Ceci n’est pas une pipe

Imagine people losing their eyesight in massive numbers for no apparent reason, without any additional symptoms, while their eyes remain perfectly healthy. Imagine someone just turned off a feature of the brain responsible for vision and left you in an abysmal void. Why not a perfect subject-matter for fiction novel?

The epidemic of mass blindness has been previously used as the basis of the plot – for example – in a post-apocalyptic novel by John Wyndham, “The Day of the Triffids.” Yet in this particular case we have a parable, rather than a traditional novel; on top of that, a parable with some rather apparent biblical roots – i.e. the story of Saul of Tarsus, the persecutor of Christians, who got blind for three days by God’s will, and then saw the light at first metaphorically and then literally, thus becoming Paul the Apostle. It would be fair to say that a parable is far from being a perfect genre: the main objective for the author of the parable is not the plot, but rather a peculiar ‘message of the wisdom’ he/she is trying to convey to the reader. Yet, if at the same time, the reader knows in advance (or thinks that he/she knows) what exactly the author is trying to convey to him/her, the parable loses all its elegance from the very beginning and becomes rather mundane. Finally, the whole brilliance of the parable as a genre lays in its brevity, whereas Saramago’s narration style is extremely verbose. Should we perhaps shift from the stylistic features to the content?

The first two-thirds of the novel is the traditional story of how people caught in extreme circumstances, are quickly losing civilized appearance. Matching the storyline with the well-known classics, we might recall “Lord of the Flies.” Much like on Golding’s island, evil prevails in the mental hospital Saramago creates, and a typical, exceptionally cruel dictatorship takes control, which, however, does not last long; since the dictatorship doesn’t manage to address the eternal question of ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ in timely manner, the ‘blindness’ gets out of the quarantine facilities and spreads further on.

The idea of sight without vision and vision without sight is one of the undercurrents of this text – by conceptually separating the two, we are able to distinguish between what we can ‘sense’ and what we can ‘feel’, a distinction that is hard to interpret. Sight is apparently important for foresight, and social stability is contingent on how well we are able to perceive the state of society. Hence there is a primal drive to establish chaotic order in the face of scarcity and fear, leading to repression, violence, and selfishness – all factors that diminish the possibility of stemming the contagion through a collaborative effort. Saramago tackles the centrality to which uncertainty factors into our decision to live within a society – and an epidemic of blindness, whose cause is unknown, makes it a fascinating yet grim tale.

While the loss of sight had brought chaos to the society and changed the way people interact in daily basis, the physical blindness lets the characters realize that they were as blind before the physical blindness as they are now–the sight without vision. They realize the importance of little things they take for granted everyday as well as the reality of human nature unveiled as the society breaks down. The “white sickness” might have blurred everyone’s sight, but it has cleared the nature of human interaction that was hidden and veiled by technology, society, and organizations. This leads us to several questions: what is the meaning of blindness in the novel? Were people always blind? Are some people less blind than others? Is the real human nature only revealed in the midst of plague, disease, or in this novel, blindness?

The reason of blindness is unknown, and like the plague, the contagion of blindness does not have a preference when choosing its next victim. The blindness in this sense is equal to everyone, and as time goes, people realize that they will all become physically blind at some point. What differentiates this “white sickness” from disease or plague, however, is that it inflicts people without killing them, thus making them a different kind of “invalids.” In order to live, they have to be dependent on each other and collaborate. It is interesting to observe how the characters distinguish, judge, and build trust with each other with voice and personality without their looks. Is this state of interactions more or less natural than normal full of pretenses and facades? What we consider natural or take for granted as the truth might not be as real as we had thought.

– Suel, Kefa, Kee


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  1. I agree that the Blindness itself does not kill people like the plague, however I do believe that the theme of death is still apparent. People within the quarantine are being killed and kill for the sake of survival and therefore, Blindness indirectly kills people.
    As the Conveners argue: like the plague infects random people, the Blindness causes the killing of random people, as not seeing them makes it impossible to target a specific person.

    One more thing I wanted bring up in relation to your argument of vision with sight and sight with vision, is the cherishing of actual sight. With the loss of sight, seeing becomes almost sacred. This can bee seen when an inhabitant of the ward describes the doctor’s wife with “she must be endowed with a sixth sense, some sort of a vision without eyes” (201). Considering she is actually still able to see, the people around her are deceived into believing she had other powers, when she actually just had the simple power of sight. Thus, due to the scarcity of sight, seeing is now cherished as much more than a simple universal human sense.

  2. Yeah, similar to what Caroline is saying, I believe the plague of blindness is made even more sinister and deadly by not directly killing its victims. The fact that an altogether non-fatal disease is still causing so many people to die speaks to the severity of its psychological effects on humans, or perhaps that it is simply bringing to the surface malevolent impulses that humans have for one another. In bringing about the breakdown of civilization we have only ourselves to fear.

  3. I really find it interesting how throughout the novel, people regard the loss of vision as a transformation into animals, or even zombies. I disagree with both the conveners and the commentators on this; I actually believe that it is because they are treated like animals that the blind act in such a way and eventually die. This is shown through the soldiers’ treatment and perception of the blind:

    “Very slowly, between two vertical iron bars, like a ghost, a white face began to appear. The face of a blind man. Fear made the soldier’s blood freeze, and fear drove him to aim his weapon and release a blast of gunfire at close range” (Saramago 75).

    It is because they are forced into cages like animals, are deprived of appropriate food, and are all obliged to share one restroom, that the blind start acting the way they do, taking advantage of the weak and killing each other. I don’t think that the citizens outside the quarantine who are also blind treat each other the way the the blind do when confined. Thus, it does not matter whether one is blind or not to act the way one does, which is also depicted through the doctor’s wife, who actually is able to see but still is the only one that ends up killing someone else intentionally. I believe that those people in the other novels we have read that have caught the plague and were all dumped in a ward altogether would have also reacted in the way that the blind did, simply because of the way they were treated throughout their confinement.

    • This is a really interesting point, Christy. It also reminds me of Caroline’s remarks on Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment (http://www.prisonexp.org/), in that both of you argue that humans are susceptible to given environment and are powerless in front of given roles by an authority. It’s quite depressing to think that way, though. Don’t human have any free will in face of calamity? As Suel pointed out below, could any of the rebellious exist as did in “Plague”? Too bad that the only active character, the Doctor’s wife, isn’t blind. It is true that the blind were forced into a cage and were treated like animals, but it was still their ‘choices’ to act the way they acted.

  4. Revisiting Christy’s point about people-dumped-in-a-ward effect, I have to say that drawing parallels to Albert Camus’ ‘Plague’, we have to notice Saramago’s absolutist style within this piece as well. Moreover, it is important to note that there are no boldly rebellious types aka Dr. Rieuxes and Jean Tarrou’s in this particular case, whether in/out of the hospital. One of the factors making people so desperate might include the setting as well – after all, the price of life is much cheaper in a megapolis rather than in a distant colonial town. Well-trained urban civic obedience is in a form of rather a useless bureacracy, in comparison to the real action to fight headed by individuals like Dr.Rieux and Tarrou in Camus’ ‘Plague’, while in the latter case of Jose Saramago, it is a well established norm. Putting it in words of Martin Niemöller:

    First they came for the communists,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
    Then they came for the socialists,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
    Then they came for the trade unionists,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
    Then they came for me,
    and there was no one left to speak for me.

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