Proverbs and False Comfort in Blindness
In Blindness, José Saramago questions the morals innately present in human nature through characters who ignore or misuse the advice provided by sayings. By inserting old, vague, and contradictory proverbs, Saramago demonstrates that in bewildering times, sayings become a comfort rather than actual guidance. He criticizes the use of sayings when one doesn’t follow their advice, suggesting that humans should rely on their own rationality instead of clinging to a fake morality. Once the blindness epidemic strikes, the characters are thrown into a new situation where old morals and proverbs are no longer useful, and they are subsequently stripped of the comfort that counterfeited logic and ethics provided them. The main characters then learn to think critically and reconstruct reason through their own original sayings, giving them organization, rationality, and ultimately their sight. As Saramago submerges the world in blindness he portrays the absurdity of characters’ reliance on old proverbs, exposing that individuals tend to rely on advice they’ve heard to make themselves feel better and not use logic to draw their own moral conclusions. Saramago distinguishes between words as a comfort versus words as guidance, ultimately warning that falsely using words to make one’s intentions appear moral will not actually create morality.
Saramago displays characters using proverbs to provide themselves with an invalid sense of moral comfort while acting immorally, ultimately criticizing humanity’s pitiful dependence on moral standards others have created instead of utilizing critical thinking skills. In the beginning of the novel, when the car thief offers to bring the first blind man home, he states: “Now then, don’t give it another thought, today it’s your turn, tomorrow it will be mine, we never know what might lie in store for us…”(3). While the car thief says he means to help the blind man at this point, he later steals his car, indicating that the saying allowed him an undeserved feeling of righteousness without truly possessing morality himself. The saying, “today it’s your turn, tomorrow will be mine,” usually implies that one will attempt to be helpful for their own future benefit. By having him steal the car, however, Saramago displays that the car thief does not conform to this standard and rather ignores the true meaning behind the saying he uses; he therefore also ignores ethical logic, which is evidently absent in human nature. Because the car thief is not physically blind yet at the point of this quotation, Saramago demonstrates that people have always been blind to rationality, they just did not realize it until the white blindness forced them to reevaluate their logic and integrity.
Later, when the blind population in the asylum laments that no one can sort their food evenly, someone states: “In the country of the blind, the one eyed-man is king” (98). Depending on the circumstances, what may have once been considered a disadvantage could become an advantage; the “one eyed-man” would usually be considered disabled, but in a blind world he has all the power. In this case the advantage would actually be seeing, however, their point is irrelevant because as far as they know, everyone is blind. The speaker is not thinking rationally about their current situation, just reflecting on the past by reciting a proverb he knows, and simply adding this proverbial comment does not contribute anything productive. As everyone is struggling to live in a blind world, no one knows how to act and falls back on the sayings they’ve been told, exhibiting humanity’s pitiful dependence on counterfeited rationality through proverbs. Someone then goes on to contradict this proverb by saying, “If the one who does the sharing out fails to get the better part, he’s either a fool or a dullard” (99). At this point everyone is searching for any information that could help them in the situation, even if it’s not actually helpful, as exhibited previously. This speaker responds directly to the speaker of the quote above, intending to comfort himself by putting the other down. While the previous speaker is not actually “the one who does the sharing out,” he does believe that the sharer should distribute the food equally, so the insult of being “a fool or a dullard” is aimed at him. No progress is made by this accusation, yet the attacker feels the need to not only call him “fool” and insult his temporary judgment and rationality, but also “dullard,” which implies a meager intelligence and boring personality. The selfish need to elevate one’s own pride over others in this universally bad situation emphasizes the logic and moral compass lacking in human nature. Furthermore, the contradiction of these two sayings demonstrates that there are, in fact, sayings for nearly every point of view, making the use of proverbs essentially futile all the time. Through the ineffective insults and contradictory proverbs, Saramago highlights the necessity of logical and ethical thinking and shows that previously established morals become futile at the slightest change in society.
