The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
Canon
, Ted Gioia reviews
Blindness
 by José Saramago.
Blindness
by José Saramago

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Storytellers have long been fascinated with how groups of people
behave when put in extreme situations—social meltdowns in which
conventional rules of behavior no longer apply.  In these timeless
narratives, fiction returns to its most basic
question: namely, what if . . .  And depending
on the nature of the “if” under consideration,
we measure ourselves by these accounts,
wondering how our own behavior would
stack up in the heat of battle or the confusion
of the spreading crisis.

Usually these tales relate unpleasant truths
about society, as demonstrated in popular
works such as William Golding’s
Lord of the
Flies
or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.   
Much rarer are optimistic narratives such
as Ann Patchett’s
Bel Canto, in which
hostages and terrorists involved in a standoff with the government
create an idyllic environment which is somehow purer and more
redemptive than the real world.

José Saramago creates a similar “test case” in his novel
Blindness, an
account of social collapse spurred by a rapidly spreading epidemic
in which more and more individual suddenly lose their sight.  At first
a government imposed quarantine attempts to limit the contagion,
but all measures at containment fail, and institution after
institution—military, media, business—collapse in its wake.  
Saramago traces the course of this disaster by following a small
group of individuals as they navigate through the dislocations and
unrest that surround them.

Blindness is a novel, but it also reads as a myth or fable.  The lead
characters are not given personal names, but rather generic labels.
We follow the path of “the first blind man” as he loses his eyesight
while driving his car, only to find that the good Samaritan who helps
him get home eventually steals his car.  This man, now simply
referred to as “the thief” by the storyteller, soon finds he has lost his
eyesight as well.  One might think that this is divine retribution for
his theft, but in fact other, more noble souls soon find that they too
are afflicted: the doctor who tried to treat the first blind man, and
the various people in the doctor’s waiting room.

We follow this microcosm of society for the duration of the book.
Saramago resists the temptation to look at the spreading epidemic
from a macro level.  Almost every tragedy presented in the pages of
Blindness is a personal tragedy.  Governments and churches may
fall, custodians of the peace may falter, but Saramago keeps his
focus on his small cast of characters.

Much of the action of this book takes place in a hospital where the
blind and contaminated are placed in quarantine.   In this
environment, even the basic necessities of life—food, medicine,
clean water—are often lacking.   Those familiar with philosopher
Robert Nozick’s book
Anarchy, State, Utopia will recognize the
process of organization at work here.   Nozick famously claimed that
the formation of governments is not dissimilar to the creation of a
Mafia protection racket.   In the chaotic "state of nature," people
bond together for self-protection, and stronger parties take control
of the weak, who willingly give up their prerogatives in exchange for
promises of security.  This same process occurs, by fits and starts, in
this new world of the blind.

Yet Saramago never offers glib generalizations on politics and other
“big picture” ideas.  These are treated merely by implication, and
usually without the trappings of the familiar ideologies of our time.
When he deals with sociological matters, Saramago does not preach,
but rather dismisses those who do so with a wry sense of humor. In
this new world of the blind leading the blind, fiery speakers make
grand proclamations in the public square.  “They were proclaiming
the end of the world,” Saramago writes, “redemption through
penitence, the visions of the seventh day, . . . the purity of the
lymph, the blood of the black cat, the sleep of the shadow, the rising
of the seas, the logic of anthropophagy, painless castration, divine
tattoos, . . “ and so on.  Our author is suspicious of those who seek a
larger meaning in events; his expertise is in the smaller significance.

Perhaps this same disdain for easy answers leads Saramago to avoid
both the savage landscape of
Lord of the Flies and the utopian
visions of
Bel Canto. For this author, people under extreme
conditions are neither unabashedly evil or purely benevolent; rather
they are an unnerving combination of both. In times of crisis, our
responses to circumstances are intensified and transformed, but
rarely simplified.

The end result is a very rich book, which is all the more potent for
the open-endedness of the narrative.   Certainly there are lessons to
be learned from
Blindness, but José Saramago will not spell them
out for you.   You could use this book as a springboard for
discussions of ethics, management, medicine, human rights, and a
host of other issues.   But this book will merely start the dialogue,
and—for that very reason—is far more thought-provoking than
those novels, so common these days, that aim to offer comforting
closure.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

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