Irrational eyes

The blind and Mr. Saramago's blindness


Irrational eyes
by Majid Naficy

The Persian text of this review was first published in Arash magazine (Paris) as well as Shahrvand magazine (Toronto) in summer 2000. Later it appeared in my book I Am Iran Alone and Thirty-Five Other Essays ("man khod Iran hastam va si-o panj maqaaleh-ye digatr") Afra-Pegah publishers, Toronto, 2006.

Blindness, a novel written by Jose Saramago, the Portuguese recipient of Nobel prize in literature, is an allegory; just as Aesop's fables and Jesus's parables in the past or social satires, such as, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, George Orwell's Animal Farm, and Albert Camus's The Plague in modern era. In this genre, characters and events have a hidden meaning other than the literal, through which authors convey their morals or criticize social mores.

In Blindness, nameless people who live in a nameless contemporary city, suddenly go blind. Since this "disease" is contagious, the authorities quarantine approximately three hundred of the patients in a deserted mental hospital. When the survivors, forced by a destructive fire, walk out of the building and, led by the last sighted person return to the city, they find that the whole population of the city and the country have gone blind. Finally, the first person who had become blind suddenly regains his sight and then the others follow him, and the story happily ends.

I. The Allegorical Meaning of "Blindness"

If "blindness" is considered a "signifier", then what will be the "signified" in this allegory? The color of this blindness is white (P. 3). It is ideological, because the writer calls it: "the ideology of the white evil" (P. 34). Considered a "spiritual malaise", it can exit from the corpse and enter into the body of a healthy person (p. 77). And finally, it is a lack of will on the part of the blind who can see but do not see (p. 292). "White blindness", this ideological/spiritual disease, causes polarization among the people: Those of us who are still "healthy", put the patients in quarantine and make an impenetrable wall between "us" and "the others". One can find many examples for this allegory in our era. For instance, in the cold war period, the world was divided between "the socialist camp" and "the free world".

When a word is used as an allegory, there should be a link between the "signifier" and the "signified", otherwise it will not be understood by others. For example, some people associate "blindness" with "ignorance", "sloppiness", "disorganization" and "dependency". In their everyday's conversations they use expressions and idioms that demonstrate this allegorical link: "blind minded", "the blind leading the blind"., "are you blind?", "blind obedience", "blind alley", "blind spot", "blind story" and "blindfold".

Likewise, Jose Saramago, in Blindness, uses the same semeiotics and portrays the blind in a biased fashion: Humanity without eyes ceases to be humanity (P. 229). A society of blind cannot organize itself in order to survive. Because "to organize oneself" means "to have eyes" and "lack of sight" means "death" which is "an effect of disorganization (P. 265). A colonel believes that the army should shoot the blind as soon as they appear. To set an example for them when he looses his eyesight he shoots himself in the head (P. 98). The first person who goes blind says if I have to stay like this I would rather be dead (P. 9). When the quarantined blind are divided, and a gang of hoodlums control the rationed food and demand money, jewelry and sex, the captain of the guard says if they ended up killing each other so much the better (P. 124). When the sighted woman says "good day to a blind man, he is startled because the days of the blind are never likely to be good (P. 199). The blind are like pigs (P. 85). They wallow in their excrement, that is the first way of becoming an animal (P. 84). They lack shame and morality. Since they cannot see, they copulate in public (P. 85). They lack fairness: some are left without food and some get double rations (P. 90). A blind person is a dependant creature who should only count on the assistance of some sighted passerby (P. 199).

The picture that Jose Saramago presents of the blind is more repulsive than any Eugenicist dares to draw. The reader asks himself if this writer before writing his book had ever met a blind person or after publishing his story, has he ever received feedback from a blind reader? It is ironic that Mr. Saramago intends to write a book in order to criticize a kind of ideological/spiritual bias by which human society is divided into "us" and "the others", but the result is Blindness in which the author has slipped into one of the worst kinds of bigotry. Just because the members of a human group are deprived of one of their senses, he portrays them with sarcasm and hatred. He even ignores some of the positive qualities that people attribute to the blind, such as having an incredible memory or a keen sense of hearing or touch. Of course this negligence is not accidental, because when blindness is supposed to be a fatal disease, which destroys human beings and humanity, one cannot expect that the author finds anything positive in the blind.

Blindness is a sensory disability which requires some adjustments: when navigating, a blind person should have a cane or a guide dog and in order to read or write, he must rely on his sense of hearing or touch, and so on. If a writer in his books describes these characteristics of the blind, or in order to give a clearer picture of events or some emotions of the sighted person, he uses the description of blindness, the author has done no wrong and his work is preferable to those authors who do not see the blind at all. The problem arises when a writer uses a sensory reality as a negative metaphor to describe a certain mental, behavioral or social situation. If we say that "a sighted person finds his way at dark like a blind person touching the walls", this statement is devoid of any prejudice against the blind, because it refers to a situation that a sighted person encounters when he cannot find his way at dark. However, if the same sensory fact is attributed to a mental or behavioral state and, for example, we metaphorically say "blind minded" or "blind obedience", we have attributed some characteristics to blindness that by no means belong to it. Blindness not only does not cause ignorance, but it also can increase intelligence, as seen in the case of many familiar names in literature: the Greek Homer (8th century BC), the Persian Abdullah Rudaki (859-941), the Syrian Abu al-Ala Maarri (973-1057), The Egyptian Taha Hussein (1889-1973), the English John Milton (1608-74), the Irish James Joyce (1882-1941), the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), and the American Virginia Adair (1913-2004).

