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.