What if everybody goes blind all of a sudden? What would happen? Portuguese Nobel Prize-winning writer Jose Saramago follows the repercussions of such a speculative scenario in his 1995 novel, Blindness.
The novel starts with a government in panic rounding up “all the people who had turned blind, as well as those who had been in physical contact or in any way close to these patients” and confining them in an abandoned mental hospital “so as to avoid any further cases of contagion” (45).
Only one character escapes blindness and her vision will provide much of the perspective from which the unfolding narrative is seen.
Reduced to Bare Life
In the mental hospital, the detainees are left alone with no medical assistance, inadequate food rations, and poor sanitation. Those who attempt to escape are shot by guarding soldiers. And indeed, small misunderstandings provokes massacres from the soldiers from time to time.
Instead of giving the blind people expert care the inexplicable nature of this epidemic of blindness led the government to turn them into virtual prisoners isolated from the rest of the world and in conditions where “the tiniest accident can become a tragedy” (69).
The influx of more blind detainees heightens the crisis inside the mental hospital. The blind detainees struggle amongst each other for food and confront the soldiers who are unheeding of their demands. The stench of human excrement soon envelopes the place as the blind are left to fend for themselves.
Life for the blind detainees has become a nightmare while the authorities outside turn a blind eye on the depravities happening in the mental hospital. It as if the government is only waiting for the blind detainees to perish one by one.
The unbearable situation and disorientation soon led to the rise of a criminal faction among the blind who gains control of a gun. They hold the other blind detainees captive and take control of the food rations in exchange for sexual favors from the women detainees.
The blind, in short, are reduced to bare life.
A Parable Against Capitalism
But soon enough the outbreak of “white blindness” spreads to the entire population. The blind overcome the criminal element and escapes the mental hospital. However, they realize that there is now “no difference between and inside and outside, between here and there, between the many and the few, between what we’re living through and what we shall have to live through” (296).
At this point, it would be easy to read the novel as an exposition of the cliche that human nature is universally prone to evil, that beneath the thin veneer of civilization lies the ever present danger of a degeneration to barbarism.
What such a reading excludes, however, is the realization that evils are historically contingent and their specific forms depends on the particular configuration of social forces and objective material conditions. In the case of Blindness, it would seem more apt to read Saramago’s parable as an attack on the way capitalism organizes society.
As one of the surviving blind detainees observed: “We’re going back to being primitive hordes… with the difference that we are not a few thousand men and women in an immense, unspoiled nature, but thousands of millions in an uprooted, exhausted world” (313).
The novel shows the extent of alienation of the human worker from the fruits of his labor. The worker do not have control and do not directly benefit from his produce. She becomes a mere cog in the capitalist machine of production and distribution and if this system bogs down, the entire population becomes destitute.
More importantly, the instrumentalist, individualist and consumerist ethos of late capitalism effectively hinders a proactive and effective response to a situation where everybody suddenly goes blind: “the worst thing is that we are not organized, there should be an organization in each building, in each street, in each district… to organize oneself is, in a way, to begin to have eyes” (362).
The Real Blindness
In a way, the novel can also be read as an allegory on the apathy of people who can see but still refuse to see the realities of injustice around them and the passivity of those who see but choose to be blind as to what can be done about these injustices.
The blindness afflicting the novel’s characters is a perfect description to all the apathetic and passive people out there: they have “[e]yes that had stopped seeing, eyes that were totally blind, yet meanwhile were in perfect condition, without any lesion, recent or old, acquired or innate” (35).
It is as if Saramago is telling us that it is only when our eyesights are lost that we begin to realize their importance. It is no surprise therefore that the same people afflicted with blindness in this novel began to organize themselves and take direct action for social transformation in the sequel, Seeing. ■