by Rene Harrell
The following thoughtful letter by Rene Harrell appeared on our teachers of blind children listserv on October 4, 2008. It has been slightly edited for publication.
I think you have posed a philosophical question that the majority of our society is asking in response to hearing that blind people take great exception to their depiction in the movie. It waffles between "What's the big deal?" and "You are missing the point." In fact, a movie reviewer who writes for our local paper (the Colorado Springs Gazette) was quoted in an article covering the protests yesterday making pretty much this point. To quote the article directly, "Every person goes blind over the course of a few days," Fibbs said of the film. "Society implodes overnight. That's the point of the film--the frailty of mankind and our propensity for inhumanity. It's a spiritual blindness, not a physical blindness, that the film wishes to address." The author himself also denies that physical blindness has any part to play in the over-arching meaning of his novel and has said that protests against this film are "a display of meanness based on nothing at all."
I too have read the novel. I read it while in college after it was first released in English. I personally am not a huge fan of his overall literary style, but Saramago's overall tone and intent came through with crystalline clarity. You could not walk away from that book without understanding the over-arching allegory about the inner struggles and moral frailty of humankind. In protests over this novel and this film I don't see a denial of Saramago's allegory; I see a challenge to his metaphor.
This seems to me a similar debate to the racial discourse over Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. While the literary style (and sheer volume) of the two novels are vastly different, both books take aim at what is left when the constructs of civilization are peeled away and all that is left is humanity in its basest form. Both books use a metaphorical construct of the other as the primary vehicle for plunging their readers into the psychological process of human degeneration. For Conrad's contemporary readers Africa was "the Dark Continent." Those who picked up his novel in 1902 or read it in its magazine form in 1899 would have had an immediate, almost subconscious socially conditioned response to the setting of his novel. Conrad was master of the written word with an uncanny perception of humanity. He was also a white European male writing for an audience of white Europeans. As such he understood the psychological impact that the use of the other--in this case the African continent and the African people--would have. Conrad needed a metaphor and a symbol that would evoke a primal emotive response from his readers as he contrasted the ideas of primitiveness, savagery, barbarism, brutality, and evil with notions of civilization, good, and morality in mankind. Even as Conrad projects a great deal of ambiguity and direct juxtaposition of the light/good dark/bad social and emotional contextual understanding of his day, he relied on the profoundly racist social understanding of his day for his novel to work. His novel at the time was a psychological thriller precisely because the fear of Africans and the continent of Africa were so deep-seated and deep-rooted that they could strike emotional chords of fear instantaneously and subconsciously in the white colonialist readers who were the target audience for this book. Intelligent, thoughtful literary critics in a post-colonial Africa can be forgiven if they don't share the same emotive response that Conrad was seeking in the writing of his novel, even if that vastly different emotive response does not change the literary merit or the larger themes at work in the novel.
In the same way Saramago uses the other, in this case the blind, as the necessary metaphorical vehicle he needs in order to evoke a specific emotional and psychological response in readers as he crafts his statement on bad and good in human civilization. Blindness is essential to Saramago because the most crucial aspect in his degeneration and devolution of humanity is disorientation. He uses the concept of disorientation extensively as a literary technique (no one has names in the asylum, and his punctuation style makes it very difficult to discern precisely who is speaking) and in turn to further an emotional understanding of the confusion, powerlessness, helplessness, degradation, and fear that come from being disoriented. For this Saramago needs to play specifically on our collective, deep-rooted societal understanding of blindness. A big part of societal fears of blindness, even on a subconscious level, is the inability to orient oneself and perceive and ascertain information without sight. Saramago needs this automatically understood fear in order for his novel to lay bare his version of humanity and to have his readers follow him. This is why he needs his central character, the heroine of the book and the literal eyewitness, to retain her sight. This is why no other metaphor of dreaded disease such as leprosy, AIDS, or some made-up contagion that would lead to a slow and horrific death would suffice. Saramago might have shown humanity stripped bare, in panic over a contagious disease; it has been a common plot device in many novels and films treating the issues he is discussing. But none of those as a context works here because he is exploiting a very specific sense of loss and powerlessness, disorientation and fear that comes from the sighted culture's understanding and presumptions about blindness. Saramago is not writing this novel for those who are blind, nor does he display a knowledge and psychological understanding of blindness and the implications of blindness from the perspective of those who are actually blind. Instead he has written a novel for the sighted, sharing their understanding and context of blindness. He uses the other as a metaphorical construct that those who share in his understanding will instantly recognize.