As the blind society advances, the main characters begin adapting to their harsh new environment and think sensibly together to create their own set of morals and standards through original applicable “proverbs,” allowing them to reconstruct an organized society of their own and ultimately gain back their sight; Saramago therefore illustrates that through logic we overcome the immorality of human nature. After a while in the ward, the group’s mantra becomes: “If we cannot live entirely like human beings, let us do everything in our power not to live entirely like animals” (116). This was originally said by the doctor’s wife to discourage the complete disintegration of society. The advice may seem obvious, but by “not liv[ing] entirely like animals” the main characters have set an important principle for themselves to maintain a higher standard of living, and therefore some comfort. This “proverb” never would have applied before, but it became “a rule of life” (116) for the group, meaning they had advice to fall back on in most situations. Saramago demonstrates that in creating rules for oneself based on situational necessity, we apply our rationality instead of falling back on obsolete or inapplicable advice for others. When discussing the horrors that the doctor’s wife witnesses in the ward with her husband, the doctor states, “Fighting has always been, more or less, a form of blindness” (133). Again, this is not an official proverb, but a short statement with an underlying moral qualifies as a saying regardless. The doctor goes beyond maintaining a standard for living, he actually maintains ethics. By linking “fighting” to “blindness,” he implies that the people involved are too caught up with themselves to see another point of view or think rationally. Acknowledging the consequences of fighting diminishes the amount of altercations and allows for a more cohesive society. Furthermore, the doctor recognizes that the white blindness is not the first blindness to exist––in fact, their blindness has always existed. This knowledge lifts the blindness in the end, so Saramago displays that by logically creating our own moral code we become more perceptive and aware. The establishment of standards through proverbs fosters further rational thinking and living, and ultimately a more organized, intuitive, and knowledgeable society.
Through the transition from relying on old sayings for a sense of morality to creating original ethics and standards, Saramago displays the importance of rationality as ignorance becomes truly equivalent with blindness. Proverbs are originally created by others for their own lives; thus, blindly stating them in other general situations does not actually make one virtuous, and can lead to immoral chaos as the blank slate of human nature does not innately recognize rational morals. By exposing the futility of merely repeating proverbs, Saramago identifies the facade of ethical organization in society, which ultimately crumbles with the slightest change. Once proverbs are realized to no longer be helpful, humans are forced to use their own rationality to create organization. Saramago ultimately demonstrates that logical and ethical thinking will counteract the natural reliance on old, inapplicable, and misused moral standards that proverbs represent.
Overcoming Sexual Wrongdoing: Blindness v. Salvage the Bones
Oscar Wilde once said that “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” In both Blindness by Jose Saramago and in Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, sex is used by the men in the story as a means to exert power over the women. In Salvage the Bones, the reader follows Esch, a 15-year-old girl who has undying yet unrequited love for the boy who impregnated her, Manny. To Manny, Esch is just a toy that he can throw away when he is finished. Although the circumstances may be different in Blindness, the group of hoodlums in the story use the mass rape of the women as a means to become the most powerful group in the asylum, and thus control their only life source, food. What is most notable about these two novels, however, is not the atrocities committed by the men, but the way in which the women respond to the outrageous sexual wrongdoings done unto them. In both Blindness and Salvage the Bones there are male characters who take advantage of the women so as to exert power over them. However, in both stories there also comes a point when the women have had enough, and look inward to find a way to stop the inhumane way in which they are being treated, resulting in lasting changes for their characters.
In the case of Salvage the Bones, Esch’s complicated relationship with Manny reaches its limit in the bathroom at Randall’s basketball game, when finally she takes herself back from him. For the entirety of the novel, Esch describes Manny as “light” and “beautiful,” highlighting her intense love for him. She is so infatuated with him that it is as if he owns her, her thoughts, and her body, and he is unafraid to take full advantage. Although Manny has a girlfriend, he continuously turns to Esch for sexual favors, but never so much as kisses her in return. He refuses any sort of relationship with Esch that is more than physical, even though what she longs for most is his love. The turning point in Esch and Manny’s relationship is when Manny comes into the bathroom after Esch, seeking sex at Randall’s basketball game. Rather than being submissive as she usually is and letting Manny have his way with her, she takes more control. She begins their encounter by narrating, “He unzips his pants, and I grab his dick hard enough to hurt. I want it to hurt” (Ward, 145). Although she continues to have sex with him, she is intent on being seen this time, saying, “He will look at me. He snorts, puts his head down into my shoulder. I pull hard, and my hands slide along his face. I grab again. He will look at me” (Ward, 146). When he finally looks at her for the first time while they are having sex, she describes him very differently than she had in the past, no longer describing his sun-like features, but by saying “…and his eyes are so black they are all black, and they are a night without stars” (Ward, 146). This scene ends horribly for Esch, with Manny throwing her on the floor after figuring out that she is pregnant; however, after this moment of exerting power of her own, Esch’s attitude towards Manny is changed.
