Between Blindness and Seeing

May 23, 2008 at 3:04 pm (Sampurna Chattarji, The Reading Room)

 

 

“The blind and the seeing are not equal.”

– Koran, “The Creator,” 19

 

 

By the strange powers of suggestion that readers are all too-familiar with, it was this quotation, which prefaces Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red, that made me want to revisit José Saramago’s devastatingly searing Blindness (1995) and its companion piece Seeing (2004).

 

When an entire unnamed city is struck by an inexplicable “white blindness”, one woman, a doctor’s wife, is the only person who, equally inexplicably, retains her sight. Consequently she turns guide, protector, avenger of and witness to the brutalities that the blind wreak upon the blind. In lesser hands than Saramago’s, the weight of allegory might have effectively crushed and flattened both the narrative and our response to it. In Blindness, however, our responses are sharpened to the point of revulsion and an all-too wounding awareness of how real it all is, how probable – this allegory of a morally unseeing people. As we pass our seeing eyes over the print that tells us the story, we feel, like the doctor’s wife, the dread of witnessing the physical degradation that a blind body succumbs to, the squalor it is reduced to, and the violence it becomes a victim to. The doctor says, “no one’s to blame in an epidemic, everyone’s a victim”, but that quickly becomes a falsity with the blind gun-toting thugs extracting payment in kind – first gold and money, then the bodies of the women in the quarantine wards – in return for food. “Forget sayings”, one of the blind internees says. If, as the saying tells us, “in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”, why is it that the only woman who can see must make a secret of her seeing, must feel guilty for having to do so, and, most hauntingly, must feel the awful responsibility of being blessed – or cursed – with sight? “I am not a queen, no, I am simply the one who was born to see this horror”, she says. “I have no right to look, if the others cannot see me.” To her it seems “contemptible and obscene” to be able to see the furtive couplings in the wards, the pools of urine, the floors slimy with excreta, the signs of a world where each human has lost the right to (and more shockingly, the desire to strive for) his or her dignity. The blind and the seeing are not equal, for the former are helpless and the latter privileged, and out of that divide is born the cruel irony of the human condition.

 

The sociological, psychological, political resonances of the book are as powerful as they are relevant, and need no explication for anyone who has (or will) read it. What interests me here is the way in which Saramago uses language, in all its elusiveness, to break the habitual ways in which we use language to comprehend our world. Repeatedly, the newly-blind have to reorient themselves to the way they speak in their new world, where ordinary phrases like ‘seeing in the dark’, ‘watch where you’re going’, ‘so easy I could do it with my eyes shut’, are in turn, pitifully inapt, and horribly facile. As the doctor’s wife realises, if she is to keep her secret, “she could move like someone who has eyes, But my words must be those of a blind person”. This blindness, Saramago tells us, “did not mean being plunged into a banal darkness, but living inside a luminous halo.” Drenched in this milky sea, it is not darkness that plagues the sufferers, but a perpetual blinding light. It is the internal “illusion of light” and yet it illuminates nothing. ‘Turning a blind eye’, ‘casting the evil eye’, ‘opening the third eye’ – none of these phrases make any sense in this universe. ‘Seeing eye to eye’, ‘an eye for detail’, ‘beauty lies in the eye of the beholder’ – all ring as hollow as the pieties surrounding the blind. “A blind man is sacred, you don’t steal from a blind man” someone says, but right at the beginning the first man to go blind is robbed of his car by a thief in the guise of a Good Samaritan. The first blind man’s wife curses the car-thief, hoping he goes blind too, and he does, landing up, unknown to them, in the same ward in which they are interned. It is a kind of justice, but even that phrase ‘Justice is blind’ has lost its ballast of grave and reassuring meaning, and is shipwrecked, like all the blind people. As the doctor’s wife says in a moment of all-too bitter clarity, “the charitable, picturesque world of the little blind orphans is finished, we are now in the harsh, cruel, implacable kingdom of the blind”.

 

‘The eyes are the mirror of the soul’, we say in a seeing world. And yet, if that soul is depraved, rapacious, evil, would we still want to look?

 

“If you can see, look.

If you can look, observe.”

 – From The Book of Exhortations

 

This quote, which prefaces Blindness, is a challenge thrown to every living being, the challenge of being able to look – and not shy away, to be able to peer into the depths of inhumanity and still hold on to one’s humaneness. The doctor’s wife, who becomes, for her little group and in the landscape of the novel, just such a person, is no simplistic symbol. She is a person capable equally of great compassion and great violence (it is she who kills the gang-leader of the rapists by plunging a scissor into his neck) and when she finally leaves the asylum in which they had been quarantined, she is overwhelmed by “some infinite weariness, a longing to curl up inside herself, her eyes, especially her eyes, turning inwards, more, more, more, until they could reach and observe inside her own brain, there where the difference between seeing and not seeing is invisible to the naked eye.”

