José Saramago: Blindness And Seeing In Revolutionary Times

Blindness and Seeing in Revolutionary Times, by Lew Rosenbaum

José Saramago, 1922 -2010

At 9 pm on the night of February 22 I heard Miguel del Valle, the reform candidate for Mayor of Chicago,  concede the election. I heard  Rahm Emmanuel, the corporate candidate of the Democratic National Committee who had spent more than 8 million dollars, claim victory.  I heard that 60% of Chicago’s electorate stayed home. The first mayoral election in 50 years without an incumbent had promised a real contest and a possibility of a run off.  Nevertheless, 60% of the electorate said the election made no difference to them.  They did not actually go to the polls, but 60% cast what might be considered a blank ballot for mayor. The characters in José Saramago’s novel Seeing do exactly that.

Jose Saramago won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998. He declared he couldn’t explain why he deserved the prize: ”’only that what I have done was done with all awareness, with the consciousness that what I doing was what a human being could do to express himself and say who he was.” Born in 1922 into a family of landless peasants, he did not achieve widespread fame until he was 60. But in 1991 he earned the ire of the Catholic church with the publication of his Gospel According to Jesus Christ. When Portugal censored its publication, he moved to the Canary Islands, where he lived until his death last June. He received the Nobel prize one year after his novel Blindness was published.

In that novel, a white blindness epidemic sweeps across a nation whose name is never stated and whose inhabitants are not given names.  They are distinguished from each other by one or another characteristic.  The main character, an eye doctor, turns suddenly blind as he stops at an intersection, driving home. Miraculously his wife is spared the plague. However, in order to remain with her husband, she feigns blindness; the government, in a panic to prevent the plague from spreading, rounds up the blind and quarantines them.  The quarantine fails, the characters endure a vicious dictatorship of some of the blind, until the effects of the plague wear off and the blind again become sighted.  Through this process the woman who never lost her sight becomes heroic and leads a small group out of the abyss.

Seven years after the publication of Blindness, Saramago published a sequel.  He called it Seeing.

I began reading Seeing as the Chicago mayoral race began to crystallize. As I finished it, the Egyptian uprising was in its first few days of mass demonstrations and the mayoral race entered the final month. This was a surreal landscape in which to be reading a Saramago novel.

The novel itself begins on a very rainy day in the capital of the unnamed country.  Not just any rainy day.  Election day, with rain so devastating that it threatens voter turnout. The scene is a polling place, with all the election workers and party observers in place.  Three parties are competing for office.  The party in power is the Party On The Right (or POTR).  The loyal opposition, with little standing in the legislature, is the Party In The Middle (PITM).  The party gradually moving into irrelevance is the Party On The Left (POTL).  The POTR and PITM concern themselves about the weather’s effect on the elections, while the POTL asserts that the historical destiny of the working class to exercise their right to vote will bring them to the polls under the most adverse conditions.  With such idealist friends, does the working class need enemies?

The shock of this election is not the low voter turnout: the electorate votes.  The majority repudiates “democracy” and stuns the government by casting blank ballots. The government immediately schedules a new election and takes elaborate precautions to guarantee that the public recognizes its democratic obligations.  Yet, when the votes are counted, the percentage of blank ballots has soared to 85%.  This throws the political state into crisis. The various ministers of the various departments fight about what to do. The Prime Minister referees the battle between the Defense and Interior ministers, who jockey for power, and placates the restive figurehead President.  The government decides to remove its institutions from the capital, relocate the capital elsewhere, and strangle the ex-capital by surrounding it with the army.  No food or people are allowed to enter, no people allowed to exit.  And in the process the anticipated collapse of the city fails to happen, people seem to be handling their isolation with great humanity.  Large, peaceful demonstrations of the populace mass in the central square of the city.

And then Saramago interjects the subject of Blindness and the doctor’s wife.  The government has forbidden discussion of the blindness plague since it happened 4 years earlier.  Now the Prime Minister theorizes that there is a connection between blank ballots and blindness, and that the doctor’s wife is the leader of a potential insurrection.