Now from the perspective of the other comes a vastly different view. They do not share the same emotive and automatic fear response that he has carefully embedded in his novel. The other get to decide for themselves whether their depiction is something to be shared or rejected; something that is accurate or inaccurate. You cannot write about the other, using them as an object necessary to transmit your themes successfully to your readers, and then tell them they do not have a right to view your work differently from the way you do. It doesn't mean they don't get it or that they are missing the point. It is precisely by understanding your point exactly and getting it fully that they are able to deconstruct the validity of the author's literary construct, because the reality is that, if blindness were not viewed the way it is by sighted society, the metaphor of physical blindness as it relates to decivilization in this novel would fail. It would not be a deep-seated psychological thriller making sighted people aware of the animalistic nature within us all; it would be something else. If the emotional and psychological response to blindness is necessary to make this novel successful at conveying its point, then the blind have a right to enter that conversation and respond to the view of themselves that is portrayed.
To dismiss these critiques and literary deconstructions as missing the point or being overly PC is actually rejecting intellectual discourse in favor of knee-jerk, defensive posturing. Saramago's response to the blind protesting his novel and movie is a case in point. Saying that the protesters are showing a "display of meanness with no point at all" is the phrase of a man who is offended by the fact that others could be offended by his work. He is then doing what he expects others not to do--be offended rather than understanding. Second, by saying there is "no point at all" in the response of the blind to his film and novel is to say he is neither open nor receptive to the exact self-examination that his book is supposed to lead to. The fact is that at the end of his novel people have their sight restored as quickly as it left. The enduring hope in the goodness of mankind then prevails for those sighted readers who can see themselves in the journey from civilization to savage chaos and the regeneration of mankind. What then is left for the blind reader who has been blind and will remain blind long after the restoration of sight and civilization in his novel? Why is the blind reader not supposed to see his humanity bound up in the physically blind of the novel but only in the goodness and hope that sight provides? Why is it okay for Saramago to ask his blind readers to subject their sense of self to his depiction of their lives, but it is not acceptable to ask Saramago to subject his sense of self to theirs?
At the end of the day I can read his novel and understand why those with sight don't get the big deal. While I personally have never been a big fan of his literary style, I can even set aside myself and appreciate the larger metaphor and the skillful mastery he displays as he makes it. I can appreciate that critics, readers, and movie-goers feel that bogging ourselves down in the minutiae of whether or not the blind can dress themselves or find the bathroom is missing the point of what the novel and film are trying to tell us. And to a degree the practical specifics are missing the point. For the most part those reading his novel aren't pondering whether or not blind people can dress themselves or even necessarily believing that blind people can't dress themselves. But the larger themes of his novel are absolutely tied to a broad, immediate, and even subconscious emotional fear of the disorientation and disempowerment of being blind. The feeling and fear that blindness leads to loss of fundamental human capacity is absolutely necessary to this novel's plot line and its larger themes being believable and understandable. From the perspective of those who are actually blind, the blind themselves and those with intimate knowledge and understanding of blindness have every right to discourse about the accuracy of that metaphor and their feelings about being used allegorically to make points that may or may not be related to themselves.It is unfortunate that, rather than being open to this kind of discussion, he simply dismisses the actions of the blind as angry individuals with nothing better to do with their time. It is unfortunate that those who dismiss the blind as missing the point demonstrate their own lack of understanding of the point that the blind are protesting in the first place. And unlike Africans in post-colonial Africa and African Americans in the United States deconstructing the use of race in literature or women discussing the view of feminism in twenty-first century American politics, the blind make up such a small percentage of the population that their collective voice is not always heard or respected at the table. All the more reason for the blind to do whatever it takes to get their voice heard and a seat at the table, even if it means protesting. Just some random thoughts on a Saturday afternoon.