Blindness is catching. Imagine it. You are walking down the street, driving your car, drinking a coffee, going for a jog, and suddenly, you see nothing but white light. You are blind. You cannot see. You cannot find your way home, and you are contagious.
Before reading Jose Saramago’s 1995 novel Blindness, I had never imagined what it might be like. I had never considered that if humanity, in a world predicated by vision, were to be unanimously blinded, that things would fall apart in a shocking, tragic, sweeping arc of starvation and shit. Could humans have evolved as a species without vision? Why not? (Though the world we would have built would be very different.) Could humans survive in this world without vision? Not for long, according to Blindness. Not once the canned goods ran out.
Simply from a post-apocalyptic world-building stand-point, Blindness is breathtaking (though horrifyingly rather than beautifully so). The electricity goes out without seeing hands to tend the machines. The water goes out without the electricity or the hands. Without the ability to use their gas and electric stoves, some become used to the taste of raw meat. People who cannot find their way to a bathroom use the streets. Hunger drives people onto the floors of stores, groping for an overlooked scrap. Dogs devour corpses and the roads are covered in shit. The ruin is not architectural, but human. And the qualities we like to think of as human quickly follow vision into the ether. Or do they? Were we ever so irreproachable as a species? Were we just a bunch of assholes all along? Raping, stealing, murdering, dirty, mean, wallowing in feces? Is it the epidemic of blindness that will first show us how to see? Is this not a novel about blindness, but about sight?
In the end, it seems that this is indeed what Saramago is getting at, and that Blindness is meant as a wake up call, as a portrait of the world as it is now, a nudge to truly accept the world as we see it around us and to act accordingly. “I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see,” concludes the novel’s only seeing character. “Open your eyes! Look at the filth and violence and squalor around you! Take responsibility for the knowledge!”–though the pleas of the novel are more subtle than these exclamatory cries, more eloquently woven into this parable of humanity.
The reading experience
Blindness had been on my post-apocalyptic to-read list for months, but a chance encounter at a local bookstore and the chance discovery of a book club—set to read Blindness that very week—put it on my fast track. I bought the book, and I spent three days in its nightmarish, reeking, broken world. I went with the first to contract the white blindness into the mental institution where the government sets up a quarantine, shuddered as the bathroom became an open sewer, hungered with them as the government failed to deliver appropriate rations, mourned when the frightened soldiers guarding them itched their triggers. It is only because of the presence of a single seeing woman who the group eventually thrives. Or what passes as thriving under the circumstances.
The dialogue, which I had heard ruined the book for a number of readers on many online reviews, is written in a flowing style without he saids or she saids. (“It cannot be, They’ve taken away our food, The Thieves, A disgrace, the blind against the blind, I never thought I’d live to see anything like this, Let’s go and complain…”) Though I can understand how this might trip a body up, how better to immerse the reader into the story, how better to make the reader as uncertain as the blind characters about who is talking? A stroke of genius on the part of Saramago. When an artist is able to make style support content on that level I just die. Good job, Jose.
But there was an aspect of Saramago’s story that bothered me as I read, more than the conditions in which the government left the quarantined to suffer, more than the state of the restrooms, more than the power plays and violence, and it was at the base of everything the book was saying. Blindness as metaphor. Blindness as floodgate for the worst of humanity. Sight as the thread that held civilization together. Sight as enlightenment. Sight as knowledge. How would a blind person feel reading this? How did I feel about the implication? Though the book is expertly crafted, using a real-life disability as a metaphor is deeply problematic.
I followed this feeling onto google, looking for blind readers’ reactions to Saramago’s tale and came across an essay written by Liat Ben-Moshe—an academic from the field of disabled studies. Though he initially was quite taken with the novel, he later became very critical of what its use of a disability as such a negatively weighted metaphor was conveying to readers, and particularly critical of how he had been teaching the text to students. The article gets to the heart of what nagged me from Saramago’s page so articulately that he might as well tell you himself:
Saramago’s depiction of blindness is that of a sighted man who views blindness as a radical departure from his own corporeal being. Different experiences of living in the world are never explored. Blindness is conveniently used the way Saramago assumes most people conceive of it and yet remains invisible.
Blindness does not just represent a radical form of Otherness, but operates as a sign to refer to limitation, lack. Throughout the novel, blindness is shown to lead to disorientation, chaos, and lack of familiarity with space and time. …
A more critical read, however, yields a different analysis. In this view, society fails to function not because of people’s blindness, but because the government is not able to provide the ordinary services that citizens are routinely dependent upon for survival: the production and distribution of food, water, and electricity; the maintenance of the infrastructure of transportation and communication; and so on. However, in the novel, as in daily life, dependence is projected onto the people who are perceived as embodying it on a daily basis, that is, people with disabilities. …
It is not surprising perhaps, since Saramago seems to use blindness only to tell another story, one about the human condition in general. But again, why choose blindness? Saramago’s parable, like so many other literary and cinematic depictions, seems to equate blindness with lack of knowledge. The analogy between “seeing” and “understanding” is one of the oldest ideas in Western philosophy. …
Blindness, like all disabilities, is also normatively viewed as a personal tragedy, something inflicted on the individual, a condition that a person suffers from. This narrative is closely related to a medical narrative claiming treatment and cure. Blindness should not be embraced and experienced as an identity, equal to any other, but should be pitied and/or treated.
Ben-Moshe goes on at length on the subject, and I highly recommend reading his article yourself. If you haven’t got the time for in-depth articles, I will sum it up for you in one sentence: Saramago uses blindness as a metaphor without a single hint of critical thought and with all the negatively loaded tropes common in non-disabled representations of the disabled. This work makes it clear that he is a talented writer capable of nuance and depth, and yet at the end of the novel, at the end of the day, we have a writer dealing in tropes, in a centuries-old, problematic metaphor. At the same time, the book is so well-executed on several others levels that I have a hard time wishing he’d written a different book. Saramago has done what he’s done. Now the responsibility for critical though lies with us as readers, in the way we engage with the text, in what we choose to discuss and what we choose to ignore.
Eight out of twelve cans of pea soup.
Where I got it: Carolus Buchhandel, Frankfurt am Main, Germany