|Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2006, Volume 26, No. 2
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies
On Using Blindness as Metaphor and Difficult Questions:
A Response to Ben-Moshe
Deborah J. Gallagher, Ph.D
In response to Ben-Moshe's highly engaging examination of Saramago's Blindness and the novel's use of disability as metaphor, I explore the possibility that this novel serves primarily as an indictment of the cultural imperialism of sightedness. Although the novel can certainly be read as an ableist text, I suggest that it might also serve to expose the creation of blindness as a disability through structures of power and domination.
Key Words: Disability Studies, Literature, Blindness
"Let us look at the nightmare that blindness, conceived solely as trouble, generates and paradoxically hides." (Rod Michalko, 1998, p. 29, emphasis added)
In the introduction to her article, Ben-Moshe recounts her sense of dismay provoked by acquaintances and colleagues who described Saramago's novel as a "book on blindness." In an attempt to dispel their shallow portrayal, she countered, "This is not a book about blindness. This is a book that uses blindness as a parable about society" (p. 3). She is right, of course. But what troubled her was that, in a manner of speaking, so were her acquaintances and colleagues.
Blindness cannot be used as a signifier or metaphor without ultimately saying something about blindness itself. Blindness, like all great novels, is dangerous in this respect. As Ben-Moshe well understands (hence her discomfort with the superficial depictions), it all depends upon what the reader brings to the text. The physical condition of blindness, as it is appropriated in this novel, can be understood as tragic and pathological, or "a quality that brings up the 'real human spirit' within people (be it good or evil)" (this issue). "What," she implores, "does Saramago tell readers by using blindness as a signifier? Not just about humanity and society, but what does it say about blindness itself?" (this issue).
Her answer, it seems, is that Saramago's use of blindness as signifier is primarily an inauspicious one. In examining possible interpretations from a social science perspective, Ben-Moshe points out strong parallels that can be drawn between the cataclysmic social breakdown in the novel and other historical atrocities, among them certainly the Holocaust as well as recent civil wars and genocidal campaigns in Kosovo, Uganda, the Congo, and Rwanda. On the emotional level, Blindness is no easy novel to read. The main characters are subjected to virtually every form of human degradation–starvation, filth, rape, death, and horror are dispatched in daily (and nightly) allotments.
Having read works of both fiction and nonfiction depicting such brutalities, I was surprised to realize that my hands were shaking as I turned the pages. The pairing of such atrocities with the condition of blindness seems enough to induce, even urge, us to regard Saramago's Blindness as an ableist text, "not a story about people who are blind, but an ableist metaphor that appropriates blindness as its signifier" (Ben-Moshe, this issue). Accordingly, blindness might be understood as a narrative prosthesis that, not unlike disability simulations, distorts experience and constructs blind people as the Other.
Ben-Moshe deems the novel's appropriation of blindness "a familiar trope" used uncritically: blindness is used to signal death and tragedy, or, "blindness simultaneously signifies in Saramago's novel...the opposite of ignorance. Blindness is an 'all knowing' quality, the blind who 'see' more than the sighted" (this issue). The latter use raises the specter of an inverted stereotype– "the blind" are the only ones with true (in)sight. Thus, either way, it seems we arrive at the same destination, and the novel cannot escape its indictment as a text that both exploits and diminishes the condition of, and therefore the people who experience, blindness. Of course Blindness cannot escape the possibility of being read as an ableist text, because to talk about disability at all is to create and reify it. So while Ben-Moshe may well be correct in her assessment of the novel because of this apparently intractable dilemma, perhaps it is also possible to ask whether the novel accomplishes something that might allow it to transcend or obviate its limitations.
What are the possibilities that the novel used analogy or metaphor to provoke transformative understanding on the part of the reader rather than pity and Othering? Might it be said that Saramago elucidates or exposes the creation of blindness as a disability through structures of power and domination? In the process of using blindness versus sightedness, does the novel succeed in a nuanced troubling of this crude and destructive binary? In perhaps enforcing stereotypes about blindness, does Saramago do as much or at least something toward dispelling them? Barnes & Mercer (2003) point out that it is not at all clear whether "the media are always able to 'manufacture consent' to the dominant order" and acknowledged that "the media may be 'read' in contrary ways, so that audiences sometimes revise or reject intended messages" (p. 100). In what follows, I consider the questions I raised above in the context of ableist themes or motifs identified by Jernigan (1999), Mirzoeff (1997), and Michalko (1998).