A famous example of dealing with the question of the blind in the classical Persian literature is the parable of "The elephant". In his book Hadiqeh, Sani (1050-1131), a mystical poet, speaks of the blind who by touching one part of the animal, such as legs or ears, believe that these parts represent the whole elephant. On the contrary, Rumi (1207-73), in his book Mathnavi, depicts the elephant inside a dark house, in which the sighted individuals who touch it do not have a candle and therefore fall into this illusion. In the first parable, the blind people are deprived of understanding the entirety of the truth because of their blindness; whereas in the second parable, inability to understand the totality of the truth is caused by an external condition, and the blind and the sighted both have to see the whole truth through "the eye of the heart". Unfortunately, in Iranian culture, the first version is more well-known.

In his short story, "Cathedral", the American writer, Raymond Carver(1938-88), discredits the popular notion of the blind in movies as slow walking, never laughing creatures (P.209). He portrays a personal, touching and meaningful experience when the narrator is asked by a blind man to draw a cathedral for him so that he can have a better idea of the place. The blind man puts his hand on the pen that the narrator is moving on the paper and through this contact the latter finds something that he has never felt before in his life: friendship.

II. The Role of the "Leadership"

One of the problems of Blindness, is the way in which the patients recover from this ideological/spiritual disease. From the beginning of the story, the wife of an ophthalmologist, for some inexplicable reason, remains sighted. Pretending to be blind she sneaks inside the quarantined area and when her husband insists that she should return, says "I am staying to help you and the others who may come here." (P. 37) Being sighted she is considered "a kind of natural leader: "a king with eyes in the land of the blind." (P. 230) An old man with the eye-patch, one of the characters of the story, tells her:" you have the last pair of seeing eyes. If they are extinguished one day then the thread that links us to mankind will be broken." (P. 273) This sighted woman not only helps her husband surreptitiously but also with a pair of scissors, which she has previously hung from the wall, attacks the leader of the hoodlums. While another woman under pressure is helping that evil man to reach orgasm, she turns the sharp blades inside his throat. By killing him she prepares the conditions for the rebellion of all patients. When a woman sets fire to the hoodlums' ward, the fire spreads to the whole building. They decide that instead of getting burned in the fire, they must exit the building even if they are killed by the bullets of the guards. At this juncture again the same "natural leader" bravely walks out of the building and surprisingly finds that there is no guard left because everybody has gone blind. Then she leads her group to the city and takes care of their needs. Finally, when she is reading a book to them, the light returns to the eyes of the first person who went blind. This so-called leadership and salvation, is indeed the same old cliche about the "coming of the Messiah" and "the return of the mythical hero". The individuals have no say in their destiny and only under the leadership of a hero can they rescue themselves from their miserable, animal life. It is ironic that an author proposes this way of "salvation" who wants to do away with the "ideology of the white evil" which divides the people into "us" and "the others". No Mr. Saramago! If we want to end this dichotomy we should recognize the role of each individual, and this, in turn, means the negation of herd mentality.

The impact of this kind of "leadership" for the blind individuals in society is dramatic: a sighted person should always be recognized as "the natural leader" of the blind just because that person is sighted. As a result, the struggle for the acceptance of the people with disabilities as active individuals is doomed to defeat. When searching for employment, the chance of a blind person becomes the lowest and when firing, the highest. When crossing the street instead of using a voiced stoplight, a blind person should rely on a sighted passerby. When reading or writing instead of using talking computers/books and the Braille alphabet, he or she should be at the mercy of a sighted person. The world that the book Blindness, foresees for the future is neither pleasant for the "ideologic blind" individuals within the book nor for the real blind outside it. It has no other result than an unhealthy dependency and lack of self-confidence.

Saramago's leadership of a sighted person over the blind corresponds to the old concept of "vanguard party", formulated in Vladimir Lenin's What Is to Be Done? published in 1902. According to this theory, a group of professional Marxist revolutionaries should educate and organize masses and lead and guide the working class to the revolution and dictatorship of proletariat. Unfortunately, our author, who has been a member of the Portuguese Communist Party since 1969, does not have a critical approach toward his past.

III. A Comparison with The Plague

The comparison of The Plague, written by the French author, Albert Camus (1913-60), with Saramago's Blindness is very revealing. Camus's story is set in the city of Oran, a French colony in Algeria, in the 1940's. One day when leaving the operating room, Dr. Bernard Rieux finds a dead rat on the landing and thus we encounter the beginning of an epidemic. In a short time not only shelters are set up for the patients in Oran but also the city itself goes into quarantine and its gates are closed to the world. Through Dr. Rieux's daily report we become aware of the impact of the plague on the people, the struggle to isolate it, the efforts to make new serum, and finally the gradual decrease of the epidemic and the reopening of the city gates.

