‘José Saramago in the Land of the Blind’, by me

In the course of José Saramago’s ‘Blindness’, a euphorically pessimistic novel about a sudden and unexplained epidemic of blindness in an unnamed city and country, he makes some remarks about blind people which, in the context of a plague which has left all but one individual without sight, make a lot of sense. His essential argument has to do with solidarity making human society possible, so it seems reasonable to speculate that in a situation where nobody could actually see the Other, human feelings would take second place to a feral need to survive at any cost, which is what we witness throughout the novel.

There are, however, a couple of moments in the book where he seems keen to take it a little bit further and actually state quite baldly that the only reason that blind people have any feelings at all is because we are there to help them out. Which seems a little harsh, and perhaps a bit rich seeing as he himself wears a particularly thick pair of spectacles.

I don’t know if many blind people have read the novel. I did find one comment from a ‘visually impaired’ person who felt that ‘blindness operates in his text as both an intertextual sign and as a referent’, which is of course helpful, but may as far as I know not actually mean very much. Anyhoo. For it to be read widely in the, ahem, ‘blind community’ it would have to be published in Braille, and I don’t think it has been. Maybe, if it ever is, he might one day face a Salman Rushdie-style Fatwah, with copies of his and probably other books being burnt in obviously carefully controlled environments and our TV screens filled with the faces of angry blind people holding up photos of camels and Paris Hilton and proclaiming with fury ‘THIS MAN MUST DIE!’.

I digress. Here, in all it’s not-really-worth-reading-if-you-haven’t-read-the-book entirety is an essay I recently wrote about the novel, upon reading of the which (?!) they agreed to let me back into University, which is where I’ll be from October and hopefully up until the end of my life in, ooh, dozens of years’ time. I would particularly appreciate hearing any constructive comments from any blind readers out there, but unfortunately my experimentary attempts to make it easier for them by simply writing have sadly proved as fruitless as, erm, my daily diet.

Alors je me tais.

Would you consider H.G. Wells’ dictum, “In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” an appropriate epigraph to ‘Blindness’ by Jose Saramago?

The mock-biblical quote with which Saramago chooses to open ”Blindness’ is instructive and ambiguous: ‘If you can look, see. If you can see, observe’. The verb he chooses to employ, ‘reparar’, has two meanings: both to take note of something and to remedy it. The conflation of seeing and understanding is one deeply embedded in our languages and our cultures, and Saramago makes it even more explicit on the final page of the book:

‘I think we didn’t go blind, I think we are blind, Blind people who can see, Blind people who can see without seeing.’

Saramago is very fond of aphorisms and sayings, of what ‘someone once said’. At two points in the book HG Well’s quote is mentioned: one of the internees’ attempts to apply it to the world in which they find themselves is rejected by one of his companions:

‘Someone once said that in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, Forget about what someone once said, This is different, Here not even people with one eye would be saved.’

Also, towards the end of the book the doctor’s wife, the only person who retains her sight throught the epidemic, herself claims that she is neither the King nor the Queen of this ‘land of the blind’:

‘None of you know, none of you can know what it is to have eyes in a world of blind people, I’m no queen, no, I’m simply the one who was born to witness the horror.’

The initial structure of ‘Ensaio sobre a cegueira’ reflects that of several other Saramago books in which unexplained cataclysmic events give birth to a crisis of government and a social breakdown. In ”The Stone Raft’ Portugal and Spain become detached from the rest of Europe and float off into the Atlantic. In ‘Seeing’ a political crisis is engendered by a sudden and unexplained surge in the number of blank votes at a general election, leading to Government panic and martial law; and in his new book death ceases to kill, and once again the authorities are forced into desperate and hollow measures.

In ‘Blindness’, as with the aforementioned two books, the story is set in an unnamed country with characters known only by the descriptive epithets ascribed to them on their first appearance. Several of the characters comment that ‘blind people need no name’. It is also unclear if in Saramago’s novel he is talking about a ‘land’ of the blind or about an epidemic that infects all humanity across the world.

It is clear, however, that the ‘white blindness’ that keeps them from seeing is not conventional blindness. Something is profoundly wrong and in depriving all but one of his characters of vision, Saramago enacts a metamorphisis which inverts that of both Franz Kafka in ‘Metamorphisis’ and of James Kelman in ‘How Late it was, How Late’.

The vision of the world he wants the reader to witness is profoundly troubling and, insofar as it can be seen as an allegory, deeply pessimistic. In an interview with the magazine ‘Visão’ in 2002 he expressed the belief that ‘the world conjuncture at present is absolutely terrifying’. His intention is to make us ‘re-see’ the world; he told the Observer in May 2006:

“The painter paints, the musician makes music, the novelist writes novels. But I believe that we all have some influence, not because of the fact that one is an artist, but because we are citizens. As citizens, we all have an obligation to intervene and become involved, it’s the citizen who changes things. I can’t imagine myself outside any kind of social or political involvement. Yes, I’m a writer, but I live in this world and my writing doesn’t exist on a separate level. And if people know who I am and read my books, well, good; that way, if I have something more to say, then everyone benefits.”

