José Saramago trans Giovanni Pontiero
With the election horse race and the liberal discourse reaching a pitch even more febrile than I ever anticipated, it was more tempting to go with an allegorical reading. I can’t sustain an argument of the terrifying white blindness as that of bourgeois liberalism; I’d love to see a post somewhere try to pull that all the way through.
More important was the masterful way Saramago unfolds the calamity, from the man in the car to his wife to the man who stole his car to the doctor to the sex worker with the dark glasses, and so on.
If we have always been blind, or already blind before the blindness wipes out capitalist society and its accumulation, perhaps it is because we see the depravity and barbarism that emerge as human nature, rather than the behaviors and desires cultivated by such a society in the first place. It’s satisfying to see Camus’s THE PLAGUE as an allegory for the German occupation, even though the plague is a natural phenomenon. The blindness and the plague are the human condition, each one completely alone except for the common ground of being trapped in existence and doomed to suffer before death. It is only exacerbated by the social relations of capital and the power they shore up on those who already have more than what they need.
A couple summers ago I binged on popular horror while my grandmother was dying. BLINDNESS was far more terrifying, for the depth to which it percolates in your consciousness (something about the church statues having white bandages over their eyes), and how little it titillates for all the brutality that happens.
I just have a little note about the relation of language to power. Much of the novel takes place in a quarantine — really an internment camp with soldiers and watchtowers. The blind people debate and discuss how to carry on, and very often proverbs and sayings are used to build their arguments, or in this case, a proverb goes unsaid.
When a group of internees, their leader wielding a gun, horde the food and force the others to pay and eventually demand the women from the other wards to be gang-raped lest everyone starve, we read a fraught debate on what course to take.
…one of the emissaries, with a particular sense of occasion, supported her by proposing that women volunteers should come forward for this service, taking into account that what one does on one’s own initiative is generally less arduous than if one has to do something under duress. Only one last scruple, one last reminder of the need for caution, prevented him from ending his appeal by quoting the well-known proverb, When the spirit is willing, your feet are light. (167)
Emblematic of our blindness, interestingly enough, is our reliance on speech that is not our own to guide us. Commonplaces and cliches are to be avoided, yes, but are also powerful tools when used with other techniques of rhetoric. If they are not our own words, they are also words with great authority; they are passed down a chain of command like military orders. This comes from A THOUSAND PLATEAUS by Deleuze and Guatarri. Commonplaces that serve authority would be ones like “The police are here to protect us” or “Clinton is the lesser of two evils” or “If you don’t vote don’t complain.”
The greatest source of hope is not from discarding proverbs but transforming them. In a dialog between the man with the eye patch and the doctor’s wife:
Do you know the saying, What saying, Old people cannot do much but their work is not to be despised, That’s not the way it goes, All right, instead of old people, it should be children, and instead of despise, it should be disdain, but if sayings are to retain any meaning and to continue to be used they have to adapt to the times. You are a philosopher, What an idea, I am just an old man. (283)
The transformation of sayings, and the vandalism of the church (a beautiful and powerful sequence) may be part of the same act of re-inscription, which in our world without the threat of white blindness (knock on wood) could be instrumental to our freedom.