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.

Into the Heart of a Title

Heart of Darkness is by far one of the most suggestive title ever. Darkness is a universal archetype that we naturally associate to death, mystery, evil or a menace, but despite the dangers that we word dark excites, it ultimately attracts us like a magnet. Conrad in this novel takes us to a voyage into the heart of mysterious areas like Africa, the colonizing mission and the self.

Marlow had always been fascinated by Africa, the “dark continent” since he was a child, when he was used to fantasizing over the “blank spaces ” on the map. After returning from a six-year voyage through Asia, he comes across a map of Africa in a London shop window, an event that revives in him those old emotions. Hence, he takes the chance to make his wishes come true accepting the position of captain of a steam boat of the Belgian company which traded on the Congo River. It is metaphorically sunset, when Marlow starts to tell his story to his fellows.They are anchored at the mouth of the Thames, on the Nellie, waiting for the tide to go out.  Yet, as darkness begins to fall, the scene becomes “less brilliant but more profound”, the narrator of novel  warns us, implying that when the blinding effect of the light ceases to be, one could see the heart of things, their dark, secret side.

As the river Thames goes into London, the symbol of the heart of progress and civilization of that time, “the greatest town on earth” for Conrad, the river Congo takes Marlow to the heart of primitiveness. Yet, once there, he witnesses that the sparkling narration of the wonders of colonization hides a very embarrassing and less glorious truth. The dark side of white man’s mission there is made of wild exploitation of people and lands, ill-treatment of the natives and pointless activities. The imperial enterprise appears to his eyes in all its squalor and cruelty and European man’s settlements seem just like tiny islands, white viruses, amidst the vast darkness of the impassive, majestic jungle that surrounds them.

As Marlow penetrates the darkness of Africa, he explores the impenetrable mystery of human nature as well.  He eventually meets Kurtz an ivory dealer, the man he had been sent for,  who is reputed to be the best agent of the Company, but it seems that the wilderness has captured his soul. It is rumored he lives among the natives, shares their rites and is venerated like a god.  Even if he had always been an idealistic man of great abilities, once freed from the conventions of  European society, Kurtz, the white man, reverts to his true self, savage, instinctive, just like that Yahoo, Swift had so brilliantly anticipated. The degree of awareness of that discovery is synthesized by the last two words Kurtz pronounces before dying: “The horror! The horror!”

Yet, any secret should remain so. Nobody likes to be seen for what he really is, that’s why we always wear a mask or more to disguise our “Yahoo” nature. Even a lie may work on this purpose. So, when Marlow returns to Belgium and calls on Kurtz’s fiancée, he doesn’t feel like telling her the truth on what he really was or did in Africa. For what, after all. That’s why, when she wants to know her beloved’s last words before dying, Marlow decides to throw some light over the darkness and answers with a sweet lie: it was her name.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Beast in Disguise

gt1

“What a piece of work is a man”: the noblest of all God’s creatures, the very essence of grace and beauty, “infinite in faculties”, in action how like an angel“,” in apprehension how like a god” (Hamlet Act 2, scene 2) or…. is he only just an animal endowed with a little reason which he can’t even use properly? Swift wouldn’t have had the smallest doubt in choosing the second option.In the second book of Gulliver’s Travels, there is an episode that well explains his point of view.

gt5Swift’s hero is in front of the King of Brobdingnad (the giants) with the design of acquainting him about all the wonders of English civilization. The king seems to pay great attention to Gulliver’s boast upon the political, cultural, scientifical achievements of his country, but in the end he comments his speech using the following mordant words:“I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth“.  It’s clear that Jonathan Swift didn’t share the optimism of an age that believed that modern man could reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith and advance knowledge through scientific method. Quite the contrary. To that “greatness” of the Enlightenment creed, he opposed his idea of the moral “smallness” of man.

gt3Throughout the novel Swift seems to be busy in analysing, dissecting, mortifying man with the only aim of demonstrating his viciousness, ineptitude and ignorance, making him thus meritorious of contempt rather than admiration. His characters are more body than mind and despite their use of reason, they cannot conceal their bestial traits. To convince us of that, he removes that veil of respectability and dignity that seems to characterize modern cultures and, without hiding a certain satisfaction, focuses his attention on those actions (defecating, urinating) or those parts of the body which, for good reasons of propriety, are usually considered taboo. Without that veil man is only a beast, a beast in disguise: a Yahoo.

gt4In Gulliver’s last adventure on the land of the wise horses, he meets the Yahoos, but he stubbornly doesn’t seem to recognize any human traits in them (but we do), even if he meticulously analyzes every single part of their body with scientific zeal, anus included. Gulliver/ Swift shows all his revulsion, lingering on long descriptions which have the aim of exaggerating and distorting, thus making the reader feel the same repugnance. At first he feels “discomposed” at the sight of the Yahoos’ “singular” and “deformed” features, but detail after detail there is a crescendo of unrestrained aversion that makes them become “beast“, “ugly monsters“, “cursed brood“. The act of defecating on Gulliver’s head is the ultimate proof of the degradation of the Yahoos/men, who don’t seem to feel the shame of their actions. But when after a while Gulliver bumps into the wise horses, they see only a Yahoo with clothes on: a beast in disguise.