José Saramago has been a bestselling author of plays, short stories, novels, poems, and other works in Portugal for many years. Some of his works have been translated into more than twenty languages. A well-known atheist and communist, Saramago wrote religious or political satires. He published several critically acclaimed novels before 1991 when his highly controversial The Gospel According to Jesus Christ was banned as blasphemous in a number of countries. Yet, in 1998, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for Blindness, an allegorical novel. The Portuguese edition, Ensaio sobre a cegueira (Essay on Blindness), was published in 1995 and translated into English in 1997. Blindness raises questions about the frailty of social structures and the strengths and weaknesses of human nature. The central question is: What would happen if everyone suddenly went blind? To imagine an answer to this question, Saramago writes a story about an epidemic that creates chaos in the capital city of an unknown country in the late twentieth century. It is a worst case scenario of government and social failure in which the best and worst in humankind is portrayed. This tale has no specific setting, no names for the characters, and no chapter titles. It is written in Saramago's unique style that uses little punctuation, long sentences that can continue for a paragraph, and paragraphs that can run for pages. Since 1995, Saramago has continued to publish extensively, including a sequel to Blindness published in English in 2006 as Seeing.
José Saramago was born on November 16, 1922, in Azinhaga, a small village in the province of Ribatejo, Portugal. His parents were landless peasants, José de Sousa and Maria da Piedade. His name would have been José de Sousa as well, but a registrar took it upon himself to give the newborn the name of a wild radish that was also the family's nickname within the village: Saramago. In 1924, the family moved to Lisbon; shortly thereafter Saramago's older brother Francisco died. Although Saramago did well in school, he had to withdraw at the age of twelve because his parents could not afford the expense. He then enrolled in a technical school where he spent five years learning to be a mechanic. The school also offered courses in French and literature, and Saramago developed a keen interest in the written word, spending many hours in the local public library. After graduation, he worked for two years as a car mechanic then as an administrative civil servant. In 1947, Saramago published his first novel, The Land of Sin, but he did not publish a novel again until 1976.
In the interim years, Saramago worked as a publishing production manager, a translator, a literary critic, and as a newspaper editor until he was fired for his communist views. During his subsequent unemployment he decided to devote his time to writing. He published poetry, newspaper articles, short stories, plays, and novels. Saramago married Ilda Reis in 1944. They had one child, Violante, born in 1947, but the couple divorced in 1970. He then married Pilar del Rio, a Spanish journalist, in 1988. That same year, Saramago gained worldwide attention with the translation of Baltasar and Blimunda, a 1982 novel written in the style of magical realism. In 1991, that attention turned to notoriety with the publication of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. The Portuguese clergy and Vatican protested what they perceived as its blasphemous storyline, and the following year the undersecretary of the Ministry of Culture refused to allow the novel's entry into a European competition. Disgusted by this treatment, Saramago left Portugal and moved to the Canary Islands.
Saramago has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, but perhaps his best known work is Blindness, published in Portuguese in 1995 and in English in 1997. The sequel, Seeing, was published in English in 2006 and has the same setting as Blindness, but is actually on a very different topic. Saramago has received honorary doctorates from the University of Turin and the University of Sevilla, as well as numerous other national and European awards, culminating in the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. He was the first Portuguese author to win a Nobel Prize.
Waiting at a stop light, a man suddenly goes blind with a white blindness. A stranger drives him home, but the blind man turns down the stranger's offer to stay with him until his wife comes home because the blind man fears having a stranger in his house. When his wife arrives, she calls an ophthalmologist, and they are able to get in for an examination right away, but they discover that the stranger has stolen their car. The doctor is unable to determine the cause of the blindness.
The stranger who stole the car leaves it to contemplate his actions only moments before he, too, goes blind. Meanwhile, the ophthalmologist ponders the mysterious case of sudden white blindness and plans his course of research on the subject. That evening, however, he goes blind as well. At the same time, one of his patients from the afternoon, a prostitute who leaves wearing sunglasses to ease her mild conjunctivitis, goes to meet a client and soon thereafter goes blind.
A policeman takes the car thief home, and another policeman removes the panicked girl in the dark glasses from her hotel and takes her home to her parents. The doctor spends the night thinking about his situation. He finally tells his wife the next morning and then realizes that if the blindness is contagious, he could infect her, but she remains calm. When the doctor tries to talk to an official at the Ministry of Health about a possible contagion, the doctor runs into bureaucratic roadblocks, so he calls the director of his hospital who wants to be cautious to avoid starting a panic. As the day goes by, however, and more cases are reported, the ministry calls the doctor to find out if all the cases are his patients then tells him that he needs to be quarantined. When he gets in the ambulance, his wife gets in with him declaring that she, too, has gone blind.
The Commission on Logistics and Security, after debating several options, decides to use an empty mental hospital to quarantine the newly blind on one wing and those infected in another. By the end of the second day, all the blind have been rounded up and placed under armed guard at the asylum. The doctor and his wife arrive first. She is not really blind, so she inspects the facility. Then the first blind man, the one who stole his car, the girl with the dark glasses, and the boy with a squint who had also been the doctor's patient all arrive. The boy keeps crying for his mother. They all make an attempt to get acquainted. Then the loudspeaker announces the rules of their quarantine and the process for receiving food rations. The six internees decide to organize with the doctor as their leader. One man starts to blame the doctor for being their link to blindness, and the first blind man realizes he is with the man who stole his car. They scuffle but are separated. The doctor's wife leads the group single file to the lavatories. The thief tries to fondle the girl, so she kicks him with a stiletto heel. The doctor and his wife have to try to bandage the wound. Upon returning, they count the beds to learn their places.
The next morning, the thief has a bad fever from the wound. More people arrive, and when introductions are made, the first blind man discovers his wife, and other connections are made. The girl with dark glasses asks the thief for forgiveness, and he apologizes, too. When the doctor and his wife go to get the group's food, they try to ask for assistance for the wounded man but are brutally rebuffed. They are receiving rations for only five when there are ten, then three more arrive from the infected ward. Shortly thereafter, a crowd of blind people arrives from the city, the ward is filled, and some go to the other empty ward. The doctor realizes how difficult sanitation will be. The thief tells the doctor's wife that he knows she can see. That night, he crawls out of the ward, hoping to convince the guard to send him to a hospital; instead, he is shot, and the others are told to come drag away the body.
The doctor and his wife have to negotiate with the guards for a spade. Digging the grave is very difficult, and no breakfast rations come. When the soldiers finally deliver some food, they are so startled by the internees who had come to the front to wait that the soldiers open fire, killing a number of people. The infected, too afraid of contamination to move around the dead to get to the food, watch as the blind come, remove the bodies to the yard, and carry away the containers. The people from the second ward cannot be coaxed into burying their dead. The doctor discovers that there is no more toilet paper in the lavatories. His wife helps to clean him, then she too worries about the sanitation problems and when she will go blind. As most sleep, some couple has sex, and the sounds disgust those who are awake.
The doctor's wife's watch stops because she forgot to wind it, and the further disorientation of the loss of time causes her to sob uncontrollably. The girl in the dark glasses consoles her. While waiting for the food to arrive, some people from the two wards talk to each other testily. The guards are so afraid of contagion that they make the internees come out into the yard to get their food, and the people have to crawl around to find where it is placed. One man becomes so lost that he has to be guided back by the shouts of the group. Taking advantage of this distraction, someone steals some of the food containers. After this incident, the wards decide to set up a committee to oversee distributing the food equally. However, a large group of people arrives, and there is panic and shoving as they try to find their way into the building. A man with a black patch waits outside until the chaos subsides then finds his way to the first ward where happenstance provides him the last remaining bed there.
The crowded conditions convince the second ward to bury their dead and try to police their garbage as the first ward has been doing. The man with the black patch turns out to be a cataract patient of the ophthalmologist, and he was in the waiting room that first day of the epidemic. He has brought a radio, which the group agrees to use only for news to preserve the batteries. However, as they search for news, they hear some music, and it causes them to cry about what they are missing. The doctor's wife is able to get the correct time and restart her watch. The man with the black patch is able to tell the group what has been happening on the outside since they were interned, which amounts to the inability of the government to meet the demands of the situation since the blindness struck everywhere with great rapidity. Each member of the ward recalls what they were seeing when they went blind, and people realize that the girl with the dark glasses is a prostitute. The news claims that there will soon be a unified government and help for all.
The extent of the filth and sewage in the hallways becomes a severe problem. The doctor's wife contemplates telling the others that she can see but realizes that too many demands would be made of her. The men from the third ward arm themselves with sticks and metal rods and take all the food, telling the others that they will have to pay for rations. The inmates ask for help from the soldiers but are once again rebuffed because the soldiers have been told to let the inmates kill each other so there will be fewer of them. The head of the third ward gang reveals that he has a gun and demands payment in the form of jewelry and other valuables. The two other wards decide that they have no choice but to comply. While looking for valuables, the doctor's wife discovers that she packed a pair of scissors. The doctor and the first blind man turn in the valuables and realize that one of the hoodlums is a man who is experienced at being blind and has a Braille machine with which he is keeping inventory. The leader puts his gun against the doctor's head, and the doctor considers trying to grab it but does not.
Listening to the radio, the old man with the black eye patch hears the news station go silent as the people who are broadcasting are all struck blind. The doctor's wife decides to go outside while the others sleep to sit and think. She observes the other inmates as she walks by their beds, including a couple making love, and she cries to see that there is still tenderness amid the terror. Her wandering ends at the third ward, where she counts the hoodlums and sees that they are not distributing all the food containers but stockpiling them.
Conditions in the asylum become worse as the lack of proper nutrition and the spread of influenza create greater misery. When a group tries to protest to the hoodlums, their ward is given no provisions for three days in punishment. The hoodlums then demand further valuables, so the wards scrounge to find anything that might be left and turn that over. A week later, the hoodlums demand women. After much arguing, the seven women of the first ward decide they can pay the price so that all may eat. The girl with the dark glasses has already been taking care of some of the men sexually, even the old man with the dark patch. One night, the doctor, too, crawls into her bed, not knowing that his wife is watching. The doctor's wife, however, sits on their bed and assures them that she understands. She then tells the girl with the dark glasses that she can see. The next day the women go to the third ward where they are brutally and repeatedly raped. As they leave, one of the women collapses from her injuries and dies. The doctor's wife brings water in plastic bags to the ward so the women can clean themselves and the body of the dead woman.
Four days later, the thugs come for the women in the second ward. The doctor's wife slips in line with them carrying her scissors and, unnoticed, goes to the leader's bed where she thrusts the scissors into his throat. When the woman he is molesting feels the spurting blood, she screams, and pandemonium ensues as the death of the leader is discovered. The accountant grabs the gun, but the women make their way out of the ward. The doctor's wife stabs another hoodlum to death, and another woman strangles a man. The doctor's wife shouts threats at the men, and the accountant says that he will kill her the next time he hears her voice. The hunger that follows, though, is due more to the fact that the deliveries of food have stopped. The men finally decide to try to overtake the hoodlums, and the doctor's wife says the women should go, too, to take out their bitter feelings. The woman she saved from the hoodlum leader has come to their ward to listen and she says, "Wherever you go, I shall go." That night, the power goes out. The next day, the assault on the hoodlums results in two from the other wards being killed by gunshots. In the aftermath, the doctor's wife tells her group that she can see. Everyone returns to their wards, but the woman who said "Wherever you go, I shall go" is energized by the effort and searches for a lighter she has hidden that she uses to set fire to the hoodlums' barricade. She dies, but so do all the hoodlums. The fire and smoke drive the inmates out into the yard where they discover that there are no soldiers and that they are free.
Most of the inmates wait in the yard for daytime in the vain hope that the soldiers or the Red Cross will bring food. The doctor, the doctor's wife, the girl with the dark glasses, the boy with the squint, the first blind man and his wife, and the old man with the black eye patch huddle together planning their route to their various homes. What they find is a city in which everyone has gone blind. The doctor's wife finds out that the soldiers went blind last and that people have left their homes in search of food with little hope of finding their houses again. Even if they do, someone else has probably taken it over. The streets are littered with trash and excrement. The doctor's wife leaves her group in an appliance shop while she hunts for food. She finally finds a supermarket and figures that there must be a storage unit that the blind could not find. She finds a basement filled with foodstuffs and carries out as many bags as she can, but some in the outside crowd can smell the food, and she hurries away. She gets lost and sits down to cry. A dog comes up and licks away her tears. She embraces him then sees signs set up for tourists directing them to various areas. She and the dog find their way back to the group and all eat and then sleep.
The group finds new clothes and shoes then makes its way to the flat of the girl with the dark glasses. There are bodies in the streets from those who left hospitals after there was no more care, from those who have died of starvation or violence or accident in their blindness. At the girl's flat, neither her parents nor their neighbors are home except for an old woman who has been living off the chickens and rabbits in her yard, eating them raw since she could not cook. The group spends the night in the girl's flat which is clean and comfortable. However, the lavatories are unusable, and they must all defecate in the yard. They make plans about staying together and where they will live. The old man with the black eye patch tells them he has only a room and no family. They make their way to the fifth floor flat of the doctor and his wife, going past dogs eating a corpse, and sights of disarray that the old man with the black eye patch is able to explain, such as runs on the banks, that he remembers from before entering the asylum.
The flat of the doctor and his wife is intact. The doctor's wife finds clean clothes for everyone. She also finds bottled water, which they drink as if it were rare wine. The next morning it is raining, so the men and women take turns on the balcony, cleaning their clothes, shoes, and themselves with soap as if in a shower. The old man with the black eye patch, however, asks to wash in a tub, and the girl with the dark glasses slips into the bathroom and scrubs his back for him. The first blind man, his wife, and the doctor's wife leave to look for food and to go to the first blind man's flat. There they find a writer who moved in when his own flat was taken from him. The writer is very polite, and it is decided that he and his family should stay there. They all exchange news about the asylum and life on the outside. The writer has been keeping notes, even though no one may ever read them. That night the doctor's wife reads to the group.
Two days later, the doctor wants to visit his office. He and his wife and the girl with the blind glasses find everything undisturbed. They go to the girl's flat and find the old woman dead and half devoured by animals. They bury the body in the back yard and leave a lock of the girl's hair on the doorknob for her parents to find. That night the doctor's wife reads to them again. The girl and the old man with the black eye patch talk of love and living together when they are finally able to go off on their own. In effect, they become engaged.
The next day the doctor and his wife and the dog go back to the supermarket where they discover that people found the basement but fell to their deaths because they could not manage the treacherous stairs. The doctor's wife is so sickened by stench and guilt that they take refuge in a church, but there is no room until the dog growls and a place opens up. She faints, but upon opening her eyes, she sees that all the sacred images in the church have had their eyes covered with cloth or paint. When the doctor's wife tells her husband, others hear and are frightened enough by this bizarre occurrence to go running out of the church, many leaving their belongings behind. So the doctor's wife goes through things and finds enough food to fill their bags half full. That night, the first blind man suddenly regains his sight. The excitement that ensues causes all of them to stay awake all night waiting for their sight to return. The next to regain sight is the girl in the dark glasses who assures the old man with the eye patch that she still wants him even after seeing how he looks. The doctor gets his sight back the next dawn. The girl wants to go to her flat to leave a note for her parents and the old man goes with her. The first blind man and his wife go to their flat to find out if the writer has regained his sight, too. They all can hear people shouting in the street that they can see. The doctor's wife says that she does not think that any of them went blind but were already blind people who could see, but do not see.
The Boy with the Squint
Separated from his mother, the boy with the squint has no one to take care of him in the asylum. At first, he cries continuously for this mother, so the girl with the dark glasses comforts him. Only a small boy, he is scared and sometimes wets his pants. Adopted by the girl with the dark glasses, he is taken into the core group; the group cares for and protects him and takes him wherever they go.
The Car Thief
At first seeming to be a kind stranger who helps the first blind man to get home, the car thief is actually sleazy and opportunistic. He steals the first blind man's car and tries to fondle the girl with the dark glasses. Her forceful reaction results in a severe wound that becomes infected. His only moments of remorse and sincere feeling come when he apologizes to her for his actions and thanks the doctor's wife for her care. He also figures out that the doctor's wife can see, but he does not tell anyone except her. Seeking medical assistance, the car thief accidentally gets too close to the internment camp's gates and, in their panic, the guards shoot him. He is the first blind internee to die.
As an ophthalmologist, the doctor is supposed to know how to treat eyes and help people see, so the epidemic not only strips him of his sight but also his purpose. Without his sight, he cannot so much as bandage a wound. Yet he is not one "to surrender helplessly to despair." He is thoroughly devoted to his wife, and they consult each other on everything, but he also has a moment of weakness when he seeks sexual comfort from the girl in the dark glasses who can more completely understand his situation. Even though he can do nothing for their eyes, the doctor is still seen as an authority figure and is chosen as a leader by the other blind internees in the ward. He takes his position as leader seriously and shows courage when asked to stand up for his fellow inmates. He actively works to make their situation better, even though he is often unsuccessful in getting what they need. The doctor is a thoughtful and kind man who, strengthened by his wife's courage, tries to make the best of a horrible situation.
The Doctor's Wife
The doctor's wife makes a decision that demonstrates her remarkable generosity and simultaneously propels her into a horrifying journey. As her husband is being taken away to be quarantined, she claims that she is also blind so she can accompany him. However, she is not blind, and as the only person left who can still see, she alone fully experiences the horror that eventually surrounds them. She learns that she is not necessarily lucky to have escaped the blindness because she is witness to the rapid disintegration of society and the fragility of human decency. She is extremely "close to her husband in everything" but does not become angry or jealous when her husband sleeps with the girl with the dark glasses because she knows it will bring both of them comfort. The doctor's wife does as much as she can to help all those around her instead of using her sight to take advantage of or control anyone. Yet the doctor's wife is not immune to the character changes that their situation creates, and, after she is brutally raped by the hoodlums, she develops the militancy needed to use her hidden scissors to murder the hoodlums' leader. It pains her terribly to realize that even good actions can lead to bad when she learns that a number of blind people fell to their deaths because they followed the scent of the food she had found in the grocery basement. The doctor's wife does everything she can to hold on to her own humanity and that of the others in her care, and this struggle makes her the unforgettable heroine of the story.
The Dog of Tears
Although he does not appear until late in the story, the dog of tears acts as a companion to the doctor's wife in a way the others cannot. He, too, can see the chaos that has overwhelmed the city, and he becomes unfalteringly loyal to the woman who shares his pain. He licks the tears of the doctor's wife in an effort to comfort her; she embraces him and cries even harder because she has found someone who understands. Their providential meeting allows the doctor's wife to gather the strength to keep moving forward. In addition, the dog of tears offers protection to the group of seven for he is a "gruff, ill-tempered animal when he does not have to dry someone's tears."
The First Blind Man
The first blind man suddenly sees nothing but white while waiting at a stop light. Then all those with whom he comes in contact, the car thief who helps him get home, his wife, the ophthalmologist he consults, and all the people in the doctor's waiting room, become blind as well. Thus begins the epidemic. Once in the internment camp, he and his wife join forces with the doctor and the doctor's wife in trying to maintain order and civility. The first blind man shows courage when he accompanies the doctor to deliver the ward's valuables to the hoodlums, and he tries to protect his wife when they are told that the hoodlums want the women. The first blind man, though initially frightened by his sudden disability, shows great resilience and loyalty.
The First Blind Man's Wife
The first blind man's wife insists on seeking medical help when he goes blind, thus bringing them to the ophthalmologist's office and making the contacts that lead to the start of the epidemic and the core group that evolves from there. The first blind man's wife is separated form her husband when she is sent to the ward for those who have been contaminated and he is sent to the ward for the blind. After she too falls blind, they are reunited and are inseparable for the rest of the ordeal. She is normally "docile and respectful towards her husband," but when she is told that the women are wanted by the hoodlums, she refuses to be protected by her husband. She says she is "no different from the others." Horrific though it is, she has an opportunity to provide food for her husband and the group, and so she does it. She shows great courage in sacrificing herself for others.
The Girl with the Dark Glasses
Before the epidemic, the girl with the dark glasses is a prostitute used and discarded by strangers; however, as a blind internee, she becomes a compassionate caretaker who is embraced by strangers. When the boy with the squint cries for his lost mother, it is the girl with the dark glasses who becomes his surrogate parent. When the doctor is looking for comfort, she allows him into her bed. She is a tough woman, but she is more concerned about the welfare of her family and new friends than many of the others in her same situation. She is truly grieved that her reaction to the car thief's groping caused his fatal wound and asks his forgiveness. Although she acts mature, she is actually young, and her search for her family reveals that she is just a girl who misses her family and needs someone to take care of her just as much as she takes care of others. Perhaps for this reason, she becomes close to the old man with the black eye patch, and his gentleness and paternal attention bring her comfort. Even though they seem like an odd match, they become a couple.
