Erin's Reviews > Blindness

Blindness by José Saramago
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Mar 02, 2008

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By striking all of his characters blind in his novel Blindness, Jose Saramago explores the conditions and consequences of the myriad figurative blindnesses that plague humanity. Saramago conducts his investigation with delicacy, he is a sympathetic narrator, even as the plot rushes forward with all the weight of an allegory, or a crowd of frightened blind people, and the hapless victims are crushed underfoot.
One day, in a nameless city and country, a man in his car is struck suddenly blind at a red light. The light turns green: and the chaos that ensues because the first blind man is stranded in his car in a busy intersection is nothing compared to the chaos that ensues later as one by one everyone begins to go blind. No one in this story has a name: the first blind man’s wife accompanies him to the ophthalmologist, and in the waiting room she sees the boy with a squint, the man with the eye-patch, and the girl with dark glasses, who all become central characters in the story along with the eye doctor and his wife. They become the first group rounded put into quarantine in an abandoned mental hospital as the nameless government attempts to contain the rapidly spreading “white sickness” or “white evil.” There is only one person in the story who does not go blind and she is the doctor’s wife, who sees, as the reader does, the horror that unfolds. The hospital fills with those stricken blind, now called “internees” who are shot by terrified soldiers should they set foot outside and are brutalized by the “thugs” who seize power inside. Finally, fleeing the burning mental hospital, the internees discover that the soldiers have all gone blind too and abandoned their posts. They wander the city foraging for food and water unable, like everyone else, to find the way home. Only the doctor’s wife can see and she shepherds her small group to her apartment where they cling to human dignity through cleanliness, falling in love, and sharing their meals. Each evening she reads to them, until one evening, one by one, they begin to regain their sight.
This novel is a morality play and the moral is plainly stated before the reader can even reach the title page (just in case he becomes blind before he reaches it?) “If you can see, look. If you can look, observe.” Indeed, the whole novel is littered with proverbs, as spoken by the blind to the blind, and as told to the reader directly by a narrator who appears in the second chapter with this statement “The skeptics, who are many and stubborn, claim that when it comes to human nature, if it is true that the opportunity does not always make the thief, it is also true that it helps a lot. As for us, we should like to think that if the blind man had accepted the second offer of this false Samaritan, at that final moment generosity might still have prevailed…” That “As for us” announces the presence of a plural first person, who seems to fade from first to third person and even coalesces into a mysterious first person singular at least twice towards the end of the book, most notably when the one sighted woman and two blind women strip off their clothes to clean themselves in a rainstorm in the middle of the night.
“…perhaps we have judged them wrongly, or perhaps we are unable to see this the most beautiful and glorious thing that has happened in the history of the city, a sheet of foam flows from the floor of the balcony, if only I could go with it, falling interminably, clean, purified, naked.”
The first person “I” allows the narrator to occupy a subject position from which he can denounce moral relativism. This way the doctor’s wife remains the only seeing character (although when she encounters a blind writer near the end who seems to be writing about blindness it is easy to suspect that he might have something to do with the narrator) and the narrator is free to shift into a first person plural which implies the censure of an ideal enlightened society of people who can see (a society Saramago seems to believe exists only in imagination) and who call upon the reader to recognize the horror of what is happening, not only in the book but in the world outside of it as well. When Saramago calls upon the decency of his reader this way he is reminiscent of Dickens, who does the same thing, in Bleak House for instance, in the passage describing the death of Jo, the chimney sweep.
“The light is come upon the dark benighted way! Dead!
“Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.”
Condemnations of moral relativism are often weakened by the historical tendency of the western world to condemn everything not customary in western culture on supposedly moral grounds. Saramago neatly sidesteps this problem with his allegorical blindness, by implying that moral blindness, the blindness of fear, the blindness of desperation, is an affliction that can strike anyone at any time, anywhere in the world, and that this affliction is contagious. Those struck blind become simultaneously shameless and helpless and civilization crumbles. The streets are almost immediately filled with corpses and shit, dogs run wild, and humans become like animals. The doctor’s wife sees the horror in it’s entirety, while the others are left to grope blindly along. Saramago allows no one a name, and dialogue comes from many characters at once and the reader must pay attention in order to distinguish who is speaking without the customary visual cues of quotation marks and new paragraphs that usually signal a new speaker. The sentences are long and fluid, which facilitates the shifting nature of the narrator, and maintains a sense of momentum. The imagery is sparse, as the reader is limited to what the doctor’s wife sees, and what little the narrator reveals, and this perhaps, is the most difficult aspect of the book, at least for this reader (who is partial to such enchantments.)
Novels with overtly moral concerns often make for insufferable reading but Saramago’s reminds his reader to look if he can see, and rather than interpreting his observations for him hopes that observation will be enough.

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