However, on this view we are left with the curious status of the doctor's wife's sight, and then the even more curious recurrence of the "special" dog which we had in The Stone Raft as well. Saramago seems to like dogs in nearly occult roles in his fantasies. This one, however, plays no central as the dog in The Stone Raft. Rather, it gets it name by licking away the tears of the doctor's wife when she breaks down in near despair on see what has happened to the blind city. The dog of tears remains with the group the rest of the tale, but seems to have no other role.
After just the first few pages I nearly lost my faith in Saramago. The blind man goes blind at the stop sign, gets taken home by the car thief and soon is taken to the doctor, who is an ophthalmologist, by his wife. I began to wonder -- how in the world can he sustain an entire moderately long novel as the story of this blind guy. Where could this go? What is there to build on? I suspected I may have had a weak Saramago novel in my hand. And then the thunderous second shoe drops, the doctor goes blind in the night. I simply gasped aloud on the subway I was riding when that happened. I knew I was now in for something odd, but I had no idea just how odd and soon people were falling into blindness with great rapidity and I was hooked on a new alternative world according to Saramago. The ending, which I won't mention was very unsatisfactory to me, but I'll leave that to the reader to discover and evaluate on his or her own.
Jose Saramago is one of the great masters of storytelling and fiction of our time. His language is impeccable and he plays with it often, calling attention to it, even interrupting the story to reflect on words and modes of expressing thoughts. The story itself is captivating and in the later sections when the group of 7 are wandering in this nightmare of a city where all are blind is one of the most frightful and even terrifying scenes I know in fiction. This is in no way a horror story, yet I can't imagine a novel in the genre of horror rising to the level of terror that Saramago strikes in us in these scenes of wandering bands of blind people struggling to find food and stay alive. It is a macabre and brilliant painting of pictures for the verbally sighted and yet another addition to the marvelous list of Saramago triumphs.
Special thanks to George Snedeker for this note:
I have just read your review of Saramago's BLINDNESS. as a visually impaired person, I have been trying to make sense of his use of blindness as a trope. blindness operates in his text as both an intertextual sign and as a referent. blindness represents limitation. this is true in the very obvious sense of the analogy between knowing and seeing. blindness also leads the characters to return to the state of nature. I have always been troubled by the doctor's wife. her eyes allow her to lead the others to safety. she is also necessary as the narrator of the story. without her, who would describe the events and scenes of the novel.
A more systematic review from George Snedeker
BETWEEN METAPHOR AND REFERENT:Reading Saramago's "Blindness"
SUNY/College at Old Westbury
Jose Saramago received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. Although several of his books were available in English translation, not many people in the United States had read his novels prior to the award. Soon his latest novel, Blindness, was on the New York Times Best-Seller List. If I had not previously read two of his earlier books, I would not have been much interested in reading an allegorical novel that uses blindness as its master sign.
Saramago uses a quotation from the Book of Exhortations as the epigram to Blindness: "If you can see, look. If you can look, observe". Near the end of the novel, when the blind people are getting their vision back, he has one of his characters remark:" I don't think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see" (292). These two quotations indicate the political and philosophical intention of the novel. They indicate, but do not disclose it. The greatest problem with an allegorical novel like Blindness is that it grants too much freedom to the reader. It allows too many interpretations.
Saramago uses blindness as a metaphor for both personal misfortune and social catastrophe. The story begins when the first blind man loses his vision in his car while waiting for a traffic light to change. The man who helps him get safely home goes back and steals his car. The next day the wife of the first blind man takes him to see the eye doctor. Within a few days, the wife of the first blind man, the car thief, the doctor and all of the patients in his waiting room also go blind. The only character in the novel that miraculously avoids the affliction of blindness is the doctor's wife.
With a large number of people going blind quickly and with no apparent cause, public health officials panic and the blind are interned in a former mental hospital to protect the population from infection.
They are provided with food but are left to fend for themselves within the walls of the abandoned mental hospital. Soldiers keep watch and threaten to kill anyone who tries to escape.
The numbers of infected persons increases rapidly. New groups of blind people are imprisoned in the hospital. Among the new inmates are a group of hoodlums, one of whom possesses a gun. The hoodlums soon demand that the other internees pay for their food and provide them with women to fulfill their sexual desires. This outrage soon leads to a revolt. A few days later, the blind internees realize that the entire population of the city has gone blind and they leave the hospital in search of food.
As the narrative of Blindness progresses, the conditions of the blind continue to get worse. They find themselves in a society that no longer functions. Blind people roam the streets looking for food and shelter. After scavenging for days, they realize that soon it will be impossible to obtain enough nourishment to keep alive. While they are at the edge of despair their vision miraculously begins to return. The novel abruptly ends without making clear in what ways people have been transformed by the horrific experience of collective blindness.
As I mentioned earlier, the doctor's wife is the only character who does not go blind. She remains free from infection. This allows her to assist the group of blind people. Her eyes allow her to exercise a degree of control over the situation. It is she who kills the blind man with the gun. It is she who leads the blind in their search for food and shelter.