As soon as they arrive at the internment camp, the hoodlums smell an opportunity to take advantage of others. They have no morals and try to grab whatever they can for themselves in the moment with no consideration for others or the consequences of their actions. Although they are just as blind as the rest of the inmates, the ringleader has a gun and the hoodlums make bludgeons which they use to terrorize the other inmates. The hoodlums gain control of all the food and use their cache to cruelly extort valuables from the other blind people and demand sex from the women. One of them, an accountant, was already blind before the epidemic, so he knows how to function in blindness and use a Braille machine to keep track of the bounty from their extortion. The hoodlums are parasites who make an already dire situation much worse. In the end, justice is served when the other inmates finally revolt, and all the hoodlums die in a massive fire.
The Old Man with the Black Eye Patch
Kindly and resilient, the old man with the black eye patch is more willing than others, perhaps because of his age, to confront and resist the forces that are trying to destroy his humanity. He appreciates art and in fact went blind while in a museum looking at a painting. Since he is the last of the doctor's patients to go blind, he is able to tell the first ward what has been happening outside in the city since their quarantine. Also, he has brought a radio, which gives them a little news and a moment of beauty as they listen to music. The old man with the black eye patch is patient and tries to come up with games to distract the other internees from their situation. He slowly builds a connection with the girl with the dark glasses, even though he cannot imagine what she sees in an old man like him. He does not think he has much to offer a young girl like her, but their bond brings comfort and hope to them both. Their relationship is a step towards regaining their humanity and a sense of normalcy.
The Old Woman
The ultimate survivor, the old woman is another example of what happens when society collapses and a person's humanity is slowly stripped away. She has holed up in her apartment and eats the rabbits and chickens that live in her back yard. Since she cannot cook, she eats them raw, and her apartment is a den of filth and rotting carcasses. Her animal instincts are in charge; she is territorial and suspicious, in many ways like the dog of tears. "Hard of heart," she winds up dying alone.
The Pharmacist's Assistant
The pharmacist's assistant insults the girl with the dark glasses when they first get acquainted and is chagrined later that she goes to the beds of other men, but never comes to him. He is usually active in the affairs of the first ward and is killed in the attempt to attack the hoodlums.
The Woman Who Said "Wherever You Go, I Go"
The woman who said "Wherever you go, I go" is in the process of being raped by the hoodlums' leader when the doctor's wife drives her scissors into his throat. In gratitude, she tells the doctor's wife, "Wherever you go, I go." She devotes herself to the one who saved her life and saved her, too, from a life that is unbearable to live. It is in this devotion that she finds her power. When all the other plans to overthrow the hoodlums fail, the woman who said "Wherever you go, I go" realizes she has the ability to do something. She has a lighter, and she uses it to start a fire that kills not only the hoodlums but also herself.
The first blind man and his wife find the writer living in their flat when they return. The writer has been displaced from his own flat and sought shelter with his family in whatever other safe place he could find. Like the doctor, the writer feels that his purpose has been lost in the blindness because there is no one to read what he writes. Nonetheless, he keeps writing with a pen and paper, making a record of the catastrophe. The first blind man and his wife allow the writer to stay in their place since they want to remain with their group from the asylum.
Response to Crisis
Albert Camus wrote The Plague about a deadly disease that causes survivors to question how they are to go on when so many around them have died. Similarly, Saramago was inspired to write Blindness by an initial hypothetical question: What would happen if a highly contagious, debilitating, and non-lethal disease struck a community? Saramago examines how people might react if a non-lethal disease disabled everyone to the point that the basic social system and support services in their way of life were no longer functioning. Choosing blindness as his disability, he paints the bleakest possible picture of the social devastation that would result. The point may be to remind people that struggle is a part of the human condition, and sometimes extreme difficulties can arise which test beliefs about oneself and one's society. Thus beside the hypothetical question Saramago attempts to answer, there are important questions the text presents to readers: What would people do in a crisis? Are people sufficiently prepared to handle a crisis? Are people sufficiently committed to their personal values to know for sure that they would react ethically and with courage? Blindness serves as a reminder to each individual to establish ethical foundations for the times when they are needed the most. There is also a cautionary reminder here: During crisis people do what they must to survive; even the unthinkable is possible. This reminder may give readers heightened compassion for disabled others and for whole communities that are fragmented by a widespread disaster, for example, the ravages of a communicable disease or war.
Worst and Best in Human Nature
In this depiction of how people may react in a community exposed to a highly contagious and disabling disease, Saramago includes examples of the worst and the best behavior under stress. An early example of the worst is with the seemingly kind man who assists the first blind man but who then turns around and steals the blind man's car.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Why do you think Saramago did not name his characters, the city, or the chapters? Discuss as a class.
- Individually choose any page from Blindness and examine the sentence and paragraph structure. How many lines of text do the sentences occupy? How many paragraphs are there on the page? Compare with others in the class and discuss the difficulties readers find in Saramago's lack of punctuation and unusually long sentences.
- In reality, if an epidemic like that in Blindness occurred, the World Health Organization, the Red Cross/Red Crescent, and other agencies would step in to help. Research emergency preparedness as represented by these organizations or your local city and create an outline showing what they would do in a sudden medical crisis.
- Write an essay about the "dog of tears." What is his role in the book? Does he symbolize something? What is his relationship with the doctor's wife? You may want to include in your report the healing uses of dogs in various physical therapy treatments, in hospitals, and in prisoner rehabilitation systems.
- Oedipus the King, Lord of the Flies, and Endgame are three works that have similarities to Blindness. Go to an online bookseller such as Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble and find these titles. Check to see what other books are suggested by these booksellers. Make an annotated list of these other books, pointing out the elements that these works have in common with Blindness.
The worst kind of response continues when the government moves in quickly to order the affected people into quarantine at a former asylum. The government does not provide medical attention or insure adequate facilities. It shows no humane consideration to the people who are in desperate need of assistance. Many individuals give up in despair, are unable to cooperate, and become hostile and lawless. The very worst is shown by the third ward men who have a gun and use it to confiscate all the food and then use the rations to extort valuables and sexual access to the women in the other wards.
The best behavior is shown by the ophthalmologist's wife who is willing to give totally of herself for others. Further examples of good come from the people in her group who cooperate with each other, try to maintain civilized conduct, and take care of each other. The writer remains civil. The internalized civility of these people suggests that once the epidemic is over, the social fabric will be restored and the city will be reestablished.
Saramago presents so dark a picture that readers may be surprised by the happy ending. The conclusion suggests that there is hope that the best may triumph over the worst in human nature.
The theme of how crisis brings out the worst and best in people is connected to the theme of how social disintegration is the result of the worst traits in human nature. As vice rages unfettered by law, social order disintegrates. The message of this theme is about how fragile the social structure is that sustains civic order. Saramago advises readers to appreciate the qualities of everyday life that they take for granted, which were not easily established and which are vulnerable when catastrophe hits. In established societies, the ongoing government and peace are handed down from previous generations. Those who do not struggle to achieve social order need to be reminded of its vulnerability. Saramago provides in Blindness a picture of social breakdown: no health services; no government protection from lawless predators; no electricity, gas, water, or garbage collection services; no legal recourse for damages or rights violations. The society that enjoys these social structures and services is obligated to uphold and maintain them with vigilance and conviction. Otherwise, as Blindness warns, catastrophe can disrupt the longstanding social order and structure.
Absence of Proper Nouns
Saramago does not use proper nouns in this novel. The characters are not given names; rather they are distinguished by a particular action or physical trait, the epithet standing in for a name. Perhaps Saramago provides an explanation for the namelessness of his characters in a comment given by the writer: "Blind people do not need a name, I am my voice, nothing else matters." No quotation marks set off dialogue, although the start of a new speaker is signaled by capitalization. However, there is no space break when a new speaker is introduced and sometimes no identification of the speaker. The result is a text that can be confusing and daunting to new readers. Saramago's choice here perfectly suits his subject matter. His intention is to create a drama that has universal application, one that is not true just of certain individuals in a particular place and time and facing a particular crisis. Rather he wants to show the basic verities of human instinct and interaction under extreme circumstances. The incremental chaos that engulfs the world of the novel could occur in any country among any group of people trying to cope with sudden disability and fraying social structure. Using this strategy, Saramago drives home the point that the distinction between those who are afflicted and those who are spared is only superficial; in essence, human nature is universally the same.
An allegory is a symbolic representation of abstract ideas or principles. Characters and objects may personify these concepts while the action of a plot may state something about the concept. In short, the elements of an allegory represent one thing in the guise of another. While the allegorical story makes sense on its own, it is almost like a parallel universe to that which it represents in real life. The purpose is to convey indirectly a statement about human conduct or experience. The writer may use allegory to deliver a politically or socially challenging statement without directly naming anyone or citing any actual situation. In the case of Blindness, Saramago's allegory serves as a warning that even in modern times social disintegration can occur swiftly, and each person must have the integrity to display the best of human traits under worst circumstances. Blindness, treated literally in this story, is a metaphor for widespread denial and resistance that prompt people to ignore or reject the basic truths about base human nature and the fragility of any social structure.
The Literary Tradition in Allegory
Allegory as a genre includes fables and parables. Examples of allegories are Aesop's Fables, Book VII of Plato's Republic, William Langland's fourteenth-century Piers Plowman, Dante's The Divine Comedy, the medieval morality play Everyman, Edmund Spenser's 1596 poem The Faerie Queen, John Bunyan's 1675 narrative Pilgrim's Progress, Jonathan Swift's A Tale of the Tub, and Edgar Allen Poe's The Masque of the Red Death.
Among modern writers, the two allegorical novels most commonly compared to Saramago's Blindness are Albert Camus' The Plague (1948) and William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1958). Set fifty years earlier than Blindness, The Plague also asks what might happen to a society when an epidemic strikes. As the title indicates, the disease is a deadly one, so the problem is not as much one of coping with life with the disease as coping with being alive when almost everyone else is suddenly dead. Despite differences, both authors explore basic human nature as it copes with adversity.
In Lord of the Flies, a group of English school boys, marooned on a deserted island, create their own society. The boys are unable to achieve cooperation and their lives disintegrate into barbarism like that of the men in the third ward of the asylum in Blindness. Although Saramago provides a hopeful ending, Golding does not. Still, Golding and Saramago make similar points about how easily social order can disintegrate into chaos.
A famous modern allegorical play that can be compared to Blindness is Samuel Beckett's 1958 play, Endgame. This drama uses a bizarre situation to convey Beckett's message, just as Blindness does for Saramago. Beckett's plot is set up as a chess game in a time that appears to be in a post-nuclear war setting. Beckett suggests the aftermath of a disaster, but his play conveys a sense of existential hopelessness, of going in circles because all action is meaningless and futile. The only progress is toward nothingness. There is here an implied eternal torment that Saramago's characters fear, but from which they are spared by the author's optimistic plot resolution.
Modern Portuguese Literature
Dating from the establishment of the republic in 1910, Portuguese literature of the early twentieth century expressed a longing for the imagined glories of the Portuguese past, a movement called Suadonismo. The greatest Portuguese poet since the sixteenth century, Fernando Pessoa, wrote in the early twentieth century.
In 1972, readers of Portuguese literature were surprised by the publication of the erotic feminist work of novelists Maria Velho da Costa and Maria Isabel Barreno and poet Maria Teresa Horta. Banned at first by the government, the book was eventually published in the United States as The Three Marias: New Portuguese Letters. After 1974, Portuguese literature showed the influence of French literary theory that emphasizes the language techniques and technical elements of a story. In addition, there was an explosion of talent with numerous high-quality fiction writers appearing on the Portuguese scene. Saramago's contemporaries among Portuguese novelists include Vergilio Ferreira, Agustina Bessa-Luis, Antonio Lobo Antunes, and Jose Cardoso Pires. Their counterparts in poetry are Eugenio de Andrade and Antonio Ramos Rosa.
Included in Portuguese literature is the work of writers from Portuguese-speaking countries other than Portugal itself. In the late 1990s, novelists Agostino Neto and Laudino Vieira of Angola, Luis Bernardo Howana of Mozambique, and Manuel Lopes, Orlanda Amarilis, and Manuel Ferreira of Care Verde gained recognition.
Just as the formation of the republic in 1910 spawned a melancholy nostalgia among Portuguese writers, the revolution of 1974 inspired a search for a national identity that eschewed myths of the past. Works were celebrated by writers in Portuguese from other nations and by female writers such as novelist Olga Goncalves who is known for her portrayal of returning emigrants after the 1974 revolution, for example in her book A Florist in Bremerhaven. Besides Saramago's being awarded the Nobel Prize, Jose de Almeida Faria's trilogy about the 1970s and 1980s marks a high point in twentieth-century Portuguese literature.
Since Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature within a few years of writing Blindness, and many critics feel that this novel was a major factor in his winning that award, one would expect that there is much praise and little negative criticism for the book. Indeed, there is much praise. However, George Snedeker, a sociology professor at the State University of New York, expresses a note of concern given this age of increased sensitivity in referring to disabilities. Snedeker points out in his article for the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness that none of the critics seems to have given any thought to the possibility "that the use of blindness as a metaphor might pose a problem to the real blind community." While Snedeker admits that "the analogy between ‘seeing’ and ‘understanding’ is one of the oldest in Western philosophy," he thinks that "Saramago is more interested in probing the human capacity to understand social reality than in the philosophical concept of absolute truth." Snedeker concludes, "I wish he had chosen a better way of representing this quest."
Other than this consideration, the reviews provide a string of superlatives in describing this unique novel. Philip Landon, writing for the Review of Contemporary Fiction, thinks that Saramago has written "a parable for the millennium." Landon makes mention of the traditional symbolism associated with blindness. He notes that previous classics "have used the figure of the blind man to dramatize the vulnerability of the individual buffeted by the forces of existence." Landon further explains that Blindness "extends and challenges this tradition" of depicting "the cosmic alienation felt by a social outcast or an everyman figure." Landon concludes that Saramago's "self-reflexive fiction" has a positive conclusion that "turns away from the quick-sands of philosophical despair and affirms instead the redeeming structures of civilization."
Writing a novel with classic themes about blindness, social degradation, and the strength of the human spirit is daunting enough because of the inevitable comparisons, but writing the novel in language that is unique in its use of punctuation, sentence structure, and paragraphing is a real risk. However, Publishers Weekly editor Drenka Willen states that "Saramago has never shied away from big game." Further, in an age when mass violence is a part of world culture to the extent that people are becoming almost shock-proof and seem numb to the horror, Willen asserts that "this most sophisticated fiction retains its peculiar power to move and persuade."
A Library Journal reviewer, Lisa Rohrbaugh, states that Saramago's work is "written in a concise, haunting prose" that complements the "unsettling" nature of the novel. Kevin Grandfield, writing for Booklist, adds that the novel is an "inspired characterization of human nature" that deftly shows "how vulnerable humans are, how connected and how blind."
In summary, Saramago apparently did well to revisit a classic theme. As judged by literary critics and the Nobel Prize committee, his originality of treatment and presentation was a masterpiece of fiction.
Kerschen is an educator and freelance writer. In the following essay, she discusses the reality check that, for the average reader, Saramago's Blindness requires.
In reading literature, there is a practice called the suspension of disbelief, which means that the reader is willing to go along with the implausible or unrealistic elements in a work of art in order to appreciate the worldview and story the work presents. Inconsistencies in the author's proposal or that violate common sense, however, may break this temporary suspension of incredulity on the reader's part and lead to criticism of the work of art. In Blindness, Saramago does not violate his agreement with his readers. He is consistent with his request that the reader believe in the possibility of a white blindness epidemic and all that he says that epidemic entails. The problem is, though, that he surrounds his imaginary epidemic with circumstances that are so contrary to reality and common sense that it is difficult for some readers to enjoy the novel.
It may seem impudent to criticize a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, but many readers do not have the literary expertise of the Nobel committee and, therefore, do not see the finer points that make a work a masterpiece to the trained eye. The situation is similar to that of modern art: It may show stunning technique to those in the field who are knowledgeable about artistic techniques, but to the average viewer, modern art can be bizarre, meaningless, confusing, if not downright unattractive. Similarly, a literary work of art may be difficult to understand.
In Blindness, a mysterious and highly contagious white blindness strikes the population of the unnamed capital city of an unknown country. The lack of specificity about the setting is acceptable to readers because they understand that this story takes place no where in particular; it could happen anywhere. Concerning the disease, only the wife of a local ophthalmologist remains unaffected. While she often questions why she has been spared, there is no answer given. In regards to this mystery, the reader is probably willing to accept her exception for the sake of the story, understanding that having one person with sight in this world of blindness is a necessary device for providing an eyewitness who experiences unique difficulties in this context. Besides, believing that one person is not infected with the white blindness is not too much of a stretch of the reader's credulity.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- The sequel to Blindness was published in English in 2006 as Seeing. The setting is the same nameless city, but this time the story is a witty satire of European politics and the media built around an election in which 70 percent of the public casts blank ballots.
- Blindness is often compared to Albert Camus's The Plague, an existential novel about epidemic and death set in Oran, Algeria. The story, first published in 1947, chronicles the efforts of several people to cope individually and collectively with fear, loneliness, and suffering.
- William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1959) is similar to Blindness in that it portrays the increasing barbarism among a group of English schoolboys who are marooned on an island and must try to cooperate to survive.
- Saramago's Baltasar and Blimunda (1988), set in eighteenth-century Portugal, is a dark, surrealistic story about a genius priest who is aided by a soldier and a clairvoyant in making a flying machine.
- The Stand is Stephen King's 1978 allegorical novel that has a very similar premise to that of The Plague. A virus kills over 99 percent of the people on Earth, leaving those remaining to struggle with preserving sanity and civilized society while maintaining hope in the fight between good and evil.
- For an understanding of the crisis surrounding an actual epidemic, there is America's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 (2003), by Alfred W. Crosby. This book is a comprehensive account of the flu epidemic in the United States at a time when 25 million people died from the disease worldwide.
- The idea of a devastating plague such as described allegorically by Camus and Saramago probably comes from their knowledge of the Black Plague that killed a third of the European population in the middle of the fourteenth century. This catastrophe is described in John Kelly's The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (2005).
It is the rest of the story that violates common sense, or rather, common knowledge. Although specifics are not given regarding the name of the city or the time period, the story evidently takes place in modern times because there are automobiles, telephones, medical specialties, radio stations, electricity, and so on. Since the author is Portuguese, one might assume that the city is in Portugal, but there is no proof of that, and Saramago may have intended for the city to represent any city. Nonetheless, it is not a city in a third world country; it is not a city without government or resources. It is a modern city and, as such, should have all the emergency preparedness procedures of any modern city. Readers expect an organized response to the crisis situation that is presented.
In the event of hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, or the outbreak of a dangerous contagious disease, any reasonably informed person knows that government rescue teams can soon be in place to help the afflicted. In the United States, the Center for Disease Control has a lengthy manual explaining step by step how to handle even the most potentially lethal situations with contagious diseases. Anyone who has ever seen a disaster movie knows how teams of medical experts come to the scene, even in cases in which wearing protective gear and setting up isolation areas are required. The response and treatment is humane and based on established modern medical procedures and precautions. To believe, as readers are asked to do in Blindness, that the government would not respond with medical assistance and a safe, clean place with adequate facilities for those who have become ill is ludicrous. If something like what Saramago describes ever actually happened, the World Health Organization and the Red Cross/Red Crescent would be there as soon as possible with medical experts and assistance from a number of other countries. These aid organizations would at least air drop supplies if they could do nothing else. At one point, just after the internees leave the asylum, Saramago even mentions that some wait in the yard hoping that the Red Cross "might bring them food and the other basic comforts." The reader has to wonder why Saramago bothered to mention the Red Cross that late in the novel. If response by the Red Cross were possible in this fictive world, then it would have been on site long before this reference to it occurs.
In addition, it is incredible that the ophthalmologist and his wife, even with the supplies she brings from the supermarket basement, have only enough in their pantry to feed their group for a few days. Yes, there are seven people, and yes, it could be a tiny kitchen, but it seems that they ought to be able to go a little longer. The girl's apartment is intact. Could they not have gotten food from her parents' stores? Or is this a culture in which people shop daily at the market and do not keep much at home? There is mention of grocery stores and supermarkets, so there should have been some stocking in pantries. Yet, "In the larder there were some jars of preserves, some dried fruit, sugar, some left-over biscuits, some dry toast" and that is all. Further, it seems like people in this city would have barbecue grills or hibachi that might be used on the back porch for cooking. It seems just as likely that people would have gas stoves instead of electric ones. Of course, Saramago is trying to make the situation as difficult as possible, so there is no gas stove, no hibachi, and little food. Meanwhile, some readers may think these people are surprisingly unprepared.
Readers of Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis" are only asked to believe the protagonist turns into a bug. Once readers accept this impossibility as a given, the rest of the story works in a logical pattern. Everything in the allegory falls into place concerning a person who is different—the adjustments that have to be made, the shame and embarrassment, and the search for a new place in life. In Blindness, however, there are multiple unrealistic elements that the reader is asked to accept in addition to the epidemic of white blindness, and those elements test the reader's willingness to suspend disbelief.
