The literature describes everything that happened yesterday and everything that will happen tomorrow, and our aim as readers is the one of being careful to seize up those features that help us to understand our past and that teaches us how to face the future.
Starting from this premise we can claim that through literature we can describe everything around us and this is the case also today with the growing fear for the COVID-19. It’s not by chance if it is significantly increasing the purchase of books related to epidemics such as: “The plague” by Albert Camus, “The stand” by Stephen King, “the Eyes of Darkness” by Dean Kootz and last but not least: “Blindness” by Saramago.
The latter is the work on which this article is going to focus on, and by presenting the plot it will be easy to understand why today, during this worldwide pandemic, it’s so easy to identify our society’s reaction through the lines of this book.
An illness spreads through an unnamed city. It has only one symptom: blindness. One moment a man waits in his car at the traffic lights, the next his world has dissolved to white. The first affected is an unnamed doctor, then several of his patients, moving on to everyone they have come in contact with, and slowly spreads to the entire population. The doctor’s wife is the only person who is spared from the disease, but she fakes blindness to not be separated from her husband.
In the first stage of the epidemic, a quarantine is set up, and the first infected are isolated. The doctor’s wife is the only inmate who still has her sight. At first, the victims are still disoriented and trust in the better judgment of the authorities, but because the disease is spreading at an exponential rate the government just can’t control the situation. Anxiety over the food supplies grows as the logistics that allow the functioning of modern society falls apart.
As more and more people are put into the quarantine area a new social structure emerges within the walls of the hospital giving voice to inner violence and different manifestations of selfishness, arriving at murder and every kind of cruelty. After a long quarantine the patients’ revolt and break out from the confines of the hospital, with the doctor’s wife serving as caretaker for a core group of survivors.
Once outside, the escapees find that society no longer exists. Everyone is blind, unable to find their family and friends, preoccupied with securing food and surviving. And then, the disease starts to disappear, without prior warning. There is no comfortable resolution at the end. The birth of the epidemic is left unexplained as well as its disappearance.
The comparison between this story and our actual situation is immediate, the book of Saramago presents a cruel, violent, dark and sometimes deeply disturbing dystopia that immediately presents itself in an innovative way, as well as our experience with COVID-19, is doing with our lives. First of all, if in the previous most known dystopia of literature “1984” by George Orwell the problem was the situation of being constantly watched and checked by the big brother, now, in an opposite way the problem lies in being deprived of sight at all, and this can easily be compared to the difference between our fight against COVID-19 (media call it “war”) with our previous ones: in the past everyone was called to the arms, was called to act, to show the strength against the enemy, while now we are called to hide in our homes, we are called to be invisible to the enemy and consequently to the social world.
This first comparison is the one that guides all the associations between this masterpiece and our situation, because of being asked to hide, automatically we lose our identity, we lose the possession of our social activities, of our daily meeting with those people, from the cashier of the supermarket, passing by the professor at university, arriving at our friends and family, that in a certain way shape who we are, living us alone at home, just with ourselves and with our families, making us anonymous to society. This is exactly what happens in the book, in which no one has a name, everyone is anonymous, we listen the author talking of “the doctor”, “the wife of the doctor”, “the soldier”, “the drivers” exactly like what is happening today, with the “doctor”, “the nurse”, “the major of that city”, “the hundreds of old died people” or as the hunting to the “0 patient”, everyone has lost his name in front of the illness.
Another clear comparison is how the man becomes brutal and cruel when in touch with death, or more dangerous, with the fear of it. As happens in the book, everyone, when the first amount of affected people are identified, run to the market for buying big supplies of food, everyone starts to be selfish, and so the grass on the other side from “being always greener ” shifts to be “always more dangerous”. Everyone close himself at home and is constantly judging those who see in the street from his window going out without knowing their real aims, without asking himself why they need to do it.
Saramago’s book is not a “moral work” that aims to destroy our perception of society, to be honest, it doesn’t moralize at all; it just lists all the events and all the emotions that occur in its pages without having any arrogance to judge it and to make the reader judging them, it is just a slow and increasingly narration of what happened for what it is.
This is why the author leaves the reader an open-end, because blindness as well as COVID-19, has not an end itself. It’s something different, that killing people, destroys our societies and the idea that we have of it. It doesn’t judge ourselves as everything that we were used to getting in touch with during our lives, from our educational system that judges us with grades to our jobs that does it with money.
Quoting the book itself “Inside us, there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.”, And our experience with COVID-19 just leaves us alone, dealing with who we are, who we think to be and most importantly, to who we are going to be in the future when everything will pass, when sight will come back to our eyes.