White Blindness And Everything Hurts
Today is Saturday, so one week ago was also Saturday. It was Cinco de Mayo but we did not drink tequila or wear hats. A girl kissed me and since then I have felt a variety of feelings.
Blindness by José Saramago is a novel about an anonymous city struck with a contagious blindness. It opens on a red light. The light turns green. The cars all move except for one, whose driver has turned suddenly and mysteriously blind. Somebody eventually gets into the car and drives the newly blind man home and escorts him upstairs. This is the last nice thing that happens. The blind man refuses the other man’s offers to wait with him till his wife comes home, not wanting to invite a potential thief into his apartment. We later find out that the man drives off with the blind guy’s car.
All good English majors know that you get at least a letter grade off if you spend a paragraph summarizing plot. God forbid you spend two. But you haven’t read this book. After reading this essay, I hope you’ll conclude that you shouldn’t read this book, even though it’s probably accurate and possibly brilliant. I’m a festival of sadness despite the girl and the kissing, and it’s this book’s fault.
So, the car thief shortly goes blind. A cabbie drives him home, and then he goes blind too. You get the idea. The blindness is passed through the air, like we used to think all diseases were. It’s a metaphor. This is not a book about subtlety.
The government (excuse me, the Government: Wikipedia lists Saramago as a “proponent of libertarian communism”) decides to quarantine all the blind people in a mental institution, and the first truckload of people is shipped off and curtly told “f-ck you” in Government jargon, which seems out of place. It’s mostly Big Brother. There’s a blind optometrist and his wife, who hasn’t gone blind yet, and can literally see what the others can’t. Nobody has names.
Sh-t gets real at the mental institution. Everybody reverts to their animal nature, which to Saramago is ruthless and horrifying. There’s death and rape and crude burial.
Remember reading Lord of the Flies in seventh grade, and learning what an allegory was? Ralph is what happens when you put idealists in charge. Piggy is the rules. Jack is our lizard brains. Blindness is like that, but more painful. Lord of the Flies is kid-friendly and Blindness rips your guts out.
A few days ago I walked my dog at twilight. I am one of the few white people on the block, and he looks like a cartoon dog, so we stick out. A black man walked up and clasped my hand in his. He asked if I was new here and I said yes sir, I’m pretty new. He had a Trinidadian accent, I think, like half our neighborhood does. He said I didn’t need anyone to look out for me, but if I did, his name is Steven and people know him. I think I’ll be okay, but who’s to say.
The last person I had sex with hasn’t contacted me in weeks. I know her last name, but I haven’t entered it in my phone. It’s funny having sex without feelings. I hadn’t really done that before. It felt irresponsible and exhilarating. We are animals.
The first person I ever loved never knew it, and still doesn’t. We are animals, but we are so peculiar.
The one woman who retains her vision in Blindness can’t tell anyone because it would cause chaos. I’ve read a lot of books, and a lot of criticism of books, and I think she represents the archetypal Artist. The person who sees the statue in the pillar of stone, the wise man in the cave. It’s a trope, but for good reason.
I think we all experience equal good and terrible emotions. We all feel good sometimes, and we all hurt sometimes. The difference between folks, as far as I can tell, is how far the pendulum swings. Some of us feel good when good things happen, bad when bad things happen, and then they revert to the mean and mostly everything is okay. This is functional. This is most people. Other people’s pendulums swing wide and deep and punch them in the gut. They feel exultant and they feel devastated. They feel to degrees that others can’t even imagine, and don’t know they can’t imagine, which leaves everyone confused. These people are Saramago’s sighted woman.
Blindness seems to come from a place of that deepest emotion, but only the negative kind. It is overwhelmingly misanthropic. This is why I sat in bed and played Angry Birds instead of being a person last night. I have sometimes thought that I feel too much, and others too little; I think I have given up value judgments on things as they simply are.
The blindness in the novel is eligible for allegory because it’s whiteness, and blindness in the real world is always blackness. The characters describe it as a milky fog. We know from science that black absorbs and white reflects; black is a superabundance of color, and white is no colors at all. Saramago’s vicious blind people have been struck not with too much sensation but a total lack of it, and that’s what turns them into savages.
The girl I kissed might have a variety of feelings, but she might not. She might have some directed at me, but she might not. This is okay. We live in a spectrum of color that overwhelms us with joy in equal measure to sadness. A few weeks ago, I left a bar alone because I couldn’t handle talking to anyone; being there felt like a silly waste. A few days ago, I left a bar with her. I put my arm around her and mentioned that she smelled nice, and that moment was neither silly nor wasteful.
This is not a book review. If it were, I’d have to finish Blindness, and I don’t think I’m going to. I don’t think you should pick it up at all. I was going to try for something more subtle, but like I said before, Blindness is the opposite of that, so I get a pass. I am on page 247 and my chest is tight and my hair hurts. I will climb onto my fire escape and lie on my back and smoke a cigarette and listen to the telenovela they’re watching next door. I will take a shower and eat a cookie. I will do my best to stop worrying and love the spectrum.
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