At this point, the reader is asked to understand illusory reality. An article on a website devoted to author biographies (www.kirjasto.sci.fi/saramago.htm) quotes Saramago as saying: "The possibility of the impossible, dreams and illusions, are the subject of my novels." In this literary framework, nothing has to be like reality at all. The story is sustained by the imagination of the readers. Whether the allegory borders on fantasy, magical realism like that of Gabriel García Márquez, science fiction, or horror, each story has to be read according to its own premise. The improbable occurrence is designed to explore certain human emotions and interactions, whatever deviations of the expected route that might take.
In Blindness Saramago imagines what would happen if there were an epidemic of blindness. He also imagines what would happen if the local government and international aid organizations failed to respond. These additional hypotheses taken together make it difficult for the reader to believe in the story. The reader is being asked to go along for the sake of the story and the message that will result from it. The critics agree this novel deserves the reader's suspension of disbelief. Readers are advised to relax, ignore logic and reason, and then enjoy the benefits that reading Blindness provides.
Source: Lois Kerschen, Critical Essay on Blindness, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
In the following essay, Cole explains the significant role that dogs play in the novel Blindness, especially the "dog of tears" that becomes an actual character. Although he appears late in the novel, the dog of tears serves as a savior and companion to the ophthalmologist's wife, who is one of the few not afflicted with the blindness and is a symbol of those who can truly see.
Dogs play a significant role in José Saramago's 1995 novel Blindness. One in particular, the dog of tears, becomes a full-fledged character. The narrator describes the dog of tears as "an animal of the human type." But the dog is more than humanlike; it is humane. Among the group of nameless protagonists, only two figures are sighted throughout most of the novel, the doctor's wife and the dog of tears. Each acts as a heroic guide for the protagonists as they endure episodes of hellish events. In its role as savior and protector, the dog of tears is a seeing-eye dog in every sense of the term: it recognizes and responds to human suffering. A few examples will illustrate.
He appears late in the novel, in the thirteenth chapter (Saramago does not number the chapters), after the protagonists escape the insane asylum where the government has quarantined them. During the internment, however, everyone in the nameless city goes blind. Although free of the miseries of the asylum, the protagonists now contend with the apocalyptic misery of a modern city in anarchy.
Both in and out of the asylum, the doctor's wife bears responsibility for the group and experiences unspeakable suffering. After they escape, she first finds shelter for them and then braves the streets to search for food. She finds food but gets lost, and, in the midst of a rainstorm, succumbs to monumental despair. It is then that she encounters her savior:
The dogs gathered around her, sniffed at the bags, but without much conviction, as if their hour for eating had passed, one of them licks her face, perhaps it had been used to drying tears ever since it was a puppy. The woman strokes its head, runs her hand down its drenched back, and she weeps the rest of her tears embracing the dog. When she finally raised her eyes, the god of crossroads be praised a thousand times, she saw a great map before her.
The wife sees a city map—a map for tourists—and finds her way back. Unlike other feral dogs that terrorize the city, the dog of tears acts as a savior. Saramago leads readers to this "holy" interpretation. When the wife and dog return with food, the dog shakes the water from his pelt, baptizing the protagonists: "Holy water of the most efficacious variety, descended directly from heaven, the splashes helped the stones to transform themselves into persons […]" The dog restores their dignity, and the doctor's wife reciprocates, giving him food. The dog then immediately assumes his role as protector, "barking furiously when anyone outside shook the door hard" and "blocking the entrance" because "he is a gruff, ill-tempered animal when he does not have to dry someone's tears."
On the one hand, the dog's selfish instincts draw him to the sighted wife: he knows he has a better chance of surviving with her. On the other, he is like all humans in their selfish quest to survive. Moreover, he does not need them to survive:
The dog of tears did not mix with his former companions in the pack and the hunt, his choice is made, but he does not wait to be fed, he is already chewing heaven knows what, these mountains of rubbish hide unimaginable treasures, it is all a matter of searching, scratching and finding.
Thus, although survival in Blindness requires brutish selfishness, the dog of tears acts selflessly, recognizing and responding to the suffering of humans.
For instance, when the wife finds her old apartment, she feeds her charges, helps them bathe, then washes their clothes. Exhausted and full of sadness, she goes to the balcony to survey the misery of the city. The dog responds to her despair, even though there are no tears to lick: "The dog of tears appeared on the balcony, it was restless, but now there were no tears to lick up, the despair was all inside her, eyes were dry."
The dog of tears howls incessantly in the presence of all human suffering, not just the wife's suffering. During a harrowing excursion to restore rations, they encounter a rotting body, as they frequently do. Whereas other dogs will eat the body, the dog of tears mourns over it:
The dog of tears moves closer, but death frightens it, it still takes two steps forward, suddenly its fur stands on end, a piercing howl escapes from its throat, the trouble with this dog is that it has grown too close to human beings, it will suffer as they do.
The wife relies on this aspect of the dog's universal empathy:
[I]n her confusion and anguish she had to depend on a dog to console her, the same dog who is here snarling at the packs of other dogs who are coming too close, as if it were telling them, You don't fool me, keep away from here.
When they reach the store where the wife previously found food, the dog recognizes before she does that something horrific has transpired (many have died after being trapped in the basement). His hair stands on end, he whines, and he howls. The wife shortly joins the dog in the physical reaction to and expression of suffering. She vomits while "The dog of tears gave a very long howl, it let out a wail that seemed never-ending, a lament which resounded through the corridor like the last voice of the dead down in the basement." On their way home, they encounter a church. The wife wants to enter to find solace but cannot because it is full of people seeking shelter. The dog of tears makes a space for her "with two growls and a couple of charges, all without malice." He does so "without malice" because he is loyal to the wife but also empathetic to all human suffering.
Near the end, one protagonist suddenly regains his sight, suggesting to the wife that the epidemic and her nightmare are drawing to a close. She is overwhelmed by cathartic emotions, and again the dog of tears responds to her grief:
The dog of tears went up to her, it always knows when it is needed, that's why the doctor's wife clung to him […] at that moment her feeling of loneliness was so intense, so unbearable, that it seemed to her that it could be overcome only by the strange thirst with which the dog drank her tears.
As each protagonist gains his or her sight, the dog of tears responds to their cathartic emotions as well, so much so that he "did not know whose tears it should attend to first."
The dog of tears appears in the final scene: "stretched out with his muzzle on its forepaws, [it] opened and closed its eyes from time to time to show that it was still watchful […]." Here, the wife articulates the prominent theme of the novel: "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." Saramago makes clear in the final scene of this allegorical novel the primary difference between humans and the dog of tears: it truly sees.
Source: Kevin Cole, "Saramago's Blindness," in Explicator, Vol. 64, No. 2, Winter 2006, pp. 119-21.
In the following essay, Woods examines the themes running through several of Saramago's works in comparison to their use in Blindness. He concludes that Blindness is an "anguished essay on the necessity of relations."
In If It Die, his account of his childhood, André Gide writes of hearing that Mouton, a little friend from Luxembourg, was going blind. The young Gide went to his room and wept: "For several days I would keep my eyes shut for long periods and move around without opening them, attempting to feel what Mouton must have been feeling." This resonant suggestion might serve for us as a whisper to awaken not only Blindness, Jose Saramago's new novel, but his entire body of work. For within Gide's little crystal of anecdote, different meanings move: the boy with his eyes fiercely shut is trying to join in sympathetic concord with another human, and this could be an emblem not only of necessary human ethics, but also of the task of the novelist, who must concentrate artistically on the distribution of sympathy.
Yet if Gide links himself with Mouton, he also dissolves himself in the process. It is the paradox of all imaginative identification. And this paradox is intensified, in Gide's case, by the act of closing one's eyes, because in doing so we lose our visible relations with the rest of life. When we close our eyes—it is the little nightly crisis of sleep—we darkly falter, in the gloom of self-cancellation: perhaps we no longer exist. Being ourselves involves seeing ourselves; and yet seeing ourselves, curiously, is not about looking inward but about looking outward, at others. It is seeing others that makes us visible to ourselves, that reminds us that we exist. Although imaginative identification with others threatens to dissolve oneself, it also constitutes oneself.
The shadowiness of the self is Saramago's great theme, which he partly inherits from the poetry of Fernando Pessoa, his Portuguese predecessor, the Pessoa whom Saramago quotes at the beginning of his great novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which appeared in 1984: "If they tell me that it is absurd to speak thus of someone who never existed, I should reply that I have no proof that Lisbon ever existed, or I who am writing, or any other thing wherever it might be." His new novel, which is an allegorical fantasy in which an entire people is struck by an epidemic of blindness, merely allegorizes what is already symbolic in the rest of Saramago's work.
In an unnamed country, citizens are suddenly afflicted by loss of sight. Quickly, society begins to break down: there is no electricity or running water, no food beyond that which can be scavenged, no law beyond the simple throbbing of need. We follow a small group of unfortunates, led by a doctor (an ophthalmologist, in the days when he had eyesight) and his wife, who has miraculously not lost her sight and appears to be the only sighted person in the land. In the streets, the blind crawl on all fours and defecate anywhere. It is not just the contingency of institutions that is exposed, but the contingency of verification: the blind "go around like ghosts, this must be what it means to be a ghost, being certain that life exists, because your four senses say so, and yet unable to see it."
Pressed into precis, the story sounds primitive, or merely conceptual; but it lives in the spread of its particulars, and in the conviction of its allegory. The Inferno and The Plague are obvious models for this fall into hell. Reviewing Saramago's novel Baltasar and Blimunda in 1987. Irving Howe wrote that "I think I hear in his prose echoes of Enlightenment sensibility, caustic and shrewd." Yet Saramago, in his skepticism and in his healthy, delightfully literal approach toward the supernatural and the fantastic, more recalls the Greeks—both Greek tragedy and Greek satire.
In Lucian's Menippus, for instance, the hero descends into Hades to find that death has undone all the fragile hierarchies of life: Philip of Macedon is stitching sandals to earn money, Xerxes is begging, and so on. But Lucian's lesson is made earlier, when Menippus tells us that on earth things have already become sadly inverted: "On observation I found people practicing the very opposite of what they preached. I saw those who advocated despising money clinging to it tooth and nail … and those who would have us reject fame doing and saying everything for just that, and again pretty well all of them speaking out against pleasure, but in private clinging to it alone." In this light, Hades corrects the sad inversions of the world by reinverting them.
Thomas More, who translated Lucian from Greek into Latin, borrowed this idea for his beautifully literal and logical satire Utopia. The island of Utopia does not represent the ideal society so much as a comic one—it is the comic inversion of the uncomic inversion of rectitude that we practice in life. More did not intend us to live in Utopia, but to be logically mocked by it. (The Shakespearean Fool is a near-equivalent of this mode.) Saramago has said that "I cannot save anything but what I can do is write about what I think and feel and the anguish of seeing a world that could already have resolved a large portion of its humanitarian problems, but which not only has not solved any, but which, in fact, aggravates many of them…. The Romans used to say that man is the wolf of mankind. What would they say were they alive today?" Saramago is a Communist, even now, but he has something in common with the implicit communitarianism of Lucian and More.
And he has something in common, too, with the ancient idea of magical inversion. In his novel The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989), a proofreader decides to insert the word "not" into history of Portugal that he is checking. Suddenly, the history book asserts, against the evidence, that the crusaders did not help the Portuguese to conquer Lisbon in the twelfth century. This apparently tiny inversion causes havoc with Portugal's official sense of itself, and it allows Saramago to unwind an exquisitely sly satire on the contingency of national history.
Likewise, in his greatest book, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which appeared in 1991, Saramago secularizes the Gospel narrative with the simplest inversions. In this book God is fallible, and Jesus is not the son of God but the son of Joseph. Thus every time Jesus uses the word "Father," a little spark of blasphemy is struck. When Jesus is told by God how much suffering and bloodshed will flow in history as a result of his crucifixion, he tries to abdicate his duty: "Father, take from me this cup." As he dies on the cross, he inverts Jesus's penultimate words, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," and cries out "Men, forgive Him, for He knows not what he has done."
In Blindness, similarly, so great are the horrors witnessed by the doctor's sighted wife that the simple privilege of sight over blindness begins to seem the worst privilege, begins to seem its inversion. Sight "had exposed her to greater horror than she could ever have imagined, it had convinced her that she would rather be blind, nothing else." In the country of the suddenly blind, the one-eyed man is not, in fact, king. He is the slave of all the blind, and the most unhappy one of all, because he sees their degradation.
Yet Saramago is most like the Greeks—and like then Renaissance heirs, such as Montaigne—in the manner in which he keeps in balance both skepticism and realism, or uncertainty and health. Indeed, he is a kind of Pyrrhonist in reverse, who wriggles through a skeptical tunnel only to emerge into a climate of truth, a climate slightly thinned and rarified of certainty, but still certainly extant. His work plays with, but ethically thickens, Pessoa's hallucinatory sense of reality. It might be said that Saramago is epistemologically skeptical (he uses his fiction to knock away at our foundations) but metaphysically faithful.
If Saramago is skeptical about foundations, it is because he is skeptical of these foundations, not all foundations. This paradox can be tasted in an apparently small technical triumph, from which, in fact, the deepest concerns of his fiction flow. This is his use of what Barthes called "the reference code," whereby a writer confidently refers to the general consensus by means of such locutions as "as is usual" or "as everyone knows" or "as people always do in such circumstances." Showing his roots in the nouveau roman, Barthes wanted to finger it as the spoiled child of nineteenth-century realism (such realism being the enemy of the nouveau romanciers). Yet this realism has always existed in imaginative writing. Tolstoy, when he used it with the greatest beauty and simplicity, was merely being Homeric. When Ivan Ilyich's colleagues hear of his death, Tolstoy writes that "the mere fact of the death of an intimate associate aroused, as is usual, in all who heard of it a complacent feeling that ‘it is he who is dead, and not I.’"
Very few writers can ever reach Tolstoy's great median, and in our age most writers eschew the reference code, or flutter self-consciously around it. Its obsolescence has to do with a larger nervousness about omniscient narration, which is for some writers ideologically too little. The reference code is the most obvious flower of the authorial omniscience. But Saramago, characteristically, uses the reference code both to affirm and to question.
Omniscient narration generally affirms how much we know, how much we have in common, but Saramago uses it to illuminate how little we know. This is partly because he narrates his novels as if he were someone both wise and ignorant. His novels are all told by someone who has Saramago's powers of narration, but who is not Saramago—the tone is skeptical, a little saucy, a little prejudiced (the narrator always has a firm view about women's proper role), even a little garrulous and foolish at times. The sentences loiter, without punctuation or paragraph breaks or quotation punctuation marks for speech. It is as if Saramago's books were tales told by a stubborn old Portuguese man sitting on a bench, endlessly smoking and flicking the ash of surly speculation all over his clothes. Occasionally he spits out a truth onto the ground, examines it curiously, and then rubs it sarcastically with his shoe.
Sometimes this narrator uses the reference code to affirm the most banal truths, thereby parodying the mode by exhausting it—but exhausting the mode of truth-telling, not the truth, which remains anciently immovable: "Everyone knows that men like to fight each other." More often, he does it by misdirecting the reference code, by pointing it at shared questions, or at the unanswerable, rather than at shared answers. And he uses his curious, unpunctuated nudging of syntax to do this. At the beginning of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, for instance, Ricardo Reis arrives at the harbor in Lisbon, on a boat from Brazil. A tone of strange mockery—but also, strange respect—is established when Ricardo hails a taxi, and is initially flummoxed by the taxi driver's question. "Where to?" Ricardo has not really thought this far ahead; he does not even have a hotel in mind. Saramago's narrator speculates that Ricardo was befuddled "perhaps because he has been asked one of the two fatal questions, Where to. The other question, and much worse, is Why."
Similarly, in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Saramago's narrator questions everything, but uses a tone of certainty—the reference code—in order to encourage uncertainty. "For in truth, there are things God Himself does not understand, even though He created them." In this book, the narrator is a sly old Portuguese peasant, who knows everything and nothing. "The rest of the journey to Jerusalem was not so easy. In the first place, there are Samaritans and there are Samaritans, which means that even in those days one swallow was not enough to make a summer…." Saramago uses the habits of certainty to pick away at the fabric of certainty; and yet the result is not the cheap vacuum of postmodernism's usual excavations, but a strangely refreshed respect for mystery. During Passover, crowds wander through Jerusalem, "exclaiming, Alleluia, Hosanna, Amen, or saying none of these things, feeling it was inappropriate to walk around shouting Hallelujah or Hip hip hurrah, because there is really not much difference between the two expressions, we use them enthusiastically until with the passage of time and by dint of repetition we finally ask ourselves. What does it mean, only to find no answer."
The Vatican complained about The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (and complained again when Saramago won the Nobel Prize), but it is right that this novel is "testimony of a substantial antireligious sentiment." Still, there is also a kind of healthy secularism of ignorance in evidence, which often blooms, in Saramago's work, into the enunciation of the old, simple, weary truths. And to announce them, Saramago is able to use a now-cleansed reference code, because he has torn it out of the domain of consensus, and let it go to work in the domain of discovery. He makes omniscient narration a process; and because narration is not settled for Saramago, his stories can speak truths without complacency. He earns the right of authority by dissolving it. Near the end of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis:
They say time stops for no man, that time marches on, commonplaces that are still repeated, yet there are people who chafe at the slowness with which it passes. Twenty-four hours to make a day, and at the end of the day you discover that it was not worthwhile, and the following day is the same all over again, if only we could leap over all the futile weeks in order to live one hour of fulfillment, one moment of splendor, if splendor can last that long.
Saramago is both a literalist and a fantasist, as he is both a realist and a skeptic. All his phantasmagorias gain their strength from the straightforward, unsentimental literalism of their magical elements. In Baltasar and Blimunda, Saramago makes it seem the most natural idea in the world that these two eighteenth-century renegades would want to escape the Portuguese Inquisition and fly to heaven in a flying-machine. Blindness is written up like a medical report. Likewise, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ is powerful, in part, because Saramago tells his blasphemous story while making the most simple and direct use of supernatural elements—Satan, an angel, a pillar of flame, walking on water, and so on. Indeed, it is by making these elements absolutely literal that Saramago holds them up to the light of reason, and peers through them.
In that book, Jesus is the natural son of Joseph, but is called upon by God to lay down his life for man. By tampering with the Gospel stories in a delicately subversive manner, Saramago creates his own dark parable. Early in the book, Joseph overhears two soldiers discussing King Herod's plan to murder all the newly born children in Bethlehem. He runs home, and flees Bethlehem with Mary and the infant Jesus. He saves his child, but he is haunted by the guilty idea that he could have warned the parents of Bethlehem about Herod's plan, and did not. He suffers terrible nightmares, in which he is one of the soldiers marching to kill his own son.
Joseph, writes Saramago, is condemned by God for his sin of omission, and his guilt will pass to Jesus. "God does not forgive the sins He makes us commit," is Saramago's bitter comment. Sure enough, Joseph is mistakenly arrested in Jerusalem by Roman soldiers who are rounding up Jewish rebels, and is crucified on a hill. He is thirty-three years old. When Jesus is older, he asks his mother about the nightmare that made his father cry out in his sleep, and she tells him about Herod's murder of the innocents. Jesus is horrified, and says: "Father murdered the children of Bethlehem." Jesus leaves home, and never really returns. He sees not Satan, but God in the wilderness. When he asks God why he must die, God replies that "you will be the spoon I dip into humanity and bring out filled with people who believe in the new god I intend to become."
Saramago's novel is an extraordinarily eloquent heretical text, filled with deep compassion for humanity's suffering. When Jesus asks God what the future will be like once Jesus has died, God falters, and then describes the establishment of the Church, the persecution of the martyrs, the bloodiness of the Crusades, the horrors of the Inquisition, the abrasions of schism, the barbs of fundamentalism, the cruelties of exclusion. Jesus asks God to spare him from his sentence, and thus prevent the unfolding of this terrible future, but God refuses. Jesus cannot be spared, because he has been condemned. Saramago's novel flows with a relentlessly inverting logic from one simple Gnostic premise: that God is either wicked, false, or fallible.
The story winds outward from Herod's massacre of the children. God, the supposed Father, did not save the little children. Joseph, Jesus's father, did not save them either. God condemns Joseph to death for this sin, and the sins of the fathers pass to Jesus, who is crucified like his father. Thus, in Saramago's reading, Jesus went to the cross not as our savior but as one of us, condemned by a form of Original Sin. We are Jesus's inheritors, condemned like him to crucify each other, generation after generation. We are the victims of an original sin, and our sentence is to be human. But "Father murdered the children of Bethlehem," says Jesus, and Saramago, of course, intends us to note the irony. It was God, the original Father, who killed the children, and therefore God must have condemned himself, and therefore God is not only the inventor of original sin, but its first practitioner, and thus its first victim. The sins of the fathers are in fact the sins of the Father's. God is condemned by the evil that He Himself allows. As Satan cannily tells Jesus, "your God is the only warden of a prison where the only prisoner is your God."
