Notable Text: Blindness

Portuguese genius-author Jose Saramago published Blindness way back in 1995 (1997 for the English translation) and just about immediately won a Nobel Prize in Literature. That award is both slightly surprising and completely warranted. At its heart Blindness is a triumphant work of complexly composed fiction designed to gather together all of the boundless fears of the modern human (at least those of us in the cultivated security of Western society), but its also a bit of a gruesome torture porn given context in reality with anecdotal asides. It is a complicated read, one that has its own disorienting, and blinding style. Saramago takes care to keep text full on every page. The reader's eyes never get a break, not for dialogue, not for parenthetical statements. Instead, every page, with the exception of the blank spaces where chapters begin and end, is text-laden, like a mule carrying as much weight as its back can bear up a tall mountain. In this way, the novel is interactive. You will, in a sense, go blind attempting to read it. And the manner in which all of those words are delivered, undaunted, almost torturous, gives the book a mind of its own.

The characters, all protagonists held a minor distance, but still very intimate, are unnamed. They are distinguished only by a characteristic such as the Man with the black eye patch, the doctor, the doctor's wife, the girl with the dark glasses. Saramago wants them to be "every-people" and in a way they are, but in another way they are safely distanced from the reader, a reminder that the occurrences within the text are fictional, but that they could happen and these are the types of people who would be there, as we all ultimately recognize people first by looks, then by other aspects of their character. Because Blindness follows these people through the most horrible possible imaginable situations, the characters become our traveling companions, and to some extent our friends. We, as readers, can understand their reactions, their inner workings because they are left defined only so much as to make us think they could easily be each of us, in a different time and place. So, with that attachment, and through it, we are thrust powerfully into a world that falls apart when suddenly everyone, it seems, can no longer see.

The blindness in Blindness is a white one, which is as is confirmed in the books conclusion, something of a holy blindness. The loss of sight reduces the people in the unnamed city and state to animals. First, they are contained in an abandoned mental hospital, frightened and made less secure by decaying conditions and the fear that those who were not yet blind would catch blindness by helping any of the "ill." This is the fear that causes prejudice and violence, and Saramago embraces the metaphor broadly. But, even when the people are no longer at ill ease due to their protector/captors, Saramago points out that humanity is inherently evil. Rape, robbery, extortion and murder all take place as average people in an un-average situation are forced to cope and struggle for survival. Slowly, the blindness causes all the morality to seep from everyone and in a variety of asides Saramago flippantly, but also judgingly comments of his disastrous menagerie. In a way, Saramago's narrator is God. Commenting and observing the collapse of his creation when forced into a difficult situation.

But, "God" has a chosen savior too. The doctor's wife is the only one who never succumbs to the blindness. There is nothing notable about her, virginal or anything like that, but she is ceaselessly helpful and strong (enduring the view of decaying human beings wallowing in their own defecation and urine). She is the "Jesus" of the tale. She is meant to lead, and she does, but for the most part like a scientist performing a study: distanced and only intervening when necessary. Eventually, when she reveals to her companions that she can and always could see, she becomes their guardian in full, finding them food and shelter, but also cursed to see the world around her. In this way she is as endowed with glory and doomed to suffer as the biblical Jesus. While her job is to save mankind, in a small dose, she is also tortured by the destruction, violence and sadness around her. And after everything the doctor's wife guides her unnamed internees through she receives no reward. She, like many women throughout film and literature, is forced to suffer to a questionable and unclear end. But, Saramago doesn't stop his biblical parable merely with implication. He drives the concept home when the doctor's wife visits a cathedral to find all of the saints and statues with covered eyes. The religious implication is unavoidable then, as God has truly and vividly forsaken his people, left even his representatives in their world sightless. It's a staggering image, sad and weighty, but also apt because it clarifies the point of this white blindness, which seems to have been in a way a trial of the doctor's wife and a test of humanity.

When the blindness evaporates to close the book, there is relief from all those inflicted, but reflection doesn't take as great a forefront. Instead, only the doctor's wife, whose eyes never betrayed her, is the only one to consider the implications and to wish for a moment that she too had lost her vision. In all of its violence, horror and complexity, Blindness doesn't force a point so much as throw the weight of a societies suffering onto the shoulders of one woman. Does that mean that Saramago hates women? Or the doctor's wife specifically? I don't think so. Any tale of suffering requires a neutral party, someone who can and must step up to save those (s)he loves. In this case, Saramago uses the doctor's wife as a device, both to generate a strong a perspective in the story and to give the reader the eyes we need to really understand any of it, but also to demonstrate the way that heroes/heroines aren't always magical or safe or sure. Sometimes perseverance is all we have. And beyond that there's doubt.

When the film adaptation came out in 2008, I was traveling down 16th Street in Denver and saw a mass protest by blind persons from around the state objecting to the idea that blindness is a sickness or a disease. It is clear, that having read the book, that those protesters did not. While Saramago often falls into a lot of foolish asides about blindness being an ailment that makes fools and brutes of people, Blindness is not about accentuating loss of sight as the reason why people turn to their most animal, instead that darkness is inside all of us, and this (blindness) is one of the ways in which a single alteration to our experience can completely our humanity for the worse. So on that uplifting note, take solace in the way that our perceptions of our world keep us in line because if they suddenly change everything about us and all we know can change too.

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