SARAMAGO'S TRAGEDY

 

 

"I am simply the one who was born to see this horror, you can feel it, I both feel and see (p. 276)..."

 

An epidemic of blindness strikes the city. Its victims are arrested and quarantined in a crumbling mental

asylum.  Armed soldiers stand guard outside, isolating the internees from the rest of the population. No doctors, nurses or medicine is provided. The hygienic conditions within rapidly come to beggar description: toilets plugged up and overflowing; excrement smeared on the floors; the odors of those without clean clothes or bed linen, without showers to bathe themselves;  inadequate supplies of food and water; and families torn apart- children from their parents, spouses from each other. Most of all there is the fear of dependence: the sheer helplessness of being blind among strangers. The danger of infection soon causes panic among the soldiers, shooting and killing innocent internees. Finally, an armed group of criminals enters the blind population and bands together to monopolize the food supply. This enables them to rob, terrorize and eventually rape the asylum's women. Although our description may well resemble the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, it is, in fact, the plot of Jose Saramago's masterpiece, Blindness. In this instance, life imitates art.

 

One by one the victims of the "white sickness" are struck blind- while driving automobiles, riding elevators or simply moving about their homes or places of work.  But unlike the blindness with which we are familiar, these victims are lost in a white, impenetrable haze. Only one of them retains her sight, the doctor's wife. Trapped in this hell with her husband and a small group of strangers, she alone retains the courage to help them organize and fight back. She is the "eye of anguish" (King Lear, Act 4, Scene 4, Line

15) that bears witness to their ordeal and inspires each of them to confront this living nightmare. Then, one by one, others follow her example. The girl with the dark glasses becomes a mother for the boy with a squint; the old man with the black eye patch rallies at the end with the courage to defend them, or leave them if he becomes a burden; and the woman who says "where you go, I will follow" pledges to

join the doctor's wife in solidarity with the women against their oppressors. Unlike other great characters in literature, we know her only as "the doctor's wife"; but we see her tested by the most trying circumstances, and she triumphs over them to earn our tears of gratitude. Midway in the narrative, its author ironically surveys the scene:

 

" ...All things considered, things could be worse...it had to be acknowledged that the authorities had shown great vision when they decided to unite the blind with the blind, each with his own, which is a wise rule for those who have to live together, like lepers...the doctor...is right when he says that we must organize ourselves,  the question, in fact, is one of organization, first the food, then the organization,

both are indispensable for life...to establish rules for our co-existence...simple things like sweeping the floor, tidying up and washing...the important  thing is not to lose our self-respect...(p. 106)"

 

Next, the narrator describes the government's unpreparedness and inept efforts to contain the epidemic of "white sickness" (much like the current world's governments shameful efforts to battle the Ebola pandemic):

 

 

"...the authorities hastily organized medical conferences...colloquia, seminars, round-table discussions...the overall effect of the patent  futility of the debates and the occurrence of certain cases of sudden blindness during the sessions...prompted almost all the newspapers, the radio and television, to lose interest...apart from...certain organs of communication, living off sensational stories of every kind, off the fortunes  and misfortunes of others...The proof  of the progressive deterioration of morale  in general was provided by the Government itself, its strategy changing twice  within the space of some six days. To begin with, the Government was confident that it was possible to circumscribe the disease by confining the blind and the contaminated within specific areas, such as the asylum...Then the inexorable rise in the number of cases of blindness led some influential members of the Government...to defend the idea that it was up to families to keep their blind indoors...whole families...rapidly became families of the blind...Faced with this situation, the Government had no alternative but to go rapidly into reverse gear, broadening the criteria  it had established about the places and spaces that could be requisitioned (p. 122-24)..."

 

From the larger social picture, we return to the doctor's wife and her small group within the grim confines of the asylum:

 

"...the first blind to be brought here under quarantine, were capable, more or less conscientiously, of bearing with dignity...Now...no imagination, however fertile...could aptly describe the filth...lt is not just the state to which the lavatories were soon reduced, fetid caverns such as the gutters in hell...but also the lack of respect...that turned the corridors and other passageways into latrines...that endless carpet of trampled excrement {p.131, 2)..."

 

In the middle of the night the doctor and his wife passionately debate how to survive in this "harsh, cruel, implacable kingdom of the blind (p. 133)".

 

"...1 can't go on pretending that I can't see. Think of the consequences, they will almost certainly  try to turn you into their slave...How can you of all people expect me to go on looking at these miseries, to have them permanently before  my eyes, and not lift a finger to help (p. 133)..."