Saramago, adds almost nothing to the Gospel story. What he does, rather like Milton but more emphatically, is activate the ancient heretical cruxes, above all the familiar one that a God who originates evil must Himself be evil. In addition, he turns on its head the New Testament idea of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb, slaughtered to cleanse humans of their sin. No, says Saramago. Jesus was slaughtered for his Father's sins, both Joseph's and God's. Here Saramago is the splendid heir, in force and in idea, of Nietzsche in The Anti-Christ, who rails against the "paganism" of Jesus's "sacrifice." And Saramago makes resonant the implicit blasphemy at the heart of the incarnation. For if Jesus was truly human, then he inherited Adam's sin; but if he was also truly divine, then the sin he inherited was not Adam's but God's—not his father's, but his Father's.
At one point in the novel, Jesus speaks with God, who appears as a pillar of smoke, and Saramago writes that "it grieved him to be sent away in this manner, after having met God, for to the best of his knowledge there was not a single man in all Israel who could boast of having seen God and lived." Saramago's narrator continues:
It is true that Jesus did not exactly see Him, but if a cloud appears in the desert in the form of a pillar of smoke and says, I am the Lord, and then holds a conversation that is not only logical and sensible but so compelling that it can only be divine, then to have even the slightest doubt is unpardonable.
This is characteristic of the tone of all of Saramago's fiction, and it is what makes him so attractive and sinuous a writer. His narrators always hover somewhere between belief and doubt, giving with one hand and taking with the other.
Saramago, who is an atheist, is wittily casting doubt on the idea of God's appearing—by asserting that he believes that God appeared! Or rather, he believes that a cloud appeared and said, "I am the Lord." There is a way in which Saramago uses literalism to affirm and to subvert. The passage above might, after all, be a theory of fiction. If a cloud appears in a novel and says "I am the Lord," and if the spectacle is done with enough reality, then it would be wrong to doubt it. Likewise for Jesus in the desert. All of Saramago's fiction is full of magical occurrences which are described in the most touchingly literal fashion, as if they were merely one of the ordinary working days in realism's week. Yet, equally, all literalism tends toward skepticism, because it makes us scrutinize literal appearances. Can a pillar of cloud exist? Can God exist as a pillar of cloud? The Gospel According to Jesus Christ is so powerful because Saramago's fictional skepticism spills so naturally into a deeper skepticism about belief.
Thus a theory of fiction becomes, in effect, an anti-theology. Saramago suggests that we can only be literal about belief (the cloud appeared; it was God), but that as soon as we are literal about belief we infect it with the virus of parody, because we see it, precisely, as belief and nothing more. This tidal movement reaches a particular black force in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and in Blindness, and a particular skittering, intermittent beauty in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (which is Saramago's own favorite among his novels).
Ricardo Reis, a doctor from Brazil, is an aloof, conservative aesthete who has decided to return to his native Portugal. It is the end of 1935, and the great poet Fernando Pessoa has just died. Reis is himself a poet and mourns Pessoa's departure. He is not sure what to do. He has saved some money, and for a while he lives in a hotel, where he has an affair with a chambermaid. He writes several beautiful lyrics, and is visited by the now-ghostly Pessoa, with whom he converses. As usual, Saramago describes these conversations in a frankly literal and direct manner, quite without the satiny shimmer that we have come to expect from certain American practitioners of magical realism.
Reis wanders the streets of Lisbon, as 1935 curdles into 1936. He reads the newspapers, and is increasingly alarmed by the baying of Europe's dogs: in Spain civil war and the rise of Franco, in Germany Hitler, in Italy Mussolini, and in Portugal the fascist dictatorship of Salazar. He would like to retreat from this bad news. He reflects fondly on the story of the 97-year-old John D. Rockefeller, who has a specially doctored version of The New York Times delivered every day, altered to contain only good news. "The world's threats are universal, like the sun, but Ricardo Reis takes shelter under his own shadow."
But Ricardo Reis is not a "real" fictional character, whatever that means. He is one of the four names which the actual Pessoa—the poet who worked and lived in Lisbon and died in 1935—assumed, and in whose persona he wrote poetry. The special flicker of this book, the tint and the delicacy that make it seem hallucinatory, derive from the solidity with which Saramago invests a character who is a fictional character twice over: first Pessoa's, then Saramago's. This enables Saramago to tease us with something that we already know, namely that Ricardo Reis is fictional. Saramago makes something deep and moving of this because Ricardo also feels himself to be somewhat fictional, at best a shadowy spectator, a man on the margins of things. And when Ricardo reflects thus, we feel a strange tenderness for him, aware of something that he does not know, that he is not real.
Is there a way in which all of us are fictional characters, parented by life and written by ourselves? This is something like Saramago's question; but it is worth noting that he reaches his question by travelling in the opposite direction of those postmodernist novelists who like to remind us of the fictionality of all things. A writer such as William Gass is always lecturing us: "Remember, this character is just a character. I invented him." By starting with an invented character, however, Saramago is able to pass through the same skepticism, but in the opposite direction, toward reality, toward the deepest questions. Saramago asks, in effect: But what is just a character? And Saramago's uncertainty is more real than Gass's skepticism, for no one ever says "I don't exist." We say, rather, "I believe I exist," exactly as Ricardo does.
In Saramago's novels, the self may cast only a shadow, like Ricardo Reis, but this shadow implies not the non-existence of the self, but only its difficult visibility, its near-invisibility, rather as the shadow cast by the sun warns us that we cannot look directly at it. The self is blindingly real in Saramago's work. This is touched on, with lovely tugging indirections, in both The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis and Blindness. Ricardo Reis is aloof, ghostly. He does not want to get pulled into real relationships, including the real relationships of politics. Europe is scrambling for war, but Ricardo luxuriously sits around wondering if he exists. He writes a poem that begins "We count for nothing, we are less than futile." Another poem begins: "Walk empty-handed, for wise is the man who contents himself with the spectacle of the world."
Yet the novel suggests that perhaps there is something culpable about being content with the spectacle of the world if the world's spectacle is horrifying. Near the end of the book, Ricardo reads in the newspaper that some Hitler Youth students from Hamburg were guests of honor at a Teacher Training College in Lisbon, and that they wrote in the guest book: "We are nobody." Saramago comments: "This meant, as the clerk on duty hastened to explain, that the people are indeed nobody if not guided by the elite, the cream, the flower, the chosen few of our society." To be a "nobody" may be to surrender oneself to dictatorship. And the reader is suddenly jerked back two hundred pages, to Ricardo's poem, that began. "We count for nothing, we are less than futile." Ricardo's ghostliness of relations may have a fascist element, and Saramago intends us to reflect on the fascism implicit in modernism's spectatorial shadowiness. The question of this book, and by extension of all Saramago's work, is not the trivial fictional game-playing of "Does Ricardo Reis exist?" It is the much more poignant question. "Do we exist if we refuse to relate to anyone?" If we read only a special version of The New York Times, like John D. Rockefeller, are we alive? Only by relation do we constitute ourselves.
Blindness is an anguished essay on the necessity of relations. In despair, the doctor's sighted wife cries out that without anyone to see her, her eyesight is useless: "I shall become more and more blind because I shall have no one to see me." Her eyesight is constituted by everyone else's eyesight. Earlier in the novel, she laments: "Dear God, how we miss having our sight, to be able to see, to see, even if they were only faint shadows, to stand before the mirror, see a dark diffused patch and be able to say, That's my face, anything that has light does not belong to me." We may be only a shadow on the mirror, but this is everything, and if it is everything. Saramago's work seems to suggest, then we must not take shelter under our own shadow, as Ricardo Reis does. We must attend to all the other shadows that brush the earth. I may not know if I exist, but I know if other people exist. And if other people exist, then I exist. It is a kind of primary deduction. We are all like little André Gide, confirming ourselves by closing our eyes and thinking of each other.
Source: James Woods, "The Seeing I," in New Republic, Vol. 219, No. 4, November 30, 1998, pp. 48-56.
Grandfield, Kevin, Review of Blindness, in Booklist, Vol. 94, No. 22, September 1998, p. 1969.
"José Saramago," in Books and Writers, www.kirjasto.sci.fi/saramago.htm (accessed November 2, 2006).
Landon, Philip, Review of Blindness, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring 1999, p. 179.
Rohrbaugh, Lisa, Review of Blindness, in Library Journal, Vol. 123, No. 13, August 1, 1998, p. 134.
Saramago, José, Blindness, translated by Giovanni Pontiero, Harcourt Brace, 1997.
Snedeker, George, "Blindness as Metaphor," in Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, Vol. 93, No. 6, June 1999, p. 382.
Willen, Drenka, "A Review of Blindness," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 28, July 13, 1998, p. 62.
Bloom, Harold, José Saramago, Chelsea House Publications, 2005.
As part of Bloom's series, Modern Critical Views, this book is a collection of criticism on the works of Saramago but does not include commentary on Blindness.
Cole, Kevin, "Saramago's Blindness," in Explicator, Vol. 64, No. 2, Winter 2006, p. 109.
For those who are intrigued about the role of the dog of tears in Blindness, this is a wonderful explanation of the purpose and symbolism of this unique character.
Driscoll, Kevin, "A Nobelist's Allegorical Analysis of the Human Condition," in Washington Times, October 18, 1998, p. 8.
Longer than a typical review, this penetrating newspaper article covers many majors issues with the novel.
Frier, David, The Novels of José Saramago, University of Wales Press, 2007.
Frier, a senior lecturer in Portuguese Studies at the University of Leeds, provides a comprehensive overview of Saramago's writings, including ideological concerns and information about Portuguese literary and cultural traditions.
Quilligan, Maureen, The Language of Allegory: Defining the Genre, Cornell University Press, 1992.
The nature of both medieval and modern allegory is examined, with emphasis on The Faerie Queen and Piers Plowman, but this study also contains criticism on the allegories of Hawthorne, Melville, Nabokov, and Pynchon.
Stanley, Sandra Kumamoto, "The Excremental Gaze: Saramago's Blindness and the Disintegration of the Panoptic Vision," in Critique, Vol. 45, No. 3, Spring 2004, pp. 293-308.
Despite its difficult title, this article is an in-depth analysis of Blindness that is quite easy to read and provides a thorough yet reasonably brief look at the various elements of the novel.
by José Saramago
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in an unnamed city in an unspecified year; published in Portuguese (as Ensaio sobre a Cegueira) in 1995, in English in 1997.
A sudden and inexplicable epidemic of blindness devastates a city, and all normal patterns of life break down as its inhabitants slip into barbarism and squalor before some of the blind regain their sight.
Events in History at the Time of the Novel
José Saramago (1922-) was born in Azinhaga, in the inland Ribatejo region of Portugal, but his family moved to the seaside capital of Lisbon when he was still a child. His parents were not wealthy, so he acquired a secondary education in a vocational school, training to become a mechanic. Saramago nonetheless found time to read widely and worked only briefly as a mechanic before progressing through various newspaper jobs—from clerical worker, to production assistant, proofreader, and newspaper columnist. After the democratic revolution of 1974 deposed Portugal’s right-wing dictatorship, Saramago became adjunct editor of the major Lisbon newspaper Diário de Noticias (Daily News). Meanwhile, his literary career began unspectacularly, including one novel, two collections of verse, and four volumes of journalistic writing, none of which attracted much attention. It was only after being dismissed from his job at the Diario de Noticias in 1975, in the wake of a counter-revolutionary coup, that he took up his writing career in earnest. He produced a collection of short stories and a second novel before writing a third, critically acclaimed, novel, Levantado do Chäo (1980; untranslated, Raised from the Ground). Similar acclaim and greater commercial success followed for subsequent novels, including Memorial do Convento (1982; Baltasar and Blimunda, 1987), the work that launched him on a series of critical and commercial triumphs. Saramago’s well-publicized loyalty to the Portuguese Communist Party and his outspoken views relating to politics and current affairs (both in Portugal and internationally) have led many to view him as a controversial figure. His rewriting of the gospel story in O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo (1991; The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, 1993) provoked heated debate in which government ministers condemned his work. Their reaction contributed to his subsequent emigration to Spain. Meanwhile, worldwide acclaim for Saramago’s writing continued, culminating in his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. Achieving his typical mix of fantasy and awareness of the real world, Blindness, influenced by events in Saramago’s lifetime, stands as a powerful indictment of man’s inhumanity to man in any era.
Events in History at the Time of the Novel
Current events—a global survey
Blindness is set in an unspecified present, with references to some of the convenient accessories of contemporary living (such as automobiles) being the only specific indicators of this general period. These references, however, are rare and largely incidental to the development of character and plot, allowing essential features of human nature and human society to come into the spotlight. Nonetheless, the novel is clearly influenced by some major world events at the time of the writing, in the early 1990s, as well as by events the writer had witnessed earlier in his life.
Major humanitarian disasters have plagued the world during Saramago’s lifetime, among them, the:
- Atrocities of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39)
- Gassing and execution in cold blood of 6 million Jews as well as other victims during World War II (1939-45)
- Dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in this war (1945), killing several hundred thousand Japanese
- Gulags, or labor camps and prisons, in which millions of political dissidents in the Soviet Union perished (1920s-50s)
- Pulverization of Vokovar and other cities in Croatia (1991-92) because of tensions among Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims
- Genocide of 500, 000 to one million Tutsi and moderate Hutus by militant Hutus in Rwanda, east-central Africa (1994)
It is this lifelong experience that led Saramago in an interview given to a Portuguese newspaper at the time of the publication of Blindness to use the term “final solution” (with its clear echoes of the Nazi era, when this phrase was a euphemism for Hitler’s ambition to totally annihilate the Jewish population of Europe). In the interview, Saramago employs this same phrase in relation to his novel when describing both the incarceration of the blind in an asylum and other events that overtake them there, thus suggesting that he was, indeed, thinking of some of the most horrific events of recent times when he wrote the text (Nunes, p. 16). These events certainly did not stop with the Holocaust, Hitler’s final solution. From this mid-twentieth century abyss to the mid-to-late and then the late twentieth century, injustices raged.
Injustice and inhumanity was rife in the author’s own home country. Portugal experienced a lengthy dictatorship from 1928 to 1974, mainly under the leadership of a conservative former professor of economics at the University of Coimbra, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. Salazar, whose dictatorship owed much to the models set by Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, resorted to brutal tactics to impose his will upon his people. His prisons resembled concentration camps. Among them were the prisons of Aljube, Caxias, and Peniche in Portugal. Caxias and Peniche sat near bodies of water; as the tide rose, the water filled the cells daily, leaving behind household rubbish and human excrement washed in from sewer outlets. But most notorious was the camp at Tarrafal in the Cape Verde Islands, where Salazar officials might jail, often under brutal conditions, anyone (from Portugal or its colonies) suspected of being an enemy of the regime. According to the Portuguese dissident António de Figueiredo, in the post-World War II era, such repression became more rather than less severe: “After 1945, as soon as the regime felt sure of its survival and new alliances, it passed from arbitrary but casual repression to a scientific system” of repression, whose brutality was worthy of the worst excesses of centuries past (Figueiredo, pp. 115-16). One prisoner reported that the camp at Tarrafal lacked the most basic elements of hygiene and that the only doctor on duty (a loyal Salazar supporter) caused many inmates to die of neglect. Prisoners who committed an offense in captivity were placed inside solid concrete blocks with few air ducts and relentless exposure to the baking African sun; coining a sardonic name for them, inmates called the blocks “frying pans” (Figueiredo, p. 113). Even after completing their jail sentences, many Tarrafal prisoners were never freed.
The international credibility of Salazar’s fascistic regime was waning by the early 1970s. In July 1973, the Portuguese prime minister, Marcelo Caetano, visited Britain. Overshadowing his visit were revelations in the London Times newspaper of the massacre of 400 to 500 unarmed civilians by Portuguese troops at Wiriyamu in Portugal’s colony of Mozambique (Hastings, p. 76). The following year Salazar’s regime would be overthrown, but mass killings would continue elsewhere in the world.
Two decades later, in the year of the novel’s release, huge massacres of rival ethnic groups (the Tutsis and the Hutu) took place in Rwanda. In addition to the immediate loss of human life caused by this conflict, millions were displaced into makeshift refugee camps in neighboring Zaire. Soon the camps were unable to cope with the massive demands placed on them; reports outlined horrific conditions. From September 1994 to September 1995, about a thousand people died in the camp at Gitarama (which was designed for 400 inmates but at one point held over 7, 000). Each person had been forced to occupy less than half a square metre of space, many of them having to stand in mud and water constantly (Keesing’s Record of World Events, p. 40634).
Depths of depravity
“Fighting,” says a character in Saramago’s novel, “has always been, more or less, a form of blindness” (Saramago, Blindness, p. 133). In other words, focusing on what is near at hand has allowed people to ignore their own degradation, as witnessed in the humanitarian disasters outlined above. Certainly the perpetrators of Hitler’s final solution sank to these depths, as shown by records related to the annihilation and treatment of prisoners. How did Hitler’s gas chambers, where most victims perished, work? In a way that allowed the executioners to avert their eyes, to become blind to the deed.
The pellets of hydrogen cynanide, Zyklon-B, were supplied in metal canisters that were carried to the crematoria in a Red Cross ambulance. These pellets were poured into the gas chambers in the basement through the looped course of hollow metal shafts and were thrown out through evenly spaced openings. As soon as Zyklon-B came into contact with the air in the chamber it became gas. It worked in an upward direction, so that the first to die were the children and the last were the young and the strong who struggled to climb upward on the piles of corpses. [When] all was quiet … the members of the Kommando [forced laborers, mostly Jews] removed the corpses and transferred them to an elevator that carried them to the cremation room.
(Yahil, p. 366)
More blindness followed on the part of the rest of the world. Among enemy targets bombed by the Allied powers (Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union) were German factories—the Buna Works plant, for example, which manufactured oil and rubber for the war effort and stood just outside the main final-solution death camp, Auschwitz. The question haunting the pages of humanitarian history is, Why did the Allies not bomb the gas chambers there? “Research has shown that the refusal of the American and British air force to bomb these installations stemmed from their disinclination to be involved with rescue actions per se” (Yahil, p. 639). The blindness, in this case, was therefore self-inflicted, an intentional averting of the eyes. The death and work camp inmates who escaped execution were put to hard labor for the Germans under abysmal conditions that made dirt, hunger, and brutality the norm. At Auschwitz, “Even the inadequate rations did not reach the prisoners intact: much of the bread and other items of food had been seized by the SS men [Hitler’s Special Services force] and rerouted to their own kitchen,” which brings to mind the commandeering of food rations by the thugs in Blindness (Yahil, p. 371). At one of the most infamous work camps, the Flughafenlager in Poland, was a particularly brutal sergeant by the name of Max Dietrich, who became infamous for his cruelty. On one occasion Albert Fischer, a colleague of Dietrich’s and a German work leader himself, bore witness to a particularly savage beating.
I saw that Dietrich beat the Jew so long until he lay unconscious on the ground. Then Dietrich ordered other Jews fully to undress the unconscious Jew and to pour water on him. When the Jew regained consciousness, Dietrich grabbed the hands of the Jew, who had defecated all over himself, dunked them in the excrement and forced him to eat the excrement. I walked away, as the spectacle sickened me.
(Fischer in Goldhagen, p. 303)
That evening, Fischer found out, the Jewish worker, forced to feed on his own excrement, died. Less savage beatings occurred daily, something Fischer found no fault with at the time. “It was only in the later years that I gradually came to recognize that much was rotten” (Fischer in Goldhagen, p. 303). Here the blindness was genuine, not self-inflicted, the kind it would take another more sighted person to remedy by enlightening Fischer about the error of his colleagues’ ways. That such sighted people existed, even in the Nazi Party, is confirmed by the actions of, Georg Duckwitz, an attaché in the German embassy in Copenhagen, Denmark, who alerted the Danes to Hitler’s intention to deport their Jews in time for the threatened population to be evacuated to safety in Sweden (see Fralon, p. 79).
Righteous heroes, or the “farsighted”
Individuals are for the most part half indifference, half malice, observes Blindness, yet at the same time, it is extraordinary “how selfless some people can be” (Blindness, p. 29). Aside from its depravities, the twentieth century provided examples of heroic fortitude and self-sacrifice in desperate circumstances. In Saramago’s home country, in Portugal, such a hero presented himself in the person of Aristides de Sousa Mendes. The Portuguese Consul in Bordeaux, France, during World War II, Sousa Mendes defied the instructions of his own government by issuing false Portuguese identity papers to 10,000-20,000 Jews to allow them safe passage out of Nazi-occupied France. Circular 14, issued by the Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in November 1939, expressly forbade Portuguese consuls overseas from granting passports or visas to Jews expelled from their countries or to stateless persons in general. A man approaching the age of 55, who had never before disobeyed the Portuguese authorities, decided from May to July 1940 to rush visas to as many supplicants as possible so they could escape the Nazi grasp via Lisbon. Ignoring nationality, race, and religion, he refused to blindly follow unethical dictates:
I cannot allow all you people to die. Many of you are Jews, and our constitution clearly states that neither the religion nor the political beliefs of foreigners can be used as a pretext for refusing to allow them to stay in Portugal. I‘ve decided to be faithful to that principle…. The only way I can respect my faith as a Christian is to act in accordance with the dictates of my conscience.
