Ian "Marvin" Graye's Reviews > Blindness

Blindness by José Saramago
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Attending to His Own Conventions

This is only the second of Saramago's novels that I've read (the other being "The Elephant's Journey"). Both were published after he won the Nobel Prize, so I'm unable to make any assessment of the merits of the award.

However, I'd like to start this review with some comments on Saramago's style, before discussing some of the themes of the novel.

The first comment relates to sentence and paragraph length.

I stopped counting after a while, but some of Saramago's sentences are up to half a page long, and many of his paragraphs are at least four pages long. This length doesn't service any sense of stream of consciousness or any other literary goal. The overwhelming tone is one of rational abstraction, so the length seems to reflect the thought that inspired the language.

Punctuation is a product of printing technology. It marks pauses in the sentence that guide or mimic how it would be spoken aloud.

Many of Saramago's sentences are punctuated by commas, where we would otherwise expect a full stop to end the sentence. In some cases, the first word of the next part of the sentence following the comma begins with a capital letter. Thus, pretty soon, a comma becomes a mere substitute for a full stop:

"The blind man raised his hands to his eyes and gestured, Nothing, it's as if I were caught in a mist or had fallen into a milky sea. But blindness isn't like that said the other fellow, they say that blindness is black, Well I see everything white, That little woman was probably right, it could be a matter of nerves, nerves are the very devil, No need to talk to me about it, it's a disaster, yes a disaster, Tell me where you live please, and at the same time the engine started up."

Punctuation is conventional. Saramago is unconventional, but he nevertheless establishes his own conventions that parallel or replace social ones. Nothing about his punctuation truly disorients the reader.

I was away from school the day they taught paragraph structure, so my comprehension is impressionistic at best. Given the size and content of some of Saramago's paragraphs, it's difficult to ascertain whether he utilises any rules to divide one paragraph from another.

They just seem to go on, they flow. Once I stopped thinking about it as a challenge, I imagined that the paragraphs were like clouds, abstractions that blew across the sky that is the page. Each paragraph was a dash of whiteness. Occasionally, their contents would come down to earth, falling like torrents of rain, thus becoming grounded or less abstract.

Words and Sayings

My second comment relates to the use of sayings, proverbs and allegory.

There is a moral or ethical dimension to the novel that I will explore in the second part of my review.

However, to some extent, this is conveyed not just by the narrative, but by Saramago's use of language, including pre-existing words and phrases.

Here Saramago comments on the performative nature of language:

"But I am still blind, she replied, It doesn't matter, I'll guide you, only those present who heard it with their own ears could grasp how such simple words could contain such different feelings as protection, pride and authority."

"...And why those words rather than any others, I don't know, they came into my head and I said them, The next we know you'll be preaching in the square we passed along the way, Yes, a sermon about the rabbit's tooth and the hen's beak..."

"...Here one can see that the true eternal return is that of words, which now return, spoken for the same reasons..."

"The doctor's wife was not particularly keen on the tendency of proverbs to preach, nevertheless something of this ancient lore must have remained in her memory..."


What's of interest is the social construction of language. It organises human behaviour, thought and action, even before it takes on any overt moral or pedagogical character.

To a certain extent, language rules us from within, even without us knowing:

"...we cannot tell what presentiments, what intuition, what inner voices might have roused them, nor do we know how they found their way here, there is no point searching for explanations for the moment, conjectures are free."

Language effects "the harmonious conciliation between what she had said and what she thought..."

Still, language is mutable and must change:

"...if sayings are to retain any meaning and to continue to be used they have to adapt to the times."

"Blindness” is in part an adaptation or updating of historical, even biblical, allegories.

Language and books are a repository for stories or history:

"There being no witnesses, and if there is no evidence that they were summoned to the post-mortems to tell us what happened, it is understandable that someone should ask how it was possible to know that these things had happened so and not in some other manner, the reply to be given is that all stories are like those about the creation of the universe, no one was there, no one witnessed anything, yet everyone knows what happened."

Who Are the Blind?

My third comment relates to the naming of the characters. Nobody is given a name. Saramago only refers to people by their qualities: the first blind man, his wife, the doctor, the doctor's wife, the girl with dark glasses, the boy with the squint, the old man with the black eyepatch.