*    *    *    *    *

Saramago plays with us in both novels, plays with the concept of sight and blindness. Blindness is a deeply disturbing book with a “happy ending.”   At the end of the book, Saramago leaves you questioning where or when sight exists. Are the characters really aware of their surroundings before the plague?  Is there a difference after?  Saramago subverts the darkness of the blind by calling it a “white blindness.”  It flies in the face of what we expect.  It plays with our reality. The book underlines this with its snow white cover.  Close your eyes: is the blindness you find when you shut your eyes white? or is it black?

Blindness is a dark comedy.  Saramago tells us that those who emerged from the plague did not necessarily emerge really “seeing.”  Here is the doctor and his wife trying to make sense of their experience:

“Why did we become blind” the doctor’s wife asks.  In Saramago’s distinctive dialogue format, her husband replies and she responds: “”I don’t know, perhaps one day we’ll find out, Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.”

*    *     *     *     *

Fast forward to the polling place.  Do the political parties have the gift of sight?  How perceptive are the ministers either in their own terms of being able to predict the behavior of the citizens, or in our terms of dismissing their own petty grievances, give up their power plays?  Seeing is the opposite of Blindness starting with the black cover.  Saramago sets us up to expect, at least to cheer for a happy ending, even as we watch and listen to the bumbling poll watchers at the beginning, when we have no idea about the plot yet.

When we are observe the characters in Saramago’s polling place, we can’t help but wonder what the Chicago election judges did February 22, when the mayoral election was held.  There is a reform candidate to vote for, there is no caricature POTL, but the other candidates represent the POTR and PITM quite well. What would happen to the Chicago centers of power if 85% of the voters went to the polls, as required to maintain a healthy democracy, but cast blank ballots?  Would the FBI, on the basis of discovering the essay you are reading, set a surveillance team to watch the writer and a robot to sniff out communications among all those that read this?  These questions force the words off the printed page into the lived experience of the reader. Saramago casts the words around as if his characters find themselves in a farce from which they can’t escape.  Or rather the reader and the author know it is a farce, but the characters take themselves seriously. Or perhaps they play their roles seriously, going through the necessary motions.  What about our roles in the farce in which we are actors?

Some of Saramago’s characters, some of those even in high places, begin to recognize the farce being perpetrated.  For one thing, as the hierarchy of authorities vacates the capital city, the people simply take over, performing all the essential services.  The police? They are not necessary in a truly cooperative society.  Massive and peaceful marches to the main square in the city are not met by hostile forces of the law, and everything goes smoothly. Choking off supplies to the city somehow does not seem to affect the people in the short run anyway.  Defections from he government and the state institutions begin. The naive and peaceful expressions of “independence” seem to resonate with the demonstrations when they began in Cairo.  Government provocateurs disrupt the actions of the newly empowered populace in the former capital;  Mubarak’s thugs run amok in Cairo.

When the Prime Minister initiates action against the doctor’s wife as the conspiratorial leader, he knows it is a lie.  He sees the ruse as the way out for the state, and convinces his fellows to see the enemy also.  So who does see the truth?  What is seeing and what is blindness in this society?  The political parties are all ossified fools and become irrelevant after the first section of the book.  They are blind with their eyes open.   Somehow, in the four years since the blindness plague, the vast majority of the capital came to see enough so that they created the plague of the blank ballots.  It could not have happened “spontaneously.”  Someone must have organized it.  Or not.

*    *     *     *

In Egypt, Mubarak’s “POTR” insists on ruling in the old way, and the other “parties” are either illegal or irrelevant.  Still apparently over night tens and then hundreds of thousands demonstrated for the end of the regime.  It could not have happened spontaneously.  Or could it, or did someone, some organization actually organize it?

