Jose Saramago’s Blindness, which I surprisingly finished in barely a week, is an engaging read, less because of what it is saying than the way by which these rather clichés were rendered.
“A city is hit by an epidemic of ‘white blindness’ that spares no one,” and from there, we saw how literal blindness has made humans grapple with their humanity until they regain their sight while Saramago uses one character spared from the ‘white blindness’ to comment on the tragedy that befell the majority and what exactly they have lost.
What does it mean to be able to “see”?
While the affliction that prodded this narrative forward is one that is physical and literal blindness, it is easy to think that for Saramago, this is just the tip of the tragedy, for what does the sense of sight provides that we should accord it with much premium? Although life had been difficult for the people who had been “blinded white,” they were able to carry for quite a time and as the soldiers once remarked in the story, it would just take some time get used to this situation. For instance, in collecting their lunch, the blind had devised a way to facilitate the act without their eyes: putting a rope from their ward to the end of the corridor where the food is left. It would be enough to take hold of this rope; eyes not entirely indispensable. Saramago is undervaluing the literal sight, for even without it, the blind can still feel sexually aroused (as in the case of the car thief who was aroused by the girl with the dark glasses), they can still taste their food, smell the reeking human excrement that gradually engulfed them as their stay in the ward extended among others. Notably, the man who stole the fist man’s car, before he died, was able to know that the doctor’s wife can actually see. That is to say, the absence of sight does not negate the ability to conceive, to know, to feel.
What the doctor’s wife sees
An interesting perspective is always provided by the doctor’s wife, the only known case of being unharmed by the epidemic. While we see how the blind had first fumbled in the face of their new-found situation and eventually get wont to it and evading paralysis by finding new ways of coping, we also see how the doctor’s wife not only guide them through the situation but actually perceive what is happening around her. Being able to retain her sight, unlike the people around her, how did she went through the whole thing? Did the virtue of differentiation give her a sense of being in a better place, having the ability to see? She was saying no. For what is the beauty in seeing if what you are seeing is a downright chaos, utter worldliness in men indulging themselves in the bodies of women, seemingly petty dishonesties in food rations. “Only the doctor’s wife knew the hideous state of the dead man’s body” (77). She was the only one to “see this horror, both feel and see it” (276). Her companions can feel it, but she feels and sees it.
And so through her eyes, we see how sight can vanish but nothing else. Because despite the blindness, the people would still want material things (when one ward demanded that the other wards have to “pay” for what they eat); and in a somewhat beautiful converse, how some of the people would still show benevolence and kindness, and love. When the group of the doctor’s wife already broke out of the ward and almost the entire population is afflicted by the white blindness and they were travelling through the city to locate each other’s house, they encountered this old woman near the girl with the dark glasses’ house. She was grumpy and sort of mean at first and the group scarcely liked her. But when they returned to the girl with the dark glasses’ house and knew that the old lady was dead and that she left the key to the girl with the dark glasses’ house, the group had a change of impression and that prompted them to bury the old lady’s dead body whereas they can just leave right where it was, as no one can see it anyway. As much as evil has remained, kindness, goodness also stick inside.
Saramago’s tacit indictment
In a key incident in the story, when the doctor’s wife had to return to the grocery to get more food for their group, she found dead bodies in the storage area, shocking her and sapping her strength she had to find a place to rest. And where did she head, together with her husband and the dog of tears? – in a church. And there, a more vital shock is waiting: the doctor’s wife saw all the statues, human or otherwise, with a white cloth covering their eyes. The sacred images were blind, god had gone blind. What was happening? What is Saramago telling here? Perhaps this: that in the face of humanity’s tragedy, gods are rendered most futile because the tragic won’t call on them, won’t invoke them for mercy, salvation. That is, if they believe these gods are responsible for the tragedy that befell them. But no. It appears they don’t. Although this one could be valid too: that the people have lost faith; that they have been too fascinated with the worldly (sex, car, food) that they forgot to focus on and believe on the more lasting pursuits (love, God, Change).
What have we lost, that pales in comparison to the loss of our eyesight — our vision, our pining against the momentary, pining for the more lasting, the more genuine, hope in the worsening crises of the times? – which we had to experience if we want to regain what was initially gone.
Saramago seems to be trying to mourn at what has happened to humanity, and he had to divest most of the remaining humanness in us, before making us regain it – through virtue, through love, through faith. He was commenting on everything he thought bad and detrimental about what humans have made, and made us concentrate on what he thinks we should be making instead. Or perhaps, this would be more apt: the impairment of what we see, what we choose to look at and how we look at them and how our superficial, if not selfish, evil-oriented sight, shall be replaced with a more enduring, selfless vision.
*scattered. I will write something about Saramago’s style and what that did to me in the future.