by James Fetter
From the Editor: James Fetter is a graduate student at Notre Dame University. He is writing his dissertation, but the weekend after our nationwide protest of the film, Blindness, he offered to write a book review of José Saramago’s novel on which the film is based. When Saramago first won the Nobel Prize for this novel, I looked for a reviewer without success. I was delighted to take James up on his offer. This is the result:
By José Saramago
Translated by Giovanni Pontiero
New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, ©1995, 294 pp. $22
In the novel Blindness, which inspired a recently released movie by the same name, Nobel laureate Jose Saramago uses blindness as a metaphor for moral depravity, filth, and social collapse. In an unknown city full of people who are never named, an inexplicable and incurable epidemic of blindness strikes without warning, causing all but one of the city’s inhabitants to lose their sight. After an attempt to control the epidemic by placing the infected in quarantine fails, complete social breakdown quickly follows, and the newly blind inhabitants of the city wander aimlessly, foraging for food and laying waste to their own city in the process. This is the basic premise of José Saramago’s novel entitled Blindness, published not long before the author was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998. Now that the movie Blindness, based on Saramago’s novel, has just been released nationwide, it is worth revisiting this novel and the negative stereotypes of blindness Saramago propagates and embellishes throughout its 294 pages.
With few exceptions the blind characters in Saramago’s novel lose not only their sight but also their ability to tend to their most basic bodily needs, their courage in the face of intimidation, and their sense of morality and decency. When the government attempts to stop the epidemic by placing the infected in quarantine, the women are willing to be raped and humiliated in order to obtain food from a gang of thugs in Ward 3 of the dilapidated mental hospital in which the blind have been imprisoned. The men, including the husbands of the female victims, more or less accept this state of affairs and even encourage the women who protest to tolerate the brutality to which they are subjected. The reign of terror is ended, not by the blind, but by the sole sighted person in the facility, the wife of an ophthalmologist, who decides to slip into Ward 3 while the thugs are raping several other women and kills their leader with a pair of scissors.
The blind prisoners, as well as the blind residents of the city depicted after the mental hospital burns to the ground and some prisoners escape, have forgotten how to use the toilet, and they defecate in the streets, which run with filth. They also routinely walk around on all fours while navigating through an unfamiliar environment, and they either cannot, or don’t care to, wash themselves or their clothes. Except for the small group of main characters led, of course, by the ophthalmologist’s sighted wife, they cannot organize themselves or collaborate on anything other than rape and extortion.
Saramago’s portrayal of those who were born blind or have been blind for much of their lives is equally misleading. The only character born blind and able to read Braille sides with the criminals and uses his literacy to keep an inventory of their stolen goods and the women they have raped. He even leads them for a time after the sighted woman kills their leader. Aside from the Braille-reading criminal, Saramago’s other scattered references to the blind who lived among the sighted prior to the epidemic depict us as unable to cross the street without sighted help and as lacking the moral compass possessed by our sighted peers.
As should be clear even from these few details, Saramago’s book is filled with false images of blindness and the effect of this disability on those who have it. Saramago portrays us as unable to care for ourselves and our most basic bodily needs without sighted assistance, and he seems to think that we would descend into depravity of the worst kind if left to our own devices. By describing the blind in this fashion, Saramago reinforces popular prejudices against us and adds a few of his own, namely the implication that the blind tend toward crime and moral obtuseness.
To be fair, a scenario such as Saramago’s would likely result in a great deal of social dislocation, since those who lose their vision need time and training to adapt to their new situation. Even those of us who are born blind need to learn certain skills in order to be independent, and we would sorely miss the absence of anyone who could drive a car, fly a plane, or perform the few other tasks for which sight is required. Also one must keep in mind that people imprisoned in a run-down mental hospital that lacks several modern conveniences and the necessities for basic hygiene may lose a certain amount of self-respect and the drive to improve their circumstances.
Furthermore, Saramago did not write this book in order to vilify the blind. His goal was to demonstrate the fragility of human society and, using allegory, to show that basic human decency is, in his view at least, an illusion and that it too would largely vanish, if society collapsed. In light of recent disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina and the Asian Tsunami, this message is worthy of serious consideration.It is thus all the more unfortunate that Saramago chose to convey this timely message by misrepresenting an entire group of people. Many of Saramago’s critics have praised him for writing convincing descriptions of alternative realities which differ from our world in only one important respect and for working out the consequences of these differences. By this measure Blindness falls far short of the mark, and the only reason that this work met with such critical acclaim is that the damaging stereotypes Saramago employs in his narrative are so widespread as to be deemed common knowledge. Thus, instead of challenging our assumptions about our fellow man, as he is so often credited with doing, Saramago panders to widespread erroneous assumptions about the blind, and in doing so, he treats us much as he claims we would treat one another if left to ourselves.