Since this novel, like Blindness, is an allegory, the first question which comes to mind is what is the meaning of the "plague" as "the "signified"? There can be two answers: first, Camus's novel like any other powerful literary work cannot be reduced to a metaphor. His book can simply be interpreted as the story of the spreading of an epidemic and the particular response of each character to this tragedy and enjoyed as such. Second, The Plague has other hidden layers of meaning which every reader can interpret differently. For example, the Persian readers may remember that the Iranian novelist and thinker, Jalal Al-Ahmad (1923-69) in his well-known book Westernization indicates that "the plague" in Camus's novel signifies "the mechanization" and automatization of life in contemporary western and westernized societies. Judging from the narrative itself, and especially the narration of Tarrou, one of the assistants to Dr. Rieux, it can be said that "the plague" is the human tendency for murder and violence or being silent about it. (P. 252) In a long dialogue with Rieux, Tarrou discloses that he left his father's home as an adolescent because he found that his father, a prosecutor, not only called for capital punishment but he also was present at the executions. Tarrou objects to "those who want to make history" and in so doing, commit murder. (p. 253) Finally when the story ends we are told that "the plague" is still "dormant" in the furniture and the air waiting for appropriate conditions to spring up again as an epidemic. (p. 308) Here this important point should be emphasized that there exists a close connection between the allegorical meaning of "the plague" and the disease itself: one is a fatal disease and the other a human tendency for murder. In other words, the author has created a natural link between the "signifier" and the "signified" of his allegory in which contrary to Saramago's Blindness, it is neither cliche and obsolete nor is it offensive to a human group such as the blind.

Another important difference between these two novels of Camus and Saramago is that in the former, the characters have names and individual identities and follow their own paths; whereas in the latter the characters have neither names nor personal identity and spread like a formless mass from one end to the other. In The Plague, we have a character like Tarrou who wants to remain "an atheist saint": a person who sees himself responsible for any capital punishment anywhere in the world and avoids silence before any murder or any kind of violence. "Martyrdom" suits this "saint". When the plague is dying down he becomes infected and dies. The other character, Dr. Rieux who would like to be a responsible person without going beyond the borders of "common decency". (P. 163) He exerts the most efforts to isolate the epidemic and does not allow himself to leave Oran to visit his dying wife. She had gone to another city before the outbreak of the epidemic. In contrast to him, there is another character who wants to flee the city illegally in order to visit his sweetheart in Paris. Also we encounter a person who at the outset attempts suicide but after being rescued becomes involved in the black market. The poet in the story should not be forgotten. Through all the events he tries endlessly to polish a few lines of poetry. Once he seems fatally ill, but he suddenly recovers thanks to a new serum.

Contrary to Saramago, Camus does not leave people waiting for a leader or "messiah". He believes that individuals make choices in each particular "situation" and should be responsible for their actions. As a result, when The Plague ends in spite of the fact that one of the main characters, Tarrou has died and Dr. Rieux is also grieving for his wife, the reader puts down the book with a realistic hope. Whereas in Saramago's novel we are faced with a messiah who brings a common happiness (the return of sight to the blind) but it is not clear why this happy ending occurs and what this extreme optimism stems from, and why the reader should not be led to an extreme pessimism like the one found in George Orwell's allegorical novel, 1984.

Perhaps one of the reasons that Camus's The Plague is so different from Saramago's Blindness lies in the discrepancy between two eras in which these two novels were written. Camus wrote his work when the passion of the underground struggle of the French resistance movement against Nazism was still alive, and the Existentialist philosophy of Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir with its "individual responsibility" was still popular among French intellectuals. Whereas Saramago writes Blindness after the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, when his utopia is destroyed, his ideology has been invalidated and instead, a post-modernist irrationalism has evolved. It is in the context of this confusion and ideological crisis that with a naive optimism he submits himself to fatalism and waits for a miracle.

Albert Camus won the Nobel prize in literature in 1957 and Jose Saramago, forty years later. Do these two writers represent the varied values of two epochs, or does this difference in value only reflect the present lowered standards of this prize?

July 14, 2000


1. Camus, Albert The Plague, Vintage International, New York, 1991

2. Carver, Raymond Cathedral, Vintage Contemporaries, New York, 1983

3. Saramago, Jose Blindness Harcourt Brace and Company, New York, 1998


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AmirAshkan Pishroo

Saramagos second only to Philip Roth

by AmirAshkan Pishroo on

To the literary critic Harold Bloom, Saramagos is considered “second only to Philip Roth” among living writers. “Saramagos novels are endlessly inventive, endlessly good-natured, endlessly skillful, but it baffles me why the man can’t grow up politically. In 2007[2008], to be a Portuguese Stalinist means you’re simply not living in the real world," Bloom said.

Thnak you very much, indeed, for your impressive review.



by John on

Only an academic could read an interesting and thought-provoking book like Saramago's Blindness and see untold numbers of hidden messages and sub-texts.  Oh how I dislike people who can't suspend their disbelief and hyper-criticism; just enjoy the book or movie for what it is!!