(Sousa Mendes in Fralon, p. 60)
After leading one of the most monumental rescue operations during the Nazi attempt to enforce the final solution, Sousa Mendes retired to Portugal, where, shunned by Salazar, he died in poverty in 1954. Certainly there were other such heroes, however rare. Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, facilitated the escape of some 30,000 Hungarian Jews. In Lithuania, for four feverish weeks, another consul, Chiune Sugihara, distributed 6,000 visas that carried Jews to Kobe, Japan, a country soon to be allied with Nazi Germany, and most of them lived out the duration of the war in Japan. As more recent events have shown, not all heroes need to be officials or prominent citizens either. Commoners also qualify: a simple student (reportedly called Wang Weilin) momentarily held up the procession of tanks in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, before the army brutally suppressed a pro-democracy student demonstration there in June 1989 (see Iyer). The righteous deeds of such heroes stand in stark contrast to the dastardly ones of the perpetrators of the humanitarian disasters described above. It is this contrast between the conflicting human impulses to good and evil that lies at the heart of Blindness.
The Novel in Focus
Blindness opens in the center of a busy modern city. The reader’s attention is riveted on the immobility of one car, whose driver has been inexplicably struck blind while waiting at a traffic signal. Another motorist offers to drive him home, but then steals the car from his vulnerable victim. Soon, however, the thief too is struck blind. In short order, one character after another loses his or her sight, each initially linked by some degree of contact with the early victims of the outbreak. Among these early victims is the wife of an ophthalmologist, himself struck blind in this mysterious outbreak. Unique among the victims, she is not blind but chooses, for the love of her husband, to be treated as such. When he is taken away in an ambulance, she lies her way into accompanying him by saying she too has been struck blind. “The doctor’s wife,” as she is called, becomes the one character to retain her sight throughout the novel.
The government of this unnamed country chooses to protect the rest of the population from what seems to be an epidemic by isolating the blind in an abandoned asylum, where their living conditions are stark and minimal. It is made clear to the inmates that the government will show no concern for any illness or injury suffered by them; food supplies are delivered to the entrance hall of the asylum, then left there for the inmates to retrieve. It is their responsibility to dole out the rations fairly or unfairly, as they so choose. All hygiene and order quickly break down as the asylum becomes overcrowded with a constant influx of new residents—some 300 will end up quarantined here. Before long, in a desperate appeal for help, one inmate (who has suffered an injury) crawls towards the fence at the edge of the compound; he is shot dead by a soldier (Blindness, p. 76).
Conditions within the asylum continue to deteriorate as one group of male inmates imposes its own selfish interests on the rest of the population by commandeering all of the food supplies. First the group demands all of the valuables possessed by the others, then it insists that the female inmates provide sexual services in return for provisions. Under the leadership of the doctor’s wife, who makes a conscious moral decision to kill the ringleader of the thugs as they rape the women of her ward, the previously victimized inmates rebel and set the asylum ablaze (Blindness, pp. 212-13).
When the inmates emerge from quarantine, they discover that those outside have also been stricken by blindness and that all order in the city has broken down. Groups of blind people shuffle around the streets in aimless fashion, desperately searching for whatever scraps of food can be found. The still-sighted doctor’s wife has in tow six blind charges from the asylum—her doctor-husband, a girl with dark glasses, an old man with an eye patch, the first blind man (who opened the novel) and his wife, and a boy with a squint, all of whom remain nameless throughout the novel. The doctor’s wife makes use of her no-longer-secret powers of sight to help her charges reorient themselves to daily life. As they roam the city, they have chance encounters with individuals who have refused to give up all hope: a miserable old woman who has remained alive by eating raw chicken and whatever scraps of vegetables she can derive from her garden; a writer, who has continued to commit his experiences to paper even while being totally incapable of reading his own manuscript; and, as in other novels by Saramago (The Stone Raft and History of the Siege of Lisbon), a dog, the so-called “dog of tears,” who watchfully consoles the doctor’s wife in her darkest hours.
Eventually some of the characters recover their eyesight, and two—the girl with dark glasses, a former prostitute, and the old man with the eye patch—declare their love for each other. The novel closes in the very earliest stages of what may prove to be a period of recovery for the city, but, as also happens in other novels by the author, the fate of the characters remains uncertain. There is no definitive happy ending here.
“Born to see this horror”
The outstanding figure in Blindness is the doctor’s wife. Willing to risk her own welfare for the sake of others, she ensures that some grasp is maintained on redeeming values in civilization, even as it threatens to fall apart. Her strength of character is demonstrated at the outset by her false claim to be blind in order to stay with her husband when the ambulance takes him away to the asylum (Blindness, p. 36).
STARING EVIL IN THE FACE—THE ALLEGORY CONTINUES
Then he said, I seem to recognise your voice, And I recognise your face. You‘re blind and cannot see me. No, I cannot see you, Then why do you say that you recognise my face. Because that voice can only have one face [the face of evil].
(Blindness, p. 180)
The two participants in this scene are the doctor’s wife and the leader of the gang of thugs. The doctor’s wife, who has been attempting to keep secret her ability to see, nearly lets that tact slip as she expresses her disgust at the unscrupulous blackmail inflicted upon her and the other women by these men who demand sexual access to them in return for food. Quickly she retracts her admission that she can see and instead transforms her slip into a deeper truth: the recognition that this man has become a representative of evil. Her consequent decision to kill him is based on moral principle, and the results are positive. It leads to the liberation of the inmates from their physical and emotional incarceration.
This capacity for self-sacrifice in the doctor’s wife resurfaces again and again in the novel. She puts herself in her comrades‘ place, on two occasions quite literally by adopting blindness for limited periods on their behalf. First, she descends into the underworld of a supermarket storeroom in total darkness to find food (Blindness, pp. 228-31); second, she gropes through her own house—plunged into darkness in the absence of electric lighting—to fetch water for the boy with a squint. Immediately before this she has taken some trouble to explain to the boy the functioning of a paraffin lamp, promising him “One day you will see and on that day I‘ll give you the lamp as a present” (Blindness, p. 276).
THERE ARE NONE SO BLIND AS THOSE WHO WILL NOT SEE
Why did we become blind, 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.
(Blindness, p. 3261
This brief conversation (between the doctor and his wife, who has the final word here) takes place on the very last page of the novel. Here the doctor’s wife attempts to explain a factor that the novel deliberately leaves unexplained: what caused the epidemic of blindness in the first place? The early stages of the story tease the reader with various explanations, from simple contagion (almost all the early victims have either visited the doctor’s surgery or been in contact with the first blind man), to moralistic explanations (the second blind man is a thief: the the girlwith dark glasses, a prostitute). The explanation above, given by the doctor’s wife, becomes clearer when considering the epigraph to the novel’s English translation: “If you can see, look. If you can look, observe.” This saying (attributed by Saramago to the Book of Exhortations, an invented source of wisdom designed to sound as if it had the authority of the Old Testament) conceals a double-meaning: the Portuguese verb reparar (equivalent to the English “to notice”) can also have the same meaning as the English “to repair.” that is, to pul right what is wrong. From the novel’s earliest pages, almost all of the characters concern themselves primarily with attending to their own needs and fail to take heed of the requirements of others. Gradually they learn from the example set by the doctor’s wife. Only after incidents such as the one in which the girl with dark glasses helps the old man with the eye patch to bathe do the main characters begin to recover their sight.
What her speech indicates is a refusal to accept as inevitable and irreversible the steady decline in societal norms and civilized behaviour that she has witnessed, both inside and outside the asylum. Her speech also displays faith that humanity will recover its vision by recognizing the importance of the other person as an individual. “Let’s hold hands and get on with life,” says a character in the novel, implying that salvation lies in people’s readiness to put themselves on the line for each other, as heroes of humanitarian catastrophes are often wont to do (Blindness, p. 304). Illustrating this in the novel, for the good of the community as a whole, a woman in the asylum dies in the act of setting fire to the barrier that blocks the door leading to the hoodlums‘ ward (Blindness, pp. 212-13).
If the doctor’s wife knows when to be compassionate and self-sacrificing, she also knows when to make unpleasant moral choices. The incident that demonstrates this above all others is her killing of the leader of the gang of hoodlums who have taken control of the food supplies in the asylum, allowing the others access to them only in return for sexual services from the female inmates. In this instance of degradation, the doctor’s wife takes advantage of her powers of sight for the good of the community as a whole; she ultimately kills the leader of the hoodlums while he is trying to take sexual advantage of another woman (Blindness, pp. 188-89).
The relationship between the doctor’s wife and the hoodlum demonstrates the two opposing sides of human nature. On the one hand, she kills a man out of a sense of moral responsibility to the others, particularly the women, since she knows that he must be murdered if they are to retain their worth as human beings and that she is the only one able to commit the deed. On the other hand, the hoodlum’s power is based on his possession of a gun. Emboldened by the assumption that no one can identify him (since they are living in a land of the blind), he exercises this power in an immoral fashion.
How reflective of historical reality is his readiness to commit rape (as well as other brutalities) and the willingness of the doctor’s wife to commit murder? Documents testify to the practice of both of these behaviors in real-life humanitarian catastrophes. During Hitler’s final solution, rape was rare in the six death camps, though rumors and fears of it abounded. In labor camps like Skarzysko in Poland, however, survivors have reported brutal rape by German commanders even though they were not supposed to defile themselves by such shameful conduct with beings they regarded as inferior. One eyewitness told of a mass rape of young Jewish women, who were afterwards buried alive by the rapists in graves the women themselves dug (Ofer and Weitzman, p. 336). They had no savior, no doctor’s wife, to rescue them. On other occasions, there were noble if ill-fated attempts to fight the evil, as she does in the novel. “When is it necessary to kill,” wonders the doctor’s wife, who, deliberating over the morality of her decision to commit murder, concludes that the act is justified “When what is still alive is already dead” (Blindness, p. 193). In real life, at Auschwitz, Rosa Robata may have asked herself the same question. With select inmates, she worked in a factory that handled explosives, some of which she smuggled to the crematoria workers, who blew up one of the crematoria on October 6, 1944, killing Nazi SS men in the process. Caught, the rebels were executed; one let slip Rosa’s name, which led to her being tortured and executed by hanging.
Sources and literary context
Blindness may be related to at least three distinct literary traditions. The first is dystopian-style fiction, which features an imaginary place whose people lead dehumanized, or increasingly dehumanized, often fear-driven lives, as in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954; also in Literature and Its Times). Next comes the exploitation of the motif of blindness to depict shortcomings in human awareness of the wider world or of moral imperatives (see, for example, the short story by H. G. Wells “In the Country of the Blind” , or the play El concierto de San Ovidio [1962; St. Ovid’s Concert] by the Spanish dramatist Antonio Buero Vallejo). The third literary tradition involves the so-called question of “killing the Mandarin.” The French expression tuer le mandarin (“to kill the Mandarin”), which refers to the notion that people will commit any act if they think they can remain undetected, was exploited by the nineteenth-century Portuguese novelist Eça de Queiroz in his O Mandarim (1880; in English, The Mandarin, 1993). Probably this notion that human beings lack a sense of responsibility for
THE CITY OF GHOSTS
In the novel, the inmates emerge from quarantine only to be confronted by the appalling realization that the world they knew has been destroyed during their incarceration. The people whom they see (through the eyes of the doctor’s wife) on the streets of the city are reduced mostly to scavenging animals. On two occasions in the novel, the doctor’s wife and her friends pass groups of blind people haranguing others regarding possible solutions to their crisis Blindness, p. 298 and pp. 310-11). While the first of these passages is dominated by references to futile superstition and religious dogma thus prompting the doctor and his wife to ignore them and move on, the second one concerns different systems of government and social organization (“They were extolling the virtues of the fundamental principles of the great organised systems, private property, a free currency market”—Blindness, p. 310). There is in the sequence of the two incidents a gradual progression from the total destruction of the human spirit, through primitive beliefs, to a recognition that the recovery of civilization will be a long and gradual process, and, implicitly, one that will continue beyond the time scale of the novel (in an interview in the Portuguese cultural newspaper Jornal de Letras Saramago declared that we can only know if humanity resolves its problems on p. 311 of the novel, when the Portuguese edition of the novel has precisely 310 pages; see Nunes, p. 17). In this way, by deliberately not tying up all the loose ends (in the last few pages of the text, some but, significantly, not all the characters have recovered their sight, and normal life remains far from restored), Saramago effectively invites his readers to reconsider what they can do to improve their coexistence with others.
others influenced Saramago in his writing of this text. In an interview published at the time of the launch of the novel, the author himself remarked that “Our blindness is getting increasingly severe, because we want to see less with each passing day. What this book sets out to say, fundamentally, is precisely that all of us are blind to reason” (Nunes, p. 16).
Blindness, along with Saramago’s subsequent two novels, Todos os Nomes (1997; AH the Names, 1999) and A Caverna (2000; The Cave, untranslated), constitutes a trilogy of allegorical, apocalyptic novels. This trilogy is distinct from the earlier works that established Saramago as a major figure in Portuguese and world literature. These earlier novels (such as Baltasar and Blimunda , or The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis [1984, English 1991]) had a firm base in specific circumstances of Portuguese history, even if, in a number of respects, they reflected on wider issues than those explicitly described. What all of Saramago’s novels have in common, however, is a profoundly ethical concern with the best and worst aspects of human nature.
Blindness was enthusiastically received, both in Portuguese and in its English translation. By 1995 Saramago was undoubtedly the pre-eminent literary figure in Portugal, and the allegorical style adopted in this novel, combined with the serious moral issues raised by it, ensured that it would receive extensive attention in his native country. Leading newspapers such as the weekly Expresso (The Express) and the cultural journal Jornal de Letras, Artes e Ideias (Journal of Literature, Art and Ideas) ran lengthy, in-depth interviews with the author, in the course of which he expanded on some of the principal issues raised by the novel. One of the country’s leading literary critics, Maria Alzira Seixo, reviewed the novel prior to its publication and she compared the figure of the doctor’s wife to the heroine of an earlier novel by Saramago—Blimunda, in Baltasar and Blimunda. This heroine too possesses exceptional and inspirational powers of vision.
In his review of the English edition of the work (in the Times Literary Supplement), Michael Kerrigan recognized the novelist’s powers of insight into human nature, even in a text where no characters are named, declaring that they “live, thanks to Saramago’s gravity-defying gift for creating compelling individuals, without anything in the way of human detail to earth them” (Kerrigan, p. 20). Luís de Sousa Rebelo had earlier written in the same journal of the novel’s universal qualities: “There are no characters, only voices who inhabit a mythical space” (Rebelo, p. 40).
Andrew Miller (writing for the New York Times Book Review) focused on both the author’s individual linguistic style and the overall relevance of the work to our times:
The unencumbered language hurries us forward at such a pace it is difficult to do justice to the subtlety and occasional beauty of the architecture, as if we were driving headlong through a great city at night…. There is no cynicism and there are no conclusions, just a clear-eyed and compassionate acknowledgement of things as they are, a quality that can only honestly be termed wisdom.
(Miller, p. 8)
For More Information
Figueiredo, Antonio de. Portugal: Fifty Years of Dictatorship. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1976.
Fralon, José-Alain. A Good Man in Evil Times: The Story ofAristides de Sousa Mendes — The Man Who Saved the Lives of Countless Refugees in World War II. Trans. Peter Graham. New York: Carroll and Graf, 1998.
Frier, David G. “Righting Wrongs, Re-Writing Meaning and Reclaiming the City in Saramago’s Blindness and All the Names.” Portuguese Literary and Cultural Studies 6 (spring 2001): 97-122.
Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York: Vintage, 1996.
Hastings, Adrian. Wiriyamu. London: Search Press, 1996.
Iyer, Pico. “The Unknown Rebel.” Time Magazine, 13 April 1998. http://www.time.com/time/timelOO/leaders/profile/rebel2.html (24 June 2002).
Keesing’s Record of World Events 41, nos. 7-8 (25 September 1995): 40634.
Kerrigan, Michael. “The I of Saramago.” Times Literary Supplement, 19 December 1997, 20.
Miller, Andrew. “Zero Visibility.” New York Times Book Review, 4 October 1998, 8.
Nunes, Maria Leonor. “José Saramago: O Escritor Vidente”. Jornal de Letras, Artes e Ideias, 25 October 1995, 15-17.
Ofer, Dalia, and Leonore J. Weitzman, eds. Women in the Holocaust. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
Rebelo, Luís de Sousa. “By his readers shall ye know him.” Times Literary Supplement, 17 October 1997, 40.
Saramago, José. Blindness. Trans. Giovanni Pontiero. San Diego: Harcourt, 1997.
Seixo, Maria Alzira. “Crónica sobre um livro anunciado: Ensaio sobre a Cegueira” Jornal de Letras, Artes e Ideias. 11 October 1995, 22-23.
Yahil, Leni. The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry. Trans. Ina Friedman and Haya Galai. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Blindness and severe visual impairment occur everywhere in the world and at all social levels. They are least prevalent in the economically advanced nations and most prevalent in the emerging nations. But whatever their prevalence, these ancient scourges of mankind are enveloped in a mystique that often defies rational analysis and that promotes many social misconceptions to the detriment of both blind people and society. How any social group—from nuclear family to complex modern nation—treats its blind and severely visually impaired provides meaningful cues as to how it perceives the individual, impaired or not, in that social group. For this reason changes in the treatment of these severely limiting chronic conditions can be considered a sensitive barometer of social change at any level of society.
Estimates of prevalence. World-wide estimates of any chronic condition, including blindness, are notoriously unreliable because of differences of definitions and reporting procedures. There is some agreement throughout the world on what basically constitutes blindness: in the United States it is generally defined as a central visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye (with correcting lenses); 6/60 acuity is the comparable standard used in Britain and by other members of the Commonwealth; and 3/60 has been recommended by some international groups. But beyond this basic agreement, there are endless variations of interpretations, additional conditions, and varying reporting procedures that make comparable statistics from one administrative unit to another unobtainable. Still, some estimates must be made because of the severity of blindness as a limiting chronic condition and the consequent need for medical and social services. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that in 1962 there were ten million blind persons in the world, or a rate of 3.2 per thousand, and in 1965 the estimate was fourteen million (Wilson 1965).
As to reporting procedures, the United Kingdom has a central registry in the Ministry of Health that is maintained by local health districts and consolidated at the national level; thus its estimate of 2.07 per thousand is considered fairly reliable. Canada has a reporting procedure similar to the United Kingdom’s. The U.S.S.R. and Sweden report through local chapters of a national society for the blind that is supported by the government but that remains private; these estimates are probably less reliable than those of the United Kingdom but are still very useful. In the United States the usual bureaucratic maze exists, with 8 states having mandatory reporting, about 40 having central registers of the blind, and only 13 reporting through uniform procedures to the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Blindness (according to an unpublished survey conducted by the American Foundation for the Blind). In addition, the United States Public Health Service periodically conducts nationwide household interview surveys on health conditions and impairments, including severe visual impairment (generally defining blindness as the inability to read newsprint with glasses); this agency estimates the national prevalence of severe visual impairments to be 1.98 per thousand, based on data from the household interview sample for July 1959 through June 1961 (U.S. Public Health Service 1962). In the emerging countries regular reporting procedures are rare and tend to be unreliable. They resort to occasional sample surveys, such as those undertaken in the 1960s in India and some of the countries of the Arabian Peninsula (Wilson 1965). A notable example of a thorough clinical screening is one that was under way in Egypt in 1965 (Around the World 1965).
Two factors are major influences on trends of blindness in the world today: increasing survival rates of the aged and of children. In the industrialized countries like the United Kingdom and the United States, two-thirds of the blind and severely visually impaired are estimated to be over 65. In underdeveloped countries survival rates of the aged are far below those reported for industrialized countries, and hence the prevalence of types of blindness associated with aging is also lower. Survival rates among children have made spectacular advances in all countries, particularly the emerging nations like India. One estimate for Africa and the Middle East has been that one per cent of all children there will be blind during childhood (Wilson 1965); the comparable estimate for children under five in the United States is .01 per cent (U.S. National Institutes … 1965).
Blindness as a social problem . While the numbers of blind and severely visually impaired persons are relatively small, the social implications of their existence are enormous, because they have always imposed peculiar strains on the social structure of the society of which they are a part. The blind person in every culture is a man set apart, who by reason of his impairment cannot move about, work, or read as can the majority of his sighted peers. Thus the expectations of his sighted peers set limits on his activities. If, as in some primitive societies, his impairment is considered a special mark of attention from the deity, he is favored. However, in most societies he is seen primarily as a public health problem. In the more economically advanced nations where society is work-oriented and where the major emphasis is on the employability of all citizens, including the sensory impaired, the blind person is an economic and a psychosocial problem.