In the rest of the novel after the bathroom scene, there is change in the way that Esch interacts with Manny. In a notable scene, Esch begins to attack Manny: “I am slapping him, over and over, my hands a flurry, a black blur. His face is hot and stinging as boiling water. ‘Hey! Hey!’ Manny yells. He blocks what he can with his elbows and forearms, but still I snake through. I slap so hard my hands hurt” (Ward, 203), and she then exclaims, “I love you!” (Ward, 203) but quickly amends her statement, screaming, “I loved you!” (Ward, 203). In this moment, Esch admits that she is no longer in love with Manny. Despite bearing his child, she comes to the realization that she no longer needs, or even wants, him in her life. The bathroom scene is the breaking point for Esch. It is the moment that allows her to to declare that her love for Manny is over, thus freeing herself from his abusive tendencies, and taking herself back from him.
There are clear situational differences between Salvage the Bones and Blindness; however, the doctor’s wife has a moment that recalls Esch’s, in which she takes responsibility for ending her abuse. Although the doctor’s wife has no personal feelings towards her abusers, as Esch has for Manny, she is similarly objectified by them. The doctor’s wife and Esch are no more than objects of pleasure and power to their abusers. After her own ward’s mass rape, the doctor’s wife heard the hoodlums’ call for more women. The feeling of terror of the new women is described by the narrator as such: “What terrified them was not so much the rape, but the orgy, the shame, the anticipation of the terrible night ahead, fifteen women sprawled on the beds and on the floor, the men going from one to the other snorting like pigs…” (Saramago, 187). This very thought of intense shame is similar to Esch’s feelings towards Manny when he discarded her on the bathroom floor in the gym. Shame, in part, also motivated the doctor’s wife to put an end to the horrors that came along with the hoodlums’ reign. After the killing the hoodlums’ leader with a pair of scissors, she and the doctor talk: “What happened, the doctor asked, they said a man was killed, Yes I killed him, Why, Someone had to to do it, and there was no one else, And now, Now we’re free, they know what awaits them if they ever try to abuse us again” (Saramago, 193). It is clear that, like Esch, the doctor’s wife had reached her breaking point, and was not willing to take the abuse any longer. As a result, she takes action to save herself, and the rest of the women in the asylum, freeing them from future shame and abuse.
Like Esch, the doctor’s wife experienced a positive change after standing up to her abusers. Soon after killing the leader of the hoodlums, the doctor’s wife announces, “…and don’t bother asking me how I know who they are, the answer is simple, I can see” (Saramago, 210). From this moment on, the doctor’s wife’s role changes in the novel. She no longer hides her sight in fear of becoming a slave to those around her, but uses it it to help others. She becomes a fearless guide, as she leads the blind out of the asylum, and helps her group to survive until the white blindness is over. In the moment in which the doctor’s wife stands up to take herself, and her humanity, back from her abusers, she becomes a more confident character. Both Esch and the doctor’s wife are willing to face their fears in the aftermath of their abuse, the doctor’s wife in exposing her sightedness to the asylum, and Esch in letting go of her love for Manny.
In both novels, female characters are subjected to terrible sexual wrongdoings by the men around them, but their resilience is remarkable. After excessive abuse, both women are able to stand up to their abusers and take their humanity back. Although in different forms, there is a singular moment for both the doctor’s wife and Esch that convinces them that they must assert themselves in order to change their circumstances. Neither Esch nor the doctor’s wife is superhuman, or has any powers that exceed those of everyday person, making their stories even the more inspiring. Strong female characters are all too scarce in novels, but what is even more scarce is finding stories that are unafraid to confront horrors of sexual abuse, and explore the difficulties of overcoming it. Saramago and Ward are both were unafraid to explore this uncharted terrain, as well as unafraid to create strong female characters that are able to overcome their terrible circumstances.
