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Blindness – José Saramago

 
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Posted October 14, 2016 by

Blindness – José Saramago – 1995

blindness2

 

The following is a compilation of discussions and reviews from the previous version of our website. We hope you enjoy these older deliberations. Just beware, there are spoilers in here.

ReadLit Team

Posted by Dave on 30/5/2002, 6:58:45

When an author wins the Nobel Prize, the Nobel Committee composes a blurb summarizing that author’s contribution to the world of literature. For Jose Saramago, they said:

“who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality”.

After reading Blindness, my opinion is that the statement does reflect what Saramago is doing (in this case, at least). He took a very difficult, disturbing subject (inexplicable sudden blindness) and caused the reader to “apprehend” what would happen if such a situation became reality. I was often impressed by his attention to detail, for instance, how the doctor’s wife almost slipped up and revealed the fact that she could see. So many times.

It made me realize that it would probably be quite difficult to successfully feign blindness among the actually blind. To not ever tell anyone what time of day it is!

At first, the sudden QUARANTINING/HERDING into the vacant asylum of the first blind group… I thought this was rather extreme. But, I soon felt that this too was fairly realistic. This is probably exactly what would happen! This, or something like it.There would be immediate DRASTIC measures of military proportion to curb the spread of the blindness. I think it may be performed a bit more HUMANELY than in Saramago’s nameless city though. For starters, I think that the initial announcement over the loudspeaker to the first inmates would NOT have been so blunt, (i.e., “leaving the building without authorisation will mean instant death” etc.) and that there would have been better communication with the outside world from that time forward than Saramago allowed here. I’m not so sure that the as yet unaffected world would have abandoned these individuals so quickly.

But, that being said, his attention to detail made the story believable to me for the most part. The way people are forced to feel along the walls, crawl on all fours, the rapid problem of filth from misplaced defecation, the never really knowing if it’s day or night.

Whatever causes this “white blindness” in Blindness is definitely the most CONTAGIOUS thing to ever sweep the earth. Apparently, just from SEEING the infected person… WHAMMO you’ve got it too! This didn’t bother me as a reader, maybe some people find it just a bit too… bizarre? Not me though. I went to a movie this past weekend and for 2 hours and ten minutes BELIEVED that a guy shoots spiderwebs from his wrist… so…. WHATEVER! I think Saramago’s inventiveness with this whole particular blindness theme was brilliant. Not since reading Stephen King’s “The Stand” was I so convinced that it was the end of the world.

The girl with dark glasses says something on page 248 that, to me, summarizes one of the most important things that the book is telling us:

“Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.”

What does she mean by that?

It seems similar to something the man with the black eyepatch also said… “We were already blind the moment we became blind, fear struck us blind, fear will keep us blind” (p.117).

My exegesis? Well, early on, actually from the point when the thief steals the first blind man’s car, Saramago seems to be asking us something like… Is a man a thief because he steals, or does he steal because he is a thief? Or, is a man a rapist/murderer because he rapes and murders, or does he rape and murder because he is a latent rapist/murderer? Is a person’s behaviour/action only a “conditioned reflex of his personality” or something so ingrained (innate) that it is beyond finding out? The less virtuous side of his nature lying in wait for an opportunity to manifest itself?

An awesome question to ponder.

Right there on page 15 Saramago (as narrator) makes us consider it, by saying: “The sceptics, who are many and stubborn, claim that, when it comes to human nature, if it is true that the opportunity does not always make the thief, it is also true that it helps a lot.”

Apart from it’s literary COMPOSITION ( which is by no means orthodox or ordinary) I think a reader’s opinion of the following two statements would greatly determine their opinion of Blindness as a STORY.

1) Man is a fallen (base) creature, with a natural bias to do evil.

2) Men are good by nature, and made bad by society.

To me, it is obvious that there is truth-value to both statements. But I believe that the first statement is MORE true… truer in more instances. Those, like myself, who would feel the same about the former statement, would enjoy Blindness more than those who favour the latter statement. Because, in this book, there are few heroes… the MAJORITY of mankind when the chips are down… look pretty grim. To those with a generally cheery disposition and optimistic outlook on humanity in general, this book makes a very unwise and poor Christmas gift.