While the emphasis may differ from society to society, several social correlates of visual impairment exist universally in greater or lesser degree: the religious–mystic element that attributes guilt or favor to impairment, the medical or public health problem, and the psychosocial aspects. To ignore any of these correlates in analyzing the impact of blindness on a culture would result in oversimplification of the problems that blindness and severe visual impairment introduce in society and in an impaired person.
In the United States the complex social problem of caring for the visually handicapped is generally placed in the context of two cultural themes: the work orientation that requires each person to be a contributing, functioning member; and Judaeo-Christian concepts of individual worth and dignity. The ideal, then, in the United States is that the blind or severely visually impaired person be encouraged and helped to become a contributing member of society within the limitations imposed upon him by his sensory loss and that this be done in such a way as to insure his sense of personal worth and his individual dignity. However, the fulfillment of this ideal becomes complicated by the rigorous demands made by a highly mobile and competitive society on its visually impaired members. Thus, in such a society several important program aspects become necessary: personal reorientation and adjustment of the newly blind; vocational training and placement services for both the born blind and the newly blind; instrumentation to aid the blind of all ages to get around and to read with a minimum of help from another person; and, finally, provisions for meeting the financial needs of blind persons who are not able to support themselves. In the United States so-called “work for the blind” programs and research and development programs are concerned with providing comprehensive services to meet these needs.
Most European nations have instituted some prevocational or adjustment training centers as well as vocational training centers. In Finland a very thorough medical and psychosocial examination lasting one week is made before adjustment and/or vocational programs are prescribed (Graham & Clark 1964). Although few European nations have services as thorough as those of Finland, most do provide at least medical care and vocational training for newly blind persons. In Poland a special training course on mobility is given using the “long cane,” which was first employed in training American war-blinded veterans. In the U.S.S.R. special training courses are given the foremen of state industrial concerns where large numbers of blind workers are employed. As compared with programs in the United States and Europe, those in the emerging countries are far more general and traditional; schools for blind children and homes for the aged are ordinarily the only existing services. Of course, there are a few exceptions: for example, Israel provides courses in modern technology, and in Japan the blind are traditionally taught to be masseurs and musicians.
In general, programs for the blind and severely visually impaired throughout the world are limited by two major factors: the ideological and economic emphasis of each country and the extent of its resources. For example, in work-oriented countries like the United States and the U.S.S.R., considerable effort is expended to make the blind person a contributing member of society through employment. In the U.S.S.R. experimental vocational programs are instituted in the R.S.F.S.R. Academy of Sciences, and those that are validated become required courses throughout the Soviet Union. In contrast, American vocational programs at the secondary school level, like American education in general, are not centrally controlled and differ a great deal with the locale (Graham & Clark 1964). In Europe several countries have laws requiring the employment of handicapped persons, a model of which is the British Disabled Persons (Employment) Act of 1944. However, in general, except for the British law, such statutes are not rigorously enforced; and employment is less emphasized than programs to meet the financial needs of the blind, especially in the more welfare-minded countries. In less affluent countries the daily needs of the adult blind are less often met; but in all countries, rich and poor, considerable effort is made to educate the young blind population.
Demographic data for the United States . In 1963 the number of legally blind persons in the United States (those having clinically verified central visual acuity of 20/200 in the better eye or a peripheral field of 20 degrees or less) was estimated at about 400,000, or a prevalence of about 2 per thousand. About 10 per cent of these were estimated to be totally blind; the rest have some useful vision. Well over half of the legally blind are 65 years of age or older, and, following national population trends, there are more aged women than men; 7 per cent of the legally blind are under 20 years of age. Compared to national norms, the legally blind have less education and are in the lower income brackets. The principal causes of blindness among the group are cataracts, glaucoma, and diabetes, which account for 40 per cent of all blindness and none of which are infectious (Schloss 1963, pp. 111–116; Hurlin 1962, pp. 2–10). Congenital blindness among children is often associated with prematurity.
A more liberal set of criteria for defining blindness is applied to those who function as blind people, particularly as far as being able to read is concerned. By these criteria almost one million Americans, or 5.6 per thousand of the U.S. population, are considered to be blind or severely visually impaired (U.S. Public Health Service 1962). Two-thirds of the “functionally blind” are over 65, with a somewhat greater number of females than males; about 15 per cent are under 24. They are probably nearer the national norms on education and income than the smaller legally blind group. Cataracts are reported by almost half of the aged as the cause of their visual impairment.
The legally blind are likely to be known to agencies serving the blind and to research projects, since they have become known to some reporting agency as being within the eligibility requirements for services for the blind. However, among the larger group of the functionally blind there are a large number of “hidden” blind who have not sought services from agencies for the blind. This hidden group (according to preliminary research results) is composed of several categories of blind people: those who are affluent enough to care for themselves, those who are ignorant of available services, isolates (“rocking-chair cases”) who desire no care, and a much larger group of persons who are able to function as sighted people in many tasks and activities (Josephson 1963).
Service and research programs. These demographic data, inexact as they are, influence services and research. It is clear that the low prevalence of blindness and its being a function of general population characteristics mean that blind people are widely scattered in relatively small numbers throughout the country, with urban centers having the largest and most readily accessible populations. Consequently, the urban blind are most likely to have services provided for them and to participate in research projects. However, research shows that the rural blind function relatively effectively in their home communities as long as they have resided there over a long period of time and do not have to leave familiar territory often (McPhee & Magleby 1963).
If current population trends persist, the numbers of severely impaired persons aged 20 or less and aged 65 and over will increase by about 40 per cent over the next 10 to 15 years. This suggests that the proper educational training of young blind people is a particularly acute problem and that prevention and early detection campaigns for both the young and the aged will have to be stepped up.
Research also shows that more effective techniques are needed for diagnosing the pseudoretardation of the blind child who is understimulated both at home and at school; unless we develop more successful techniques for finding these cases, increasing numbers of such children (many of whom are premature at birth) will be mistakenly assigned to institutional care of a custodial nature only. The evidence strongly suggests that when blind children are properly stimulated through their remaining senses and put in an atmosphere favorable to learning they develop in much the same way as their sighted peers (Hallenbeck 1954, pp. 301–307; Imamura 1965; Norris et al. 1957; Parmelee et al. 1962). There is an obvious need for new instructional materials in keeping with advances for teaching sighted children. Furthermore, severely visually impaired children need to be given systematic travel or mobility training before they reach maturity, rather than receive it later in adult rehabilitation training centers, as so often happens now (American Foundation for the Blind 1960).
For the adult blind, research on new vocational opportunities is needed. In the United States economy, which sustains a steady unemployment level of about 5 per cent of the working force, the non-professional blind worker is very likely to be a marginal worker. Moreover, it would appear that in the future more opportunities in highly professional jobs and fewer in industrial and semiskilled jobs will be available in competitive employment. In the United States, where there are approximately seventy workshops employing the visually impaired, the trend is toward more “terminal” employment in workshops and less training for competitive employment; this change of emphasis is implicit in the 1965 amendments to the Vocational Rehabilitation Act (U.S. National Institutes … 1965). According to National Industries for the Blind, in the period 1964–1966 less than one thousand workers each year have passed from workshop employment to competitive employment in the United States. To increase the effectiveness of the adult blind person, technological research will have to be expanded so as to offer instrumentation that will permit the blind man to travel better, to undertake increasingly more complex jobs, and to have direct access to the printed word. Present research and development projects in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union offer some promise even at present levels of financial support (International Congress … 1963).
Older blind persons, ever increasing in numbers, need assistance with three major problems: maintaining a reasonable income, acquiring more meaningful patterns of daily existence, and maintaining reasonably good health. Welfare programs based on means tests too often compromise individual dignity; an insurance program against sensory deprivation, much like the American social security system, should be considered. To help the aged blind in adjusting to new patterns of living, individual counseling is needed. The problems of health are largely geriatric and well known, except for the problem of the blind person’s emotional resistance to medical advances, such as cataract surgery, and to low-vision aids; this resistance needs to be broken down among older people who stand to benefit from such programs (Miller 1964).
Through all of these unsolved problems of the severely visually impaired runs the thread of public attitudes that commonly support the exclusion of blind people from jobs and schools and thereby adversely affect their acceptance as functioning members of society. Most societies still consider their blind populations as health and welfare problems only. Recent research by Lukoff and Whiteman (e.g., 1963) has found that attitudes toward blindness are multidimensional and generally susceptible to modification through exposure to blind persons and better knowledge of them. With a focus contrary to that of conventional theory of attitude formation and change, Cutsforth (1933) and others in the last thirty years have stressed the vital importance of a healthy self-image on the part of the blind person if stereotypes are to be overcome. Following this tradition, Lukoff and Whiteman found that in large part the formation of public attitudes depends on three factors that are involved in the blind person’s adjustment to his blindness: his self-image; his status set, that is, “the way a person orients himself toward the several positions he occupies that also identify him to other persons”; and his role set, which is “arranged along a continuum of independence–dependence.”
New opportunities for the blind. In general, the most advanced research on blindness has been done in the United States, with the exception of certain experimental programs for vocational training conducted by the U.S.S.R. However, even in the United States a great deal more needs to be done to eliminate the age-old subcultures of “the blind,” who are in effect a minority of the severely visually impaired population. It is apparent from the discriminatory practices, such as labeling “the blind” with arm brassards in some Scandinavian and western European countries or tolerating them as fakirs and beggars in the Far East, that generally enlightened national health and welfare plans are not sufficient, at least by American standards, to insure the full participation of blind and severely impaired people in the society in which they live.
There is some hope that research and the further development of services will improve the lot of blind people throughout the world. Among the emerging nations the emphasis for some time will undoubtedly be medical: the prevention of blinding eye diseases, such as trachoma, by public health measures and the early detection and treatment of such conditions as glaucoma. Among the more developed nations, both psychosocial and technological research offer promise. It is generally conceded now by both ophthalmologists and educational specialists that residual vision should be used to its fullest capacity, not “saved.” In the United States today there are about thirty “near-vision” clinics, partially supported by federal government grants; and double this number are planned if, on evaluation, the near-vision clinic proves an effective means of introducing visual aids and training severely visually impaired persons to use them. This encouragement to use residual vision opens up new experimental opportunities for many people: more can be taught to read, and more can be taught to get around unaided.
The experience with the war-blind in many countries, particularly the United States and the U.S.S.R., has led to many achievements hitherto not considered possible for the blind and severely visually impaired. In the U.S.S.R. the widespread employment of the war-blind as skilled workers, even though they receive pensions, has helped negate the argument that pensions destroy initiative (see Zimin 1962). Almost half of all American war-blind are employed (or twice the percentage of civilian blind), although they receive generous compensation for their losses and injuries; their average household income is well above the national average. In general, the American blinded veterans (average age 46) show very few differences from their sighted peers: largely they own their own homes, are heads of their households, are in middle-to-high socioeconomic brackets, are well educated, read heavily, are active in civic affairs, are generally healthy in spite of their impairments, and enjoy themselves in cultural and recreational activities like their neighbors. The extensive training, equipment, and economic flooring given them has paid off in terms of realizing their potentialities as human beings and as contributing members of society (Graham 1965).
The other group in the United States that has contributed to the successful challenging of the traditional stereotype of blindness (that is, characterized by hopelessness, indigence, and disease) has been the group of premature children blinded or visually impaired by oxygen poisoning in incubators, resulting in retrolental fibroplasia (RLF). The RLF children, numbering perhaps eight thousand to ten thousand since the mid-1940s, are proving conclusively that, given the proper equipment and training, as well as favorable attitudes toward their endeavors by educators, parents, and peers, they can compete successfully in their academic work and personal lives (Norris et al. 1957). Indeed, each year sees more RLF and other blind children enrolled in the public day schools, and schools for the blind are paying far more attention to multiply handicapped blind children, who hitherto have been too often committed to institutions for custodial care. In the last few years the United States and the U.S.S.R. have begun a concerted effort to aid blind children to travel and to acquire access to the printed word. Indeed, increasingly the emphasis is on the realization of the potentialities and abilities of blind and severely visually impaired people, particularly children, rather than on their limitations and problems.
There is some hope that through research it will be possible to find ways to eliminate the main social causes of discrimination against blind people, whether or not medical advances to cut their numbers are realized. That effort must be multi-disciplinary and long-range in nature if it is to succeed (Graham 1960; National Committee … 1964). From the present modest beginnings, more research on visual impairment can be expected if research funds continue at present levels. In time the emerging countries can expect to benefit from this research and experience, which has been so notable in the past few years.
Milton D. Graham
[See alsoHealth; Illness; Medical care; Planning, social, article onwelfare planning; Vision, article Onvisual defects; Vocational rehabilitation.]
Amendments to Vocational Rehabilitation Act. 1965 Rehabilitation Record 6, no. 6:5–15.
American Association of Workers for the BlindBlindness. → Published annually since 1964.
American Foundation for the Blind 1960 Services for Blind Persons in the United States. New York: The Foundation.
American Foundation for the Blind 1961 Report of Proceedings of Conference on Research Needs in Braille, September 13–15, 1961. New York: The Foundation.
American Foundation for the Blind 1962 Proceedings of the Mobility Research Conference. Edited by James W. Linsner. New York: The Foundation.
Around the World. 1965 Sight-saving Review 35, no. 2: 112–114.
Ashcroft, Samuel C.; and Henderson, Freda 1963 Programmed Instruction in Braille. Pittsburgh: Stanwix House.
Barnett, M. Robert 1960 Science Still Seeking True Electronic Substitute for Sight. UNESCO Courier 13, no. 6:7–9.
Cutsforth, Thomas D. 1933 The Blind in School and Society. New York: Appleton.
Graham, Milton D. 1960 Social Research on Blindness. New York: American Foundation for the Blind.
Graham, Milton D. 1965 Wanted: A Readiness Test for Mobility Training. Pages 133–161 in American Foundation for the Blind, Proceedings of the Rotterdam Mobility Research Conference. New York: The Foundation.
Graham, Milton D.; and Clark, Leslie L. (editors) 1964 Recent European Research on Blindness and Severe Visual Impairment. New York: American Foundation for the Blind. → See especially pages 3–29.
Hallenbeck, Jane 1954 Pseudo-retardation in Retrolental Fibroplasia. New Outlook for the Blind 48:301–307.
Hurlin, Ralph G. 1962 Estimated Prevalence of Blindness in the United States and in Individual States, 1960. Sight-saving Review 32:4–12.
Imamura, Sadako 1965 Mother and Blind Child. Research Series No. 14. New York: American Foundation for the Blind.
International Congress on Technology and Blindness 1963 Proceedings. Edited by Leslie L. Clark. New York: American Foundation for the Blind.
Josephson, Eric 1963 An Epidemiological Survey of Visual Impairment. Unpublished manuscript, American Foundation for the Blind.
Lairy, Gabrielle C.; and Netchine, S. 1962 The Electroencephalogram in Partially Sighted Children Related to Clinical and Psychological Data. American Foundation for the Blind, Research Bulletin 2:38–56.
Lukoff, Irving F.; and Whiteman, Martin 1963 Attitudes and Blindness: Components, Correlates and Effects. Unpublished manuscript, Univ. of Pittsburgh.
McPhee, William M.; and Magleby, F. Legrand 1963 Activities and Problems of the Rural Blind in Utah. Salt Lake City: Univ. of Utah.
Miller, Irving 1964 Resistance to Cataract Surgery. New York: American Foundation for the Blind.
National Committee for Research on Ophthalmology and Blindness 1964 Symposium on Research in Blindness and Severe Visual Impairment: Proceedings. New York: American Foundation for the Blind.
New Pathways for the Blind. 1960 UNESCO Courier 13, no. 6. → The whole issue is devoted to the topic.
Norris, Miriam; Spaulding, Patricia J.; and Brodie, Fern H. 1957 Blindness in Children. Univ. of Chicago Press.
Parmelee, Arthur H. Jr.; Fiske, Claude E.; and Wright, Rogers H. 1962 The Development of Ten Children With Blindness as a Result of Retrolental Fibroplasia. American Foundation for the Blind, Research Bulletin 1:64–88.
Schloss, Irvin P. 1963 Implications of Altering the Definition of Blindness. American Foundation for the Blind, Research Bulletin 3:111–116.
U.S. National Institutes of Health 1965 1963 Statistical Report: Annual Tabulations of Model Reporting Area for Blindness Statistics. Public Health Service Publication No. 1312. Washington: Government Printing Office.
U.S. Public Health Service 1962 Selected Impairments by Etiology and Activity Limitation: United States, July 1959—June 1961. Health Statistics from U.S. National Health Survey, Series B-35. Washington: Government Printing Office.
Wilson, John 1965 The Blind in a Changing World. American Association of Workers for the Blind, Blindness : 87–92.
World Blindness Rate. 1965 National Society for the Prevention of Blindness, Prevention of Blindness News  Winter: 6 only.
Zimin, Boris 1962 Employment and Vocational Training of the Blind in the USSR. New Outlook for the Blind 56:363–366.
Is There Hope in the Darkness?
How Do People with Vision Loss and Blindness Adapt?
Blindness is the absence of all or most vision.
for searching the Internet and other reference sources
Corrine tried to imagine how she would describe a bird to her sister Amy, who might never be able to see one. She could say that it is small, that it has feathers, and that it sings. At least those are the things her sister can feel and hear. But how could she describe the red of a male cardinal and distinguish it from the reddish-brown of a female cardinal, when Amy might never see anything at all? And what about all the other things Conine’s sister might not see: the television shows and the movies, the picture books Corrine saved to give her, the blue sky, the faces of their mom and dad.
Corrine s sister Amy was born prematurely. The doctors told Amy’s family that she had retinopathy (ret-i-NOP-a-thee) of prematurity. This condition results when the blood vessels in the eyes of a premature baby grow abnormally and cause bleeding and scarring. It may result in total or partial blindness.
More than 1 million people in the United States are blind, which means they cannot see at all or their vision is very poor. Another 14 million people have severe visual impairments that cannot be corrected with eyeglasses, according to the group Research to Prevent Blindness, Inc. Many diseases and injuries can cause blindness. There are treatments that can restore partial or complete eyesight for some people with blindness. Others, however, will remain blind for the rest of their lives.
Is There Hope in the Darkness?
Conine’s sister Amy might not lose her vision. Doctors now can use a probe to “freeze” parts of the eye and prevent permanent damage from retinopathy of prematurity. Thousands of other people with potentially vision-threatening conditions, such as strabismus*, glaucoma*, and cataracts*, also can benefit from treatments, especially if the disorders are detected early. Others whose conditions cannot be reversed or improved may benefit from special devices like voice-recognition software for computers and from programs that train guide dogs to assist with daily tasks like walking, going to school, and working.
- * strabismus
- is a condition that causes the eyes to cross or not work together correctly, which may lead to permanent loss of vision in one eye.
- * glaucoma
- is a group of disorders that cause pressure to build in the eye, which may result in vision loss.
- * cataracts
- result from cloudiness of the lenses in the eyes that usually develops as a person ages. They often impair vision.
What Causes Blindness?
Many conditions may cause blindness. The most common cause of vision loss in infants and young children is amblyopia (am-ble-O-pe-a).
Amblyopia is the loss of vision in one eye that results when the eyes are misaligned or not working together correctly in a condition known as strabismus (stra-BIZ-mus). About 3 to 5 percent of children have strabismus, which usually is present from birth or develops during infancy. In most cases, there is no known cause for the condition, which often makes a person look cross-eyed. With early diagnosis and treatment, the eye that is not pointing straight can be trained to develop normal vision. For some people, surgery is needed to align the eye correctly.
Trachoma is a chronic infection of the eye by Chlamydia trachomatis bacteria. The bacteria infect the linings of the eyelid, causing them to become thick and rough. If the condition is untreated or if the infection returns, the eyelashes can turn inward and cause small scars on the eyes’ surfaces. Eventually, blindness results. Trachoma is the leading cause of preventable blindness in the world.
Trachoma is spread through contact with the discharge from the eyes of infected person’s. For example, if infected people rub their eyes and then shake another person’s hands, the bacteria that cause trachoma can be spread. Also, using the handkerchief or towel of an infected person can spread the bacteria.
Today, about 10 percent of the world’s population live in areas where trachoma is a problem, including Africa, Asia, Australia, Latin America, and some poorer areas of the United States.
Treatment can stop trachoma before it blinds people. Antibiotic ointments or oral antibiotics are used to treat the disease. The World Health Organization (WHO) has established a WHO Alliance for the Global Elimination of Trachoma. WHO hopes to achieve its goal by the year 2020 through prevention, antibiotics, and surgery to repair eyelids.