His books, then, have a very clear political point to make, a vision of the world we share which is intensely politicised. He told another interviewer in Spring 2002 that ‘I am not a novelist, but rather a failed essayist who started to write novels because he didn’t know how to write essays.’

The powers-that-be in his books are shown to be wanting. The authorities in ‘Blindness’ – as in both ‘Seeing’, ‘The Stone Raft’ and his latest novel – are hapless, cynical and ultimately unable to deal with the situation. They are seen trying to deal with the latest developments in the crisis and to save their own positions by immediately turning to the most authoritarian measures without thinking of the possible consequences:

‘Where are we going to put all these people, We’ll sort it out, occupy all the dormitory wards (in the asylum), If we do that the contaminated will come into direct contact with the blind, They’ll probably, sooner or later, go blind anyway, And what shall we do with the drivers of the buses, Just stick them in there too.’

A concern of the novel is the question of how the blind can organise themselves. As soon as those infected arrive in the asylum, attempts are made at organisation but the one person capable of establishing and maintaining order must hide the truth from her companions because, as her husband puts it, ‘they will probably turn you into their slave’. The repeated appeal for organisation goes largely unheeded.

When all order breaks down in the asylum, some of the internees attempt to establish their own authoritarian order. This, it is eventually revealed, is mainly due to the presence of someone who was formerly blind – not, of course, a one-eyed man, but someone with an obvious advantage:

‘Lucky so-and-sos…they can use him as a guide, a trained blind person is worth his weight in gold.’

The rule of these bullies is horrifyingly brutal but short-lived. When the central group of characters manage to leave the asylum, the doctor’s wife is able to find shelter and food, but the world that greets her eyes is one in which ‘time is ending, the rot is spreading, diseases find the door wide open, the water is running out and the food is turning into poison’. Here the central character is the only seeing person in a world entirely populated by the blind.

The characters have to try to survive in a world where ordinary day-to-day life has become impossible. Part of that day-to-day-life is based upon notions of paid work, private property, the commercial distribution of food, public provision of transport, health care, and the utilities and the maintanance of law and order. Also essential to our way of life is a belief that things are improving and will continue to improve in the future. The problem the novel poses is what happens when we can no longer depend on all of these things. This is part of the novel where the allegory with our present times is particularly precise and intense; the account of what the doctor’s wife sees is reminiscent of recent newspaper reports from parts of the world devastated by war, man-made famine or environmental cataclysm. Saramago urges us to confront the question of what alternative sources of authority we might look to in a world where our political leadership has utterly failed us.

One possible answer is that religion might provide a refuge, or at least some comfort, in desperate times. But the scene in the church, where all the icons and images are revealed to be blindfolded, is possibly the centrepiece of Saramago’s vision, of a world he exhorts us to ‘reparar’. God, he tells us ‘doesn’t deserve to see’ what we have witnessed. It is possible to see the preceding scene, in which the doctor’s wife sees the dancing flames from the supermarket basement and smells the burning bodies of those trapped below, as a vision of hell. The remaining humans are blind, burning in a subterranean hell, and there is no God to witness or to save them. Is it this realisation, and the fact that ‘the streets were looking worse and worse with each hour that passed’ – simply that things cannot possibly get any worse – that causes the epidemic to suddenly end?

In the HG Wells story the visitor to the ‘Land of the Blind’ sees a land where the inhabitants have managed to adapt and live without sight, but in Saramago’s much darker story a lack of vision is only compensated for by solidarity. At the start of the epidemic the first blind man is told by his rescuer ‘today it’s you, tomorrow it might be me’, and this sentiment is echoed throughout the book, for example when the doctor’s wife tells her husband:

‘Today is today, tomorrow is tomorrow, it’s today that I have the responsability (…) What responsibility, The responsibility that comes with having eyes when others have lost them, You can neither guide nor feed all the blind people in the world, I should.’

It is no accident that Saramago chooses a woman as his central protaganist. He seems to suggest that women are more capable of ‘seeing’ other people, whereas men tend to resort to brutality and attempts to exploit others. Often this selflessness on behalf of his female characters grates somewhat, but then his archetypal characters are rarely granted complex sentiments, instead exhibiting a certain naivety, particularly in the case of the men. When it has become clear to the reader that the man who helped the first blind man to his house has taken his car keys in order to steal his car, the latter remarks:

‘He probably just forgot, took them without realising.’

To some extent Saramago is setting his hapless protaganists up for a fall, for the moment when it will become clear that the powers-that-be have betrayed and abandoned them, and that all they have to depend on is each other.

Saramago believes artists share the responsibilty of all citizens, a responsibility to remedy the wrongs that we see around us. In another popular Portuguese proverb that he choses not to use in the novel (‘Eyes that don’t see, heart that doesn’t feel’) this common blindness prevents people not only from seeing, but also from feeling. In the land of the blind, people leave their houses and are unable to find them again, lose contact with their families, are forced to live a feral existence which precludes human sympathies. For Saramago, unlike in the story by HG Wells, it is impossible for human beings to live without the power of sight, but the central argument of his essay about blindness is that mutual understanding and a sense of solidarity with one another is what makes us human.

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