In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.
Blindness is a novel like Infinite Jest in that it has strong science-fictional traits, but many would throw out terms like counterfactual or speculative instead of going whole-hog and calling it SF. I’ll just say the main premise of the book and let you decide for yourself: In an unnamed city in an unnamed country, people are going about their lives as normal until suddenly, out of nowhere, people start going blind. There seems to be no contagion, no reasonable epidemiology to explain why this is occurring. Some people go blind, some do not. The blindness is not a lack of sight, but a complete whitewashing of your vision – all the stricken can see, all the time, is a wall of white.
The greatest SF explores what happens to society in the face of great change, and that’s exactly what Blindness is going for. Saramago takes away one tiny little thing – sight – and it completely upends the world. The first man to go blind does so at a stoplight, so when it turns green he does not move and pisses a bunch of people off. When those around him understand that he’s been struck blind, they get less angry and one even offers to drive him home. In an action that foreshadows the societal breakdown to come, this shitty samaritan then steals his car. He is the second person to go blind. The government’s response to a seeming disease that they can neither control nor understand is to freak out and force everyone affected to into an old asylum that they have repurposed to house them. A large portion of the book takes place in this asylum, and it is there that Saramago explores in depth what happens to people when they are pushed to the edge.
This seems like a rational response to people going blind.
The main characters of the novel, as much as there are main characters, are the doctor and his wife. The doctor, hilariously, is an ophthalmologist. His wife is inexplicably not affected by the disease – she pretends to be blind so as not to lose her husband to the asylum. In the first group of asylum inhabitants, this pair serves as the voice of reason and tamps down the group anxiety to manageable and sane levels. They build a tenuous society within those asylum walls, which are patrolled by soldiers who will shoot them if they attempt to leave. Nothing lasts, and everything is subject to strain and decay, so however much those first inhabitants can work together, their way of life is shattered as the epidemic builds up to full steam and the asylum is flooded with the newly blind. In the beginning, soldiers would send them food, now there is not enough. In the beginning, the inhabitants would share and work together, now gangs are forming and fighting with each other for food and, horrifyingly, women. It used to be possible to maintain some cleanliness, but with the facilities overflowing with people, the latrines overflow with waste. Blind, imprisoned, and with all agency taken from him by the authorities, the doctor keeps a stiff upper lip, but his breaking point is trying to use the bathroom:
The stench choked him. He had the impression of having stepped on some soft pulp, the excrement of someone who had missed the hole of the latrine or who had decided to relieve himself without any consideration for others. He tried to imagine what the place must look like, for him it was all white, luminous, resplendent, he had no way of knowing whether the walls and ground were white and he came to the absurd conclusion that the light and whiteness there were giving off the awful stench. We shall go mad with horror, he thought. Then he tried to clean himself but there was no paper. He ran his hand over the wall behind him, where he expected to find the rolls of toilet paper or nails, where in the absence of anything better, any old scraps of paper had been stuck up. Nothing. He felt unhappy, disconsolate, more unfortunate than he could bear, crushed there, protecting his trousers which were brushing against that disgusting floor, blind, blind, blind, and, unable to control himself, he began to weep quietly.
There’s a lot going on in this excerpt. First off, it communicates the horror and squalor of their physical situation: this character just identified shit by his sense of touch. He’s stuck in a bathroom where no one can ever hit the target because no one can see it. His sight is gone, but his smell is not, and his surroundings assault it powerfully. Secondly, it highlights how difficult and degrading the simplest tasks can become when we lose one simple thing. Sure, of course blind people cannot drive, but the frightening thing about this novel is that all these newly blind people who have not had time to adjust to their condition struggle even with wiping themselves. Thirdly, it explores the spiritual effect this lack of ability has on people. In this excerpt, we have the doctor – married, successful, in the business of confidently helping others – sitting in a shit-stained bathroom unable to take care of his most basic physical needs. His lack of control in the physical world leads directly to his loss of emotional control, which results in him weeping quietly in a bathroom.
When this is one your main nemeses in life, you are in a bad spiritual place.
This helplessness and despair eventually spreads to most of the city. The guards start falling prey to the blindness epidemic, and, in the absence of soldiers or any overarching social order, the inmates wander out of the asylum and stumble through their transformed city. Blindness demonstrates intensely and convincingly exactly how little it would take for our society to crumble. Everyone is familiar with the idea of the world ending due to violent illness, resource scarcity, or nuclear war. It does not even take that much – the world will end if filled with a bunch of perfectly healthy people who have lost the ability to see. Evolutionarily, this makes sense. Sight is humanity’s primary sense. In the way way back, it, along with bipedalism, gave us an advantage in our primal environment: we could stand taller and see farther than other animals on the plain. We no longer need to hunt for and run from other animals, but the primacy of sight still exists. Think about it: When cops are searching for a fugitive, they don’t put his scent on the APB, they put his image. Movies and television, two of the most popular forms of mass entertainment, require sight to fully enjoy. Reading is, has been, and for the foreseeable future will be the main method of information transfer in our society. Without sight, you would not be able to understand this article. When sight disappears, a big part of how we adapt to and interact with the world disappears with it.
Science fiction is an exploration of humanity in extremity. It imagines a different world and explores how we deal with it. How does a man condemned to perpetual loneliness in Moon deal? How does a man who has come unstuck in time and exposed to all the psychological awkwardness of that state in Slaughterhouse-Five deal? How do the handful of survivors of a world-wrapping biopocalypse in MaddAddam deal? Saramago crafts a beautiful and concise exploration of humanity in extremity by changing one tiny aspect of our current world. It’s not even in the realm of SF that people go blind – that happens daily. The only change Saramago makes is that it happens inexplicably, and it happens to everyone. He pulls at one small string, and the entire fabric of human society unravels. It is important to keep in mind how fragile and impermanent our way of life is, and how little it would take to completely wreck it.
Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently.
Image sources: Wiki, Amazon