First published in English in 1997, ‘Blindness’ is a novel by the Portuguese author José Saramago. Acclaimed at the time, Blindness was one of the works noted when the author received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. Subsequently, it was adapted for film and very recently for theatre showing at the Donmar Warehouse, London and starring Juliet Stevenson in their first post-lockdown piece of work. Review by Stephen Portlock.
Heard the one about the pandemic and about the bumbling, incompetent governments misguided reaction? Whatever one’s feelings about José Saramago’s dystopian nightmare Blindness, you have to acknowledge its staying power. It may have been written 23 years ago, but few works bar possibly Camus’ The Plague seem more immediately relevant in a world of Covid-19 lockdown. Indeed, early on in March I had found myself thinking of Saramago’s dystopian fable and thinking ‘Oh god, do I have to read it again?’. Well yes apparently since with a mild expletive of amazement I discovered that the Donmar Warehouse were planning to transform the work into a sound installation.
The novel concerns ‘the white evil’ a highly contagious pandemic that causes people to go blind and see nothing but whiteness. Panicked, the government throws the affected into a disused asylum where gang warfare breaks out a la Lord of the Flies with one group of internees hoarding the food and holding the remaining internees to ransom first for their possessions and then for their women. Yet the ‘secret weapon’ that one group of ‘good’ internees have is a woman who surreptitiously joined them and who did not in fact lose her sight. She, as the novel makes very clear, is the one who saves the day.
How do you feel about the above story? There’s something to be said for any work that acknowledges that disabled people have libidos. The most common objection among blind readers to the novel concerns the complete lack of initiative shown by the blind internees even in terms of the most basic bodily functions – we’re talking shitting on the floor folks! Yet in some regards the story is not grim enough. None of the blind characters have any external identities beyond their newfound blindness – i.e. religious or political beliefs. They never become resentful or jealous of their sighted guide, and she in turn never loses patience with them or falls into despair.
When I first read Blindness, I mistakenly interpreted it as an exploration of that old saying ‘in the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king’. Saramago does indeed make reference to that expression in Blindness but never endorses it. When in Seeing, the sequel to Blindness, he endorses the expression, it is to suggest that someone with one functional eye sees better than someone with two. The reasoning is pretty wacky but then so is the book as a whole.
Seeing concerns a city placed under siege owing to a ‘plague’ of blank ballots. The government and police exit the city, expecting anarchy but what in fact ensues is harmony with the residents, to the consternation of the government, behaving impeccably. I doubt that even the most committed of anarchists would find that scenario likely which suggests that Saramago is happy not just to set up fantastic scenarios but to have his characters act in unexpected, even implausible ways within them. That, then, leads me to wonder whether Saramago knew that his blind characters, their behaviour and attitudes rang false. After all, a key theme in Seeing is another group of men who cynically exploit the fact that the doctor’s wife did not go blind.
That points to the real problem with Blindness. The real theme of both this novel and of Seeing is the fragility of social order and the corrupting nature of power. Accepting his Nobel Prize, Saramago referred to himself as the apprentice and stated: “The apprentice thought, ‘we are blind’, and he sat down and wrote Blindness to remind those who might read it that we pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world”.
So Saramago uses blindness allegorically, yet he still refuses to engage in any moral or intellectual way with the nature of literal blindness and shows scant interest in truth or falsehood about the condition. There is only one ‘real’ blind person, someone who was already blind even before the pandemic, but he is one of the bad guys.
Narrative viewpoints switch back and forth in what feels like quite an arbitrary manner with consequences at different times confusing and terrifying. Saramago’s explanation of why none of the blind people use sticks is hopefully too wacky to convince any sighted readers: “formerly, when they were still few, they used to carry white sticks… immersed in his own whiteness, the blind man may come to doubt whether he is actually carrying anything in his hand”.
Yet having the narrator praise a soldier for “reacting admirably in the face of danger” when shooting a group of blind people feels borderline irresponsible. So do lines of dialogue like “without eyes feelings become something different”.
All this is a little absurd, but the real irony is that it shows up Saramago as a hypocrite. By refusing to engage with the complexities of his metaphor where it relates to real blind people, risking sending out messages that are flat out wrong, Saramago is perverting reason, using his power to insult blind people’s human dignity!