The New Canon is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on great works of fiction published since 1985. These books represent the finest literature of the current era, and are gaining recognition as the new classics of our time. In this installment of The New Canon, Gioia looks at Blindness by José Saramago.
Storytellers have long been fascinated with how groups of people behave when put in extreme situations—social meltdowns in which conventional rules of behavior no longer apply. In these timeless narratives, fiction returns to its most basic question: namely, what if . . . And depending on the nature of the “if” under consideration, we measure ourselves by these accounts, wondering how our own behavior would stack up in the heat of battle or the confusion of the spreading crisis.
Usually these tales relate unpleasant truths about society, as demonstrated in popular works such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Much rarer are optimistic narratives such as Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, in which hostages and terrorists involved in a standoff with the government create an idyllic environment which is somehow purer and more redemptive than the real world.
José Saramago creates a similar “test case” in his novel Blindness, an account of social collapse spurred by a rapidly spreading epidemic in which more and more individual suddenly lose their sight. At first a government imposed quarantine attempts to limit the contagion, but all measures at containment fail, and institution after institution—military, media, business—collapse in its wake. Saramago traces the course of this disaster by following a small group of individuals as they navigate through the dislocations and unrest that surround them.
Blindness is a novel, but it also reads as a myth or fable. The lead characters are not given personal names, but rather generic labels. We follow the path of “the first blind man” as he loses his eyesight while driving his car, only to find that the good Samaritan who helps him get home eventually steals his car. This man, now simply referred to as “the thief” by the storyteller, soon finds he has lost his eyesight as well. One might think that this is divine retribution for his theft, but in fact other, more noble souls soon find that they too are afflicted: the doctor who tried to treat the first blind man, and the various people in the doctor’s waiting room.
We follow this microcosm of society for the duration of the book. Saramago resists the temptation to look at the spreading epidemic from a macro level. Almost every tragedy presented in the pages of Blindness is a personal tragedy. Governments and churches may fall, custodians of the peace may falter, but Saramago keeps his focus on his small cast of characters.
Much of the action of this book takes place in a hospital where the blind and contaminated are placed in quarantine. In this environment, even the basic necessities of life—food, medicine, clean water—are often lacking. Those familiar with philosopher Robert Nozick’s book Anarchy, State, Utopia will recognize the process of organization at work here. Nozick famously claimed that the formation of governments is not dissimilar to the creation of a Mafia protection racket. In the chaotic "state of nature," people bond together for self-protection, and stronger parties take control of the weak, who willingly give up their prerogatives in exchange for promises of security. This same process occurs, by fits and starts, in this new world of the blind.
Yet Saramago never offers glib generalizations on politics and other “big picture” ideas. These are treated merely by implication, and usually without the trappings of the familiar ideologies of our time. When he deals with sociological matters, Saramago does not preach, but rather dismisses those who do so with a wry sense of humor. In this new world of the blind leading the blind, fiery speakers make grand proclamations in the public square. “They were proclaiming the end of the world,” Saramago writes, “redemption through penitence, the visions of the seventh day, . . . the purity of the lymph, the blood of the black cat, the sleep of the shadow, the rising of the seas, the logic of anthropophagy, painless castration, divine tattoos, . . “ and so on. Our author is suspicious of those who seek a larger meaning in events; his expertise is in the smaller significance.
Perhaps this same disdain for easy answers leads Saramago to avoid both the savage landscape of Lord of the Flies and the utopian visions of Bel Canto. For this author, people under extreme conditions are neither unabashedly evil or purely benevolent; rather they are an unnerving combination of both. In times of crisis, our responses to circumstances are intensified and transformed, but rarely simplified.
The end result is a very rich book, which is all the more potent for the open-endedness of the narrative. Certainly there are lessons to be learned from Blindness, but José Saramago will not spell them out for you. You could use this book as a springboard for discussions of ethics, management, medicine, human rights, and a host of other issues. But this book will merely start the dialogue, and—for that very reason—is far more thought-provoking than those novels, so common these days, that aim to offer comforting closure.