Social Behavior in Saramago’s Blindness
Jose Saramago’s Blindness depicts a world suddenly stricken by a blindness epidemic. As an inexplicable wave of blindness spreads, society fragments and people freely express an “animalistic” form of human nature in face of the increased pressure for survival. The characters’ responses to their blindness paint a fairly pessimistic picture of human nature and in fact many humane features seem to be accredited to the existence of a functional society. However, the novel is not void of counterexamples to such a notion that society is unavoidably virtuous and that individuals are only driven by selfish instinct. Instead, the varied examples of individual behavior and society’s function depict that the latter is merely an emergent property of the former; the individuals who are in effect society’s building blocks are ultimately responsible for whatever shape and role society takes.Early in the novel, society’s fragility is demonstrated; an alteration, as in the loss of eyesight, disintegrates the former version of society. The disassembly of society in the novel sparks the spread of chaos and the loss of organized human interaction. The initial entropic effects of society’s disassembly aside, however, the true extent of its role in the pre-outbreak society becomes evident by examining its absence in the asylum. Interestingly, the deterioration of the former society comes hand in hand with significant “dehumanization” of the setting’s inhabitants. Not long after the government’s setup of the quarantine, the people forgo fundamental human duties such as proper burial for the dead: “The occupants of the first and second wards gathered together in order to decide whether they should eat first and then bury the corpses, or the other way round. No one seemed interested in knowing who had died” (87). Evidently, the humane action of burying the dead is not highly prioritized in the absence of a coherent society. The people in the asylum are more in tune with their immediate needs as individuals and thereby ignore their responsibility to one another. Furthermore, the lack of concern over an exposed corpse marks the absence of any adherence to sanitation in the asylum. As the doctor (one of the novel’s main characters) looks for a bathroom to relieve himself, the realization of the prevalent filth horrifies him: “The stench chocked him. He had the impression of having stepped on some soft pulp, the excrement of someone who had missed the hole of the latrine or who had decided to relieve himself without any consideration for others” (92). In the absence of the characters’ liability to each other, filth quickly takes over the entire asylum. Such negative consequences of the people’s lack of accountability to one another illustrate the pre-epidemic society’s role in sustaining a favorable order. The role of a practical society in maintaining a socially optimal balance is further illustrated by the events that follow the rise of a group of brutes in the asylum to power. With a gun in his possession, a blind man uses his circumstantial power to control the food supply: “The hoodlum shouted, Be quiet everyone and keep you mouths shut, if anyone dares to raise their voice, I’ll shoot straight out…from today onwards we shall take charge of the food” (139). With the absence of proper social measures to prevent the hoodlums from taking control of the rations, such as a dutiful group of soldiers, a few usurp power against the wishes of many. The acts of violence and abuse that ensue following the rise of the brutes repeatedly highlight the pre-epidemic society’s function in providing order and protecting its constituents. Furthermore, the former society’s absence provides an opportunity for the characters to demonstrate their fundamental human nature.The basic and innate human nature presented in the novel is in many cases marked by selfishness and an “animalistic” prioritization of one’s own survival. As previously mentioned, the blindness removes any fear of reprisal and accountability for one’s actions, and thereby the characters’ true nature is allowed to manifest itself. The event following a dangerous attempt of one individual to obtain the group’s food from the asylum’s soldiers illustrates the self-serving side of human nature that is prevalent in the novel: “Taking advantage of the uproar, some of the blind internees had sneaked off with a number of containers, as many as they could carry, a patently disloyal way of forestalling any hypothetical injustices in the distribution” (103). The brave and seemingly selfless motivation of one blind man to bring back the group’s rations is ultimately defeated by the self-serving intentions of a few others. This selfish component of human nature relates it to the basic nature a beast; the impulse to be self-serving is as innate in man as it is in an animal. Moreover, on some instances elaborations of thought lead into deeper modes of exploitation than what one might expect from animal nature. In such cases in the novel, the self-serving impulses of individuals manifest themselves in much more heinous manners. For example, in response to the lack of proper payment for the rations, the group in possession of the gun proposes a new mode of compensation: “After a week, the blind hoodlums sent a message saying that they wanted women. Just like that, Bring us women” (166). The mode of exploitation and abuse demonstrated by the brutes’ actions depicts the potential of human character to be more uncaring and even less “humane” than what is expected in a purely animalistic nature. Indeed, in the absence of the pre-epidemic society, the human nature that comes to the surface in the asylum is predominantly dark and selfish. However, the element of individual virtue is not fully absent; in fact, the doctor’s wife’s selflessness throughout the novel refutes the notion of human nature as inevitably selfish. Anomalously, the doctor’s wife does not become afflicted with the blindness epidemic that spreads throughout the setting. However, in place of the aforementioned selfish human nature that is all too common in the novel, the doctor’s wife repeatedly demonstrates altruism and compassion for others: she falsely proclaims herself blind in order to accompany her husband to the quarantine and, once there, cares for the blind around her to the extent of her abilities. The doctor’s wife’s actions demonstrate that the human nature depicted in the novel is not founded purely on or bound to selfishness. Even in the face of all the challenges brought forth by the quarantine and the epidemic, she demonstrates elements of humanity. One may argue that this is