A springboard of dialogue
Interwoven in myths, history and surrealist imagination, Ensaio sabre a Cengueira, 1995, an essay on BLINDNESS is an allegorical, thought provoking and introspective work of the Portuguese writer Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize 1998.
There is a sense of contradiction to start with: '… I think we are blind.' And we ask, how? The answer: (we are) '… blind people who can see, but do not see.' Aha! Then seeing is an act of volition! So, blindness is a sign of limitation. And if this should happen then it causes the entire society to be dysfunctional. The epidemic of blindness--- a metaphorical illness that becomes the cause of social catastrophe and then suddenly there is miraculous recovery and return to sanity upon realization of humanness, of life and living.
Saramago, an atheist, began work as a car mechanic which experience remained, and in Blindness '… it is the brain that actually does the seeing (just as) It's the same as a carburettor, if the petrol can't reach it, the engine does not work and the car won't go.' Eyes are the organ of sight. Blindness is no visual impairment. The blind can see but will not see. Here man's will, volition and mind is what gives meaning to what a person's eyes focus upon and see. It is as the proverbial saying goes: Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, and '… those who believe not, there is deafness in their ears, and it is blindness in their (eyes).' Quran 41:44
Describing his 1995 novel as depicting a blindness of rationality, Saramago's 'white blindness' is a type of illumination, '… like the sun shining through mist reveals the dependence of people on one another and the necessity of society's deliberate organization.'
Blindness is an exploration into 'an alternative reality,' and deals with the inner realities of people. And this applies to all people irrespective of caste, creed, and culture. People are found in every country and corner of this world. Blindness is a universal condition. So, Saramago's novel is set in a nameless country. And '… inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.' Names, therefore, are not important for the blind; the characters in the novel are nameless persons. The novel is in the style of oral narration just; as the story tellers most often do not use names, rather descriptions to identify the characters.
An epidemic of blindness spread in a nameless city, starting with the seven nameless characters of the narrative. When the information reached the government health authorities, an order was issued: the blind are rounded up in an old lunatic asylum--- a concentration camp. So, is blindness a mental affliction?
The isolated blind were to be representative 'of an act of solidarity with the rest of the nation's community.' They were given strict instructions on the utilities within the premises, on food, fire and illnesses. A doctor's wife follows her husband to the asylum. Around them a small group is formed who try to maintain some moral values. As corruption, rape and violence spread, resulting in chaos and collapse of the social system. Fear is pervasive, inducing panic amidst the blind inmates.
The first man was struck by white blindness while waiting for the traffic lights to change. The next man, out of altruism, drove the first man home, risking his own identity and person. He succeeded in escaping the police but not blindness. Misjudged, he came to be known as the car thief.
The first blind man's wife took him to the eye doctor, who while engaged in medical research on agnosia, amaurosis and neurosurgery, was struck by blindness. The blind doctor debated on the cause and effect of his blindness and the statistical relevance of the cases he had examined.
With no relevance to ailment, the health minister suggested that the other facilities available for the blind were the military installations, not in use as the army was being restructured --- the trade fair and a huge market building.
The blind were housed in one, and those who were in contact with the blind were in the other wing of the asylum. Guards outside would arrest escapists. Later they too became blind, all in a country of the blind. The only exception was the clever wife of the eye doctor, who told a white lie, so as not to be separated from her husband and lived in the asylum to lend support by finding food and water for the blind. She climbed into the ambulance that came to take her blind husband and told the driver that she had gone 'blind that very minute,' an instance of the writer's dark humour.
After years of marriage and no children, husband and wife continued to greet each other with words of affection. The doctor's wife had learnt a great deal being in close proximity. 'Blindness does not spread through contagion and turn into an epidemic,' and blindness is not through looking at each other. 'Blindness is a private matter, between the person and the eyes with which he or she was born.' The eye doctor, professionally trained in medical school, has an obligation to know what he is saying. He wanted to talk on the subject 'doctor to doctor' and let the other doctor responsible to make the bureaucratic system do its work.
The girl with the dark glasses was suffering from conjunctivitis. She was a prostitute who went to bed with men in exchange of money. In a broader sense she lived as she pleased and 'gets all the pleasures she can out of life.' While on her way in a taxi she recounted the 'multiple sensations of sensuous pleasure.' Within twenty two minutes after reaching hotel room 312 she was 'exhausted and happy,' and saw 'everything white.'
The boy with the squint, who was taken to the hospital by his mother, and later on to the asylum without her, as she was a simple person, was unable to maneuver like the doctor's wife. The old man with a black eye patch was a cataract patient; though impotent he was able to satisfy afterwards the girl with the dark glasses. And the dog of tears had grown to be close to humans.
Saramago's narrative illustrates the social and moral degradation of modern urban society through dysfunctional food distribution, disturbance in sex and other bodily functions, shifting from private to public, cult of mass rape and not burying the dead.
The book is dedicated to his wife and only daughter. Quoting from the Book of Exhortation, 'If you can see look, observe.' Near the end of the novel, one of the seven central characters say, 'I don't think we did go blind, I think we are blind. Blind but not seeing, Blind people who can see but do not see.' These two lines indicate the political and the philosophical intention of the novel.
In his Nobel Lecture in December 1998, Saramago said: 'Blindness to remind those who might read it that we pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted everyday by the powerful of the world, that universal lie has replaced the plural truths, that man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fellow creatures.'
Saramago originally refused to sell the rights of a film adaptation of the book: 'I always resisted because it is a violent book about social degradation rape and I didn't want it to fall into the wrong hands.' However, finally, upon two conditions, the English film adaptation of the book was that it would be set in an unrecognizable city and the dog of tears should be a big dog.
Blindness has much hilarity. Reading pp. 47-48 set me off in uproarious laughter. And I also thought that in my country any writer could substitute 'white' for 'traffic jam blindness' and see the social spillover effect and dysfunctional system.
Blindness is a rich book in open ended narrative with many lessons to be learnt, which Saramago will not spell out. The book is like a springboard of dialogues and discussions, unlike novels that offer comforting closures. And this is perhaps what makes this a challenging book, and a mesmerizing read.