There is no suggestion that every character is representative of some class or category. What unites them is their blindness. Each has their own story as to how they became blind, so this is ultimately what differentiates them (other than the description they are given).

These characters are simply amongst the first to go blind in an "epidemic" of blindness from which everybody eventually suffers.

As we witness more and more people go blind, we inevitably ask what significance blindness is meant to have.
We are never definitively told its true significance.

The epigraph to the novel is a quotation from the "Book of Exhortations":

"If you can see, look.
If you can look, observe."


To look might mean to look with a purpose or on a quest.

To observe might mean to look or see with a mindfulness or critical ability.

In a way, we are being exhorted to notice more than what we see in front of us, to look more deeply and less superficially.

What then if we are blind and cannot see? Does it mean that we can neither look nor observe? If so, what can we be exhorted to do?

"Blindness" doesn't so much exhort us to do anything, as investigate the possibilities of what might happen if we all suddenly turned blind.

Blind People Who Can See, But Who Don’t See

Who then are the blind? The most obvious answer is all of us. A more precise answer comes at the end of the book:

"Why did we become blind, I don't know, perhaps one day we'll find out, Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, 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."

Perhaps the blind are we who are willfully blind, or are blinded by an external cause, such as religion (the church) or the state.

Saramago imagines a church in which all the statues have a white bandage covering their eyes. (This reminds me of the apocryphal story that some room in the Vatican contains all of the genitals that have been chiselled off statues at the direction of the Pope, and one day will have to be matched to the statues from which they've been removed.)

Food to Survive

Another answer could be that the blind represent poor people or the working class/proletariat.

This possibility arises from the fact that what the characters in the novel lose when they become blind is the ability to find food and to survive.

Original Position

Blindfolded in a sense, they return to John Rawls' hypothetical "original position" in which they don a "veil of ignorance" that blinds people to their personal and social characteristics and enables them to negotiate and formulate a social contract without partiality.

Here, the blind people appoint leaders and delegates to perform particular tasks on behalf of the community.

They form themselves into some kind of organisation to replace the state that has ceased to function.

This organisation is against the state, without being animalistic or anarchistic:

"Unless we organise ourselves in earnest, hunger and fear will take over here...

"The state of mind which perforce will have to determine social conduct of this nature cannot be improvised nor does it come about spontaneously."


description

Cover by Belgian designer Levente Szabó

Like Human Beings

The doctor's wife (who is not blind) verbalises it:

"If we cannot live entirely like human beings, at least let us do everything in our power not to live entirely like human animals, words she repeated so often that the rest of the ward ended up by transforming her advice into a maxim, a dictum, into a doctrine, a rule of life, words which deep down were so simple and elementary...propitious to any understanding of needs and circumstances..."

Observe the performative function of words again.

Blind Bourgeois Hoodlums

The greatest social threat to this little community is a gang of blind hoodlums, who take over control of the distribution of the food and start to charge for it.

By expropriating the means of distribution, they mimic the role of the bourgeoisie, and in effect start a class war that only the doctor's wife can end (with the aid of a pair of scissors).

A Great Hero to Me

Before she is able to do this, the women in the community are subjected to rape and abuse by the hoodlums, in exchange for the food that is to be supplied to their hospital ward. Some readers have expressed distaste about these scenes. However, they are fundamental to Saramago's implied argument that capitalist society had turned women into a property right and a commodity of exchange.

This contributes to the status of the doctor's wife as a saviour. No less than Ursula Le Guin has said:

"The woman who is the central character of Blindness is truly a great hero to me."
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Reading Progress

