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Ensaio sobre a Cegueira — Essay on Blindness

Posted by Peder on 24 November 2008

Blindness, the bookI recently finished reading the novel Blindness by José Saramago, a Nobel laureate in literature.  It was a very captivating book and I’m glad to use it as the basis for this, my first review on this blog.

The book tells the story of a blindness epidemic which sweeps a city and a nation.  Reacting to the outbreak, the unnamed government attempts to quarantine those affected, but as the disease spreads to every last individual, anarchy ensues.  We first see this breakdown in the abandoned asylum set aside for those early victims.  As the military forces charged with the monitoring and care for those inside abandon their posts over fears of becoming blind themselves, the food deposits upon which the blind inside rely are no longer delivered.  Within the walls those with weapons, power and the constitution to use them to their benefit hoard the food and demand payment for anyone else who wants to eat.  Faced with tyrannical treatment from inside as well as out, the quarantined riot and burn the place down in what can reasonably be seen as an essay on the predictable destruction of a society — or maybe I’m just a closet-anarchist.

Those few who are able to get out walk blindly into a world they no longer recognize.  Not only has their disease painted their entire world white, but the entire society from which they were hidden has deconstructed in their absence.  Governance, law and order are no more.  Food is scarce.  Filth and the remains of the dead pile up on every street and city plaza.

Most of the story is told through the eyes of the one person who has retained her sight.  Simply called “the doctor’s wife” — her husband is an ophthalmologist — the reluctant heroine leads a ragtag group of the earliest victims through the horrors of their new world, and takes upon herself the great burden of taking care of those who cannot take care of themselves in a world devoid of order.  Interestingly, there are many mentions of morality and appropriate behavior throughout the story, particularly regarding the role of family and deference to government and order.  Very often they come across as overly old-fashioned and I wondered if I simply did not have the same values as a European author born in 1922.  But as I reflected, I realized they appeared tiresome and out-dated because they represented an effort to apply traditional values to a now-valueless world.  So much of our own societies are built upon the rule of law and the strength of family, and this story was premised on the sudden retraction of those institutions.

As the book moves on, and the characters’ lives continued to devolve I kept wondering how this story could possibly resolve itself.  But Señor Saramago takes a clue from the late, great H.G. Wells and ends the story with an anti-climax.  In War of the Worlds, the planet was in great peril and could not seem to find a way to defeat its alien invaders.  So H.G. Wells simply introduced the concept of viral infection — that the aliens couldn’t handle the cellular “bugs” for which we’ve grown immunity, and *tada!* the aliens die off and order is restored.  (When the story was turned it into a movie a few years back I remember hearing movie-goers groan at how simplistically that Happy Ending was reached.  Little did they know that Steven Spielberg actually followed the original story for once!)  Sadly, in a similar nod to what I sarcastically guess is an I’m-done-writing-now-let’s-just-finish-this-book attitude, Saramago spends about a page and a half explaining how, just as curiously as people lost their sight, they suddenly gained it back.  Hooray!  THE END.

Boo.  And this guy won the Nobel Prize for Literature 10 years ago.  Double-boo.

But I suspect the point of writing the book was not to find some unique twist that saves the day.  Rather it was to show the systematic breakdown of society and the chaotic reaction of the human organism to such unfathomable horror.  For that, this book did a good job; throughout much of the book it is surprisingly difficult to put down.  But again, that’s not for lack of trying by Señor Saramago.  His writing style is without quotation marks, has few sentence breaks and even fewer paragraph breaks.  It can be very difficult to read, as your eyes move so quickly over a text without stop or yield signs it can be very easy to lose track of who’s talking or what they’re talking about.  However, in counter point, the style does provide an added effect of confusion and disarray during the story’s many chaotic scenes.  At first I thought that was the intended effect, but then I read on Wikipedia that the author is known for this style and he uses it a lot.  Adding to the challenge of its reading, the book has been translated from its native Portuguese, which naturally added a couple hiccups as a second language can never capture the intended effect of a story’s original text.  Well, I guess you can’t have it all, can you?

Blindness, the filmYou might be already familiar with the story line as it was turned into a major motion picture, set to be released in the US sometime this fall.  I’m having difficulty determining whether the film has already had its run in theaters, or if it’s still on the horizon, but in either case I’m determined to see it, whether that means I rent the video or buy a ticket.  Take a look at the trailer below.  Very exciting!

Lastly, a note on the book’s title, the original Portuguese name means “essay on blindness,” for which Saramago has written a sequel called Ensaio sobre a Lucidez meaning “essay on lucidity,” translated in English as Seeing.  The story involves many of the same characters and takes on a political “epidemic” of non-vote ballots cast by a populace.  I have a variety of other books on my To Read list, and I’ll need a break from Señor Saramago’s style, but I look forward to reading his take on a different kind of societal degradation.

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5 Responses to “Ensaio sobre a Cegueira — Essay on Blindness”

  1. Rick Boyer said

    Can you tell me who did your layout? I’ve been looking for one kind of like yours. Thank you.

  2. Donna Hill said

    Peder, I wonder if you are aware of the contempt in which many blind people hold this work – at least in the US. Saramago’s book & the movie based on it are mediocre attempts at social commentary which portray blind people in an erronious, bigoted and hurtful manner. If the virus had caused white people to become black or straights to become gay, I suspect the Nobel committee would not have given him its highest honor.