 

As the asylum fills up to over-flowing, each day becomes a harsh struggle to obtain a place to defecate, a biscuit to eat, water to drink and with which to wash. Then a new group of blind internees arrives with the criminal purpose of using this human catastrophe to their advantage:

 

"They say...anyone who wants to eat will have to pay...the worst is that they are armed...Let's try and settle this peacefully, said the doctor. I'll go with you to speak to these people {p. 136,7)..."

 

With the doctor's wife to lead them, they grope their way down the asylum's filthy corridors to the ward occupied by the criminals. There, they find the entrances fortified and the blackmailers armed with

sticks and metal rods from their  beds. A battle ensues, and the criminals easily defeat their opponents:

 

"The blind internees who had come to demand food were already beginning to withdraw in disarray, their sense of direction completely lost...Then the doctor's wife, terrified, saw one of the blind hoodlums take a gun from his pocket and raise it brusquely in the air. The blast caused a large piece of stucco to

 

 

come crashing down...The hoodlum shouted, Be quiet everyone and keep your mouths  shut...from today onwards  we shall take charge of the food...Each ward will nominate two people to be in charge of collecting people's valuables (p. 238,9)..."

 

When they return from their defeat at the hands of the hoodlums, a debate takes place between the internees of the ward:

 

"...we all hand over everything, or nobody gives anything, said the doctor, We have no alternative, said his wife...anyone  who doesn't  want to pay can suit himself, that's his privilege, but he'll get nothing  to eat and he cannot expect to be fed at the expense of the rest of us. We shall all give up what we've got and hand over everything, said the doctor. And what about those who have nothing to give, asked the pharmacist's assistant, They will eat whatever  the others decide to give them, as the saying rightly goes, from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs (p.141)..."

 

As, day by day, they exchange their pitiful wealth- watches, jewelry and clothing- for food, what little they have is quickly exhausted. But the doctor's wife retains a "...pair of long scissors with two nickel­ plated blades, the tips sharp and gleaming (p. 142)..." Along the walls of the ward large nails stick out, on which she hangs her pair of scissors. Later, they will become their weapon of liberation, and the doctor's wife, their liberator. Their gnawing hunger and anger at the hoodlums soon develops into a call for action:

 

"...Each time those sent to fetch food return to their ward with the meager rations they have been given there is an outburst of angry protest. There is always someone who proposes collective  action, a mass demonstration, using the forceful argument about the cumulative strength  of numbers...Volunteers were asked to come forward...few came forward...The eight courageous souls who had been so bold

were immediately chased away with cudgels ...that ward had to fast for three days as a punishment...the

fear of the remaining wards...divided between the classic duties of human solidarity and the observance of the ancient and no less time-honored precept  that charity begins at home (p. 163, 4)..."

 

But food and valuables are not enough to satisfy the hoodlums. After all, what good are money and jewelry in this infernal place? But even the blind retain desire; perhaps, it is even stronger and more desperate among them:

 

"After a week, the blind hoodlums sent a message saying that they wanted the women. Just like that, Bring us the women. This unexpected demand, although not altogether unusual, caused an outcry...The reply was curt and intransigent. Unless you bring us women, you don't  eat...The women...protested at once...one of the emissaries...(proposed) that  women volunteers should come forward...one of the others...asked ironically, And what would you do if these rascals instead of asking for women  had asked for men (p. 166-8)..."

 

After passionate debate, which reveals the underlying sexism of many of the men, the women courageously take it on themselves to comply for the good of them all:

 

"...They were all on their  feet, shaking and resolute. Then the doctor's wife said, I'll go in front...The girl with dark glasses got in behind  the doctor's wife, then came the hotel maid, the girl from the surgery, the wife of the first blind man...a grotesque  line-up of foul-smelling women, their clothes filthy  and in tatters, it seems impossible  that the animal drive for sex should be so powerful...Slowly, guided by the doctor's wife, each of them with  her hand on the shoulder  of the one in front, the women  start walking (p. 177)..."

 

To appreciate the depravity of that terrible night demands we read the complete text of the novel. At its end we learn:

 

"Day was breaking when the blind hoodlums allowed  the women  to go...For hours they had passed from one man to another, from humiliation to humiliation, from outrage  to outrage, exposed to everything that can be done to a woman  while leaving her still alive. As you know, payment is in kind, tell those pathetic men of yours that they have to come and fetch the grub, the blind man with the gun said mockingly as they left. And he added derisively, See you again, girls, so prepare yourselves for the next session (p. 181)..."

