Something I’m Not Seeing About Blindness

bookSo, I just finished reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness. It’s been on my to-read list for some time now, after I picked up the sequel, Seeing, at an airport bookstore in Narita.I liked Seeing, but the rather humorous political critique was more entertaining than the story arc.

Blindness, on the other hand,  has both a story that draws you in and political and sociological allegory to keep you thinking. The premise of the book is simple, if intriguing:  an epidemic of contagious blindness takes over an unnamed country,  but one woman is left with her sight. Society rather predictably falls into chaos, violence and filth. Though such a predictable outcome might rob the story of any urgency, in Saramago’s capable hands, we cannot untangle ourselves from the horror of the main characters as they experience it. I won’t give away any more details of the plot, because you should really read it for yourself, but there was something that puzzles me.

A lot of the themes and tropes that appear in the novel are fairly easy to detect. The exact interpretation might differ from person to person, but people usually pick out things like blindness and the unwillingness to see, the fragility of “civilization,” the act of bearing witness, gender roles, and politics to talk about. The book made me think about those topics as well, but there was one thing I noticed that is still puzzling me. What is Saramago trying to say about language in this book? He refers again and again through out the novel to proverbs and common sayings. The book also calls attention to the use of language through the way the characters unthinkingly continue to use verbs associated with sight such at “watch where you’re going.” There is even a passage where the narrator (One of the narrators? It’s so hard to tell with Saramago’s style sometimes.) talks about the power of a grammatically simple sentece:

You were never more beautiful, said the wife of the first blind man. Words are like that, they deceive, they pile up, it seems they do not know where to go, and, suddenly, because of two or three or four that suddenly come out, simple in themselves, a personal pronoun, an adverb, a verb, an adjective, we have the excitement of seeing them coming irresistibly to the surface through the skin and the eyes and upsetting the composure of our feelings, sometimes the nerves that cannot bear it any longer, they put up with a great deal, they put up with everything, it was as if they were wearing armour, we might say.The doctor’s wife has nerves of steel, and yet the doctor’s wife is reduced to tears because of a personal pronoun, an adverb, a verb, an adjective, mere grammatical categories, mere labels, just like the two women, the others, indefinite pronouns, they too are crying, they embrace the woman of the whole sentence, three graces beneath the falling rain.

It’s obvious that words have power in this world, and yet I can’t shake the feeling that the way that Saramago refuses proper nouns, disparages and dismantles folk sayings, and often makes speech  secondary to other modes of communication is ultimately pointing to our reliance on what people say as a form of blindness. Maybe it’s not about language vs. nonverbal communication per se, but rather about truth vs. platitudes or lies. I haven’t really formed a coherent idea about it yet, so I’m sure I’ll be mulling it over for the next couple of days. In my mind, that is one of the sure signs of a really good book!

If you’ve read it and have some thoughts on the subject, please share in the comments. If you’d like to read it, why not borrow a copy from my friend the Burgomeister?


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