It begins with fear. Without warning, an epidemic of white blindness strikes a city, turning its inhabitants into hapless creatures without sight or hope. The Government (with Saramago’s capital G) imposes a strict quarantine, but the system bends under the weight of the uncontainable plague, finally collapsing on the day the entire city turns blind. Thus begins Jose Saramago’s popular novel, a modern parable on the illusory value we place on civilization and the tenuous threads that hold humankind together. It is shocking how quickly the unnamed city in Blindness disintegrates into chaos, how the simple loss of one sense undoes centuries of “moral progress.” Suddenly it is every man for himself, and there is “no other solution…but to feed on each other if they [hope] to survive.” This brutal atmosphere, along with the loss of authority, creates living conditions so appalling that the only sighted person left actually wishes that she turn blind instead, to avoid confronting “all the weight of a horror without a name.” But as we soon discover, one does not need to see horror in order to live it.
“In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Also, the man with the gun. It does not take him long to assume control of the quarantine facility, to amass a small army and take over the food supply, demanding gold and women in exchange for a meager share. Blindness chronicles the breakdown of moral values that ensues, when right and wrong no longer occupy opposite ends of the spectrum, when rigidly moralistic stands are understood as “opinions belonging to another world, not to this one.” In discussing their predicament, the first blind man opposes the women’s collective decision, “for dignity has no price, that when someone starts making small concessions, in the end life loses all meaning.” To which the doctor asks “what meaning he saw in the situation in which all of them there found themselves, starving, covered in filth up to their ears, ridden with lice, eaten by bedbugs, bitten by fleas.” It is not difficult to be moralistic in an ordered society, where the only sins that go unpunished are those sanctioned by law or otherwise swept under the rug of history. But in a world ruled by fear, moral standards shift from person to person, from one moment to the next. In presenting his characters with choices that no one wants to make, Saramago explores how far humanity can go. “Blindness is also this, to live in a world where all hope is gone.”
Despite all this, the most enduring image I take from the novel is that of a woman guiding six strangers across the city, moving from one dwelling to the next, hand in hand. Hope continues to exist in the smallest spaces, in a blind writer striving to record his family’s struggles, in a woman’s promise to give a child her lamp when he regains sight, in the redemptive power of a bath in the rain. Outside, people gather in squares to listen to blind preachers lecturing about the wonders of religion, about the efficacy of human organization—all of which mean nothing in the end, and which pale in comparison to what we witness in the lives of these seven strangers. Saramago renders their stories vividly, in trenchant prose, with the wisdom of someone who has spent years observing humankind—“a true elder of our people, a man of tears, a man of wisdom” (Ursula Le Guin). His characteristic long sentences and shifting perspectives produce images of horror alongside those of tenderness: “there are gestures for which we cannot always find an easy explanation.”
As sequels mostly are, Seeing doesn’t quite live up to the original, but what it lacks in emotional depth it makes up for in wit and humor. Set four years after the blindness plague, it centers on a group of politicians grappling to control a defiant population that keeps on submitting blank votes. It abounds with hilarious political caricatures, self-aware bastards who openly admit, “we’re all up to the same tricks.” We read about the feckless power games they play and the impotent word diarrhea they expel in the face of calamity, which for them is anything unfamiliar, anything beyond the systemic grasp of tradition, never mind if the change turns out to be good for the people. This Government cannot admit the vainness of its existence, “it’s not only when we have no eyes that we don’t know where we’re going.” Saramago’s prose bursts with so much irony that otherwise depressing passages become amusing to read, but we know his words ring true today, so true that they become comical in fiction.
Although definitely more political, Seeing is not without its poignant moments. Here we see the brief return of characters we have known and learned to love since Blindness. We are also introduced to some new ones, notably the superintendent and his two subordinates, who allow us to believe in trust amid a network of suspicion and who show us the significance of small kindnesses. Through them we learn to believe in goodness, in human decency, right until the novel’s painful, painful conclusion. It is nothing short of wounding.
He pursed his lips as if in sudden pain, and felt deeply grateful that there were no neighbours around at that moment, for there and then, were anyone to have spoken to him, he would have burst into tears.
This is the stuff we’re made of, half indifference and half malice.
It is foolish for anyone to ask what someone died from, in time the cause will be forgotten, only two words remain, She died.
Never has there been so much silence in the world.
Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.
I should, yes, I should, I should what. The word was like a dead body he had stumbled upon, he had to find out what the word wanted, he had to remove the body.
One can show no greater respect than to weep for a stranger.
Impossibilities never come singly.