July 23, 2015 – Shelved
July 23, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
January 5, 2016 – Shelved as: saramago
July 17, 2016 – Started Reading
July 19, 2016 –
page 94
28.83% "last update: The paragraphs are geting longer and more abstract, some over a page and a half. Saramago seems to be holding back the nature of the allegory, if that is what it is. Susan Sontag might have described it in terms of Blindness as Metaphor, but a metaphor for what? That is the question."
July 21, 2016 –
page 160
49.08% "Starting to formulate some theories: The foundation of civil society and community is mutual obligation rather than rights granted or enforced by the state. Here the obligations arise out of the empathy within the blind internees, as if by social contract. The blind hoodlums seem to have forcibly expropriated the food, i.e., the means of production and distribution, and are using it to build private wealth."
July 21, 2016 –
page 166
50.92% "Having lost the light of their eyes, [they] lost the guiding spirit of respect."
July 23, 2016 –
page 326
100.0% "The Boy With the Squint Was Not Interested in the Story"\n \n And so apologies for another review in which I can't see any resemblance between this novel and Stephen King whatsoever. What? Because it has elements of plot, or narrative drive? Quelle horreur!!\n \n And too that the language is ordinary, because the thoughts are ordinary. No.\n \n And that it's this allegory or some such. ugh."
July 23, 2016 – Shelved as: read-2016
July 23, 2016 – Shelved as: reviews
July 23, 2016 – Shelved as: reviews-4-stars
July 24, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-16 of 16 (16 new)

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message 1: by Ian (last edited Jul 22, 2016 07:14PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye SOUNDTRACK:

Etta James - "I'd Rather Go Blind"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9sq3...

Paul Kelly - "Everything's Turning to White"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IUDDu...

Based on the Raymond Carver story

Kasey Chambers - "Everything's Turning to White"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJRr7...

Womack & Womack - "Teardrops"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8AOA...

Timmy Thomas - "Why Can't We Live Together"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tz1yj...

Soul II Soul - "Back To Life"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TB54d...


Mona Good one...the song, I mean, not the book :)


message 3: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye I've put it down to try if I stumble across it second-hand.

I've just read "The Elephant's Journey" and was underwhelmed.


Mona Ian wrote: "I've put it down to try if I stumble across it second-hand.

I've just read "The Elephant's Journey" and was underwhelmed."


"Blindness" was my first and last Saramago.

I mean there's some striking imagery (no pun intended--haha). But it's so unrelentingly grim...


João Carlos Parabéns...
Saramago is Saramago.
He is an incredible writer...
A unique style, very few paragraphs and little punctuation, no quotation marks to mark the dialogue, multiple speakers...
More then after and before Nobel Prize what really changed Saramago was Pilar del Rio.
Four suggestions:
Baltasar and Blimunda - a love story, about Portugal history and Convento de Mafra, magical realism; Death with Interruptions about death and mortality; The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis - who loves Portugal, Lisboa and Fernando Pessoa
We must continue reading Saramago...


message 6: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye João Carlos wrote: "Parabéns...
Saramago is Saramago.
He is an incredible writer...
A unique style, very few paragraphs and little punctuation, no quotation marks to mark the dialogue, multiple speakers...
More then a..."


Thanks, João Carlos. I hope to read Baltasar and Blimunda as my next Saramago.


Seemita Fantastic review, Ian! I love you deconstructions of themes that very much pervade the body and soul of this unusual book. Reading Saramago was such an unforgettable experience for me.


James Barker This novel actually broke me a little but I persevered and am glad I did. Great review and soundtrack, Ian.


message 9: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye James wrote: "This novel actually broke me a little but I persevered and am glad I did. Great review and soundtrack, Ian."

Thanks, James. I'm trying to work out what I think of Saramago over all. I'm not convinced yet.


Luís C. I've to read this one. Your review convinced me.


message 11: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Luís wrote: "I've to read this one. Your review convinced me."

Thanks, Luis. I must have had more luck convincing you than myself!


Luís C. Ian wrote: "Luís wrote: "I've to read this one. Your review convinced me."

Thanks, Luis. I must have had more luck convincing you than myself!"


Indeed. Saramago is a "must" reading author to me, nowadays..


message 13: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye I'm looking forward to reading some of his ealier novels.


message 14: by Luís (last edited Sep 24, 2016 05:54AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Luís C. Ian wrote: "I'm looking forward to reading some of his ealier novels."

I recommend you to read first the previous novels. You will have a total notion of his total work.


message 15: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Luís wrote: "Ian wrote: "I'm looking forward to reading some of his ealier novels."

I recommend you to read first the previous novels. You will have a total notion of his total work."


Thanks, Luis. I will read them, though I've alreadt read two of the later novels (so it's too late to read them first).


Luís C. Ian wrote: "Luís wrote: "Ian wrote: "I'm looking forward to reading some of his ealier novels."

I recommend you to read first the previous novels. You will have a total notion of his total work."

Thanks, Lui..."


Ok.


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