    Blindness does not confine a person to a life of terror and helplessness. There are bllind lawyers, teachers, chemists, Diesel mechanics, entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, parents, etc. We do our own shopping, cooking, laundry and have many leisure activities from knitting to mountain climbing. Despite this and the revolution in technology which makes participation in all aspects of life easier for blind people, the unemployment rate among working-age blind Americans is still seventy percent. Furthermore, less than ten percent of bllind children are taught to read Braille, the only tool enabling true literacy and the primary skill linking successful blind adults. Why? It is because of the bigotry implicit in works like this and the fact that reviewers don’t point it out. Many highly educated, talented and motivated blind Americans live in poverty, because society would rather pay millions on disability checks than to recognize our talents, skills and contributions than to work shoulder to shoulder with us on a daily basis. We are bullied and discriminated against at every turn, and the issues which impact our lives are rarely even mentioned in the media. There hasn’t been a new blind American superstar in decades, and the only famous blind woman most people can name is Helen Keller, who died over fifty years ago. The Performing Arts Division of the National Federation of the Blind is fighting against this oppression (www.padnfb.org

    The issue is not solely one of portraying blind people as helpless — though many reviewers in casting the doctor’s wife as the true hero attest to the fact that the film does do that. The issue is that he uses the metaphor of blindness to begin with.

    Symbolism in literature, language and cinema is a powerful tool for maintaining prejudice. Many phrases such as “Jewing” someone down, “old wives’ tale” and “black as the devil,” are now considered offensive. Blind, however, continues to be a synonym for ignorant and oblivious.

    To demonstrate how deep the bigotry and misunderstanding go we need look no further than the director’s own comments. Meirells in an interview on IndieLondon dismissed the National Federation of the Blind saying, “…this organisation don’t really work for blind people. It’s more like a PR organisation.” NFB, a nonprofit where blind people help other blind people become productive, independent citizens, has three training facilities, offers free white canes, sponsors workshops, summer camps,works to make web sites and technology accessible and so on. Visit http://www.nfb.org

    To further a sense of terror, “Blindness” takes a group, with whom most people are uncomfortable, focuses on the most unsettling part of their transition from sighted to blind & tosses them into a situation which would be intolerable with vision. That’s exploitation. This representation of blindness is contributing to the bigotry & oppression of actual human beings, who are more likely to be unemployed, live in poverty, experience criminal violence etc. Using blindness as a metaphor may someday be an acceptable albied mediocre choice, but with the unemployment rate of working-age blind people so high & with Braille literacy so low, this is not that time.

  3. Peder said

    Rick, my layout was provided on the WordPress Design page. It’s credited to this address:
    http://webgazette.co.uk/wordpress-themes/wp-andreas09/

    According to the info provided it was designed by Anderas Viklund (aka “Andreas09”) at http://andreasviklund.com/

    Thanks, I like the layout too!

  4. Peder said

    Donna,

    I want to thank you very much for this comment. In researching this post I came across this issue regarding the book and movie. I had chosen to not mention it at the time, but you now give me the opportunity to address an important issue.

    I would first like to recognize the language you used. Your choosing of words like “bigoted,” “discrimination” and “oppression” imply an emotional connection to this issue that I cannot touch. There is no way I can understand what it is like to be a blind person in this society. I want to acknowledge this and admit my shortcoming here.

    The statistics you cite are disturbing: Less than 10% of blind children are taught Braille? 70% of blind adults are jobless? This is truly unacceptable in an advanced society like ours. To deny children access to literature is unforgivable, and seeing such a high number of working-aged adults out of work is a serious failure of our country.

    Now, I’m not familiar with the economics needed to support the learning of Braille or workplace-related training (of sighted people) to tap the human capital of the blind, but it seems to me that the issue of child education applies to public policy and should be accounted for. We must train all our children, period. As for adults, I can understand where confusion over blindness may cause some private companies to look past blind applicants (regardless of legal precedent) over concerns regarding assimilation or hidden accommodation costs down the road. Nonetheless, private businesses respond to incentives, are there monies available to entice them to invest in technologies that assist the blind? Are there competitive advantages to hiring sight-challenged individuals? (I’m kind of thinking out loud here, haven’t had the chance to carefully consider the issue.) What efforts does your group take to increase awareness or address the (likely unstated) concerns of employers? Your comment on our preference to provide disability checks over recognizing skills is particularly poignant.

    But I also want to take a moment to say I don’t feel the point of the story is to paint blind people as helpless, or that blindness is a terrorizing condition. Rather, it was the sudden, unexplained loss of that which was taken for granted that caused widespread terror, and the point of the story was how the society broke down amidst widespread terror. If everyone had become paraplegic or lost their ability to speak, then other basic underpinnings of human life would have been compromised and a similar story of the chaotic breakdown of society could have been told. I certainly did not interpret the story to mean that being blind implies a life of terror or helplessness.

    As to Mr. Meirelles, I found a link to his regrettable comments about your organization. It includes a number of comments in response which point out the various good works you do. Though I wouldn’t want someone to say that about an organization important to me, I wouldn’t say his comments constitute bigotry. Ignorance, yes, but “bigotry” is too harsh.

    There is a place to acknowledge that real life advances made by blind people do come at the recognition of sighted society. Public acceptance of white canes, seeing-eye dogs and the need for Braille signage enable blind individuals to lead lives whose differences from those of their sighted brethren is minimized. However, as your comment points out, there is more we can do. From how I read your text, I think one of the first things we can do is remove the “victim” stigma we may apply to the blind. Then, we can ensure equal quality of education, work to bring more adults into the productive economy and recognize greatness where merited. The story of New York governor David Paterson is inspiring, are there others out there who we should be aware of? Who’s the next Ray Charles? 🙂

  5. According to Wikipedia –

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blindness_(film)

    – the movie version of this book received only mediocre reviews from critics and the public.

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