Nitpicking: Blindness, Blood, and Milk (part 2)

In the last post I introduced José Saramago’s novel Blindness and explained the relevance of the colour white and the symbolism of milk to represent the titular blindness, especially in the first half of the novel. In this second part of my analysis, I’m going to cover the color red in connection to blood, and the overlap between milk and blood.

Blindness can be divided into three parts: the events that occur before the main characters are quarantined in the abandoned mental hospital, the events that occur during the quarantine, and the events that happen after the blinding sickness has spread throughout the world and the quarantined blind escape as the mental hospital burns down. The last post introduced the idea of milk as a symbol representing blindness, and the idea of the blindness’ white being something more like an anti-white because of it represents Saramago’s conception of humanity’s lack of morals and values beneath a slight veneer of politeness. This politeness, as I also mentioned, is based mostly on an Existentialist, Sartre-ian need of a substantial foreign gaze upon oneself in order to limit the unlimited potential of human beings. This in turn is required for an organized society to exist, as people become meeker and obedient (more civilized) when they care about what other people think of them: which is what causes the collapse of society in Saramago’s novel, as people can’t forcibly exercise mutual control over one another without their eyesight.

Milk is also introduced as an ironic symbol during the second part of the novel. When the ragtag cast of main characters are contained in the mental hospital, they are routinely fed by the military-like group that enforces their quarantine. In the baskets containing food are usually bottles of milk to serve as a main beverage. It’s mentioned repeatedly that the baskets contain milk, just as often as it’s stated that being blind is like “swimming in a sea of milk”. As such, a slight irony can be found in that, whilst blind, the characters are basically forced to drink the symbol of their blindness, having as much choice in the matter as they did when they became blind or were taken to the mental hospital.

Now, being aware that milk is physically present in the novel, beyond the mere comparison with colour of the blindness, it’s possible to introduce the overlap between it and the symbol of blood. Blood is a very elemental symbol: being the fluid that represents life, its spillage is indicative of violence and death—two concepts we previously associated with the meaning of “anti-white” in the novel.

In the novel, at one point during the routine dropoff of food for the blind, several people run out into the open and are shot and killed near the boxes of supplies dropped in fear of contagion. They had been warned they would be killed, so it’s a shock but not a surprise for the characters nor the readers. What happens next, though, struck me personally and led me to base my final presentation on the concepts of blood and milk. As the military retreats temporarily and the blind crawl out in search of food, it’s described how, from one of the boxes drips a steady stream of milk, which flows into and mixes with the blood slowly bubbling from the newly deceased. It might seem a dramatic detail, or just another description, but the way it’s written in Spanish struck a chord:

“De una de las cajas se derramaba un líquido blanco que se iba acercando lentamente al charco de sangre, tiene todos los visos de ser leche, es un color que no engaña.”

This connection between milk and white, a colour which doesn’t lie, brings us back to what was mentioned about white and the idea of humanity’s true nature: regardless of how well we hide it when we greet our neighbours or go to the supermarket, in a time of crisis or distress, or when everyone stops caring, the truth comes out. Besides this, though, what draws my attention to this quote is the mixing of blood and milk for the first and only time in the novel. It’s been established that white is a violent colour in the novel, representing all the bad things that are happening and the striking sickness that caused them, and now the symbol of such whiteness and blindness mixes and becomes red, the colour of blood. The colour of violence, death, and uncontrolled passions.

The traditional meaning of red overlaps with what I’ve defined as the meaning of white (or what would be considered an anti-white) in Blindness, leading one to conclude it’s possible that the novel’s conception of white—our anti-white—is actually synonymous with red, and that—by linking their meanings—red and white are actually the same, symbolically, in Blindness. This in turn allows me to postulate that, in Blindness, blood and milk are two sides of the same coin. Anti-white in milk and red in blood, both associated with the downfall of society to its barest animalist, uncontrolled urges in the absence of social pressure and organization.

The scene I previously quoted also marks a change in the mentions of milk. The shooting of the blind in that moment marks the start of the true normalization of being blind, now cemented in place by the undeniable reality of death brought by blindness. As such, it’s unnecessary to keep using analogies and similes to describe what it’s like to be blind, as it’s more than a phenomenon now—it’s the new reality. Milk ceases to factor into blindness beyond what the reader has already experienced, and blood enters the equation. If you search in the novel’s text for occurrences of the word blood, these increase significantly after the blood-milk incident.

It’s because of this transition that I suggest that an actual exchange happened in that scene: as blood and milk mingled for the first time in the novel and the blind faced their new reality for the first time, it becomes unnecessary to keep alienating blindness by comparing it almost fantastically to a sea of milk. Instead, as reality sinks in and the white of milk and blindness becomes truly, openly synonymous with violence and death, it’s replaced with blood: the traditional symbol of these concepts. A tangible, real representation of them, and a dire warning of the imminent threats faced both outside and inside the mental hospital.

To wrap up what’s honestly a fairly synthesized and concrete version of my analysis of symbolism in Blindness, the following idea: milk and blood are both symbols representing the novel’s white blindness, which, being itself a symbol, leads to the association of blood and milk (and their respective colours) with Saramago’s idea of humanity’s hidden nature. My mentions of “Saramago’s idea” and similar phrases aren’t mean to assume that that was his absolute intention, but merely that, based on his writings and ideas, it seems to be a valid assumption to interpret such ideas as originating in his own conceptions.

I own up to the fact that blood and milk may be completely incidental to the novel and not symbolic of anything: but I’m of the belief that a big part of literary analysis comes from the things the author placed in the novel, regardless of their intent, and the meaning you can assign to them. That’s why I wanted to start writing about my literary nitpicking. It’s my style, and I love focusing on the little things. It’s understandable that it might seem like over-analysis, but that’s the point of this post: to nitpick at the details and reveal what could be a possible overarching explanation connecting them to reveal a bigger, better, possible  truth.  

One of many possible truths, to be sure.

And for me, one of the truths of Blindness comes from the many facets of Saramago’s white blindness, its symbolism, and its connection to red and anti-white, to milk and blood.

A closing quote: “Como todas las cosas de la vida, también ésta tiene su explicación.”

Like everything in life, this too has its explanation. 

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