 

The hoodlums continue their reign of extortion, rape and terror;   then:

 

"On the fourth day the thugs reappeared. They had come to exact payment from the women in the second ward, but they paused for a moment at the door of the first ward...The doctor's wife...raised her arm, and without a sound, took the scissors from the nail...After a while, she removed her shoes and went to reassure her husband, I won’t be long, I'm coming straight  back...Ten minutes  later the women

from the second ward appeared  in the corridor...When they passed, the doctor's wife followed them (p.

186, 7)..."

 

She leads them down the filthy corridors to the hoodlums ward:

 

"...The doctor's wife entered the ward...The leader of these hoodlums still had his bed at the far end of the ward...Killing him was going to be simple. As she slowly advanced along the narrow aisle, the doctor's wife studied  the movements of the man she was about to kill...the doctor's wife approached, circled the bed and positioned herself behind him...The doctor's wife slowly raised the scissors, the

blades slightly apart so that they might  penetrate like two daggers...You won’t have time to come, the

doctor's wife reflected as she brought her arm down with tremendous force. The scissors dug deep into the blind man's throat (p. 188, 89)..."

 

The cries and death agony of the hoodlum's leader alert the others, who panic in the midst of their orgy. Now the doctor's wife begins to gather together her sisters to escape the ward:

 

"It was at this point that the doctor's wife decided to move. Striking blows left and right, she opened a path. Now it was the blind thugs who were calling out, who were being knocked over...The doctor's wife had no desire to kill, all she wanted was to get out as quickly as possible and, above all, not to leave a single blind woman behind...the women were already out in the corridor, they fled, stumbling as they went, half dressed, holding on to their rags as best they could...Standing still at the entrance to the

 

ward, the doctor's wife called out in a rage, Remember what I said the other  day, that I’d never forget a

face, and from now on think  about  what I’m telling  you, for I won’’ ’t  forget your faces either (p.190,

191)."

 

The debauched, exhausted group of women are led back to their ward by the doctor's wife; then she finally returns to her own ward and the waiting arms of her husband:

 

" ...I'm here, she said, and went  up to him and embraced him...What  happened, the doctor  asked, they said a man was killed, Yes, I killed him. Why, someone had to do it, and there was no one else, And now, Now we're free, they know what awaits them if they ever try to abuse us again (p. 193))..."

 

The following morning they wait for the arrival of the food. They wait until noon, some fainting from hunger, others from standing outside in the heat of the sun. Finally, the old man with the black eyepatch takes the initiative to propose:

 

"The food hasn't come, the food won't come, let's go and get our food...they sent spies to the other wing...The doctor's wife went with  them and came back...They have barricaded the entrance...Let's go, the old man with the black eyepatch suggested once more...it's either  that or we're  condemned to a slow death (p. 201)..."

 

A group of volunteers now assemble in desperation, with the doctor's wife running ahead to survey the scene of their coming battle:

 

"They filed out, the six brave ones in front as had been agreed, amongst them was the doctor and the pharmacist's assistant, then came the others, each armed with a metal rod from his bed, a brigade of squalid, ragged lancers...the  doctor's wife had ran ahead...When they reached the door of that cursed ward...The voice of the old man with the black eyepatch let out a cry...The blind inmates advanced... three shots rang out...Two of the assailants fell, wounded, the others quickly retreated in disarray (p.

204-6)..."

 

The defeated internees drag their wounded comrades back to the ward, and retire to their beds, hungry and exhausted. Then one of the anonymous women of the ward desperately decides to act:

 

"...she had brought a cigarette  lighter  in her handluggage...The woman has gone out without saying a word...she makes her way along the deserted corridor...her destination lies at the far end...she can hear the rumpus being made by the hoodlums in the last ward...between them is a barricade  of eight beds and a loaded gun...The woman is on her knees at the entrance...she  slowly pulls the cover off...the  fuses are ready...She can still remember how to regulate the lighter  in order to produce  a long flame...She starts with the bed on top, the flame laboriously licks the filthy  bedclothes, then it finally catches fire...the flames multiplied, transformed themselves into one great curtain  of fire...her own body was already feeding the bonfire...the fire quickly spreads from bed to bed...the cries of rage and fear, the howls of pain and agony (p. 211-13)..."

 

The cries of the hoodlums and the smell of smoke alert the blind internees throughout the asylum. In panic, they escape from their wards:

  

"By this time the other blind inmates are fleeing in terror towards the smoke-filled corridors...someone remembers that the doctor's wife still has her eyesight, where is she, people ask...l'm here...Let me pass, I'll speak to the soldiers...a narrow gap opened up, through which the doctor's wife advanced with considerable effort, taking her group with her (p. 214-16)..."

