Blindness: Unable to See Its Own Flaws

February 11, 2018

When you are watching a horror movie and you know that the girl in the tank top and panties shouldn’t go into the basement alone, and you know she has other options, but she goes into the basement anyway – that’s a lie. It only happened because the storytellers wanted it to happen, not because it was a logical thing a reasonable person would do.

– Brian McDonald, Invisible Ink

I finished the fantastic book Invisible Ink the other day. With the subtitle “A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate,” it sounded like the find of the century, since I’m currently working on a script (more on that another time!)

The book is fantastic, but I don’t want to talk about that today. I want to talk about another book I’ve read recently. That book is Blindness by José Saramago. If you’re curious if I also found Blindness “fantastic”, well, I left the following review for it on Goodreads:

Fuck everything about this book. It’s full of plot holes and a bunch of people who spend their entire time acting stupidly instead of fixing their damn problems – just so the author can wallow in misery porn. Avoid this book unless you’re looking for something that’ll make you want to shove scissors into your eyes.

In the name of full disclosure, I didn’t finish Blindness. I made it to 52% before realizing that I hated everything about the book, and that my goal to read a bunch of books this year wasn’t worth suffering through the remainder of it. And so, maybe this book gets better at the end… but I’d doubt it.

And so without further ado, I’d like discuss what reading Invisible Ink taught me about why I didn’t like Blindness. Needless to say, the remainder of this post is full of spoilers – fair warning – but don’t let that dissuade you from continuing, because the book is crap.

I led in with that quote about truth in literature, because it’s the most heinous problem in Blindness. Things happen not because they make any sense in the novel, but because they advance the plot. This is the definition of a plot hole, and as I’ve remarked earlier, Blindness is riddled with them.

A quick recap: some dude (we aren’t given any names, which I’ll get into a hot minute) goes blind mysteriously. He visits an ophthalmologist, who stares into the blind man’s eyes, and doesn’t see any lesions or other obvious problems. The question is left open, whether the blindness is a problem in the man’s eyes, or in his brain. The ophthalmologist promptly gives up, and sends the man home.

Later that night, the eye doc thinks to himself “hmm, I wonder what would happen to his pupils if I shined light into them?” Great question. Why didn’t he think of this sooner? I thought of it. Presumably the professional with at least eight years of medical school who specializes in eyes would think of trying the simplest test in the book.

We are left with three possible conclusions. The first is that Saramago didn’t know what he was talking about, but he does eventually suggest doing the test, so this is unlikely the answer. The second is that the doctor is not a very good doctor. Unfortunately, the rest of the story doesn’t really us to entertain this; the ophthalmologist is exceptionally able in most other regards, and there is no earlier lamp-shading that he might have cheated his way through med-school or some other silly explanation.

All that remains is the third option: the ophthalmologist didn’t check the man’s pupils because Saramago didn’t know how they’d respond. The Wikipedia article describes the blindness as being of an “unexplained origin and nature” which supports this line of argument.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that the blindness needs to be explained. In fact, it’s probably better literature if it isn’t. But that’s not a blank cheque for the author to write dumb characters. An easy fix is for the test to result in something completely unheard of, like the man’s eyes changing color, or flickering, or something. It doesn’t matter what happens, so long as the audience doesn’t lose their suspension of disbelief.

While it seems like a minor point, I don’t think it is. This kind of untruthful storytelling is endemic throughout the novel. Too often things happen because they’re thematic, rather than sensical. I get that the armature of the book is how tenuous modern civilization is, but that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to throw human nature out the window as soon as things get tough.

For example, after the doctor and his (non-blind) wife are joined by the first cohort of those blinded quarantined, the group unanimously decides that names won’t be necessary:

We’re so remote from the world that any day now, we shall no longer know who we are, or even remember our names, and besides, what use would names be to us, no dog recognizes another dog or knows the others by the names they have been given, a dog is identified by its scent and that is how it identifies others, here we are like another breed of dogs, we know each other’s [sic] bark or speech, as for the rest, features, colour of eyes or hair, they are of no importance, it is as if they did not exist.

To be certain, physical appearances likely don’t factor much into life when you’re blind. But attractiveness is not what makes a person, and it is exactly in these times of hardship that those things we slough under the category of “personality traits” come into their own. Names are important.

Regardless, when the next group arrives, despite explicit prompting, they too, have forsaken names:

The doctor’s wife remarked, It would be best if they could be counted and each person gave their name. Motionless, the blind internees hesitated, but someone had to make a start, two of the men spoke at once, it always happens, both then fell silent, and it was the third man who began, Number one, he paused, it seemed he was about to give his name, but what he said was, I’m a police- man, and the doctor’s wife thought to herself, He didn’t give his name, he too knows that names are of no importance here. An other man was introducing himself, Number two, and he followed the example of the first man, I’m a taxi-driver. The third man said, Number three, I’m a pharmacist’s assistant. Then a woman spoke up, Number four, I’m a hotel maid, and the last one of all, Number five, I work in an office.

