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Between Metaphor and Referent: Reading Saramago's "Blindness"

Jose Saramago, Blindness, Harvest Books, paperback, 327 pages, $14

Jose Saramago received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. Although several of his books were available in English translation, not many people in the United States had read his novels prior to the award. Soon his latest novel, Blindness, was on the New York Times Best-Seller List. If I had not previously read two of his earlier books, I would not have been much interested in reading an allegorical novel that uses blindness as its master sign.

Saramago uses a quotation from the Book of Exhortations as the epigram to Blindness: “If you can see, look. If you can look, observe”. Near the end of the novel, when the blind people are getting their vision back, he has one of his characters remark:” I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see”(292). These two quotations indicate the political intention of the novel. They indicate, but do not disclose it. The greatest problem with an allegorical novel like Blindness is that it grants too much freedom to the reader. It allows too many interpretations.

Saramago uses blindness as a metaphor for both personal misfortune and social catastrophe. The story begins when the first blind man loses his vision in his car while waiting for a traffic light to change. The man who helps him get safely home goes back and steals his car. The next day the wife of the first blind man takes him to see the eye doctor. Within a few days, the wife of the first blind man, the car thief, the doctor and all of the patients in his waiting room also go blind. The only character in the novel that miraculously avoids the affliction of blindness is the doctor’s wife.

With a large number of people going blind quickly and with no apparent cause, public health officials panic and the blind are interned in a former mental hospital to protect the population from infection.

They are provided with food but are left to fend for themselves within the walls of the abandoned mental hospital. Soldiers keep watch and threaten to kill anyone who tries to escape.

The numbers of infected persons increases rapidly. New groups of blind people are imprisoned in the hospital. Among the new inmates are a group of hoodlums, one of whom possesses a gun. The hoodlums soon demand that the other internees pay for their food and provide them with women to fulfill their sexual desires. This outrage soon leads to a revolt. A few days later, the blind internees realize that the entire population of the city has gone blind and they leave the hospital in search of food.

As the narrative of Blindness progresses, the conditions of the blind continue to get worse. They find themselves in a society that no longer functions. Blind people roam the streets looking for food and shelter. After scavenging for days, they realize that soon it will be impossible to obtain enough nourishment to keep alive. While they are at the edge of despair their vision miraculously begins to return. The novel abruptly ends without making clear in what ways people have been transformed by the horrific experience of collective blindness.

As I mentioned earlier, the doctor’s wife is the only character who does not go blind. She remains free from infection. This allows her to assist the group of blind people. Her eyes allow her to exercise a degree of control over the situation. It is she who kills the blind man with the gun. It is she who leads the blind in their search for food and shelter.

Blindness is clearly a sign of limitation in this novel. It causes the entire society to no longer function. It also places blind people in the condition of physical jeopardy and psychological torment. The society no longer functions because the blind are not able to provide the ordinary services that we are routinely dependent upon for survival: the production and distribution of food, water and electricity and the maintenance of the infrastructure of transportation and communication.

The central problem with Saramago’s novel is that his master sign “blindness” is a floating signifier. No matter what his intention, the metaphor of blindness has a real referent. Readers of this novel are faced with an ambiguity, the relationship between the “symbolic” and the “real”. The authorial voice of the novel and the critical response which has appeared in the mainstream press has occluded the problem of the referent. Saramago writes as if his metaphorical depiction of misfortune and catastrophe could somehow be innocent of the cultural meanings that are routinely associated with visual impairment. It is interesting to note that reviews which have appeared in the mainstream press fail to even consider that the use of blindness as a metaphor might pose a problem.

Reviewers have often made the comparison between Blindness and Camus’ Plague, Kafka’s Trial and Golding’s Lord of the Flies. None of the reviews I have read have made the more obvious comparison to H.G. Wells’ short story “The Country of the Blind”. In this story, Wells uses blindness to represent a restricting society and the struggle of the individual against social conformity. Both Saramago and Wells use blindness as a sign of limitation because this idea is readily available. It is part of our common stock of cultural images. They use “blindness” for the same reason that Golding uses “children” in Lord of the Flies.

Like Camus, Saramago uses disease as a way of representing social and political crisis. Both authors emphasize the human response to social catastrophe. However, there is a problem with the representation of historical events by means of a medical trope. In this representation, nature displaces the social and replaces it with an image of fate. As a consequence, blindness is defined as a physical condition.

Saramago’s writings have often been discussed as an example of “magic realism”. However, Blindness has more in common with Kafka’s allegorical novels than it does with works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Salman Rushdie. The fundamental problem posed by allegorical novels is how to locate their political and social meaning. Saramago provides his readers with few clues to guide interpretation. The story is set in an unnamed country, somewhere in the second half of the twentieth century. There are few identifying characteristics that provide a context for the events that transpire.

The epidemic of blindness takes place without any apparent cause; the disease spreads quickly and as the novel ends the blind are getting their vision back. Their recovery has as little explanation as the onset of blindness. The problem the reader is faced with is what to make of the metaphorical illness, the social catastrophe, and the miraculous recovery. What does it all mean?

Near the end of the book, Saramago has one of his characters suggest that perhaps they had never really been blind, that perhaps the sighted do not really see. If this is meant to be the underlying message of the novel it is, in fact, not a very original idea, since the analogy between “seeing” and “understanding” is one of the oldest ideas in Western philosophy. It is perhaps most clearly illustrated in Book 7 of The Republic, where Plato uses a visual metaphor to illustrate the limits of human understanding. He describes a cave where several people are seated in such a way that they cannot see the direct light of the fire. Instead, they can only see its distorted shadows upon the wall of the cave.

I suspect that Saramago is more interested in probing the human capacity to understand social reality than the Platonic concept of Absolute Truth. I wish he had chosen a better way of representing this quest.

George Snedeker is in the Sociology Program at SUNY/College at Old Westbury.

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