Some children are born with cataracts, which cloud the lens in the eye and prevent images from being seen clearly or at all. People also develop cataracts as they age, which makes it one of the most common causes of reduced vision. More than 400,000 new cases of cataracts develop each year in the United States. Surgery to remove cataracts is common for adults and for those few children with them. This restores vision in more than 90 percent of cases.
Diabetes may lead to vision loss if diabetic retinopathy develops. Diabetic retinopathy, one of the leading causes of blindness in adults, results in vision loss if blood vessels supplying the eye’s retina* are damaged by the disease. The blood vessels sometimes leak or break open to damage the retina. More vessels also may grow and start to cover the retina or grow into the fluid that fills the eyeball, further reducing vision.
- * retina
- is the area at the inside rear of the eyeball that acts like film in a camera to capture the image a person sees.
Researchers estimate that as many as 10 million to 15 million people have diabetes in the United States and 700,000 are at risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. Almost all people with diabetes can show signs of damage to their retina after two or three decades of living with the disease, but not all of them lose their vision. There are no symptoms of diabetic retinopathy at first. As the damage increases, vision becomes blurred. Doctors can see the damage with a device that looks at the retina, which is why annual vision exams are so important for people with diabetes.
The best treatment for diabetic retinopathy is prevention, which means managing diabetes (and high blood pressure, if present) with proper nutrition, exercise, and medications. In some cases, laser treatment may be used to prevent worsening of diabetic retinopathy. People with diabetes also are at higher risk for cataracts and glaucoma.
Glaucoma is a disorder that causes fluid pressure to build up inside the eye, which may cause optic nerve* damage. It may go undetected for many years before its effects on vision are noticed. It is one of the leading causes of blindness in the United States, with elderly people and people of African ancestry at increased risk.
- * optic nerve
- is the nerve that sends messages, or conducts impulses, from the eyes to the brain, making it possible to see. The optic nerve is also referred to as the second cranial nerve.
Macular degeneration is similar to diabetic retinopathy. Changes in the blood vessels supplying the central portion of the retina, known as the macula, cause the vessels to leak and to damage cells that are needed for the central part of the field of vision. Peripheral or side vision usually remains, but without treatment, the damaged field of vision may expand. Doctors sometimes recommend laser surgery to treat the leaking blood vessels when people are in the early stages of macular degeneration in order to prevent or slow progressive vision loss. Others compensate for vision loss by using magnifying devices.
Ocular (OK-yoo-lar) herpes may cause vision loss as a result of herpesvirus infections, usually the herpes simplex virus that causes cold sores or the herpes zoster virus that causes chickenpox and shingles. The U.S. National Eye Institute estimates that ocular herpes affects approximately 400,000 people in the United States.
Infection of the eyes by the Chlamydia trachomatis organism is a leading cause of blindness in developing nations. The eyes of newborn babies may become infected during childbirth if the mother has chlamydia.
A Best Friend
Dorothy Harrison Eustis was an American living in Europe when she first saw German shepherd dogs used as guides for people with blindness. The dogs were part of a program to help former soldiers who had been blinded in World War I.
She was impressed. The dogs allowed the retired soldiers to live more independently. With the dogs as their guides, the blind men could walk through and across crowded streets. As Mrs. Eustis wrote in 1927 about one such man, “No longer a care and a responsibility to his family and friends, he can take up his life where he left it off; no longer dependent on a member of the family, he can come and go as he pleases. ...”
Mrs. Eustis returned to the United States in 1929 and founded the first school to train guide dogs in Nashville, Tennessee. Called the Seeing Eye, the school moved to Morristown, New Jersey, in 1931, where it remains.
German shepherds often are used as guide dogs, although Labrador retrievers, boxers, and even mixed breeds also are used. The dogs begin their training at about 18 months of age with a sighted trainer. Then the dog is matched with a blind person, who spends three or four weeks working with the trainer and the dog.
The dogs learn when to stop and when to go at street corners based on commands from their owners. They do not read traffic signs or lights in part because dogs are color blind. The owner listens to traffic sounds and tells the dog to go when it sounds as if traffic has stopped. But the dog is trained not to go if there is danger. Dogs also steer owners away from people and from objects in their path.
About 3 percent of cases of blindness occur from accidents or other injuries that damage the eyes.
Helen Keller (1880-1968) became a writer and activist despite losing her sight and her hearing when she was not even 2 years old. She learned to communicate after she was taught to associate the movements of another person’s hands with letters, words, and the objects around her.
During the 1930s, Helen Keller lobbied the U.S. Congress to provide federally funded reading services for people who are blind. Her efforts resulted in the inclusion of Title X in the 1935 Social Security Act, establishing federal grant assistance for the blind.
The story of Helen Keller’s life, and the role of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, was made into the movie The Miracle Worker (1962), which won Academy Awards for actors Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft. It is available in many video stores and is often broadcast on television.
How Do People with Vision Loss and Blindness Adapt?
Millions of people with severe vision loss, including more than 1 million people who are blind, can do many of the same things that people with normal vision do. People with partial sight can use powerful eyeglasses and magnifying devices to improve their ability to read and to see objects. People with blindness also can:
- listen to books, newspapers, and magazines on tape
- use computers that read text aloud and respond to spoken commands
- read Braille, a system that translates words into raised patterns of dots that are read by touching them
- use guide dogs to increase their mobility
- take many of the same classes, jobs, and roles as people with sight
- become parents and teachers
- become famous entertainers (if they’re talented), like singers Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles.
The U.S. National Eye Institute, 2020 Vision Place, Bethesda, MD 20892-3655. The National Eye Institute is one of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Its website has a search engine that locates information about blindness and vision problems, and its resource list provides links to over 40 other organizations that provide information to the public about eyes and vision. Telephone 301-496-5248 http://www.nei.nih.gov/
American Council of the Blind, 1155 15 Street NW, Suite 720, Washington, DC 20005. The American Council of the Blind has a monthly radio program called ACB Reports, a monthly magazine called the Braille Forum, a jobs bank, and “Speech Friendly Software” at its website. Telephone 800-424-8666 http://www.acb.org
American Foundation for the Blind, 11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300, New York, NY 10001. The American Foundation for the Blind houses the Helen Keller Archive and publishes many print books, talking books, and a Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness. Telephone 212-502-7661 or 212-502-7662 (TDD) http://www.afb.org
Lighthouse International, 111 East 59 Street, New York, NY 10022-1202. The Lighthouse offers information, products, and publications about vision and blindness. It includes a Lighthouse National Center for Vision and Child Development, and posts a story called My Friend Jodi Is Blind at its website. Telephone 800-829-0500 or 212-821-9713 (TTY) http://www.lighthouse.org
The U.S. and the World
1.1 million people in the United States are legally blind
42 million people are blind worldwide
100 million people in the United States need eyeglasses to see clearly, and 14 million have eye problems that cannot be corrected with glasses
Only 3 percent of cases of blindness results from injuries. The remainder occur as a result of eye diseases
Blindness and eye disabilities may double by the year 2020, because post-war baby boomers are aging and many eye disorders are more likely to occur in old age.
National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, MD 21230. The National Federation of the Blind offers many resources for blind children and blind adults. Its website posts an informative fact sheet called Questions from Kids about Blindness and a newsletter called Student Slate: The Voice of Organized Blind Students in America. Telephone 410-659-9314 http://www.nfb.org
Research to Prevent Blindness, Inc., 645 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10022-1010. This is a research organization for scientists, ophthalmologists, and the public. Telephone 800-621-0026
The Seeing Eye, Inc., P.O. Box 375, Morristown, NJ 07963-0375. This is the pioneer guide dog school in the United States. Its speech-friendly website provides an excellent overview of its history and of guide dog training. It publishes several videos and a Seeing Eye Guide. Telephone 973-539-4425 http://www.seeingeye.org
The standard Hebrew term for a blind person is (Heb. עִוֵּר) (ʿivver; Ex. 4:11; et al.), a noun in the form used for bodily defects. The abstract form is עִוָּרוֹן (ʿivvaron, "blindness"; Deut. 28:28; Zech. 12:4). The word סַנְוֵרִים (sanverim; Gen. 19:11; ii Kings 6:18), sometimes incorrectly translated "blindness," means a blinding light causing (possibly temporary) loss of vision (E.A. Speiser). Eyes which cannot see are described by the verbs כהה ("be dim"; Gen. 27:1; et al.), קוּם ("be fixed," "still"; i Sam. 4:15; i Kings 14:4), חשך ("be darkened"; Lam. 5:17; et al.), כבד ("be heavy"; Gen. 48:10), and שעע and טחח ("be smeared over;" Isa. 6:10, 32:3; 44:18; et al.). Genesis 29:17 describes Leah's eyes as rakkot, but whether this means "tender" or "weak" is moot.
Incidence and Causes
Blindness was widespread in the ancient Near East. Preventive techniques included the application of hygienic ointments, especially kohl, and surgical operations (cf. The Code of Hammurapi, 215–20 in Pritchard, Texts, 175). (There is no evidence that the biblical injunction against eating pork was intended or understood to prevent trichinosis or other diseases which cause blindness.) Biblical cases include Isaac (Gen. 27:1), Jacob (Gen. 48:10), Eli (i Sam. 3:2; 4:15), and Ahijah the Shilonite (i Kings 14:4), all of whose eyesight failed in old age. (Deut. 34:7 makes a point of reporting that Moses' eyesight had not failed in old age.) Both Isaac and Jacob in their blindness reversed the status of a younger and an older descendant in blessing them (Gen. 27 (cf. 29:23–6); 48:8–19).
Aside from old age, natural causes of blindness are not mentioned in the Bible. In a few passages blindness is mentioned as a punishment inflicted by God: it is threatened for Israel's violation of the covenant (Deut. 28:28–29; M. Weinfeld takes this passage metaphorically; see below) and for the "negligent shepherd" of Zechariah 11:15–17; Proverbs (30:17) warns that the eye which is disrespectful to parents will be plucked out by birds of prey (cf. The Code of Hammurapi, 193, in Pritchard, Texts, 175). Theologically speaking, all cases of blindness are attributed to God (Ex. 4:11), just as the restoration of sight is credited to Him (Ps. 146:8). However, outside of the specific cases mentioned, blindness in general is nowhere stated to be a punishment for sin. In a few passages God strikes His servants' assailants with blinding flashes (Gen. 19:11; ii Kings 6:18–20) or permanent blindness (Zech. 12:4; Ps. 69:24) in order to protect His servants.
As a punishment inflicted by human agency one finds the penalty of "an eye for an eye" in the talion formula (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21), although it is debated whether this was ever carried out literally in Israel (cf. The Code of Hammurapi, 196–9, where the relation of the law to actual practice is similarly uncertain). Samson and King Zedekiah were blinded, respectively, by the Philistines and Nebuchadnezzar (Judg. 16:21; ii Kings 25:7; Jer. 39:7; 52:11). Nahash the Ammonite demanded the putting out of the right eye of all the people of Jabesh-Gilead as a condition for sparing the city (i Sam. 11:2). Several passages speak of the eyes being "spent" or "pining away" from tears and grief. The verb used is usually כלה ("Be spent"); the context makes it clear that soreness rather than blindness is meant (e.g., Lev. 26:16; Deut. 28:65; Jer. 14:6; Lam. 2:11; 4:17; cf. also עשש, Ps. 6:8, "be spent," "waste away").
Blind persons are naturally helpless in many ways (cf. ii Sam. 5:6; Isa. 35:5–6; Jer. 31:7, which invoke the blind, the lame, and the mute as representative examples of helplessness) and subject to exploitation (Deut. 28:29). Biblical ethics warned against exploiting them (Lev. 19:14; Deut. 27:18; Job 29:15).
As a physical defect blindness disqualified priests from sacrificing or approaching the altar (Lev. 21:17–23) and rendered sacrificial animals unacceptable (Lev. 22:21–22; Deut. 15:21; Mal. 1:8). Some have taken the enigmatic saying "the blind and the lame shall not come into the house" (ii Sam. 5:8) to indicate that at one time these were forbidden entranceto temples.
Blindness is used with several metaphoric meanings in the Bible. Frequently it refers to the lack of intellectual or moral understanding (Isa. 29:9–10, 18). Judges are warned that bribes, or gifts, blind the eyes of the discerning (Ex. 23:8; Deut. 16:19). Isaiah is told that his mission is to besmear the eyes of Israel so that it will not "see" and repent and be healed (6:10). In Isaiah 56:10 blindness refers to negligence, while in Numbers 16:14 putting out the eyes is usually taken to mean deceiving. The
helplessness and exploitability of the blind made blindness a natural metaphor for oppression and injustice in Deuteronomy 28:28–29 and Isaiah 59:9–10 (cf. Lam. 4:14; M. Weinfeld has noted that the association of blindness and darkness with oppression in these passages also reflects the Mesopotamian association of the sun-god with justice (cf. a related association in ii Sam. 23:3–4; Hos. 6:5b; Zeph. 3:5)). A related metaphor is the use of blindness to describe those who dwell in the darkness of prison or captivity (Isa. 42:7, 16–19; 43:8; 49:9; 61:1; cf. Ps. 146:7–8; this use has roots in Mesopotamian royal inscriptions).
[Jeffrey Howard Tigay]
In Talmud and Jewish Law
The unusually large number of talmudic sages who were blind probably reflects the wide prevalence of this disability in ancient times. In addition to Bava b. Buta, who was blinded by Herod (bb 4a), mention may be made of Nahum of Gimzo (Ta'an. 21a), Dosa b. Harkinas (Yev. 16a), and R. Joseph and R. Sheshet in Babylon (bk 87a), as well as a number of anonymous blind scholars (cf. Ḥag. 5b; tj Pe'ah, end). Matya b. Heresh is said to have deliberately blinded himself to avoid temptation, but his sight was subsequently restored by the angel Raphael (Tanḥ. B., ed. Buber, addition to Ḥxukkat). The talmudic name for a blind man is suma (Ḥag. 1:1; Meg. 4:6), but the euphemism sagi nahor ("with excess of light") is often used (Ber. 58a.; tj Pe'ah end; and especially Lev. R. 34:13 "the suma whom we call sagi nahor").
Unlike the deaf-mute, who is regarded in Jewish law as subnormal, the blind person is regarded as fully normal, and most of the legal and religious restrictions placed upon him are due to the limitations caused by his physical disability. The statement (Ned. 64b) based on Lamentations 3:6 – "He hath made me to dwell in darkness as those that have been long dead" – that "the blind man is regarded as dead," is of purely homiletic interest and has no practical application. In the second century R. Judah expressed the opinion that a blind man was exempt from all religious obligations, and as late as the time of the blind Babylonian amora Joseph (fourth century) the halakhah had not yet been determined (see his moving statement in bk 87a), but it was subsequently decided against his view. Even the statement of R. Judah that a person blind from birth cannot recite the Shema, since the first of the two introductory blessings is for the daily renewal of light (Meg. 4:6; tb Meg. 24a), was later amended since he enjoys the benefit of light (Rosh, resp. 4:21); the law that a blind man could not be called up to the reading of the Torah, since the passage must be read from the scroll (oḤ 53:14), was abolished with the institution of the ba'al kore, who reads the passage for those called up (Taz. to oḤ 141:1). The ruling of Jair Ḥayyim Bacharach (Ḥavvot Ya'ir 176) that if there were a person more suitable, a blind person should not conduct the service is an individual opinion and Yehudai Gaon, who himself was blind, gives a contrary opinion (J. Mueller, Mafte'aḥ li-Teshuvot ha-Ge'onim (1891), 67).
Similarly, although it was laid down that a totally blind person may not act as a judge, it is stated that when R. Johananheard of a blind man acting as judge he did not forbid it (Sanh. 34b, cf. Ḥm 7:2; for instances in the Middle Ages see Pahad Yiẓḥak s.v. Suma). Even as late as the time of Joseph Caro in the 16th century, it was laid down that a blind person is forbidden to act as a shoḥet only "in the first instance"; the total prohibition was enacted later (yd 1:9 and commentaries). A special case was the exemption of a blind person from the duty of going up to Jerusalem on the Pilgrim Festivals. The special nature of this law, which is derived from the homiletical interpretation of a word, is seen in the fact that it applied even to a person blind in only one eye (Ḥag. 1:1, and tb Ḥag. 2a).
During the Middle Ages, blinding was imposed by some battei din as a form of extrajudicial punishment and was condoned by contemporary rabbis (Assaf in bibl. nos. 97, 98, 135). Blindness was said to be caused by bloodletting at unfavorable times and by the machinations of demons (see Zimmels in bibl., pp. 88 and 153).
The question has been raised in recent times as to the permissibility of removing the cornea of a deceased person and grafting it on a blind person to restore his sight. Halakhic opinion is almost unanimously in favor, and in a responsum I.J. Unterman added the consideration that the danger to the life of a blind person through accidents is such that it can be regarded as a special case of pikku'aḥ nefesh (see *Autopsy).
[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]
Care of the Blind
The Jewish blind have been traditionally assisted by regular communal and voluntary agencies and associations, as well as special institutions. In the United States the New York Guild for the Jewish Blind, founded around 1908, had a home for aged blind, has offered integrated services to the visually handicapped, and has initiated a nonsegregated living plan for the blind. In the United Kingdom the central agency was the Jewish Blind (now Jewish Blind and Disabled) Society in London, founded in 1819. By 1970 it was caring for the needs of over 1,500 Jewish blind. It maintained a number of residential and holiday facilities, day centers in provincial cities, and the Burr Center for Personal Development which offered various courses for the blind and disabled.
The special conditions in Israel as a country of immigration created the problem that the proportion of blind persons of working age in the state was three times higher than in Anglo-Saxon countries (1956). Much has been done to alleviate this position, while the blind person is as far as possible not treated as a social case. He is, however, exempted from paying income tax. Special placement officers facilitate his employment. In 1956 the proportion of blind to ordinary residents was estimated at approximately 2.5 per 1,000; 87% of them had immigrated after 1948. Over 85% were born in countries of Asia and Africa where in many cases the blind were not cared for or enabled to work. There was a comparatively high proportion of married women or widows due to marriage of blind girls to elderly men. The Jewish Institute for the Blind in Jerusalem, founded in 1902, cared for the majority of blind children in the country. It included a kindergarten, elementary school where subjects were taught in braille, and boarding facilities for 60–90 pupils attending regular secondary school. It also had a vocational school, industrial training shop, a braille printing press, and two houses for mentally or physically handicapped blind adults.
Other agencies and associations for help of the blind in Israel included Migdal Or, the American Israeli Lighthouse Rehabilitation Center for the Blind in Haifa (Kiryat Ḥayyim), which gave casework reorientation, special training and courses, and has developed home industries for blind who are physically incapacitated. The Women's League for Israel of New York assisted joint projects with the Ministry of Social Welfare for rehabilitation of blind girls and women, and maintained a sheltered workshop, Orah, and a bookbindery, Malben, which in 1951 took over Kefar Uriel, a village for the blind established in 1950 by the Jewish Agency for blind immigrants; in 1962 it had 63 families (about 350 persons). Heads of families were employed in four workshops. The Israel Foundation for Guide Dogs for the Blind in Haifa was established around 1950. A Central Library for the Blind, established in 1952 in Netanya, had over 5,000 volumes in braille and a talking book library.
The Association for the Blind and Prevention of Blindness, founded in 1953, had branches in nine centers. The National Council for the Blind, established in 1958 for coordinating, research, and planning, was represented on the World Council for the Blind. Voluntary agencies giving assistance from abroad include Hilfe fuer Blinde in Switzerland and Aide aux Aveugles Israéliens in France. Training for non-Jewish blind has also been given by the Saint Vincent Roman Catholic hostel in Jerusalem, and at handicraft centers established in Nazareth and Shefaram. Isolated Arab villages have been visited by home teachers.
Modern Incidence and Causes
There is no statutory registration of blindness anywhere in the world. All comparative statistics on the incidence and causes of blindness are therefore largely speculative, and this applies in particular to statistics on blindness in Jews, for whom data are usually lacking in whatever national statistics are available. Comparative studies are thus impossible, and little more than some generalizations can be advanced.
The incidence and causes of blindness in most parts of the world are determined essentially by environmental factors. Jews, as a widely dispersed community, therefore suffer from the locally prevailing environmental causes of blindness. In this respect, if the incidence of blindness in a particular Jewish community is different from that in the general population, it will merely reflect the differences found in the various social groupings of the population at large. Thus it occurs in all countries where trachoma is endemic. The disease is more prevalent in rural areas, ill provided with sanitation and health services, than in the more developed urban centers with their populations relatively well housed and well served medically. The high incidence of trachoma in Oriental Jews who immigrated to Israel reflects country of origin and social level, rather than their Jewishness.