 

Between the biological fact of the eye as the instrument of sight and the brain that makes sense of what it sees, lies the frightening expanse of the moral universe. As the doctor, ironically an ophthalmologist, says, “in truth the eyes are nothing more than lenses, it is the brain that actually does the seeing”. When the brain fails to ‘see’ anymore, is that when blindness strikes? “Blindness,” the doctor also says, at a moment when humour still seemed possible, “is a private matter between a person and the eyes with which he or she was born.” Just as every action, morally laudable or reprehensible, is a private matter between an individual and his conscience? Saramago seeds his apocalyptic tale with aphoristic, gnomic, biblical utterances, each a pointer in a landscape where the signs are still standing, but no one – except the doctor’s wife – has eyes to read them.

 

“it sounds like an allegory,” an unknown voice declares, “the eye that refuses to acknowledge its own absence”.

 

“sounds like another allegory,” the same voice pipes up a little later, “if you want to be blind, then blind you will be”.

 

“we were already blind the moment we turned blind, fear struck us blind, fear will keep us blind”, the girl with the dark glasses says, with more wisdom than we would have thought her capable of.

 

“fighting has always been, more or less, a form of blindness” says the doctor, and towards the end of the book, “the worst blind person was the one who did not want to see”

 

And, because Saramago delights in language, he touches on the question of naming things, the noun that will fix this collective problem, with the words, “Then the old man with the black eyepatch asked, How many blind persons are needed to make a blindness, No one could provide the answer.”

 

‘Blindness’ as a collective noun, not ‘the blindness of people’ but ‘a blindness of people’. Like a murder of crows, a phrase as inventive as it is chilling. The semantics of a situation come up often, as when the doctor says,

 

“If I ever regain my sight, I shall look carefully at the eyes of others, as if I were looking into their souls, Their souls, asked the old man with the eyepatch, Or their minds, the name does not matter, it was then that, surprisingly, if we consider that we are dealing with a person without much education, the girl with the dark glasses said, Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.”

 

Between the named and the unnameable, the quest of the writer. When the first blind man returns to his flat, he finds a writer living there. The first blind man is flattered and wants to ask who he is, the all-too human desire to meet somebody famous, but is embarrassed to. It is his wife who initiates the following conversation:

 

“What is your name, Blind people do not need a name, I am my voice, nothing else matters, But you wrote books and those books carry your name, said the doctor’s wife, Now nobody can read them, it is as if they did not exist.”

 

Without readers, all the works of literature in the world would only be so much waste paper, or worse – as if they had never been written. It is perhaps the statement by the blind writer that leads the doctor’s wife to start reading aloud every evening to her little group – each as anonymous as her, but each, tellingly, identified by the ophthalmological
 problem that brought them to the doctor’s clinic in the first place – the girl with dark glasses who had conjunctivitis, the young boy with the squint, the old man with the black eyepatch covering one dead eye and a growing cataract in the other, the first blind man, the first blind man’s wife. A microcosm of the seeing-impaired, as if Saramago wanted to put under the bell jar of his narrative the whole spectrum from the congenital to the contagious, the very young to the very old.

 

The blind writer asks the doctor’s wife what it was like to be quarantined in the mental asylum,

 

“Was it hard, Worse than that, How horrible, You are a writer, you have, as you said a moment ago, an obligation to know words, therefore you know that adjectives are of no use to us, if a person kills another, for example, it would be better to state this fact openly, directly, and to trust that the horror of the act, in itself, is so shocking that there is no need for us to say it was horrible, Do you mean that we have more words than we need, I mean that we have too few feelings, Or that we have them but have ceased to use the words they express, And so we lose them.”           

 

Here is the doctor’s wife including herself in the writerly community with the use of the word ‘us’ – “adjectives are of no use to us”. She and the blind writer are both grappling with the same problem. And what is that problem if not the essential failure of language to articulate the unspeakable – a problem that can be resolved only by choices made with precision and responsibility. But the conversation continues:

 

“I’d like you tell me how you lived during quarantine, Why, I am a writer, You would have to have been there, A writer is just like anyone else, he cannot know everything, nor can he experience everything, he must ask and imagine, One day I may tell you what it was like, then you can write a book, Yes, I am writing it, How, if you are blind, The blind too can write, You mean that you had time to learn the Braille alphabet, I do not know Braille, How can you write, then, asked the first blind man, Let me show you.”