Blindness is clearly a sign of limitation in this novel. It causes the entire society to no longer function. It also places blind people in the condition of physical jeopardy and psychological torment. The society no longer functions because the blind are not able to provide the ordinary services that we are routinely dependent upon for survival: the production and distribution of food, water and electricity and the maintenance of the infrastructure of transportation and communication.
The central problem with Saramago's novel is that his master sign "blindness" is a floating signifier. No matter what his intention, the metaphor of blindness has a real referent. Readers of this novel are faced with an ambiguity, the relationship between the "symbolic" and the "real". The authorial voice of the novel and the critical response which has appeared in the mainstream press has occluded the problem of the referent. Saramago writes as if his metaphorical depiction of misfortune and catastrophe could somehow be innocent of the cultural meanings that are routinely associated with visual impairment. It is interesting to note that reviews which have appeared in the mainstream press fail to even consider that the use of blindness as a metaphor might pose a problem.
Reviewers have often made the comparison between Blindness and Camus' Plague, Kafka's Trial and Golding's Lord of the Flies. None of the reviews I have read have made the more obvious comparison to H.G. Wells' short story "The Country of the Blind". In this story, Wells uses blindness to represent a restricting society and the struggle of the individual against social conformity. Both Saramago and Wells use blindness as a sign of limitation because this idea is readily available. It is part of our common stock of cultural images. They use "blindness" for the same reason that Golding uses "children" in Lord of the Flies.
Like Camus, Saramago uses disease as a way of representing social and political crisis. Both authors emphasize the human response to social catastrophe. However, there is a problem with the representation of historical events by means of a medical model. In this representation, nature displaces the social and replaces it with an image of fate. As a consequence, blindness is defined as a physical condition.
Saramago's writings have often been discussed as an example of "magic realism". However, Blindness has more in common with Kafka's allegorical novels than it does with works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Salman Rushdie.
The fundamental problem posed by allegorical novels is how to locate their political and social meaning. Saramago provides his readers with few clues to guide interpretation. The story is set in an unnamed country, somewhere in the second half of the twentieth century. There are few identifying characteristics that provide a context for the events that transpire.
The epidemic of blindness takes place without any apparent cause; the disease spreads quickly and as the novel ends the blind are getting their vision back. Their recovery has as little explanation as the onset of blindness. The problem the reader is faced with is what to make of the metaphorical illness, the social catastrophe, and the miraculous recovery. What does it all mean?
Near the end of the book, Saramago has one of his characters suggest that perhaps they had never really been blind, that perhaps the sighted do not really see. If this is meant to be the underlying message of the novel it is, in fact, not a very original idea, since the analogy between "seeing" and "understanding" is one of the oldest ideas in Western philosophy. It is perhaps most clearly illustrated in Book 7 of The Republic, where Plato uses a visual metaphor to illustrate the limits of human understanding. He describes a cave where several people are seated in such a way that they cannot see the direct light of the fire. Instead, they can only see its distorted shadows upon the wall of the cave.
I suspect that Saramago is more interested in probing the human capacity to understand social reality than the Platonic concept of Absolute Truth. I wish he had chosen a better way of representing this quest.
Plato. 1961.The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Princeton: Princeton University Press
Saramago, Jose. 1997. Blindness. New York: Harcourt Brace
Wells, H. G. 1911. The Country of The Blind and Other Stories. London: T. Nelson
A man sitting in a car at a traffic light suddenly loses his sight and sees nothing but whiteness. A kindly passerby drives the blind man home and then steals the blind man’s car. The blind man’s wife takes the unfortunate fellow to an eye doctor, but the doctor is mystified. Later, the car thief, the doctor, and the patients who were in the doctor’s waiting room at the time of the blind man’s arrival all lose their vision. The government attempts to contain the epidemic by isolating the blind in a vacant mental hospital guarded by soldiers who have orders to shoot anyone who tries to leave. The doctor’s wife, who has claimed to be blind in order to accompany her husband, is the only witness as more and more sightless people arrive at the hospital.
Life in the hospital grows steadily worse. The only blind internees who are able to organize themselves effectively are members of a gang headed by one man who has managed to smuggle a gun into the hospital. After a rebellion against the tyranny of the gang members, a fire breaks out and the internees flee the hospital. The soldiers do not open fire because the soldiers are gone. Everyone has gone blind. The doctor’s wife leads a small group, made up of the patients from the waiting room, back to a city in which civilization has collapsed.
Jose Saramago’s novel BLINDNESS is a parable, in which blindness symbolizes the inability to see things as they are. This inability leads to an uncleanliness that is both moral and physical. The book’s pessimism about the human condition is tempered with humor and sympathy for its characters’ struggles to survive and maintain dignity in the face of hardship.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIV, August, 1998, p. 1969.
Library Journal. CXXIII, August, 1998, p. 134.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 6, 1998, p. 2.
The New Republic. CCXVIII, November 30, 1998, p. 48.
New Statesman. CXXVII, October 16, 1998, p. 58.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, October 4, 1998, p. 8.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, July 13, 1998, p. 62.
The Times Literary Supplement. December 19, 1997, p. 20.
The Village Voice. September 22, 1998, p. 150.
The Washington Post. October 9, 1998, p. D1.