The notion that blindness brings with it forms of extraordinary compensatory powers (e.g., a "sixth sense") is certainly one of the most widespread and frequently encountered themes found in literature, as well as film, the arts, and so on. Yet none of the "blind" characters in the novel are ever endowed with anything remotely connected with such powers. On the contrary, they struggle to accomplish previously taken for granted tasks such as finding toilet paper when needed, locating their designated beds in the wards, and finding their way around the asylum. Interestingly, it was the doctor's wife, the only character whose sight remains unaffected, who the author characterized as having a "sixth sense". In the midst of one of the many crises surrounding the lack of food and impending starvation, the narrator remarks, "fortunately the doctor's wife was there to come to the rescue, it was incredible how this woman managed to notice everything that was happening, she must be endowed with a sixth sense, some sort of vision without eyes" (p. 180). What are we, the readers to make of this? Is it possible Saramago is intentionally mocking this obtuse stereotype by assigning the "sixth sense" to the only sighted character in the novel?
Blind people as evil incarnate, or its antithesis, the embodiment of absolute virtue, are also familiar literary representations. The former theme is raised by some of the main characters who voice the possibility that blindness actually induced the deplorable acts of violence and exploitation on the part of the "hoodlums" in the asylum. Indeed, the novel is rife with acts of infamy and evil, both great and small. Whether this is enough to impeach Saramago for the use of this theme is, however, complicated by the fact that he establishes the moral dispositions of the main characters prior to the outbreak of blindness. Blindness only clashes with the horrific conditions imposed upon them by the sighted governmental authorities–the result, as Michalko puts it, of blindness "conceived solely as trouble." In the midst of these conditions, and as a direct result of these power arrangements, the inmates are revealed not only as fearful, cowardly, selfish, and brutal, but also as brave, generous, compassionate, and forgiving. It is important to note, though, that none of them are unidimensionally evil or virtuous. Nor does blindness make them more one than the other. This much is clarified in an exchange that takes place between the doctor and his wife:
In fact, I suspect that one of Saramago's main theses is the impossibility of grounding human morality. Throughout the novel, he edges the reader ever closer toward recognition of our human finitude, moral and otherwise. Even before the first character became blind, the author deftly probes and punctures conventional notions about morality. The thief, he tells us, initially acts out of genuine altruism when he offers to drive home the first man to become blind. It is only after the man declines his kind offer to remain with him until his wife returns home that the thief conceives of stealing the car. Saramago then complicates the moral canvas by subtly pointing out that the car thief is also a victim of the capitalist structure–it is the owners who take advantage of the needs of the poor. And, in a final jab at those who would sanctimoniously condemn the thief, he offers the following observation: "when all is said and done, there is not all that much difference between helping a blind man only to rob him afterwards and looking after some tottering and stammering old person with one eye on the inheritance" (p. 15).
The author's introduction of the "girl with dark glasses" offers a similar foray into the ambiguities of everyday moral judgments. This young woman, on the face of things, is a prostitute–she accepts money for sex. No sooner is this point-blank assessment offered than it is clarified that she chose according to her own discretion when and with whom she engaged in such activity. Whereupon the author notes:
Saramago's unrelenting indictment of conventional morality's smug certainty seems directed, at least in my interpretation, at the cultural imperialism and hegemony of the "sighted world" (see: Barnes & Mercer, 2003).
Jernigan (1999) likewise denounces many modern writers' propensity to portray blindness as the source of "a certain purity and ecstasy, which somehow makes up for the loss of sight" (p. 2). Implicit in such a portrayal is the staging of blindness as a blessing in disguise. Whether Saramago's Blindness can be said to have exploited this theme is unclear. For instance, his account of the mortally injured thief might be taken as such when, in an effort to avoid dying in the filthy bed where he had languished for several days, the thief makes a final last effort to seek help from the guards outside the gates. The scene is narrated as follows:
While this narration seems a clear use of the purity and ecstasy theme, it is worth noting that all this coincides with the thief "forgetting for an instant that he was blind" (p. 67). Further, it is not altogether certain whether he experiences this state of purity or exaltation as a direct result of blindness or because, for whatever reason, this is the only moment in his rather ignominious life that he had experienced a clear sense of personal agency.
