Blindness (or Ensayo sobre la ceguera, if, like me, you read it in Spanish) is a novel by eminent Portuguese writer José Saramago, published in 1995. It’s a direct criticism of contemporary society and its morals (or lack thereof), based on the emergence of a disease whose only symptom is causing immediate blindness. This disease quickly becomes an epidemic, spreading by unknown means, and halfway through the novel the entire world is implied to be blind. As you might expect, society immediately descends into chaos. It becomes every man for themselves as people are unable to recognize loved ones or even find their way back home, and everyone stops caring about hygiene, chastity, non-violence, and every other characteristic of a modern, organized society you can think of. It’s filled with a surprising amount of violence, sex, and other explicit descriptions, mostly from the perspective of a woman—known as the doctor’s wife—who, as far as we know, is the only seeing person left. Saramago handles these situations clinically, as they’re only there to prove how easily society can fall apart when people stop caring about what others think because they can’t be seen doing anything anymore.
It’s some very interesting anti-Sartrean existentialism, if you think about it.
Blindness has a lot of things to analyze from a character- or space-centric perspective, and Saramago uses a lot—and I mean A LOT—of very symbolic imagery in an effort to get the message of his modern-day fable across. But, as the reason I started this blog is to focus on the little things I love to obsess over, I’m going to ignore the broad strokes and focus on two symbols that really stood out to me when I first read the novel, and which I think really represent the core tenets of Saramago’s message. Which leads me, guys, gals, and non-binary pals, to what remains my favorite pair of antithetical symbols: blood and milk.
The first appearance of milk in the book happens with the first few pages: upon becoming blind, the unnamed “patient zero” compares it to having fallen into a sea of milk or being surrounded by a thick fog, which prompts the people around him to disbelievingly reply that blindness is traditionally black. These initial comparisons set the stage in a number of ways for the novel’s titular blindness to be unlike “ordinary” blindness, and creates a direct link between the experience of being this new kind of blind and the physical qualities of milk.
The “sea of milk” comparison continues throughout the novel as the main analogy for the physical sensations of the increasing number of blind people as the disease spreads, helping emphasize the fact that this new blindness is unlike anything seen before. In a deeper sense, it’s useful to establish a connection between the color white, milk, and the blindness. White is traditionally a “good” colour, associated with purity, benevolence, and light.
This is, important to note in a quick sidenote, a topic rife with problematic race-related issues, and I by no means support the “white is good, black is bad” binary and its related colorism. For this interpretation it’s essential to note the symbolic meanings of white and red as traditionally used within art and literature: this is sadly not independent from racism, but it should be noted I don’t support racism and merely note the relationship between the concepts of light-peace-good and the colour white without any implications of it denoting any sort of racial superiority or a symbolic interpretation of colour having any value outside of this specific context.
It is actually interesting and pertinent to note how the movement for white supremacy and the values it stands for can be directly correlated to the (very negative) meaning of white in the novel, as will be further aluded to soon, in that they both go very much against what one would imagine the white = good mentality would lead to.
Chances are, if you think about white as a symbol, the first things that’ll come to mind are probably doves and other icons of peace. In the context of the novel, however, the use of white as part of the experience of blindness contradicts directly with its traditional meaning: this white blindness essentially dehumanizes people. It strips them of the main tool by which they navigate the world, lowering them to a primitive state of violence, lust, and anger, which, in its chaos, is governed mostly by a feral instinct of self-preservation.
Violence, lust, anger—all of these contradict the traditional symbolic meaning of the colour white, and yet are inherently tied to it as it is represented in the novel through its connection to blindness. This forms an oxymoronic relationship between white and blindness, as the blindness generates a new and opposite symbolic meaning for the colour white, one more evocative of the colour red and its symbolic meaning. As such, in the novel the colour white adopts a meaning opposite to the one it traditionally possesses as it becomes representative of blindness, which itself symbolically represents how easily the shallow, banal veneer that hides the true nature of humanity can be stripped away to reveal the ugly reality we all hide.
It’s possible to conclude, therefore, that white in Blindness is really what we would consider an anti-white, from its meaning and use in revealing the ugly and violent nature of humanity. And all of this goes back to the use of milk as part of a metaphor to describe the experience of blindness—a metaphor which, when considering the use of anti-white in the novel, helps reveal from the start how punishing and destructive the disease will be.
By repeating that being blind is like swimming or drowning in a sea of milk, the various characters unknowingly foreshadow the overwhelming chaos that will soon envelop them as the importance of maintaining a visually sustainable facade before strangers disappears. They are, symbolically, and preemptively as individuals and then collectively during the epidemic, drowning in the confusion of having their entire paradigm for social interactions, independent existence, and individual priorities overturned in an instant. This is an experience the whole world soon shares (it’s implied), and the consequences are fatal, due to humanity’s tendency, as Saramago reveals, to revel in the unimportant instead of banding together for survival, as only a few groups eventually do. And only after they manage to create a semblance of order in spite of not being able to regulate each other’s conduct through the pressure of the foreign gaze (throwback once again to Sartre’s existentialism, particularly in Behind Closed Doors).
Having explained the importance and meaning of milk and the colour white in Blindness, as well as the concept of anti-white, it’s now possible to introduce blood and the milk-blood oxymoronic relationship into the equation. This will be the topic of the next post, which will be up soon. Comments and questions are more than welcome.
A closing quote, pardon the novel’s characteristically run-on style:
“Por qué nos hemos quedado ciegos, No lo sé, quizá un día lleguemos a saber la razón, Quieres que te diga lo que estoy pensando, Dime, Creo que no nos quedamos ciegos, creo que estamos ciegos, Ciegos que ven, Ciegos que, viendo, no ven.”
“Why have we become blind, I don’t know, perhaps one day we’ll know why, Do you want to know what I’m thinking, Tell me, I do not think we became blind, I think we are blind, Blind who see, Blind who seeing, do not see.”