 

And he brings them the last page he has been writing, which none of them, including the writer, can see. “Then how can you write,” she asks. “By touch, the writer answered, smiling … A ball-point pen is an excellent tool for blind writers, it does not permit them to read what they have written, but it tells them where they have written, they only have to follow with their fingers the impression left by the last written line…” In the dimly lit room with a tiny table next to the window, the doctor’s wife “passed her eye over the tiny handwriting … over the words inscribed on the whiteness of the page, recorded in blindness”.

 

It is a genuinely poignant moment, yet also tinged with a lunacy that would strike us as laughable if the world in which it existed were not so grim. Here is the writer’s obsessive quest to inscribe reality, to face the blankness of the white page, to overcome the “white blindness” of the blank page with words gathered from asking, experiencing, imagining. Here then, is the only rational act in a completely irrational world. Naming the unnameable, expressing the inexpressible. And in this act of preservation, memory becomes crucial, the memory of the woman who experienced it and others like her. In such a project, the blankness of memory would be as frightening as the vividness of it. And it is the word ‘blank’ that becomes in the novel Seeing the crux of a crisis, bearing in its one innocent syllable the sudden sting of obscenity.

 

In an unnamed city in an unnamed country – though Saramago wickedly slides in the word ‘Portugal’ and then equally wickedly denies it – a government is faced with an unprecedented phenomenon. Seventy percent of the votes in the national election are cast, not as abstentions (that would still be bearable), but as blank votes. A re-election is held eight days later, but the results are even worse – eighty-three percent of the votes are now blank. Rattled by what this means to the survival of the administration, the government declares an emergency and withdraws from the capital, taking the ministers, civil servants, bureaucrats, defence forces and the police with them, hoping through this exodus, to teach the subversives a lesson as they watch their own city dwindle into anarchy in the absence of the paternalistic authorities. Imagine their horror when nothing of the sort happens. No more robberies, traffic accidents or murders occur than would have with the city functioning as normal. Determined to find the leader of what they are convinced is a well-planned Machiavellian campaign of de-stabilisation, the absentee ministers begin to plant terror where there is none. Their enemy is hidden, invisible, not an identifiable group or faction, but seemingly the entire city, working in tandem with  the silent grace of a body that is at harmony with itself. And this enemy earns the appellation of the ‘blankers’, the loathsome anarchists who put in blank votes unlike the more civic-minded (though numerically negligible) citizens who voted for the left, the right or the middle. And just in case there should be objections from punctilious readers (those creatures he loves baiting!), Saramago explains that the term ‘blanker’

 

“was neither accidental nor fortuitous, nor was it a slip of the fingers on the computer keyboard, and it certainly isn’t a neologism that the narrator has hastily invented in order to fill a gap. The term exists, it really does, you can find it in any up-to-date dictionary, the problem, if it is a problem,, lies in the fact that people are convinced that they know the meaning of the word blank and all its derivatives, and therefore won’t waste their time going back to the source to check, or else they suffer from chronic intellectual lazyitis and stay right where they are, refusing to take even one step towards making a possibly beautiful discovery.”

 

Saramago is having fun with us, hooting gently at the pseudo know-it-all as much as the pedant. And though no one knows which “inquisitive researcher or chance discoverer” came up with the word, it spreads like wildfire until even the state-controlled media starts using it, giving it the velocity and the pungency of a choice expletive.

 

“When you see it written down, you don’t notice it so much, but as soon as you hear it spoken with that angry curl of the lips and in that snide tone of voice, you would have to have the moral armour of a knight of the round table not to put a noose around your neck, don a penitent’s tunic and walk along beating your chest and renouncing all your old principles and precepts, A blanker I was, a blanker no more, forgive me, my country, forgive me, my lord.”

 

And,

 

“As the days passed, it became noticeable, in a way that was, at first, imperceptible, that the word blank, as if it had suddenly become obscene or rude, was falling into disuse, that people would employ all kind of evasions and periphrases to replace it. A blank piece of paper, for example, would be described instead as virgin, a blank on a form that had all its life been a blank became the space provided, blank looks all became vacant instead, students stopped saying that their minds had gone blank, and owned up to the fact that they simply knew nothing about the subject, but the most interesting case of all was the sudden disappearance of the riddle with which, for generations and generations, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and neighbours had sought to stimulate the intelligence and deductive powers of children. You can fill me in, draw me and fire me, what am I, and people, reluctant to elicit the word blank from innocent children, justified this by saying that the riddle was far too difficult for those with limited experience of the world.”

