In the blindness community, the release of the movie "Blindness" has provoked a furor. Many object to the depiction of blind people as helpless and incompetent and many more suggest that the film and the book on which the film is based will only serve to deepen the misunderstanding of what it is to be blind. It is not my intention to enter into this debate. Instead I want to try to get past it to take a look at what the book and its sequel "Seeing" have to say about the larger world. The film-maker says that blindness is a metaphor and I am inclined to agree with him. These two books are much more novels about what happens when a society is faced with any cataclysm, either real, as in the case of "Blindness" where the whole population of a city loses its sight for several weeks, or perceived as in "Seeing" where a perhaps random decision made by the voters in the capital city of an unnamed country to cast blank ballots in a local election is perceived by the national government as a major conspiracy and, perhaps, as a precursor to outright revolution.
In "Seeing," satire and irony are rife. Most of the characters are really caricatures and none are named. The people in the city which has dared to cast 70 percent of their votes as blank ballots who, by rights, ought to be the central characters of this novel, are hardly present. Instead, the story is told through the outsiders, the ministers, the army, a police superintendent and his subordinates, and a newspaper editor. But the book is by no means all satire and irony. It is also a tragedy and a great piece of literature. Like all tragedies, for me, it was clear from the beginning that the outcome was inevitable but I am not sure I understand what the tragic flaw is that Jose Saramago, the author, is aiming to show us. Maybe the tragedy lies in the power we give to those who govern us. Maybe the tragedy lies in the degree to which politics rather than morality govern decisions made by those who govern and those who enforce the law. And just maybe, the tragedy is that we choose to be blind to what we can see if we would only look.
The action of "Seeing" occurs four years after the events detailed in "Blindness." In the earlier book no characters are named either but the events portrayed are stark and very real. We experience the loss of vision through the "eyes" of the first victims. They are isolated in an insane asylum with armed guards outside ordered to shoot any who attempt to leave. Conditions deteriorate physically and morally but our small group of viewpoint characters is kept together by the wife of an ophthalmologist who appears to be the only person who does not go blind. She is the outsider who feels guilty for being able to see and immensely alone. She is not the only moral compass, though. There are instances of immense sacrifice and real heroism in the face of the complete breakdown of law and order that the crisis brings. Is she the hero or the anti-hero? Are those blind people who eventually take action to right wrongs the heroes? Are there any heroes? Who knows? I certainly do not. And, in the long run, it doesn't really matter. At the heart of the first book, "Blindness," is the inescapable fact that the veneer of civilization is very thin and, through blindness, we see the fragility of morality all too clearly. In the second book, "Seeing," those in power see what they want to see and, with their eyes wide open, are blind to the consequences of the actions they choose to take.
There are threads that bind the two books together and that invite the kinds of comparisons I am making. I am loath to tell you what these are because I think that knowing about them will lessen your enjoyment of both books. This I do want to say: Read both of these books with your eyes wide open, whether you are blind or can see. Don't get hung up on the portrayal of blindness. The author could have used deafness or a disease that disfigures or some other cataclysm just as effectively, I think. The questions posed by both books are much broader and much more ambiguous.
If we are truly lucky, great literature helps to illuminate what it is to be human and helps us focus a little on the characteristics of ourselves that are real and those that are false. It helps us learn a little about the difference between perception and seeing. Perhaps more than anything else these two books together help us to know just how blind all of us can be, whether our eyes work or not.
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