The Egyptian people have chosen a perilous road, fraught with danger.  In the initial stages success crowned their efforts.  Yes it took 18 days, and yes the government attacked the mass of people with their thugs and police.  But there was a certain naiveté that was crowned as well by euphoria, before the reality of their victory settled in.  Saramago’s novel too raises serious questions about the extent to which the state will go to maintain its power, about the extent to which the people need to be prepared for what comes further down the road.  Will the blank ballot conspiracy suffer consequences for which its own naiveté has not prepared?

José Saramago died in June, 2010.  In their obituaries, some critics called him more of a communist than a writer.  That is either an insult or praise depending on your point of view. He joined the Portuguese Communist Party in 1969 and remained a member until his death.  The critics’ comment does reveal deep ignorance of the possibilities of political art. Why, for example, is no one in Seeing, just as in Blindness, given a name?  They don’t need names: mostly they are playing roles, archetypes, and rarely emerge from them to stake out a character’s individuality.  The police inspector charged with investigating the doctor’s wife is one such character;  the official who resigns his post to disappear among the demonstrators is another.  What happens to them is that they begin to see.  Although they had visual acuity, they could not see what was around them. Perhaps we only begin to see the characters when we are permitted to dig beneath their archetypal veneer.  Saramago explores not only what seeing is, but how it comes about.  What are the limits of seeing at various stages of the revolution?  How do you learn/introduce the ideas that are necessary for achieving success at those stages.

Seeing begins four years after the blindness plague ended. Since then, all talk of the blindness plague has been forbidden (how can you see without accepting the reality of the common experience, the objectivity of the history of blindness).  Many people have begun to express their clarity in a way unthinkable during the blindness period.  Collective action, begun by six lonely people in the dark days of the white blindness, become the disruption of the pseudo-democratic elections and the mass protests.  So what seems absurd at the beginning, emerging from a farce in a polling place, a comedy of errors perpetrated by a vicious if ridiculous oligarchy intent on misinterpreting some curious accident that goes beyond apathy to some inexplicable flaunting of democracy, masquerading as casting blank ballots instead of accepting the pseudo choices presented by the oligarchs. . . this absurdity becomes an environment which no one can fully understand.

*    *    *    *

For more than 30 years, Saramago’s home country Portugal was ruled by the military dictatorship of Prime Minister Antonio Olvieira Salazar.  He is credited with developing the country’s infrastructure, building schools, roads, bridges, electric power plants and expanding the previously limited telephone network. The Portuguese masses paid an extraordinary price: the ruthless suppression of unions and maintenance by Salazar of the ruling elite, and their stranglehold on much of the country’s wealth. He created a repressive regime with strict controls of the press and media, along with constant arrests of his political opponents.  Salazar perpetrated continuing wars to keep Portuguese colonies from achieving independence.  A military coup in 1968 deposed Salazar and opened the way for successful independence movements, e.g. in Mozambique and Angola. Four decades after the Salazar dictatorship was overthrown, in 2007,  41% of the people, responding to a TV survey, named Salazar the greatest Portuguese of all time.  (One commentator called this a testament to Portuguese ignorance). Perhaps Saramago’s Blindness in a sense anticipated this ignorance; or perhaps it recollected the existence of the Portuguese masses under the dictatorship and its emergence from the dictatorship.

But what about Seeing? For my money, the key point in these novels is the exploration of how one begins to see.  How do new ideas enter the public consciousness? What is the relation between the spontaneous and the conscious, between leadership and activity?  And in this manner, the defection of the public officials to the ranks of the revolution are significant. They are perplexed as they come to realize the effect of what the doctor’s wife said at the end of Blindness. The outcome is a mass movement beyond the capacity of the regime to stop.  The regime proves that it can effectively, if temporarily, quarantine this plague.  Its secret police can be as effective as Salazar’s, and as ineffective as the end of the dictatorship. It forces us to look at what our role is in seeing beyond the immediate euphoria of the fall of Hosni Mubarak, beyond the anguish of the Chicago mayoral business as usual election, beyond the embattled workers of Madison, Wisconsin.

The revolutionary artist poses this question today: How do we transcend being “blind people who can see, but do not see”?

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