 

It is hilarious and it is appalling. This is how censorship begins, by circumscribing the limits of the sayable. In Seeing Saramago talks not of the novelist but of other kinds of writers, with acerbity. There are the official speech writers whose rhetorical and lexical strengths are at the service of the government, summoned like lackeys to placate, manipulate, obfuscate. There are the journalists, raving for moments of violence, puzzled – and in a sense, weakened – by the demonstrators who throw not a single stone, shout not a single slogan as they march to the presidential palace after a bomb attack at the metro station. The city council leader refuses to play the game that requires him to offer the journalist useable sound-bytes, and finally, switching off the camera, the journalist shudders at the “threatening silence that sends shivers down your spine.” “Forget the horror movie language,” the city council leader says, “perhaps people are just tired of words, If people get tired of words, then I’ll be out of a job, You won’t say a truer word all day.”

 

It is no accident that silence is the war cry of the demonstrators, just as white is the colour of the flags they bear. The white of surrender is now the white of insurgency, it is the blankness that declares no political symbol, that expresses at once the exhaustion of gestures, and the triumph of a solidarity that needs no words. But behind the closed doors of the ministerial meetings, another kind of silence is brewing.

 

Unable to find a solution to the problem of an intransigent people, the president of the nation says, “I suppose we’ll just have to continue groping our way blindly forwards.”

 

“The silence that fell was thick enough to blunt the blade of even the sharpest of knives. Yes, blindly, he repeated, unaware of the general embarrassment. From the back of the room came the minister of culture’s calm voice, Just as we did four years ago. The minister of defence rose, red-faced, to his feet, as if he had been the object of a brutal, unforgivable obscenity, and pointing an accusing finger, he said, You have just shamefully broken a national pact of silence to which we all agreed, As far as I know, there was no pact, far less a national one, … You’re right, said the prime minister, … but we all thought … that the dreadful test we had been through would be best thought of as a terrible nightmare … All I said was that four years ago we were blind and … that we probably still are.”

  

What the defence minister refers to is the conspiracy of a silence that cloaks shame. A ‘blanking out’ of the past, a willed amnesia that will make a dreadful ‘episode’ seem like it never happened. The contrast between the blind writer’s need to write even in blindness, and the all-seeing minister’s need to deliberately erase and silence couldn’t be more glaring. By erasing what cannot be understood, the minister hopes to maintain some sort of control over it. But in the way that words have of being misused, misread, the prime minister makes a leap into new territory, comparing “the plague currently afflicting us to a new kind of blindness.”

 

“Either that, or a form of clear-sightedness, said the minister of justice, What, asked the interior minister who thought he must have misheard, I said that the blank vote could be seen as a sign of clear-sightedness on the part of those who used it. How dare you … utter such antidemocratic garbage, cried the minister of defence.”

 

And Babel erupts. But the damage is done, and the propaganda machine now goes all out to “draw people’s attention to the parallel between the blankness of that blindness of four years ago and the blind casting of blank papers now”. This new “blank plague” can only be explained by tracing it back to the only woman who was not affected by the “white evil” – and so begins the horrifying downward spiral as the doctor’s wife becomes the object of a witch-hunt. The superintendent in charge of the investigation, whose emergence as a deeply moral, immensely courageous man is one of the most beautiful things about the book, dreams that “the interior minister had asked him for the photograph so that he could stick a pin through the eyes of the doctor’s wife, all the while singing a wizard’s spell, Blind you were not, blind you will be, white you wore, black you will see, with this pin I prick you, from behind and before.” He is terrified by the dream and as we reach the end of the book, so are we, speechless with the horror of what a government can do, blinded by its lust for power.

 

And as I closed the book, Saramago provoked in my mind a new phrase that rose slowly like a dreamer awakening from a nightmare – and the phrase was not ‘Justice is blind’ but ‘Justice is blindness’. It was a moment of profound loss, and profound understanding, and it came from the vision of the same author who wrote, “it is not only the voice of blood that needs no eyes, love, which people say is blind, also has a voice of its own.”

 

And it is that voice, that naming voice, that sees clearest, and does not flinch at what it sees.

 

Sampurna Chattarji

 

 

[Quotes from Blindness by José Saramago, translated by Giovanni Pontiero, Harcourt, Brace & Company, and Seeing by José Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Harvill Secker]

 

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