Friday, January 07, 2011

Blindness, by Jose Saramago

In the interest of attempting to blog more regularly in 2011, I decided to post something about my reading. Seven days into the new year, I must confess that I have not finished any books. I am reading at least four books at the moment, but it may be a while before any of them are finished.

So, I cast my eyes back to December, and while none of my December reading made it to my "best of 2010" list, at least it is relatively fresh in my mind. I read quite a bit in December, at least partly because I spent several sick days lying on the couch needing something easy and simple to do.

Not everything was easy and simple, though. I was offered a book from my Bookmooch wishlist, and happily accepted it. (I have plenty of points, and in general, the books I want are not available.) So, one cold day in December, I received Blindness by Jose Saramago. I put it on my list so long ago, I have only the vaguest recollections of the book, but I wanted to read it at some point, so I plunged in and was taken unaware.

I am not post-modernist in my thinking. My world-view is shaped by a solidly Biblical foundation, and I am far more sympathetic to the medieval mind than to the post-modern one. But I live in this age. Whether because the post-modern mindset is crystallizing, or simply because I am older, I see it coming sharply into focus everywhere around me. When I find myself immersed in a post-modern world such as the one in Blindness (or The Road by Cormac McCarthy), I never fail to be moved. I don't agree that the world is as it is pictured--so utterly without hope, without redemption--but my spirit bleeds for those who live in that world, and do think that there is nothing more.

In the story, a viral blindness strikes humanity. Those afflicted are isolated at first, and the story focuses on the first few individuals incarcerated in an abandoned hospital. There is no one to take care of those affected by blindness, because they would simply be blind themselves almost immediately, so they are left to fend for themselves, and naturally fall into anarchy, with the strong preying on the weak. As the situation deteriorates within the hospital, the blind are not aware that the blindness has not been contained, and the entire population is affected. Amongst the blind, there is one person who is not affected--just one person who retains sight. What can one sighted person do for a building full of blind people, or for a city?

The story is meant to be allegorical--it is stated plainly. Unfortunately, accurately portraying a post-modern world is not the same thing as offering a remedy for that hopeless thinking. In fact, it would be altogether un-post-modern to do that. So the book is built up of layers and layers of hopelessness, grief, anguish, loss, confusion, anger (all perfectly legitimate human reality) without a single moment of relief, hope, optimism or redemption. It's a perfect post-modern book, and if you want to read something to illustrate post-modernism, this will fit the bill. I can't think of any other reason for reading it, and I'm not recommending that anyone do so. I read a review of the book which describes the author's writing as "compassionate," and I agree--he tells us very gently about these horrors. But I find that chilling.

One of the things I dislike most intensely is how impersonal the story is. The story focuses on a handful of individuals, but we never know their names. They are always referred to as "the doctor" or the "the girl with dark glasses" or "the first blind man's wife." For the entire book, no names are ever shared. It was the same in The Road--there is a father, and there is a son, and they have no names.

There is no pleasure for me in this kind of reading, but for some reason, every few years, I end up reading a book like this. It makes me draw back in horror...I'd rather read a brutal crime novel or a harrowing holocaust memoir than look too closely at the bleakness of the modern psyche.

But the book does put forth that proposition--when you live in a world of blindness, where the blind are led only by the blind, what is the role for the sighted person?


At 5:27 PM , Blogger seth said...

I found this book completely engrossing when I read it a few years ago. I think the lack of names wasn't meant to be impersonal, but rather to show the confusion inherent in the plague and living situation.

I think the real horror of the book is the breakdown of society, and the hope comes in the new community of the few who stick together.

Of course, I also loved The Road. So I guess I do well with bleak novels.


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