On Blindness

Genesis 8:21 “ the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth

A man is sitting in his car waiting for the traffic light to go green. It is rush hour and he is stuck in the traffic frenzy, when all of a sudden he is stricken blind, or better he is blinded by an intense white light which doesn’t let him see anything. What coule he do? Of course, he should quickly see a doctor, but how? His car is holding up the traffic and he is overwhelmed by the sound of the horns of those impatient drivers next to him who, eager to be back home, are indifferent to his misery and wish him to move. In a second he has become a helpless creature unable to look after himself. He is completely at loss. Till a man, what a good fortune, offers to take him home, but unfortunately he turns out to be a car thief ready to take advantage of his sickness and steals his car after depositing him at home.

At least he has reached a safe place. The man tells his wife what happened to him, so the two quickly go to an ophthalmologist, with a taxi, where they find an old man with a black eye patch, a boy with the squint, accompanied by a woman and a girl with dark glasses. All of them have the same kind of blindness: a sort of sea of milk which prevents them from seeing. Even the doctor, who is unable to give a scientific explanation will be infected within a few hours. There is no cure or remedy. In a short time the whole city, which could be any city as the author never specifies its name, almost as if it were not a geographical place, is infected. Everybody, but the ophthalmologist’s wife.

This is the brilliant incipit of Jose Saramago’s “On Blindness” (Ensaio sobre a Cegueira) which, actually, hooked me. What was the meaning of that white light? Why didn’t the wife of the doctor go blind? What kind of conclusion could have the nobel prize winner author found and what message? I soon discovered that to have answers to my questions I would have been put through hell, the hell of human soul, but I was irrevocably hooked and I couldn’t but go forward. We may say, in fact, that the beginning of Blindness is a story of men, but what follows, instead, is the story of souls, of drifting souls who want to save themselves and are ready to do anything to live one more day.

The central characters are quarantined with other people in a filthy, overcrowded mental asylum where hygiene, living conditions and self-respect degrade horrifically in a very short period and page after page the reader is dragged down with them. But I was absolutely hooked, still. I must confess, that while reading this section in particular, I felt a stronger and stronger sense of unease, as the author coldly and mercilessly despoils humanity of any superstructure showing man as it is: aggressive, overpowering, beastly, in short, a Yahoo. Swift in his Gulliver’s Travels had explored the nature of man in any possible way and had come to the same conclusion.  “I think we are blind. Blind people who can see, but do not see” Saramago says, in fact even Gulliver is blind when he sees the Yahoos and fails at recognizing any likeness with himself and the culture which he represents, but their resemblance doesn’t escape the wise horses, which just see a Yahoo with clothes on, that is a beast in disguise.

The epidemic, therefore, reveals the most terribly authentic part of human nature: in the asylum first and in the city then, the world, as we believe to know it,appears reversed. A dictatorship of a few is established with violence perpetrated on the many. The bonds of blood disappear, the signs of love disappear, the only law to guide the impulses of the blind is that of the primordial instinct to survival. Killing, starving, threatening, attacking, raping become crimes that do not scare, because, as one of the protagonists says: “This is the stuff we‘re made of, half indifference and half malice.

This disease without a place (as the story could occur in any of the cities of the Earth, but above all in the indeterminate space of conscience), without time (as it could take place in every age), without faces and names (because in every character there is our dark part) has its roots in man, in his lack of solidarity, in the inability to do and think about good, in the desire for evil that makes us all blind, even when we see.

18 thoughts on “On Blindness

  1. As pessimistic as I am, I still think the overall march of humanity has been one of improvement (with temporary setbacks). Per that evidence, the story is, perhaps, bleaker than reality would suggest.

    • Therefore, I am more pessimistic than you are. I’m about to read the sequel: “Seeing”, so, let’s see if Saramago can find a ray of light in the gloomy vision of humanity he depicted in the first book. I guess you would enjoy the novel and the style is very interesting, a sort of universal stream of consciuosness of voices with no real names.

    • I don’t think so, and here’s the logic:

      Time. In the short run, I’m as pessimistic as they come (I’ll begrudgingly agree on you being “as” pessimistic but not “more”). However, the arc of history is long and ongoing, and we’ve been here before (and by “here” I mean worse than it is now).

      By many, many metrics, today’s world is better than it used to be. The fact that some fiati di cani want to take a number of steps back is bad, but these kinds of disgraziati have lived before and while they (tyrants, corrupt political leader, corrupt spiritual leaders) will always be with us, and while there will always be idiots (religious folks, ignorant self-serving non-thinkers, and the likes) who will follow them, they’ve yet to singly or in aggregate set humanity back for any prolonged period.

      There’s another thing at play. The news we see, the loud voices we hear, the strident morons paraded for our pleasure . . . they’re not representative of humanity. They are but a small percentage of a larger (albeit still ignorant and mostly non-thinking) population who does eventually help set humanity back on the ascending path. Sadly, it might take a few generations (I have little hope for current generations and at least a few more after these) and we’re thus saddled with suffering so that today’s events can serve as lessons of what NOT to do for the benefit of people who’ve not even been born.

      Yes, there are some assumptions here that perhaps land me in the optimist camp but that’s an illusion because I firmly believe we, the people alive now, are in a downward trend in intelligence, resourcefulness, honor, courage, humor, and self-reliance. My hope rests in even the most ignorant non-critical thinkers can and will eventually recognize the flaws in our current course. Too bad it won’t be sooner rather than later.

  2. Hi there Steffy, sorry, Mrs. Tink. Jose Saramago? Got to read some of his work. You´re a teacher so what in the world is better than knowledge? Which you provide thank goodness.

      • Don´t call me evil!!!
        Been around it, I can be nasty though, deadly nasty. But I have words in my head, I have you to read, doing a bit of progress, o, and when the kids you teach get out of hand…..just call a muscular guy

  3. I do like to read stories wherein I get a sense of what is considered fair and what is unfair in the imaginary world. This book sounds like a fascinating exploration of what makes us all human.

  4. This novel is on my list of books I don’t think I could face reading again. It is a very good novel, but I found the portrayal of human depravity horrifying. I’m not under any illusion about people and I’m sure worse things happen in real life, but Blindness was the stuff of nightmares.

    • I completely agree with you. I felt so uneasy while reading the novel that a re-read is out of question, but I have recently bought its sequel “Seeing”, let’s see if he has something a little bit more optimistic to say.

  5. Enjoyed your review and can see how this hooked you in –
    the good writing and the blindness and seeing ideas being explored in depth.
    For some reason – zimbardos stanford Prison study came to mind – the way he explored what situations and environmental factors can bring out of people –

  6. I loved It and I found yahoo’s attitudes in more than once. Reading your article lets me feel some emotions again find a further reason for what human beings can do.

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