I was horrified in that section where the women of the compound are brutally ravaged. I only wish I found it less believable. Even for a real GloomDoomer like me though, I must say that I found that whole midpoint section of the book a little exaggerated. Maybe Saramago exaggerates here on purpose? But, would a GROUP of people really do this… I mean to this extent, so ruthlessly organized and all? And here I felt that the doctor’s wife could have done more in the FIRST time she was brought to the room with the other women. I couldn’t help thinking why, if she could SEE, why didn’t she disarm the leader of his weapon… and commence knocking every other guy senseless with something… like really! Would she really have put up with what was going on?

Another scene that I’m not quite sure I understand is when the doctor sleeps with the girl with dark glasses. I kept thinking, would a man that knows his wife can SEE… get up out of bed and mosey on over to this girl’s bed and get in there? Not knowing if his wife is watching him?

And to top it off she IS watching him. And she does nothing. I didn’t quite understand the dynamics of what was going on here. For one thing, they didn’t seem to have the sort of marriage where the man would feel the NEED to go the girl’s bed. But, the wife complacently watching it go on, that was more bewildering. Eighty pages later, the girl says “Forgive me” and the doctor’s wife says “It’s not a crime that calls for pardon.” What? I found that statement to be very strange. Can someone enlighten me?

Other strange things:

Not till the end of the book (p.260) do any of the characters ask for anyone else’s name? Does anyone have a theory of why Saramago preferred to have nameless characters? Did this hamper you in the reading of the story? I found it surprising that it didn’t seem overly confusing to me. And a note on style. I have never read anything with such lack of conventional grammar to it. Jeffrey Lent came close, but was not near so erratic. I thought it was going to be very difficult to get through at first, but I found that I quickly adapted to his breakneck sentence (lack-of) structure! I began to read QUICKER than usual. His wierdness grew on me and I adapted to it. What do you think of his writing style?

Two scenes I found especially memorable and moving. One was where the old blind witch-woman opens the window and sadly longs for the group of people that has recently left her. (233-234). The other scene is where several of them start crying simply because they are enjoying a glass of unfilthy water at the doctor’s house (249).

“…what a marvelous thing a glass of water is.”

What of the ending? They all start seeing again, in the same succession as they went blind? Cheesy? Contrived? Crazy?

I thought it was not cheesy at all. I thought it was brilliant.

The only thing that would have made it cheesy is if the doctor’s wife suddenly went blind.

But she didn’t.

I really liked the book, and would place it somewhere between four and five hearts.

And… DAMN, am I ever glad I can SEE!

 

Posted by Lale on 31/5/2002, 13:46:01

A very original concept. A very original style. I think the book was definitely the work of a genius. The attention to detail, the periodic quotes of proverbs from all over the world, the ridiculing of the “manner of speak”… This is a book of tremendous labour combined with a startling idea.

I was reminded of Camus’ The Plague as well as Kafka’s Metamorphosis: the society’s immediate rejection of someone grotesquely sick or deformed.

I have reservations about recommending this book to friends, even though I thought it was brilliant.

> At first, the sudden QUARANTINING/HERDING  into the vacant asylum of the first blind group… I thought this was rather extreme. But, I soon felt that this too was fairly realistic. This is probably exactly what would happen! This, or something like it. There would be immediate DRASTIC measures of military proportion …

Yes, the quarantine would be inevitable. But why with such a rude, harsh, unhelpful, insensitive style? I would have expected the first announcement to say “do not worry, the scientists are working around the clock to find a cure, we will provide you with radios, musical instruments, whatever else you want/need, please do not hesitate to contact us for anything …”, something like that. Saramago had to show the uncaring side (the dark side) of the society.

> “Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.”

This is where words become insufficient. I, too, believe that there is something inside that makes us who we are, I have often found this inexplicable.

> Well, early on, actually from the point when the thief steals the first blind man’s car

This was very intelligently done. We get the sense of the corruption in society right at the very beginning of the book. I couldn’t believe that the good samaritan actually left with the blind man’s car. But later on, once we got to the immorality and the violence in the quarantine, it made sense why the first man had to be a thief.