only so because she doesn’t directly suffer from blindness and thereby her true nature may not be presented in the novel. Nevertheless, the novel depicts a number people afflicted with blindness who demonstrate selfless and “humane” behavior, even in the absence of a fortified society. The independence of humane behavior from societal reinforcement is properly illustrated by the actions of an old woman who is clearly liberated from her societal bonds and acting solely based on her innate instincts. Upon finding her corpse, the doctor’s wife and her accompanying group learn of her last actions before passing away: “In the palm of the dead woman’s half-open hand resting on the ground there was a set of keys…before leaving, she remembered to open the doors of the rabbit hutches, she did not want the rabbits to die of hunger” (301) In her first encounter with the Doctor’s wife and the accompanying girl with the dark glasses, the old woman promises to hold on to the girl’s keys. The woman’s choice to fulfill her promise demonstrates aspects of virtue and honor that is present in her even in the absence of a fortified society. Furthermore, her concern about the welfare of the rabbits portrays the presence of a sense of compassion that can only be accredited to her innate nature. The old woman is extreme in both her separation from society and the free embrace of her internal nature, and through her actions she behaves as the novel’s most evident counterexample to the idea of human nature as purely self-serving and non-virtuous. In addition to the demonstration of variable human nature, the novel provides accounts of both virtuous and corrupt societal structures. While the previously mentioned positive roles of society pertain to the one operating before the outbreak, many of the societal structures that arise in the post-outbreak setting demonstrate society’s potential to negatively influence the life of the people in it. In the quarantined asylum, the soldiers prioritize their own individual welfare over their duty to others: “Help us, these rogues are trying to steal our food. The soldiers pretended not to hear…if they ended up killing each other, so much the better, there will be fewer of them” (138).The self-serving and uncaring motivations of the soldiers reflect themselves in the corruption of the army’s service to the people. The military being a staple of society’s function, the corruption that ensues in its operation depicts a large scale failure of the society to positively serve its constituents. Moreover, just as the old woman demonstrates the aspect of virtue in human nature, the autocratic society established by the asylum’s brutes depicts the potential of an organized societal structure to do harm to its constituents. Such examples of virtuous humanity and defective society in the novel can be understood in a more effective way than simply the novel’s exceptions to a dichotomy of society as inevitably beneficial and humanity as inescapably selfish. In effect, society is depicted in the book as an emergent property of the interactions and desires of the individuals who comprise it. Just as it can reflect the people’s desires for sanitation and protection prior to the epidemic, under the influence of the self-serving men with the gun it can bring about a truly horrific order. Society simply integrates human behaviors and desires into an organized, integrated and cohesive unit; its effect can be optimal or terrible depending on the type of input it receives from its building blocks.Comprehending the aforementioned relationship between a society’s function and the behavior of its constituents is critical to understanding the novel’s message about one’s role in shaping society. Such a realization on behalf of the novel’s audience is mirrored by a similar one that the blind people make about the blueprints of an effective society. Towards the end of the novel the doctor and his wife encounter groups of people discussing and lecturing on the virtues of a functional society: “They were extolling the virtues of the fundamental principles of the great organized systems, private property, a free currency market, the market economy, taxation, production, distribution…Here they are talking about organization, said the doctor’s wife” (311). The emphasized functions of the desired form of society clearly reflect the people’s realized needs for organized service and accountability to one another. Such an organization of a society in the service of its constituents is something that the doctor advocates throughout the novel, and it arises from the people’s desire for a functional system of order. Soon after the initiation of such lectures on the direct reorganization of society, the novel’s characters witness an event that seems as inexplicable as the initiation of the epidemic itself: “Through the open window, despite the fact that they were so high up, the noise of the excited voices could be heard, the streets must be full of people, the crowd shouting just three words, I can see” (326). It is essential to note here that the blindness is not alleviated simply based on the assembly of any form of society; the blindness remains under the corrupt enforcement of a fearful government and under the violent rule of the brutes. The people’s eyesight returns only after they grasp the need for and their individual roles in constructing an effective society in the benefit of its constituents.With regard to the highly anomalous origin and disappearance of the epidemic, the definitive meaning of the blindness is somewhat susceptible to varied interpretation. However, the aforementioned explanation can even account for the doctor’s wife’s seemingly anomalous lack of affliction with the epidemic. Her selfless actions and considerate behavior constantly demonstrate an understanding of her personal role in fostering a communally favored society. Thus she is uniquely able to comprehend the significance of her individual responsibility throughout the story and accordingly never loses her eyesight. As for the rest of the characters, the distinct correlation between their behavior and the function of the arising order dictates to the audience that society is but an emergent property of the interactions and desires of its constituents. Society’s usefulness comes in its ability to express its members’ collective needs in an organized manner; realizing this dependence of society on its constituents is an idea that the novel’s characters are blind to. Only after realizing the need for a truly useful society, one founded on its members’ accountability to the welfare of one another, are the people alleviated from their blindness.