Blindness is something too familiar, too intimate, stuck in the uneasy company of nightmares and overexposed film. Lingering on longer than the usual allegory-cum-dystopia, when the lights go out you get the feeling that they could go out anywhere. An epidemic of white blindness spreads throughout an unnamed city, and people slowly deal with their lack of seeing and lack of insight towards one another. The plot is beautifully disturbing, and disturbingly beautiful. It rips away whatever fumbling politeness marks normal life, and despite the horrors that follow, leaves characters responding to one another with a dazed sort of tenderness.
Usually allegories go the route of the cut and dry, poking and prodding at politics or religion, but Saramago chooses people, placing himself in the realm of Camus’ existentialist novel The Plague. Without sight, life and history fade in favor of death and disease. Government and work falls away as people’s livelihoods dwindle down Maslow’s hierarchy, until scrambling for food in streets crowded with refuse is life. People lose their names, clinging to their former functions in life, which have less and less meaning. What makes Saramago’s blindness more frightening than Camus’ bubonic plague is how being blind forces people to depend on one another. The burden of personal responsibility takes on frightening proportions when it is pointed out how you cannot control how someone else acts, or how they choose to treat you.
The only person still who still has sight is an ophthalmologist’s wife. The blind are quarantined, in rapidly growing numbers, in an abandoned mental hospital. Any attempt at escape ends in death, as the troops surrounding the hospital shoot on sight to stop the spreading blindness. Food is thrown in to the compound by the army, and the blind are left to deal with themselves. The result is a horrible, Lord of the Flies type deal, but this time with grown-ups. Who, by definition, should know better. Except they don’t, hoarding food, attacking others, raping and killing. Without sight, there is an awful disrobing of human nature, a nakedness of the worst kind. This city made blind is far from exotic, and the sex in the novel isn’t erotic. If anything approaches salacious, it is the cruelty men reap on people they cannot see.
It is up to the doctor’s wife to keep a semblance of order, and once the epidemic has spread throughout the country, to lead a small group out of the asylum and act as their guide. Life in the city is harsher than in the asylum, where the blind knew the building and could not get too lost. Thousands of people roam the streets, fighting over scraps of food. They leave their houses and can never find the way back.
Is reading this novel flirting with literary masochism? I don’t think so. Saramago’s Blindness is more purgatory than hell. The unseeing city’s ugliness, the brutality, the squalor, the lack of humanity serves to underscore the importance of having it. Out of the asylum, the small group of blind men and women take shelter in the doctor’s apartment and band together as a family. The novel’s final fading away of cruelty makes you suddenly aware of beauty as reprieve. The city may be horrifying, but somehow, it is not hopeless. People drift into cruelty easily, but they can drift out of it. It is as easy as waking up.