> whole midpoint section of the book a little exaggerated. Maybe Saramago exaggerates here on purpose? But, would a GROUP of people really do this… I mean to this extent, so ruthlessly organized and all?

The hoodlums part was problematic for me too. Especially because they would refuse food to starving people. And for what? For money they can never use! Hoodlums, by definition, are not psychopaths who will let people in one corner die for no good reason, and let the plentiful food rot in another corner. If they had arms they could have simply bullied people into handing over their money and jewellery. But a thief of that kind would not refuse food to hungry people. That part of the book was hard to explain. I can imagine a guy here and there attempting to and succeeding raping women, stealing money etc. but the whole organisation of food vs orgy, food vs money did not make sense (!). Also, let’s say that we went along with the collecting money and jewellery the first time around. But then saying “you need to pay more to get more food”, it is not like they can make more money.

> Another scene that I’m not quite sure I understand is when the doctor sleeps with the girl with dark glasses. I kept thinking, would a man who knows his wife can SEE…

OK, this part was ridiculous. Unnecessary. I don’t know what Saramago was trying to prove here. That even a decent man like the doctor can be pushed to impropriety? Obviously he was not sleeping with every pretty girl at every opportunity before this tragedy struck. So, the blindness brought out the secret desires, the weaknesses or the evils?

And the wife’s reaction… She is totally understanding of the situation. Why?

> why Saramago preferred to have nameless characters? Did this hamper you in the reading of the story?

They all had names: The girl with the dark glasses, the first blind man, the doctor’s wife, the dog of tears, the boy with the squint. I like this style very much. Names would be so fake in this particular story. Imagine them being called Nancy, George etc.

> What do you think of his writing style?

Sometimes it got very hard to follow. I said to myself, that’s why punctuation was invented.

> What of the ending?

I apologize if this hurts anyone’s feelings but I hated the ending. They should have stayed blind forever. Hence the end of the world.

Their entire blindness lasted for about a month only. So, what did they learn from this one month of blindness? What was the purpose? It ended up just like it would end if it was a terrible flood, earthquake or hurricane destroying a city. Some people died. Some institutions were ruined. The city needs rebuilding. Massive amount of money is lost. But everything is recoverable. Now, what will they do; just like a city which has been the victim of a flood, they will start picking up the pieces, start rebuilding, re-establishing the broken, ruined institutions, improving some things that’s for sure… But what will be the difference of Blindness? I would have much preferred if that was the end of the world.

 

Posted by Lale on 31/5/2002, 15:53:30

: They should have stayed blind forever. Hence the end of the world.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. They only stayed blind for a very short time, about a month, by my estimate. They would eventually organize themselves, elect leaders, form some institutions for law, order, sanitary and health care, they would get more and more efficient in doing things. There can still be doctors and law enforcement, even if they were blind. They could still build, create, entertain, fall in love. This would just be a new species. Human-like species. They have the same intelligence as humans, and all the other functions except seeing. Their other senses and abilities would evolve, get honed, gain predominance. They would still form the society. The collective memory would remain (by means of various recordings, even including writing), seeing days would become part of the history.

Why was the doctor’s wife immune to blindness? Other than the fact that it made the novel easier to write and read?

blindness3

Posted by Steve Krantz on 1/6/2002, 20:01:57

I thoroughly enjoyed Blindess and immediately recognized that this was the work of a genius. The most important sentence was the last – that the protagonist was going to “take her turn.” Saramago turned the world blind to teach us how dependent we truly are on each other. A great message. Since reading Blindess I have bought ALL of his books and can’t wait to read them all.

 

Posted by Chris on 3/6/2002, 4:57:19

There has been a television commercial running in Texas as part of a literacy campaign in which children make faces representing all the various emotions that books can make you feel – surprise, sadness, elation, shock, etc, to which I would like to be able to add – “horror”. “Blindness,” in addition to being a great read and an innovative piece of literature, horrified me utterly with its depictions of social breakdown and the speed at which normative person to person behaviour disappears in favour of chaos and terror.