Although the main characters' experiences do, at times, lead to deeper understandings and fortuitous events, it is also not necessarily self-evident that these represent blindness as a blessing in disguise. For example, there is the case of the doctor (an ophthalmologist, interestingly enough) who realizes he had never before understood his patients and is grateful for the new awareness. Also, toward the end of the novel, "the old man with the black eyepatch" and the "girl with the dark glasses" realize that they are deeply in love. When they confess as much to each other, the man reflects, "You would not have said it to me either if you had met me somewhere before, an elderly man, half bald with white hair, with a patch over one eye and a cataract in the other." Acknowledging this, she replies, "The woman I was then wouldn't have said it, I agree, the person who said it was the woman I am today (p. 274). So, would it be fair to say that instead of blindness being conceived of as a blessing in disguise, it is presented as a different way of being in the world–with different things to be learned and gained from it?
Perhaps the most problematic question about this novel is not whether Saramago invokes the theme of blindness as equated with death or as a fate worse than death. I think the answer to that question is most certainly — yes. Death is associated with blindness when the girl with the dark glasses offers, "but in my opinion we're already dead, we're blind because we're dead, or if you would prefer me to put it another way, we're dead because we're blind, it comes to the same thing" (p. 225). Both blindness and death are associated with disorganization (chaos) by the doctor's wife who states, "...and death is only the effect of disorganization, And how can a society of blind people organize itself in order to survive, By organizing itself, to organize oneself is, in a way, to begin to have eyes" (p. 265). Blindness is also used as an analogy to moral deficiency. The doctor's wife, who uses her sight to kill one of the hoodlums lamented, "Perhaps I'm the blindest of all, I've already killed and I'll kill again if I have to" (p. 172). And blindness was understood to be caused by fear. "Fear can cause blindness said the girl with the dark glasses, Never a truer word, that could not be truer, we were already blind the moment we turned blind, fear struck us blind, fear will keep us blind" (p. 117). Instead, the difficult question is whether the use of this theme is ableist when it seems so obvious that it is.
Should we even ask if it is possible that Saramago's intent was to exploit and incriminate the "sighted world's" fear of and prejudice against blindness rather than to exploit blindness itself? Of course it bears reiteration that much depends upon the reader's interpretation. That said, it is interesting that chaos, death, and fear ebb away once the main characters escape from their sighted captors. Once free, they create a life and a community in their small apartment (even under difficult circumstances) that is organized, peaceful, and deeply meaningful. Thus it is not blindness itself, but the power structures of the sighted built around the fear of blindness that receives the ultimate condemnation. Why use blindness? Precisely because fear of it makes it so provocative; and it is this fear that is most in need of examination.
As Ben-Moshe points out, the use of disability as a metaphor "isn't wrong in and of itself" (this issue). She is also astute to add that the use of these metaphors is precarious business because their use can easily obscure "the oppressive nature of the discourse that produces them" (this issue). May and Ferri (2005) further crystallize common pitfalls relative to the use of these metaphors:
It might be that Saramago's novel uses blindness in limited, careless, or fixed ways. One can certainly make the case that it is an ableist text, that he uses blindness uncritically, employs it as a common trope, or a narrative prosthesis that constructs blind people as the Other. On the other hand, it might also be the case that Saramago's novel is an attempt to "treat blindness as a story" that has "something to tell us about the human community and about what we value as individuals and as a collective" (Michalko, 1998, p. 4). Or perhaps it is both.
That such questions can be raised about this novel is precisely what makes it a highly useful pedagogical tool. In any event, because the use of blindness and other "disabilities" as metaphors is culturally ubiquitous, it is essentially important that we engage them critically with our students. In calling the importance of doing so to our attention, and in offering suggestions for ways literary portrayals can be used in the classroom, Ben-Moshe makes a valuable contribution toward this end.
Barnes, C., & Mercer, G. (2003). Disability. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Jernigan, K. (1999). Blindness: Is literature against us? The National Federation of the Blind. Retrieved 11/9/05 from http://www.blind.net (Original work published in 1974).
May, V. M., & Ferri, B. A. (2005). Fixated on ability: Questioning Ableist metaphors in feminist theories of resistance. Prose Studies, 27(1&2), 120-140.
Michalko, R. (1998). The mystery of the eye and the shadow of blindness. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Mirzoeff, N. (1997). Blindness and art. In L. J. Davis (Ed.), The disability studies reader, (pp. 382-398). New York: Routledge.
Disability Studies Quarterly (DSQ) is the journal of the Society for Disability Studies (SDS). It is a multidisciplinary and international journal of interest to social scientists, scholars in the humanities and arts, disability rights advocates, and others concerned with the issues of people with disabilities. It represents the full range of methods, epistemologies, perspectives, and content that the field of disability studies embraces. DSQ is committed to developing theoretical and practical knowledge about disability and to promoting the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in society. (ISSN: 1041-5718; eISSN: 2159-8371)