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.
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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, […]