In the more highly developed countries, infections and other environmental causes of blindness are steadily declining, and most cases of blindness are now due to affections seen in the elderly (such as "senile" cataract and "senile" macular degeneration) or in the middle-aged (such as glaucoma and, to a lesser extent, myopic atrophy, uveitis, and diabetic retinopathy). These are all "constitutional" diseases, and clinical experience in Western Europe and the United States has brought out a greater incidence of three of these affections in Jews: myopia, diabetic retinopathy, and Tay-Sachs disease, a rare lethal disorder. Although adequate statistics are lacking, this clinical experience is probably well-founded and would be readily explained by the fact that these three affections are all genetically determined, generally by recessive or by polygenic inheritance. Although there is no such thing as a Jewish gene pool, it is true that inbred groups – Quakers no less than Jews and royal families no less than village communities – have many features and genes in common. These are readily perpetuated under the prevailing conditions: a recessive mutant gene is much more likely to spread in a closed community than elsewhere. (The gene for Tay-Sachs disease probably originated as such a mutant in a Jewish family in White Russia during the last century, and by emigration, carriers have spread it into the Jewish communities of Great Britain and the United States.) Contrary to early beliefs, the affection is not exclusively Jewish, for it is seen in other ethnic groups as well. These occasional cases do not add substantially to the instances of hereditary blindness in Jews, and it is a moot point whether the greater incidence of blindness from high myopia and diabetic retinopathy in Western Jews adds to that load. The numbers involved would be relatively slight, and compensating deficiencies in other hereditary causes are theoretically possible; actual data are lacking, however.
See section on Braille in *Alphabet, Hebrew.
Gordon, in: Archives of Ophthalmology, 9 (1933), 751ff.; E.A. Speiser, Genesis (1964), 139 (on Gen. 19:11); idem, in: jcs, 6 (1952), 81ff. (esp., 89 n. 52); Harrison, in: idb, 1 (1962), 448–9; M.Z. Segal, Sifrei Shemu'el (1964), 260, 262 (on ii Sam. 5:6, 8); Weinfeld, in: Biblica, 46 (1965), 420–1; Paul, in: jaos, 88 (1968), 182; H.J. Zimmels, Magicians, Theologians and Doctors (1952), 461 notes; S. Assaf, Ha-Onshin Aḥarei Ḥatimat ha-Talmud (1922), 97 98, 135.
Visual acuity is usually tested by asking the patient to read letters of various sizes on a chart viewed from a distance of 6 m or 20 feet (the Snellen method). Acuity is expressed as a fraction, the number on top referring to the distance at which a normal person can read a particular size of letter and the lower number the distance at which the subject being tested can read that size of letter. Hence ‘normal’ visual acuity is 6/6 (European) or 20/20 (American). A person should be certified blind if the visual acuity (while wearing corrective glasses) is 3/60 or below (when a letter that can be recognized from 60 metres by a normal person can be identified only from 3 metres or closer). A person should also be certified blind if their acuity is between 3/60 and 6/60 but they have completely lost the peripheral part of their visual field, hence restricting their vision to the central part of the field. Indeed, if the more useful lower part of the visual field is lost then someone with better than 6/60 acuity can be certified blind.
There is no legal definition of partial sight in the UK, but a person can be certified as partially sighted if they are ‘substantially and permanently handicapped by defective vision caused by congenital defect or illness or injury’. All certification must be done by a consultant ophthalmologist. The help from Social Services should be the same for both legally blind and partially sighted groups but Social Security benefits and tax concessions differ.
Definitions of blindness are not the same around the world and the vast majority depend on measured visual acuity with no allowance for any functional deficits. Consequently comparison of the incidence of blindness world-wide is inexact. The World Health Organisation has proposed categories of visual impairment but these have not yet been widely adopted.
The common causes of blindness vary in different countries according to the general levels of economic and physical health. The high rate of blindness in developing countries is mainly due to malnutrition and infectious diseases, coupled with the scarcity of medical care. Moorfields Eye Hospital was founded in London in 1805 to treat the ‘Egyptian ophthalmia’, a mixture of trachoma and purulent ophthalmitis brought back by British troops from Aboukir after their withdrawal from Egypt in 1803. The disease quickly spread throughout the country when the disbanded soldiers returned to their homes, taking the infection with them. Nowadays the condition is treatable with tetracycline eye ointment and tetracycline taken orally.
Causes of blindnessLack of vitamin A has a direct effect on the eye, causing clouding and softening of the cornea (keratomalacia), but also increases the risk and severity of infections, so that measles can be a blinding or even fatal disease in children who are deficient in vitamin A. Night-blindness due to lack of vitamin A may occur in famines, and cure of this condition by eating liver, which is rich in vitamin A, has been known for over 3000 years.
Another cause of night-blindness is pigmentary degeneration of the retina (retinitis pigmentosa) which, combined with partial loss of the visual field, eventually contracting down to ‘tunnel vision’, can be most disabling. This condition is mainly inherited as an autosomal recessive condition (showing itself only when both parents carry the mutant gene), but other forms occur. A high proportion of the population of the Atlantic island Tristan da Cunha was recently discovered to be affected when they were evacuated because of volcanic activity. The disorder is progressive and untreatable.
Trachoma, an infectious disease, affects some 500 million people world-wide, of whom 7 million are blind and 10 million visually impaired. The infectious agents are bacteria known as Chlamydia.
River blindness (onchocerciasis) is the next commonest infection, where microfilarial parasites, spread by black flies, which breed in the tropical, sub-Saharan belt across the whole of Africa and at similar latitudes in Mexico, Brazil, and Ecuador, invade the retina and the supporting, vascularized middle layer of the eyeball, the choroid. Treatment was revolutionized in 1987 when ivermectin, already used in veterinary medicine, was registered for human therapy.
From 1976 the total number of people registered blind in Britain has risen, but this rise is limited to those over 75 years old. Fifty per cent of all 75–85-year-olds registered with impaired vision in this country suffer from age-related macular degeneration (ARMD). Cataracts are now second as a cause of blindness, at around 40%, but these are essentially treatable by surgery except in those cases where extraction of the cataract reveals underlying, untreatable ARMD.
Damage to the retina caused by glaucoma (increased pressure in the eyeball) and by diabetes (diabetic retinopathy) make up almost all the remaining causes of blindness. Glaucoma is insidious in onset: acuity in the central visual field is not seriously affected and a diagnosis may not be made until much of the peripheral retina has been destroyed. Diabetic retinopathy is most prevalent and severe in long-standing insulin-dependent diabetes. This emphasizes the importance of striving for optimal diabetic control. Routine screening checks for both glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy are essential, but manpower and economic considerations have led to much of this work being transferred to orthoptists and optometrists. Retinal detachment (separation of the retina from the pigment epithelium behind it) is a rarer cause of blindness.
There is a long history of visual upsets from staring directly at the sun. The high energy optically concentrated at the central part of the retina for only seconds can produce prolonged after-images and even permanent loss of central vision. This is an occupational hazard for astronomers, and for members of the public who sun-gaze in a misguided attempt to strengthen their eyes or when under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. There is a particular hazard during solar eclipses because the reduced total amount of light makes it easier to hold fixation on the sun, but the intensity on the remaining illuminated part of the retina is just as high (and just as damaging) as when there is no eclipse: hence the term ‘eclipse blindness’.
Possibilities for treatmentGiven the immense social importance of vision, there is intense effort to develop new treatments for blinding conditions. These are focusing not only on the conventional approach of developing new vaccines to prevent infection and new drugs to treat specific conditions, but also on more innovative approaches. For instance, attempts have been made to implant an array of electrodes over the surface of the visual cortex, coupled to a video camera or an optical letter reader, in the hope of bypassing the eye and providing visual sensation by direct stimulation of the cortex. Unfortunately, such stimulation produces only the sensation of tiny pin-points of light, which appear to move with movements of the eyes. A more promising approach is the implantation of a thin sheet of light-sensitive electrodes into the retina, to take the place of degenerated receptors and provide direct stimulation to the fibres of the optic nerve.
Cortical blindnessDamage to the visual cortex in the occipital lobe of the cerebral hemispheres can also cause blindness — cortical blindness. When fixation is maintained on a point in space, a particular region of the visual field is blind (a ‘scotoma’) whether either eye is open, or both (because the cortex receives signals from corresponding regions of the two retinae). Cortical blindness can occur, for example, after a stroke affecting the posterior cerebral artery, which supplies blood to that part of the brain. If extensive damage occurs in one hemisphere, the opposite side of the visual field becomes blind (hemianopia). Often, a small region around the fixation point is spared. This ‘macular sparing’ is thought to be due to the fact that so much of the visual cortex is devoted to the central part of the retina that some part of this region has a high chance of surviving. Interestingly, even when the occipital visual cortex is bilaterally destroyed, resulting in total blindness with no light perception, the patient does not feel enveloped in darkness: rather, the outside world simply does not exist visually (as for the world behind our heads). This contrasts with blindness resulting from retinal damage (for instance from total bilateral retinal detachment), when the patient complains of being in complete darkness. Indeed, the cortically blind patients are subjectively unaware of their disability — blind to their blindness.
When damage is restricted to the primary visual cortex (not extending into the surrounding cortical areas) some patients are still able to detect certain forms of visual stimulation (especially moving objects and sudden changes in brightness) in the ‘blind’ part of the visual field. Amazingly, if the stimulus is not very intense or rapidly moving, they are often unaware of their residual visual capacity, but can reliably ‘guess’ whether, for instance, the stimulus has moved, and even in which direction. This bizarre dissociation of vision from consciousness is known as ‘blindsight’. Recent research even suggests that the facial expression of faces ‘seen’ in the blind part of the field can be recognized. Blindsight is not magic! Even when the primary visual cortex is damaged, information from the eyes still reaches parts of the midbrain and other visual parts of the cerebral cortex. These secondary pathways presumably mediate the impoverished visual performance.
If a stroke or injury leaves the primary visual cortex intact but destroys visual areas further forward in the occipital lobe of the cerebral hemispheres, remarkable disorders of visual perception, without frank blindness, can occur. These include the inability to see movement, even though stationary objects are quite normally perceived (akinetopsia), and a lack of perceived colour, despite normal perception of shape and movement (achromatopsia). These observations are entirely compatible with evidence from experiments in animals in which the activity of nerve cells has been recorded with microelectrodes, as well as with studies using positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to detect activity in the normal human brain caused by different forms of visual stimulation. These experimental approaches have shown that the primary visual cortex is surrounded by a patchwork of other areas in which neurons are devoted to the analysis of one aspect or another of the visual image — motion in some areas, colour in others, etc.
Damage further forward, in the lower part of the temporal lobe, can precipitate even more curious failures of perceptual interpretation, generally known as visual agnosias (from the Greek for lack of knowledge). Not uncommon, especially after damage on the right side, is prosopagnosia — an inability to recognize faces, sometimes even of family members, although other aspects of object identification (even knowing that a face is a face) are intact. In extreme cases, the poor patient has great difficulty in recognizing a wide variety of everyday objects (until he or she touches them), even though all basic aspects of vision (acuity, colour vision, detection of movement, etc.) are unaffected.
Injury to the rear part of the corpus callosum — the great cable of millions of nerve fibres that links the two hemispheres — or to regions at the junction of the occipital and temporal lobes can cause specific disorders of visual integration (associational disturbances), such as word blindness (alexia).
Provision for the visually disabledThe reaction of the public to handicapped and disabled people remains capricious, and often prejudiced. The deaf have long been figures of fun: they are often ignored and easily retreat into solitude. However, the blind generally receive more sympathy, even admiration. Social Services for the blind unfortunately are not uniformly good throughout the UK. However, some national organizations such as the Royal National Institute for the Blind and Guide Dogs for the Blind give great help and provide funds for research into blindness as well. In 1835 Louis Braille introduced his system of raised writing, where projecting dots represent a letter or number and are interpreted by touch, but it took 30 years to gain acceptance. In this electronic age there are many devices which can make an enormous difference to the blind person's quality of life. One is a computer that reads out text audibly as it appears on screen. This can be set to speeds as fast as the subject can comprehend the speech. A braille printer and labelling machine help, for example, to identify foodstuffs in the kitchen or deep-freeze, or to catalogue a CD library. Microwave units can respond to and speak instructions and will defrost different foods correctly once they have been weighed. For contact with the outside world there are talking newspapers, which can be sent by compressed e-mail, or put on to the Internet. A CD-ROM of all British daily newspapers is available weekly. Never has so much been available for blind people who can afford it.
Peter Fells, and Colin Blakemore
Cullinon, T. R. (1987). The epidemiology of blindness. In Clinical ophthalmology, (ed. S. Miller), p. 571. Wright, Bristol.
Walsh, F. B. and and Hoyt, W. F. (1969). Clinical neuro-ophthalmology, Vol. 1, (3rd edn), pp. 87–120. Williams and Wilkins, Baltimore.
See also blind spot; eyes; optometry; orthoptics; vision.
The condition of lacking the ability to see.
Blindness is a condition that affects millions of people, especially seniors. Most individuals lose their sight slowly over time because of disease.
According to the American Foundation for the Blind, there are around ten million Americans who are blind or visually impaired. Of those, approximately 1.3 million are considered legally blind, which means that they have a central visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye or a visual field of 20 degrees or less. Approximately 5.5 million people aged 65 or older are either blind or visually impaired.
|*Blindness is defined as the best-corrected visual acuity of 6/60 or worse|
(=20/200) in the better-seeing eye.
|source: Adapted from Archives of Ophthalmology, Vol. 122, April 2004|
|(Illustration by GGS Information Services. Cengage Learning, Gale)|
Causes and symptoms
There are many possible causes of blindness. In seniors, the leading causes are age-related macular degeneration and cataracts. Some of the symptoms include blurred vision and constricted vision.
It is important that problems which can cause blindness be identified early. Some of the symptoms that people should watch for include difficulty bringing objects into focus, dark spots, trouble adjusting to dark or light areas, ghost-like images, pain around the eyes and double vision.
Since it is possible to be considered legally blind while retaining some sight, treament for blindness focuses on retaining what sight may remain. Eye care professionals can help patients to develop a plan that will help to preserve sight while allowing the patient to best maintain his or her lifestyle.
It is now thought that certain antioxidant compounds can help to prevent the leading cause of vision loss among seniors, age-related macular degeneration, as well as cataracts. These compounds do so by helping the eye maintain the thickness of the retinal pigment. A diet high in leafy grean vegetables like spinach will have a high amount of lutein and zeaxanthin, two of the antioxidants studied.
Though it is commonly believed that eating carrots can improve vision, it is not entirely true. Carrots provide vitamen A, which is neccesary for sight, however only a small amount of vitamen A is needed by the body and excessive amounts have not be found to improve vision.
Occupational therapy can be very beneficial for individuals who are newly blind. An occupational therapyist can help the individual choose which assitive devices and technologies are right for him or her. Once assistive devices have been chosen the occupational therapist will work with the individual over weeks or months to learn to use these devices to their best effectiveness. An occupational therapist can also help the individual make adaptive changes to the home or work environment as neccesary.
Though medical science has made incredible strides in the use of prostheses for hearing loss, vision loss is still considered permenant. Individuals who are losing their sight slowly, however, can do a great deal to preserve their vision until quite late in the disease that first cause the vision loss.
As there are many possible ways for an individual to lose his or her eyesight, there are many things one can do to help keep the eyes safe. One of the most important ways to prevent blindness is through regular eye exams. An ophthalmologist or an optometrist can check for problems such as presbyopia, cataracts and macular degeneration. It is recommended that individuals over the age of sixty get their eyes examined at least once a year. Many eye problems that do not exhibit symptoms can be treated if they are found early, but if they aren't treated early they can lead to loss of vision.
Another important way that individuals can protect their eyes is through wearing protective safety eyewear when performing dangerous tasks at home or work. Some of these tasks include working with chemical agents, using woodworking or metalworking equipment, handling pesticides or fertilizers, and even playing certain sports like hockey or racquetball. By being conscious of the safety hazards involved and taking proper precautions, many eye injuries can be completely avoided.
For most patients, care givers will focus on helping the patient adapt to their life. By modifying the environment and training patients to work with their existing vision a certain degree of independence can be aided. Specific low vision devices may also be available.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR DOCTOR
- Is it likely that my vision will get worse?
- What can I do to keep my vision as long as possible?
- Are there resources that can help me at work or home?
Kinash, Shelley. Seeing Beyond Blindness. Greenwich, CT: IAP-Information Age Pub., 2006.
Rieser, John J. et al, eds. Blindness and Brain Plasticity in Navigation and Object Perception. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2008.
Roberts, Daniel L. The First Year: Age-Related Macular Degeneration: an Essential Guide for the Newly Diagnosed. New York: Marlowe & Co., 2006.
Dye, Dayna. “Lutein and Zeaxanthin Reduce Macular Degeneration Risk.” Life Extension (Dec 2007).
“Researchers Create a Model of Age-Related Macular De-generation in Mice.” Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness 102.2 (Feb 2008): 114–115.
- Agib dervish who lost an eye. [Arab. Lit.: Arabian Nights ]
- Anchises blinded by lightning. [Gk. Myth.: Walsh Classical, 22]
- Blind Pew David, the blind beggar. [Br. Lit.: Treasure Island ]
- Braille, Louis (1809–1852) teacher of blind; devised raised printing which is read by touch. [Fr. Hist.: NCE, 354]
- Cratus Titan who blinded Prometheus. [Gk. Myth.: Kravitz, 67–68]
- Demodocus blind bard rewarded by Odysseus. [Gk. Lit.: Odyssey VIII]
- Ephialtes giant deprived of his left eye by Apollo and of his right eye by Hercules. [Gk. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 333]
- Gloucester cruelly blinded by those he served. [Br. Lit.: King Lear ]
- the Graeae share one eye among them. [Gk. Myth.: Gayley, 208–210]
- Heldar, Dick artist who gradually goes blind and is abandoned by his sweetheart. [Br. Lit.: The Light that Failed in Benét, 586]
- Homer sightless writer of Iliad and Odyssey. [Gr. Hist.: Wallechinsky, 13]
- Justice personified as a blindfolded goddess, token of impartiality. [Rom. Tradition: Jobes II, 898]
- Keller, Helen (1880–1968) Achieved greatness despite blindness and deafness. [Am. Hist.: Wallechinsky, 13]
- Lucy, St. vision restored after gouging out of eyes. [Christian Hagiog.: Brewster, 20–21]
- mole said to lack eyes. [Medieval Animal Symbolism: White, 95–96]
- Nydia beautiful flower girl lacks vision but “sees” love. [Br. Lit.: The Last Days of Pompeii, Magill I, 490–492]
- Odilia, St. recovered vision; shrine, pilgrimage for visually afflicted. [Christian Hagiog.: Attwater, 257]
- Oedipus blinded self on learning he had married his mother. [Gk. Lit.: Oedipus Rex ]
- Paul, St. blinded by God on road to Damascus. [N.T.: Acts 9:1–19]
- Peeping Tom stricken blind for peeping as the naked Lady Godiva rode by. [Br. Legend: Brewer Dictionary ]
- Plutus blind god of Wealth. [Gk. Lit.: Plutus ]
- Polyphemus Cyclops blinded by Odysseus. [Gk. Myth.: Odyssey ]
- Rochester, Edward blinded when his home burns down, depends on the care of Jane Eyre. [Br. Lit.: Charlotte Bronte Jane Eyre ]
- Samson Israelite hero treacherously blinded by Philistines. [O.T.: Judges 16:4–21]
- Stagg sightless roomkeeper. [Br. Lit.: Barnaby Rudge ]
- three blind mice sightless rodents; lost tails to farmer’s wife. [Nurs. Rhyme: Opie, 306]
- Tiresias made sightless by Athena for viewing her nakedness. [Gk. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 1086]
- Tobit sparrow guano falls into his eyes while sleeping. [Apocrypha: Tobit 2:10]
- Zedekiah eyes put out for revolting against Nebuchadnezzar. [O.T.: II Kings 25:7]
See also 148. EYES .
- ablepsia, ablepsy
- a lack or loss of sight. —ableptical, adj.
- a condition of partial or total blindness, caused by a disease of the optie nerve. —amaurotic , adj.
- amblyopia, amblyopy
- obscurity of vision, occurring without any organic change in the eyes; the first stage of amaurosis. —amblyopic, adj.
- anopsy, anopsia, anoöpsia
- Medicine. the condition of snow blindness.
- Obsolete, the state of having defective eyesight; purblindness.
- Obsolete, the process of blinding.
- a disease of the eyes, in which the eyeball hardens and becomes tense, often resulting in blindness. —glaucomatous , adj.
- the loss of sight in daylight. —hemeralopic , adj.
- a writing frame designed for use by blind people.
- the loss of sight in darkness. —nyctalopic , adj.
- a device combining a selenium cell and telephone apparatus that converts light energy into sound energy, used to enable blind people to sense light through the hearing and thus read printed matter.
- an instrument for writing when unable to see.
- scotoma, scotomy
- a blind spot or blind area in the field of vision.
- the totality of medical knowledge concerning the causes, treatment, and prevention of blindness.
- a person who devotes himself to helping the blind.
- blindness. —typhlotic , adj.