 

Carefully approaching the soldier's post, she finds that it has been deserted. The doctor's wife soon discovers that all the soldiers have gone, probably struck blind like everyone else:

 

"Standing in front of the building which is already ablaze from end to end, the blind inmates can feel the living waves of heat from the fire on their  faces...They stay together, pressed up against each other, like

a flock, no one there  wants to be the lost sheep, for they know that no shepherd  will come looking for them (p. 217)..."

 

Throughout the night they wait and watch as the asylum burns before them; then they rise with the sun to begin their new lives, heading for the city:

 

"They struggled to their feet, tottering and dizzy, holding on to each other, then they got into line, in front the woman  with eyes that can see, then those who though they have eyes cannot see...The route they have taken leads to the city centre, but this is not the intention of the doctor's wife, what she wants is to find a place as soon as possible where she can leave those following behind  in safety and then go in search of food on her own (p. 220)..."

 

The doctor's wife soon learns that everyone has gone blind. Groups of the blind wander throughout the city searching for food and a safe place to rest. She leaves her companions to go in search of food. At a grocery store, she manages to discover a hidden storeroom which contains canned goods. On her way back she loses her way, and encounters a stray dog, who befriends her. She finally finds her way back to her group, and they banquet on the food she has brought them. Her companions wish to return to their own homes in the city, hoping to find a clean place to live and relatives still alive. From now on their lives become a perpetual search for food:

 

"We're going back to being primitive hordes, said  the old man with the eyepatch...The groups going around must have leaders...You're  not blind, said the girl with the dark glasses, that's why you were the obvious person to give orders and organize the rest of us, I don't  give orders, I organize things as best I can, I am simply the eyes that the rest of you no longer possess...what I propose is that instead of dispersing, her in her house, you in yours, let us continue to live together (p. 256, 7)..."

 

After spending some time in the girl with dark glasses' apartment, they finally move to the doctor's apartment. Here, they finally find a refuge from the horrors of their recent life:

 

"It  was nevertheless a kind of paradise that the seven pilgrims  had reached...she asks them if they would be so kind as to remove their  shoes...If only it would rain, she thought...Take your clothes off...The doctor's wife gathered up the clothes...took them out to the balcony...(p. 270, 271, 273)..."

 

Miraculously, it rains. The doctor's wife, with the help of the other two women, washes their filthy clothes and shoes in the downpour. As the women wash the clothes, they gather the rain water in

 

buckets for bathing. Then they celebrate by showering themselves in the rain. They delight in cleansing themselves of all the filth. The doctor's wife finds a bottle of fresh water in the kitchen, and together they drink a toast, using her finest crystal. They all marvel at the taste of clean water. The others bathe and put on the clean clothes; then all sit down to feast on their assorted canned goods. Finally, they all feel blessed with these, the simplest of things: a clean, safe place to rest; clean bodies and clothing; clean water and food to eat. Then they all fall asleep, exhausted, in clean beds with clean linens.

 

As the days go by and they continue to forage for food, they discuss their future together:

 

"The worst thing is that we are not organized...And how can a society of blind people organize itself in order to survive...to organize oneself is, in a way, to begin to have eyes...Thanks to your eyes we are still alive, said the girl with the dark glasses (p. 295, 6)..."

 

But the doctor's wife warns them of the task they still have ahead of them:

 

"...let us not forget that that was our life during the time when we were interned, we went down all the steps of degradation, the same might happen here...you do not know, you cannot know, what it means to have eyes in a world in which everyone else is blind...I am simply the one who was born to see this horror, you can feel it, I both feel and see (p. 275, 6)..."

 

Then, as suddenly as the epidemic of blindness struck, it now begins to end. One by one, beginning with the first blind man, they each regain their sight. The girl with the dark glasses, the doctor, and others in surrounding apartments can be heard, crying out loud: "I can see!”

 

"The doctor's wife got up and went to the window. She looked down at the street full of refuse, at the shouting, singing people. Then she lifted her head up to the sky and saw everything white. It is my turn, she thought. Fear made her quickly lower her eyes. The city was still there (p. 326). 11

 

"...the question, in fact, is one of organization (p. 106)..."

 

Solidarity, organization: these are fundamental to society. But to solidarity and organization we must add leadership, and it is the doctor's wife who provides this. She is surely the heroine of our tale, our author's own Mother Courage. And if solidarity, organization and leadership are indispensable for our ordinary lives, what happens when catastrophe strikes? In Saramago's novel we witness these precious values pressed to the tragic extreme. Multiply Oedipus or Gloucester on the scale on an entire society, and only a handful with a loving child to guide them. This is the social calamity with which this masterful novel confronts us. Those critics who have proclaimed "the death of tragedy" in our time have never read Saramago's, Blindness.

 

© 2015 By Mark Dickman