Friday, August 30, 2013

Book Review: Saramago’s ‘Blindness’

Book Review

José Saramago [1922-2010]: “You never know beforehand what people are capable of, you have to wait, give it time, it’s time that rules, time is our gambling partner on the other side of the table and it holds all the cards of the deck in its hand, we have to guess the winning cards of  life, our lives.” 
Photo Credit: Poster, premiere in Argentina of the short film “La Flor mas grande del Mundo,” 
based on a story by the author; January 2008
Source: Wikipedia


Blindness by José Saramago; 
Trans by Giovanni Pontiero; 
Harcourt; 1997.

In José Saramago’s Blindness, losing sight is the universal theme running through this masterpiece of a literary work. The Portuguese writer describes with utter precision the thoughts, feelings and actions of a small number of individuals when a whole population of an unnamed town, save one individual, the wife of an ophthalmologist, become physically blind—struck by an epidemic of “white blindness.” This leads to an expected breakdown of social order, to chaos and to lawlessness.

The State reacts by taking the sightless to a mental institution, secured by armed guards, where they are quarantined, essentially as a way to restore law and order and keep the ill individuals out of sight, or at least isolate them and prevent them from contaminating the healthy population. Inside this hospital, criminals establish their own “laws,” where rape, theft and other common criminal activities take place without any retribution or punishment. How naturalistic. How tragic.

To a great degree, the novel is more about losing sight in a non-physical sense, and thus explains its focus on the many moral moral or ethical decisions that leaders make, which makes this novel appealing to those who see such things as the loss of morality and ethics as problematic today in western democracies. To a great degree this presents itself  as an indictment of policy-makers, lost in their darkness and delusions, who collectively have an inability to get out of it. It’s the blind leading the blind, to quote a biblical aphorism.

To his credit, Saramago’s novel has struck a deep chord that resonates as strongly today as it did almost twenty years ago. After he published this work in Portuguese in 1995 and an English translation in 1997, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998. I read the book in 1999, and re-read parts of it again this year. The language, textured and laden with symbolism, has the ability to not only evoke rich emotions but also thoughts. It is important to note that Saramago was both a declared communist and an atheist, and that such views had a clear influence on all his writings, including this novel.

His work touches on the human aspects of modern life, including urbanization, alienation and the need for humans to find a way to establish connections and relationships. It is also about the relationship between the state and its citizens, and how these often play out in times of crisis. Consider the following passage on how the State decides to manage its problem with “white blindness”:
The suggestion had come from the minister himself. It was, whichever way one looked at it, a fortunate not to say perfect idea, both from the point of view of the merely sanity aspects of the case and from that of the social implications and their political consequences. Until the causes were established, or, to use the appropriate terms, the etiology of the white evil, as, thanks to the inspiration of an imaginative assessor, this unpleasant-sounding blindness came to be called, until such time as treatment and cure might be found, and perhaps a vaccine that might prevent the appearance of any cases in the future, all the people who had turned blind, as well as those who had been in physical contact or in any way close to these patents, should be rounded up and isolated so as to avoid any further cases of contagion, which once confirmed, would multiply more or less according to what is mathematically referred to as a compound ration. (34)
No doubt, with such an argument it makes perfect mathematical sense to take a particular course of action. So, yes, they were rounded up and placed in an abandoned mental hospital, all for their own good, of course. That it was also good for the state is not denied in this tale of how states view public disorders.  The contagion, physical in this case, can also be applied to ideas that a state, for whatever reason, finds problematic and in disagreement with its stated aims and purposes.

The more authoritarian the state, the greater the need to monitor and control dissent. In the most extreme cases, the contagion takes on an anthropomorphic sense or shape, which is necessary to garner the assent of the people for future actions that some might otherwise find objectionable. Careful use of language is necessary, and the most skillful writers are typically employed.

To be sure, in  times of crisis, crisis-management is necessary to restore order and return a sense of confidence, of the government, in the public space. It’s a matter of using the right language to get its message across, one understood by the most illiterate amongst them. That the contagion need be eradicated, given its potential harm to the public health and order, then makes perfect sense to most people. Such is how modern genocides can take place, when people who, blinded by the light of safety and security, who would otherwise wince at harming a dog or cat, can find themselves so easily committing acts of evil, can so easily do irrevocable harm to another human.

When language is used to reduce individuals to “parasites” and “contagions” the public becomes easily complicit in their eradication. Resistance is thus reduced to levels necessary to act in accordance with the wishes of the state; the desire to please, to serve the interests of the nation, to feel a part of something greater and nobler can undercut any current of resistance in many humans. As can the need for personal safety.

Individual freedom is a wonderful idea, but not easily understood or accepted, let alone attained. This is particularly made more difficult if you have not been free, but under bondage.
Say to a blind man, you’re free, open the door that was separating you from the world. Go, you are free, we tell him once more, and he does not go, he has remained motionless there in the middle of the road, he and the others, they are terrified, they do not know where to go, the fact is that there is no comparison between living in a national labyrinth, which is, by definition, a mental asylum and venturing forth, without a guiding hand, or a dog-leash, into the demented labyrinth of the city, where memory will serve no purpose, for it will merely be able to recall the images of places but not the paths whereby we might get there. (195)
It’s been shown that when individuals live for years, if not decades, under an authoritarian regime, whether religious or secular, they have a difficult time making decisions when freed from its many restrictions. People become helpless and dependent, like little children, expecting someone to tell them what to do and where to go. Igor Kon, a Russian scientist who studied the “New Soviet Man,” named this acquired helplessness syndrome. Some, however, courageous in their convictions and with an understanding, however dim, of what is at stake, will take the necessary steps to become and remain free.