“I'M BLIND, I’M BLIND” is the “inevitable cry” of the stricken in José Saramago’s great novel Blindness, as a strange milky-white opacity spreads among rich and poor, young and old, good and evil, selfish and selfless. “I’m blind” the opthamologist attempting to cure the blindness of others has to admit, though he tries to keep it to himself; “I’m blind” the already quarantined victims hear the announcer suddenly declare on the radio that is their only source of information about the outside world, “I’m blind, I’m blind” cry lecturers stricken in mid-sentence at conferences convened to discuss the plague. Saramago narrates this terrible fate with the dispassionate clearsightedness that is always the hallmark of his style:
The crowd outside continued shouting furiously, but suddenly their cries became lamentations and tears, I’m blind, I’m blind, they were all saying and asking, Where is the door, there was a door here and now it’s gone.
This passage isn’t from Blindness but from Saramago’s last novel, Cain, which retells a lot of the stories of suffering and slaughter in the Old Testament, in this case the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. If you’re not well versed in Genesis you won’t recognize the moment. This sudden blindness was the Sodomites’ first, almost casual, punishment, followed the next day by the fire and brimstone rained down upon the cities of the plain. Here, the men of Sodom, both rich and poor, have demanded that Lot allow them to have their way with the two strangers to whom he has offered his hospitality, men who are really angels. He refuses, and when the would-be rapists attempt to break down Lot’s door, the angels he has sheltered
smote the men that were at the door of the house with blindness, both small and great: so that they wearied themselves to find the door. (Genesis 19:11)
In the King James version, we see the depths of their depravity, since despite their blindness, they are still mad with the desire to carry off the angels and rape them. A similar scene occurs in Blindness, in one of the wings of the asylum where the blind are quarantined: smitten with blindness the men become rapists, and Saramago clearly understands the horrible plausibility of this efflorescence of sexualized rage. Saramago knew plenty about the human capacity for violence, having been a dissenter under the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal. His 1984 novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is in part about the 1936 Spanish Civil War and the aid that Salazar gave to Franco in neighboring Spain, while setting up prisons for Portuguese dissenters at home. Likewise, “The Chair,” the first story in the The Lives of Things (a collection of short stories originally collected in 1978) is a slow motion exposition of the 1968 collapse of the chair that Salazar was sitting in, resulting in a contusion and a cerebral hemorrhage (affecting the optic nerve, insists Saramago) which caused Salazar to be removed from office. There Saramago describes Salazar’s anxious minions as a bunch of “Cains [who] appear from everywhere, if it is not unfair to call them by the name of the wretched fellow on whom the Lord turned his back, [so that he took] huma...read more