As I was reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness, I was reminded of the Lachish Reliefs discovered in Ninevah, chronicling the Assyrian King Sennacharib’s 701 BCE conquest of Lachish, a fortified city in the kingdom of Judah. The Lachish Reliefs depict the siege of Lachish, the torture of prisoners, the dead bodies of enemy soldiers impaled on spears, the captives brought before the victorious ruler, and the fleeing refugees.
One way of representing the history of humanity (perhaps not the most apt way, but nonetheless one with pedigree) is a series of conquests and invasions – cycles of slaughter, rape, and slavery punctured by periods of relative peace before the next conquerors arrive. This theme with variations has been repeated over and over again across dynasties and empires and continents.
I thought of the Lachich reliefs as a point of contrast. Blindness is a novel that could only have been written the twentieth century. It is a novel of the institution, the asylum – indeed, the blind are enclosed in a former mental asylum – and mass incarceration. It is of the century of the concentration camp and the gulag, an allegory informed by Primo Levi’s If This is a Man (badly translated as Survival in Auschwitz in the United States). There is no resolution to the blindness of Saramago’s novel since it is endemic to our time.
Blindness begins with a man in a car at a stop light who suddenly becomes blind for no apparent physical cause. The mode of contagion is mysterious, so the government follows the protocol for other diseases, quarantining the first group of blind people in a former mental asylum. Soldiers are posted outside with the order to kill anyone who tries to leave. The first part of the novel chronicles the ordeals of a group of characters connected to the first blind man and to a visit to the ophthalmologist. The second part follows their liberation after the soldiers go blind as they are led back to their homes by the ophthalmologists’ wife (the only person to retain her sight).
None of the characters have first or last names. We have the blind man (the first person to go blind) and his wife (the blind man’s wife), the doctor (the ophthalmologist who treated the first man to go blind), the doctor’s wife, the girl with the dark glasses, the old man with the eye patch, and the boy with the squint. The chief villains are the man with the gun and the blind accountant. The doctor’s wife, who lies that she has lost her sight so that she can join her husband in the quarantine, is the group’s leader and the novel’s witness.
Inside the asylum, faced with starvation and lacking the basic means for personal hygiene, the inmates turn against each other. Soldiers panic, first killing an inmate seeking medical care, then firing on a group of internees waiting for food to be delivered. A band of newcomers with a gun confiscates the food and demand payment, first with valuables, then by demanding sex from the women. Life within the asylum mirrors life in the city where bands of blind people are unable to remember where they lived and scrounge for food, looting stores and homes among packs of wild dogs and refuse.
Saramago’s genius – and what makes the novel bearable – is that the characters never entirely lose their humanity, their capacity for small acts of kindness, and their resilience.
What does the blindness mean?
Toward the end of the novel, when people are regaining their sight, the doctor and the doctor’s wife reflect:
Why did we become blind, I don’t know, perhaps one day we’ll find out, Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see (326).
It is the doctor’s wife who speaks the last sentence. What is it, though, that people do not see?
Two passages offer a clue. The first follows after some comments by the doctor about organization: “By organizing itself, to organize oneself, in a way, to begin to have eyes.” (296) After visiting the doctor’s survey, they continue to check to see if the girl with the dark glasses’ parents have found their home:
On their way to the home of the girl with dark glasses, they crossed a large square with groups of blind people who were listening to speeches from other blind people, at first sight, neither one not the other group seemed blind, the speakers turned their heads excitedly towards their listeners, the listeners turned their head attentively to the speakers. They were proclaiming the end of the world, redemption through penitence, the visions of the seventh day, the advent of the angel, cosmic collisions, the death of the sun, the tribal spirit, the sap of the mandrake, tiger ointment, the virtue of the sign, the discipline of the wind, the perfume of the moon, the revindication of darkness, the power of exorcism, the sign of the heel, the crucifixion of the rose, 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, voluntary blindness, convex thoughts, or concave, or horizontal or vertical, or sloping, or concentrated, or dispersed, or fleeting, the weakening of the vocal cords, the death of the word, Here nobody is speaking of organisation, said the doctor’s wife, Perhaps organisation is in another square, he replied (298).
These people turn to superstition as consolation, an option mocked later in the novel when they seek refuge in a church and find that Christ, the Sancta Mater Dolorosa, and the saints all have their eyes covered with bandages or wiped out with white paint.
Later we find organization in another square:
They crossed a square where groups of blind people entertained themselves by listening to speeches from other blind people, at first sight neither group seemed to be blind, the speakers turned their heads excitedly towards the listeners and the listeners turned their heads attentively to the speakers. They were extolling the virtues of the fundamental principles of the great organized systems, private property, a free currency market, the market economy, the stock exchange, taxation, interest, expropriation and appropriation, production, distribution, consumption, supply and demand, poverty and wealth, communication, repression and delinquency, lotteries, prisons, the penal code, the civil code, the highway code, dictionaries, the telephone directory, networks of prostitution, armaments factories, the armed forces, cemeteries, the police, smuggling, drugs, permitted illegal traffic, pharmaceutical research, gambling, the price of priests and funerals, justice, borrowing, political parties, elections, parliaments, governments, convex, concave, horizontal, vertical, slanted, concentrated, diffuse, fleeting thoughts, the fraying of the vocal cords, the death of the word. Here they are talking about organization, the doctor’s wife said to her husband, I noticed, he answered, and said no more (310-1).
Private property. The free market. Taxation. Lotteries. Prisons. Codes. Armaments. Police. Priests. Political parties. Governments. Convex, concave, horizontal, vertical, slanted, concentrated, diffuse.
For a committed anarcho-communist such as Saramago, unwavering commitment to these idols constitutes blindness. Blindness illustrates why.