Saturday, February 02, 2008

In the Land of the Blind

In Jose Saramago's Blindness, a sudden, inexplicable epidemic of blindness sweeps an unnamed city, plunging society into chaos. The squalor and violence that accompanies the blindness is vividly portrayed. One woman escapes the curse, and becomes responsible for guiding a small group, pilgrims in the land of the blind, to safety as an unchecked brutality descends upon the populace. The collective will and support of the group sustain them through unimaginable horrors.

Saramango shows how one vital change causes an expanding disruption of the social fabric, where human degradation and brutality rise quickly to the surface as opportunities for the abandonment of social norms arise. In the pilgrimage of the group, one thinks of the paintings of Breughel or Bosch, of the blind leading the blind through an apocalyptic landscape, through streets choked with corpses, wild dogs and the stench of human excrement. The basic necessities - food, shelter, and safety - become consuming obsessions as the comfortable trappings of modern life are stripped away.

The story is a descendant of Camus' The Plague, of the Decameron, and of the post-apocalyptic narratives of science fiction, most recently revived in Cormac McCarthy's harrowing The Road. In an Edwardian short story I read years ago, author forgotten, a blinding fog descends upon London, the consequence of environmental pollution, and society descends into violent chaos. Blindness is an expansion of that narrative, and in many ways a mirror of it. Saramago, writing in Portugese, is probably one of the few philosophical Marxists writing today. His Blindness is a remarkable and pessimistic exposition of the fragility of social order in the modern world.

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