One of the marks of a good novel is one in which the events that occur force the reader to ask him or herself, “what would I do in this situation?” The events in Blindness, aside from the sudden onset of the malady itself, are so believable, the characters so ordinary, and their dispositions so understandable that I was immediately and constantly asking myself that question. Saramago’s use of ordinary people with unremarkable personalities as characters was pure genius because it lends plausibility to the plot and its development.

When I put the book down a few moments ago the emotion which lingers with me is pure horror. Naturally I refer to certain specific passages in the story (it took me several halting attempts over four days to get through the rape sequences), but moreover I refer to the overarching pessimism about human nature expressed by Saramago. I fought not to believe that kindness, social responsibility, and generosity would fade to easily as it did in the quarantine, but Saramago’s characters (even the bad ones) were so well drawn that I found myself accepting his pessimism. It scared me. I didn’t want to believe that human beings could be so easily reduced to animals once the most (seemingly) superficial of social constraints was loosened.

But there was a hope in this story, that no matter how thoroughly our society may be destroyed, people always seem to find a way to continue. We saw that with the featured group, but also in the ways in which other groups of blind people would roam together in search of collective food and shelter. It seemed as though the decent into anarchy was a necessary step before there could be a reemergence. This theme of “you have to hit bottom before you know which way is up” pervades the book.

Still, this book was very difficult for me to read. Its been a long time since any book provoked the emotional response of Blindness.

OK, casting aside my emotive-reader hat, I’ll try to talk about this in some kind of rational way. I loved, absolutely loved, Saramago’s lack of punctuation and loose grammar. It took me quite a while to get used to the absence of quotation marks and other indicators of who was speaking and to whom. Then I began to think about what it would be like to be blind and to have a conversation with a group of people; being blind I wouldn’t know who was speaking nor to whom they were speaking. I then realized how ingenius this style was in conveying that confusion and lack of structure to their conversations. Being unclear about who was speaking while reading that book was no different that the characters’ confusion during their conversations – the style conveyed that ambiguity beautifully. I was truly impressed.

I’ve though a lot about how I would rate this book, as well as the always important question of whether or not I would recommend it. In the final analysis I think that assigning a number of hearts or some sort of comparative rating would be inappropriate. There are certain books which seem to defy ratings of any kind because they are difficult to compare to other works (the basis, after all, of rating systems). Additionally, there are certain works that are uniquely special and uniquely provoking. For me, Blindness was one such novel, and for that reason I can’t bring myself to give it a rating, but I know without a doubt that I will recommend this book to everyone I know.

 

 

Posted by Lale on 3/6/2002, 14:34:25

“what would I do in this situation?”

I know one thing that I would not have done: If I were the car thief, — day one in quarantine, everyone needs to go to the toilets, they don’t know how to get there or even what to do once they got there, they are shocked, upset, confused, they form a line, — I would not have attempted to fondle the girl with the dark glasses.

: that I found myself accepting his pessimism.

I personally did not accept, take part in, or associated with his pessimism. It was an exaggeration to the nth degree. There would be people who will attempt to steal and rape, but the whole scene of “sex and money in return for food and if not we will let the food rot here and watch you starve” was overdone.

I accepted the blindness epidemic as if it was something that had happened before in history and can happen again (like cholera, plague etc.), but I found most of the quarantine parts unbelievable.

I can understand the filth. Even people who have seeing eyes are careless about public facilities. Think of the public toilets today. It is not inconceivable that when the entire population turns blind and water becomes scarce, filth will be everywhere.

Posted by Dave on 4/6/2002, 6:59:15

Chris, I thought your comment on Saramago’s syntax and lack of punctuation was really brilliant… I hadn’t thought of it as I read it, but yes, the confusion for the reader kind of parallels the confusion of the characters themselves. A key to understanding his mile-long sentences was that every time an otherwise inexplicable capital letter appeared, a new speaker was speaking, or so it seemed to me. It took a while, but I too found his style kind of grew on me, and I actually LIKED it. Wierd huh?

Lale has a valid point for sure about the possible exaggeration of depravity in general… the evil did seem a bit overcooked! But overall, being of a pessimistic bent myself, I found that the book also made me ask myself those “what would I do there” questions. So many times.

