Blinded By the Light, Part II

Reading Blindness, by Jose Saramago, and I’m reminded quite a bit of the chapter about the agricultural fair in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. It’s an impressionistic association as there is no direct influence. Mostly, I think of how Flaubert’s needling mention of nearby animals – to the muck, to “dilated nostrils” – as fairgoers vie for seats or eat from their picnic baskets, creates a steadily increasing tension. Just how long can people eat as the smell of shit mounts?

Blindness is the story of the “white evil” as it infects the eyes of patient zero (the white evil has landed in my eyes more times than I care to admit), his wife, the thief who steals his car, the waiting room and surgery of an optometrists office and, from there, an entire city-state. It is also the story of the optometrist’s wife, unnamed in the novel (the characters decide that without sight, their given identities are unimportant), who somehow remains immune to the plague of blindness. The “white evil” is an ever-present white light that first warms the eyes and then divests them of sight. Foucault’s insight into the similiarity between madness and dazzlement seems to be referenced by Saramago as the first cases of blindness are quarantined in an insane asylum. The optometrist’s wife is driven progressively more insane by her sightedness, constantly fighting madness off. For everyone else, shit is just a smell or a wetness on the floor. She has to see it and try to describe it to others:

[…] no imagination, however fertile, and creative in making comparisons, images and metaphors, could aptly describe the filth here. It is not just the state to which the lavatories were soon reduced, fetid caverns such as the gutters in hell full of condemned souls must be, but also the lack of respect shown by some of the inmates or the sudden urgency of others that turned the corridors and other passageways into latrines, at first only occasionally but now as a matter of habit.

Nothing seems anomalous to the characters about walking around in their own shit. Maybe this is a side-effect of Saramago’s constant use of the very medieval free and indirect speech (which he did not invent but which was mastered by Flaubert). With identities unimportant, the paragraphs are not broken up by the declarative outbursts of characters with whom we are supposed to identify. Nobody can really complain about the shit covering the floors; more and more shit is just a fact of the general environment. It’s dangerous to step anywhere. Like shit, persons sort of just blob together. Without shit in its proper place, a person no longer knows where he stands in the world.

It would not be right to imagine that these blind people, in such great numbers, proceed like lambs to the slaughter, bleating as is their wont, somewhat crowded, it is true, yet that is how they had always existed, cheek by jowl, mingling breaths and smells, There are some here who cannot stop crying, others who are shouting in fear or rage, others who are cursing, someone uttered a terrible, futile threat, If I get my hands on you, presumably he was referring to the soldier, I’ll gouge your eyes out.

In that passage, the violent threat of the blind man is effaced by its futility. “Disability Studies” should decry Jurgen Habermas, the critical theorist who laments the loss of face to face contact in the modern world. When you’re blind, how can you be a tough guy and look your interlocutor in the eye? Anyway, I always find it better to look someone in the crotch when wanting to initiate human contact. Leo Bersani thinks that gays obviate the sentimental couple-form by avoiding the sentimental portrait (think of a hetoersexual couple gazing at each other from both ends of a locket). According to him, when someone is fucking you in the ass on a roof top, then the only thing you can see is the white horizon line over the city a couple of minutes before the dawn.

Habermas and Bersani follow from the work of Hegel. The Hegelmeister felt that face to face recognition is how is how we locate ourselves in the social world; without it, our self-consciousness is riven by alienation. Alienation causes us to fight harder to obtain recognition. Of course, I don’t buy that bullcrap about people working harder because of alienation, but you can bet that the Communists ate that shit up. What it comes down to is that without sight, recognition is impossible. “I” no longer exist if I can no longer see myself seeing myself. In addition to the death of the subject, without recognition there is neither a human history (I discredited history in my last post anyway) nor civilization.

One of the best scenes takes place after the blind patients escape from the mental asylum where they have been quarantined. They find that their captors went blind themselves. The wife of the optometrist – who pretended to be blind in order to accompany her husband – sees that no one lives any longer. People only survive. In many ways, reading about survival is a lot more dystopian than reading about mass anihilation. Blindness raises the bar for books like Oryx and Crake. Holding hands, groups of people feel their way alongside of buildings. They crawl on hands and knees to taste their way through rubbish bins for edible food. During the scene I loved so much, the optometrist’s wife is aghast after a day in the town’s square, watching people listen to one another preach about comets, means of infection, doomsday, etc. Saramago’s list of cripplingly superstitious theories goes on and on. At the end of it, the wife complains that no one had mentioned self-government.

I said in Part I that Saramago writes gimmicky novels. They may be gimmicky, but they work. What if a plague of blindness were to overtake a city? As we lose our legal status as persons and civilization rapidly decays, is there another way to see ourselves? Can we conceive of new ways to organise ourselves?

A government, said the wife, An organisation, the human body is also an organised system, it lives as long as it keeps organised, and death is only the effect of disorganisation, And how can a society of blind people organise itself in order to survive, By organising itself, to organise oneself is, in a way, to begin to have eyes, Perhaps you’re right, but the experience of this blindness has brought us only death and misery, my eyes, just like your surgery, were useless, Thanks to your eyes we are still alive, said the girl with the dark glasses, We would also be alive if I were blind as well, the world is full of blind people, I think we are all going to die, it’s just a matter of time, Dying has always been a matter of time, said the doctor, But to die just because you’re blind, there can be no worse way of dying, We die of illnesses, accidents, chance events, And now we shall also die of blindness, I mean, we shall die of blindness and cancer, of blindness and tuberculosis, of blindness and AIDS, of blindness and heart attacks, illnesses may differ from one person to another but what is really killing us now is blindness, We are not immortal, we cannot escape death, but at least we should not be blind, said the doctor’s wife, How if this blindness is concrete and real, said the doctor, I am not sure, said the wife, Nor I, said the girl with the dark glasses.

The only answer proferred by the book is that without selves, without history, then what survival amounts to is preparing en masse for death. This is a good book even though the lumpy paragraphs start to hurt the eyes after a while.

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One Response to “Blinded By the Light, Part II”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I haven’t read “Blindness”, but I read “Seeing”, without realising it was the sequel. It was the third of his books that I’d read in quick succession, so I’d got used to the lumpy paragraph quirk that he has. His characters always seem like they are not really speaking, but being narrated by a storyteller.Your “part one” which did away with history I also found enjoyable for the sheer amount of your venom, as I said to you before “it’s like a pointillist connect the dots shitlist”.All of his books seem to have a gimmick, but like you, I don’t have a problem with it, cos he does it well.JAU

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