Blindness

The Blind Dictator: The Political Fiction of José Saramago's Blindness

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While it is often wise to avoid cavalier references to an author's biography, such an approach can be useful in elucidating connections that particular pieces of literature have to their time and place of production. The novel Blindness, for example, can be related concretely to certain political circumstances of its author, José Saramago. This is especially noteworthy in this novel, since the style of Blindness seeks to head off any connection to the real world by keeping the reader ignorant of the time and place of the narrative – the city nor the characters have names. A few salient points in José Saramago's biography, though, can be related to events in the plot–in this case, the names are of no concern. Saramago was born in a small village called Azinhaga in rural Portugal. Much of his early career he spent in relative obscurity, writing for papers and producing novels of little impact. It was only in his fifties that he garnered international acclaim for his novel Baltasar and Blimunda. During his time of obscurity, though, Saramago already began cultivating unpopular viewpoints. He joined the Partido Comunista Português, or the Portuguese Communist Party, in 1968. This decision was made at his own personal risk, since the PCP was a vocal opponent to the then-dictator Antônio Salazar. Many of its members were tortured or imprisoned for their affiliations. Luckily this was not the case with José Saramago. Some years later, he also ran afoul of the ruling political body, when his novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ was prevented from contesting the European Literary Prize for worries that the novel would anger the Roman Catholic Community. After this last act of censorship, Saramago and his wife moved to Lanzarote, an island in the Canaries. We can sum up Saramago's political views as being critical, anti-authoritarian, but non-democratic. It is worth noting that the PCP never supported a total parliamentary democracy, but rather a type of arrangement where a vanguard of the proletariat would be elected to represent the will of the people. We can see that these views are clearly reflected in the text of Blindness.

The first noteworthy example in the text is the actions of the Government (a word that is always capitalized). We can characterize the Government's relationship to the its people as essentially cynical. A good example are the logistical decisions made with regards to the quarantine. When they are trying to decide where to have the quarantine, they run through several options. Some of these options would have been better suited – bigger, less confusing, facilities that worked – but were passed over in the protection of private interests. When the time comes to bring in more internees, the government throws the infected in with the possibly contaminated, crushing whatever hope these few might have had of escaping unscathed. The Government invokes words such as "community," "duty" and "nation" only in the announcement given to the new internees – and then only to justify the Government's treatment of these people. The new internees are asked to consider their time in the quarantine as being a sacrifice for the greater good of the Nation. In reality, though, the Government and the Army both treat the internees more as enemy combatants than as citizens. Government in depicted, in the novel, as being merely an amplification of the tendencies of human nature. This are to be self-serving at the expense of others, and to become progressively so as limits to this avarice are removed. The primary reason that the Government can act in this manner is that it does not fear retribution from its citizens.

The two social organizations of the quarantine, that of the doctor and that of the man with the gun, can be seen as two critical depictions of rival forms of government. Within the quarantine, we might say that the first political organization came about because of the rationing of the food and the burying of the bodies. In these situations the internees were forced to work together to find a solution, often with the doctor mediating. This arrangement, however, is inefficient and counts, essentially, on good will to continue. We see that there is no mechanism whatsoever to punish those people who steal food. Every decision, as well, must be made with the consent of all, meaning that simple things must be delayed until a satisfactory agreement can be made. This organization highlights the inherent difficulties of democracy which is predicated on a view of humanity that is flawed. For democracy to exist properly, there must be an idea of the good of the whole. People, the novel contends, do not operate this way. This is also the claim of most Marxist/Communist groups: while the proletariat should be the center of the political system, this does not mean that they know, immediately, what is good for them. This is why there must be elected a vanguard, to lead the way from within the proletariat.

If the political organization of the doctor comes under fire, then we must consider the implicit criticisms of authoritarian forms of government, exemplified by the regime of the man with the gun. This regime is run on fear, as opposed to goodwill, but has the benefit of being efficient. Several internees make this observation after the man with the gun has taken power. This government is no different than that of the doctor, except for the fact that, in the case of the man with the gun, all of those flaws of humanity are focused on one man. Thus, centralized government will always end up more overtly corrupted because it is the corruption of one person magnified. It is no accident that the dictator in the quarantine is a blind man and that his threats with the gun are undirected. This is how autocracies maintain themselves, and the Portuguese dictatorship was no exception-they threaten violence, violence that is scary since it may not follow a real pattern. This is definitely in line with Saramago's affiliation with the anti-authoritarian party of the PCP.

In the face of these pessimistic portrayals of political organization, we do have hope in the novel. The only organization that is able to last throughout the novel is not a government but a kind of de facto kinship unit. The people of the first ward are essentially a foster family. It is this kind of belonging and this kind of relationship that is valorized in the novel Blindness.