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The New Canon: Blindness by José Saramago

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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.

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About Ted Gioia

  • Ted,
    I wonder if you are aware of the contempt in which Saramago, his book and the movie based on it are held among blind Americans. The issue is not simply one of portraying blind people as helpless and in need of some sighted person to redeem them. The issue is that he uses the metaphor of blindness to begin with. If the virus had caused whites to become black or straights to become gay, theaters would be burning.

    In the US, more than two-thirds of all working-age blind people are “un”employed. Even more troubling, less than ten percent of blind kids are taught to read Braille — the only tool offering blind people true literacy and the common link among most successful blind people. These conditions have persisted despite a revolution in technology which has made it possible for blind people to participate in all aspects of society more fully than ever before. Furthermore, legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) have had little impact.

    Nonetheless there are blind lawyers, computer programmers, certified medical transcriptionists, Diesel mechanics, teachers, entrepreneurs, bureaucrats and so on. We do our own cleaning, shopping and cooking, and we have a wealth of leisure activities from mountain climbing to knittting.

    Many of us believe that the reason that more progress has not been made is because of misunderstanding and fear among sighted people. A 1991 Louis Harris survey conducted for the National Organization on Disability found that, “The public views disabled people as fundamentally different than the rest of the population, feeling admiration and pity most often. Embarrassment, apathy and fear are also common.” In short, there is prejudice.

    At the Performing Arts Division of the National Federation of the Blind (PAD,NFB), we are aware that a strong media presence has helped other minorities become integrated into the society. There hasn’t been a new, blind American superstar in decades and, when asked to name a famous blind woman, most people can only think of Helen Keller. PAD supports blind entertainers through scholarships, mentoring and networking. Our “Sound in Sight” CD features 18 tracks by promising blind recording artists. The artists donated the tracks and all proceeds support the scholarship fund. Visit http://www.padnfb.org

    Changing public perception of blindness is also important because of the affect it has on the not-yet-blind.  Generally, men don’t
    wake up as women, whites don’t suddenly turn black and straight people don’t just become gay.  However, this is exactly what happens in most cases of blindness. 
    Most blind people (about eighty percent) become blind as adults.  If they have been taught by society that blindness sentences a person to a life of uselessness
    and dependence, they become those things in their own mind.  Misconceptions about blindness are the biggest obstacles to rehabilitation. 

    Symbolism in literature, language and cinema is a powerful tool to maintain prejudice. In language, many phrases such as “old wives’ tale” and “black as the devil,” are now considered offensive. Blind, however, continues to be a synonym for ignorant and oblivious.

    For the sake of advancing the sense of terror, Saramago has taken a group, with whom most people are uncomfortable, focused on the most unsettling period of their transition from sighted to blind and tossed many of them into a situation which would have been intolerable if they’d had their vision. That’s exploitation. Again, I return to the point that this representation of blindness is contributing to the bigotry and oppression of actual human beings. Human beings, who are more likely to be unemployed, live in poverty, experience criminal violence and so on. Using blindness as a metaphor may someday be an acceptable choice, but with the unemployment rate of working-age blind people being approximately ten times that of the general society and with Braille, the only tool offering blind people true literacy taught to only ten percent of blind kids, this is not that time.

  • R. Konstantine

    I read this book last weak. Read it again in Spanish this weak considering that maybe the translation would somehow have hampered my appreciation for it and believing that the Spanish translation (done by the authors wife) to be closer to its original Portuguese rendition. It did not work for me; the book has an interesting story line but fails to deliver and could have probably been written in 200 pages or less. Saramago goes through immense and reiterative pains to endlessly repeat himself reaching a point in which his characters are truncated and cease to evolve; incurring instead in the trite and over sentimentalized diatribes concerning the blindness of the human condition. I also consider that the portrayal of himself, at times as the doctor’s wife and others in the figure of the old man who ends up winning the heart of the attractive woman with the sunglasses is self indulgent and vane. Saramago would seem to believe that he is the sole seer in a world of blind and savage readers and is therefore called to show us the squalor of our own condition in order to save us from it. Ultimately the book resulted in being a boring and predictable experience in spite of the excellent and unorthodox writng style; I do not consider it to increase my appreciation of Saramago as a narrator or thinker. I’d speculate that the author had a great idea for a short story, but due to editorial obligations, had to turn it into a full length novel.