Is it something I would recommend to others? Well, I did choose this book for us all to read BEFORE READING IT MYSELF of course… but now, I would only suggest it to others with certain disclaimers attached. The rape scenes and all that hoodlumism… that stuff is not for everyone. (If I suggested this book to my mom or sisters, they would have THROWN it at me at that point)! Of all that goes on in the book, the scenes in the hoodlum-room were by far the worst. And then, Saramago on page 168 goes even a step further and suggests that these abuses were nothing “new” really, “for in all certainty this is how the world began.” The reader is free to differ with him here… I mean he’s trying to get us to feel that this behaviour is CAVE-MAN-ISH. Yes, it is definitely primitive, uncivilized. And maybe this is how the cave-men would have behaved… IF THEY WERE BLIND ALSO! But… were they?

The book makes us ponder many things about who we are. The girl with dark glasses is told at one point, “…the feelings with which we have lived and which allowed us to live as we we were, depended on our having the eyes we were born with, without eyes feelings become something different…”

~~

Posted by Lale on 4/6/2002, 10:46:12

One of the little things that annoyed me is this:

The girl with dark glasses has recently turned blind (probably the night before), she is informed that she will be picked up and taken to hospital or quarantine (we don’t know what they told her), she packs a small bag as one would do in such cases, she is sitting around the table with her parents to wait for them to come and pick her up. Now, as a *new* blind person, who is not accustomed to walking around, going up and down the stairs without seeing, and as a person being taken to hospital or prison or whatever, she chooses to wear a pair of shoes that have such high and spiky heels that if she kicked someone at the leg with one foot, her heel would make such a deep wound that, if gone unattended, will kill the person who is kicked.

Call it nitpicking.

 

 

Reviewed by: Linda Date: 17 July 2002

In an unnamed city people all of a sudden become blind: in the middle of the street or in their own houses, it definitely seems to be contagious, but there is no real pattern. The government panics and decides to lock the people up in a big, abandoned building. We follow the small group of people who arrive first and read how their situation deteriorates rapidly: the place gets incredibly filthy, there is not enough food and soon a gang is formed that terrorizes the other blinds, including the people in our group. What nobody knows is that one of the group members has not fallen blind and she tries to help the other group members without telling them that she can still see. After a terrible fire the group can escape and tries to make a living in the free world again, where the whole public life has turned into a catastrophe.

The horrors are described very vividly and sometimes make you positively sick. But what Saramago shows us is not only the black, egoistic and violent side of people that shows up the moment you remove the thin layer of cultural varnish. He also describes how in very awful situations some people rise above themselves and are capable of altruism and that it is impossible to say who react in what way once something truly awful happens. A book that definitely makes one think about your life and what would happen if something similar would happen to oneself.

~~

Reviewed by: Moana      Date: 8 December 2002

Saramago’s work is brilliant. The story of Blindness is compelling, but I think that the real strength in this work has to do with the style in which it is written. The stream-of-consciousness dialogue shows how people actually interact with each other without breaking up the sentences for a visually-oriented audience. In this sense, we are placed in the same context as the characters in the book. When beginning the book, we must orient ourselves to the running dialogue and nameless characters just as the characters themselves must adjust to being blind and having no faces to identify with.

As to the optimistic/pessimistic nature of the book, I think that Saramago is not out to focus on the “original sin” and guilt of man (Saramago is an atheist) but instead to focus on the good that man can do even in situations beyond their control. The end certainly is uplifting – the three women taking a shower in the rain naked shows Saramago’s deviance from the idea that humans as naked creatures are sinful or bad. I believe the end is an optimistic one – the world does not die out, people can see again, and we are hopefully meant to believe that they learned something from it all.

And we should buy many copies of this book and give them to our friends for Christmas. Good literature is always appreciated by the right people.

~~

Reviewed by: Jennifer      Date: 18 May 2003

This work of art generates endless contemplation and wonder, haunting its readers long after the last page is turned. The part I struggled hardest to understand is one of the latter scenes in the church. What the heck did that mean?

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