Excusing this in the name of thematics is missing the point. Think of how much stronger these scenes would be if our protagonists tried their best to hold onto their identities, but found themselves always being blamed by the other internees for things they hadn’t done, found themselves in a losing battle against the society they found themselves in, in which identities truly didn’t matter. Harder to execute, certainly, but unarguably a much more meaningful thematic experience.

It is well established that those people quarantined fall into two groups: the blind, and those suspected of being infectious. The two groups have their own wards in a shared mental institution – apart, but not separated from one another. For some reason, the two groups never meet, despite how endlessly the blind wallow in the pity of their situation. “If only we had someone who could see!”

It strikes me as dubious that not once did any of the dozens of blind folk decide to wander over to the other ward and say “hey guys, you realize we’re all in this together, right? They’re obviously not going to let you out until all of this is over. So would you mind helping us out, in exchange for having the help of the others who can see should you yourself go blind?” It’s not exactly teamwork rocket-science, this stuff.

There’s a reasonable argument to be made against this, which is hinted at only implicitly by the novel, and even then, only about 30% of the novel later. The argument is this: what if the blindness is exceptionally contagious, and the fear of that is what stops the sighted ones from helping. As it happens, this is in fact what turns out to be the case, but neither the audience nor those quarantined have knowledge of this fact. I found myself continually asking “why doens’t the government just send in a guy in a hazmat suit to go sort this out for all of the blind people?”

I suspect that the answer is not “because it wouldn’t be thematic,” but rather that Saramago didn’t think about it. My impression is that Saramago himself knew that hazmat suits wouldn’t work in this world, but he committed a vile sin by not having the decency to tell his readers about such a thing. I’d be more than willing to accept this if it were established that someone had tried, and that the blindness infected them anyway – that shit would be scary. Again, what’s important here is not the facts, but the verisimilitude.

However, none of this is what really ruined the book for me. Consider it, perhaps, missed opportunities for world-building at best, and lazy writing at worst. What really solidified this book in my mind as gratuitous “misery porn”, is the rape stuff.

At some point, some bad blind dudes smuggle a handgun into the asylum, and form a gang. They take all of the food, and then require payment in terms of jewelry and other valuables in order for the others to receive their food. After the first few meals, nobody has any gold left to give them, and so they start asking for women instead:

After a week, the blind hoodlums sent a message saying that they wanted women. Just like that, Bring us women. This unexpected demand, although not altogether unusual, caused an outcry as one might have expected, the bewildered emissaries who had come with the order returned at once to communicate that the wards, the three on the right and the two on the left, not excepting the blind men and women who were sleeping on the floor, had decided unanimously to ignore this degrading imposition, arguing that human dignity, in this instance feminine, could not be debased to this extent, and that if the third ward on the left-hand side had no women, the responsibility, if any, could not be laid at their door.

This, as it happens, is the extent of the outcry. There are a few more paragraphs about some men arguing about their “manly pride” about letting their wives leave:

I, too, would prefer my wife not to go, but what I want serves no purpose, she has said she is prepared to go, that was her decision, I know that my manly pride, this thing we call male pride, if after so many humiliations we still preserve something worthy of that name, I know that it will suffer, it already is, I cannot avoid it, but it is probably the only solution, if we want to live.

And that’s the extent of it. The shattering of their manly pride (and not being labeled as homosexuals) seems to be the only thing on these men’s minds. The women collectively decide they will surrender themselves to these demands, and this, I can maybe believe – sacrificing oneself for the good of the group, and all of that noble stuff that horrendous situations presumably engender. What I can’t believe here is the men’s reactions. “Oh, you want to rape my wife? That is an affront to my honor.”

Now maybe things have changed drastically since 1995 when this book was published, but can you imagine a single man who is going to let his wife or girlfriend be raped without him going out swinging? I can’t. Sure, the bad guys have one (a single) gun, but they’re blind and what, absolute best case, are going to be able to kill six people? Isn’t the well-being of someone you love worth that? Especially so, if we are to believe Saramago, that these people have indeed lost their will to live.

This is where I gave up on reading Blindness. Life is too short for powering through poorly-motivated, lazily-written, gratuitous misery porn. All in all, 1/5 stars, and only because that was the fewest I could give it. Don’t waste your time or your mood on this fetid piece of literary garbage.

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