Blindness had been on my post-apocalyptic to-read list for months, but a chance encounter at a local bookstore and the chance discovery of a book club—set to read Blindness that very week—put it on my fast track. I bought the book, and I spent three days in its nightmarish, reeking, broken world. I went with the first to contract the white blindness into the mental institution where the government sets up a quarantine, shuddered as the bathroom became an open sewer, hungered with them as the government failed to deliver appropriate rations, mourned when the frightened soldiers guarding them itched their triggers. It is only because of the presence of a single seeing woman that the group eventually thrives. Or what passes as thriving under the circumstances.
The dialogue, which I had heard ruined the book for a number of readers on many online reviews, is written in a flowing style without he saids or she saids. (“It cannot be, They’ve taken away our food, The Thieves, A disgrace, the blind against the blind, I never thought I’d live to see anything like this, Let’s go and complain…”) Though I can understand how this might trip a body up, how better to immerse the reader into the story, how better to make the reader as uncertain as the blind characters about who is talking? A stroke of genius on the part of Saramago. When an artist is able to make style support content on that level I just die. Good job, Jose.
But there was an aspect of Saramago’s story that bothered me as I read, more than the conditions in which the government left the quarantined to suffer, more than the state of the restrooms, more than the power plays and violence, and it was at the base of everything the book was saying. Blindness as metaphor. Blindness as floodgate for the worst of humanity. Sight as the thread that held civilization together. Sight as enlightenment. Sight as knowledge. How would a blind person feel reading this? How did I feel about the implication? Though the book is expertly crafted, using a real-life disability as a metaphor is deeply problematic.
I followed this feeling onto google, looking for blind reader’s reactions to Saramago’s tale and came across an essay written by Liat Ben-Moshe—an academic from the field of disabled studies. Though he initially was quite taken with the novel, he later became very critical of what its use of a disability as such a negatively weighted metaphor was conveying to readers, and particularly critical of how he had been teaching the text to students. The article gets to the heart of what nagged me from Saramago’s page so articulately, that he might as well tell you himself:
Saramago’s depiction of blindness is that of a sighted man who views blindness as a radical departure from his own corporeal being. Different experiences of living in the world are never explored. Blindness is conveniently used the way Saramago assumes most people conceive of it and yet remains invisible.
Blindness does not just represent a radical form of Otherness, but operates as a sign to refer to limitation, lack. Throughout the novel, blindness is shown to lead to disorientation, chaos, and lack of familiarity with space and time. …
A more critical read, however, yields a different analysis. In this view, society fails to function not because of people’s blindness, but because the government is not able to provide the ordinary services that citizens are routinely dependent upon for survival: the production and distribution of food, water, and electricity; the maintenance of the infrastructure of transportation and communication; and so on. However, in the novel, as in daily life, dependence is projected onto the people who are perceived as embodying it on a daily basis, that is, people with disabilities. …
It is not surprising perhaps, since Saramago seems to use blindness only to tell another story, one about the human condition in general. But again, why choose blindness? Saramago’s parable, like so many other literary and cinematic depictions, seems to equate blindness with lack of knowledge. The analogy between “seeing” and “understanding” is one of the oldest ideas in Western philosophy. …
Blindness, like all disabilities, is also normatively viewed as a personal tragedy, something inflicted on the individual, a condition that a person suffers from. This narrative is closely related to a medical narrative claiming treatment and cure. Blindness should not be embraced and experienced as an identity, equal to any other, but should be pitied and/or treated.
Ben-Moshe goes on at length on the subject, and I highly recommend reading his article yourself. If you haven’t got the time for in-depth articles, I will sum it up for you in one sentence: Saramago uses blindness as a metaphor without a single hint of critical thought and with all the negatively loaded tropes common in non-disabled representations of the disabled. This work makes it clear that he is a talented writer capable of nuance and depth, and yet at the end of the novel, at the end of the day, we have a writer dealing in tropes, in a centuries-old, problematic metaphor. At the same time, Saramago’s use of blindness as the x-factor in this world is also a fascinating study, and I don’t wish he’d written a different book with a different disability. Authors are not bound to write only politically correct, “clean” texts, and I think the world is more interesting for the discussion that an issue like this in a text of this quality can create. The responsibility here lies with us as readers, in the way we engage with the text, what we choose to discuss and what we choose to ignore.
Read the rest of this review here: http://www.clickclackgorilla.com/2013/03/25/blindness-by-jose-saramago/