A Comparative Look at Human Behaviour Through José Saramago’s Blindness and the Covid-19 Pandemic


 

During the global lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic there has been an increase of interest in the literature of epidemics.[1] Albert Camus’ La Peste (1947) has been especially popular.[2] As my research interests are focused on matters within the Lusophone World, I sought out a Portuguese author to see what might be ascertained from the recent Covid-19 pandemic.[3] Through a brief analysis of this global event and José Saramago’s Blindness there are some interesting parallels of human behaviour made visible when people face crises brought on by pathogens.[4]

The first major spread of Covid-19 in Europe occurred in Northern Italy in mid-February, 2020.[5] Due to the highly contagious nature of the virus without a vaccine, governments around the world began to stem its spread through policies of ‘social distancing’ in public places and spaces. In the novel Blindness the attempt to stem the spread was done, by their government, through the quarantining of the infected in an asylum. Despite most of the world’s population not infected with Covid-19, we have all been asked to quarantine at home and, for some people, home has become an asylum of sorts.[6]

In the novel where those infected with a blindness (a milky white blindness, rather than blackness) there is a lack of knowledge on the virus. We are never given evidence of an attempt by the government to scientifically understand the virus and cure it.[7] Covid-19, however, is well studied and, as such, is less worrying in comparison (than the fictional virus) because it is better understood.[8] This lack of certainty on the virus in Blindness is compounded by the writing style used by Saramago that evokes a kind of confusion. There is little punctuation; no quotations marks, character dialogue is not separated, and capitalised words exist in incorrect ways. Was there an intention by Saramago to try and render the reader themselves, figuratively blind? This would be apt, yet the idea of this being intentional is a mere coincidence that lends itself well to the novel; it was his preferred writing style used throughout his literary works, it was not done deliberately. What is deliberate, however, is his choice in how his characters are addressed. In an unnamed city where everyone but one is blind, no one has a name. Apart from the ‘doctor’, ‘the doctor’s wife’ (who miraculously never loses her sight) and ‘the man with the gun’, all are referred to by aspects of their blindness, eyes, eye apparel or what the eye secretes – tears. There is: the first blind man, the first blind man’s wife, the boy with the squint, the girl with the dark glasses, the old man with the black eye patch, the blind accountant (already blind before the epidemic), and the dog of tears (who licks up the tears of the doctor’s wife in her times of sorrow). All of this can cause some confusion for readers unfamiliar with Saramago’s narrative style, and by extension, there has certainly been confusion with the narrative of Covid-19 with the political messaging responding to it. There has been criticism of President Donald Trump’s discourse on the virus in the United States of America.[9] However, this criticism pales in comparison to Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro who is acting outrageously irresponsible.[10] In the United Kingdom there has also been confusion over the government’s messaging on the virus. When the United Kingdom’s second slogan was revealed to replace the first ‘too successful’ slogan of ‘stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’, to an ambiguous ‘stay alert, control the virus, save lives’, it was widely criticised with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland refusing to use the new slogan, instead reaffirming the use of the previous slogan’s ‘stay at home’.[11] Both the narratives of Blindness and Covid-19 can and have caused confusion, but it is dangerous when this narrative can effect real lives, changing behaviour, and this is a more disturbing reality than any telling of a fictional virus that is more apocalyptic.

Apocalyptic as it is, the narrative of Blindness can be broken down into four distinct parts. The first being, the first instance of the ‘white blindness’ that strikes the first blind man, and its soon spread to others. The second is the interment of the initial infected blind people in an asylum. Then thirdly, is the exit of this interment to the outside world. Forth and finally, is the recovery of the blind, those that are left that did not die from starvation. Thankfully, the realities of Covid-19 will not be looked back upon in such dire capsules of time. However, through time, just like it is experienced with the fictional contagion, it is our human behaviour that is revealed in juxtapositions of bad and good.[12] What is more, an epidemic (such as the ‘white blindness’ in the novel) and a pandemic (such as Covid-19) demonstrates just how fragile society is, that social order and its norms can collapse instantly, reverting us back to our most primal instincts of survival human evolution never shed.[13] In this drastic change, the bad of humanity can be shown. In the novel it is demonstrated through: desperation (the starvation of the infected, the acceptance of rape for food); selfishness and stealing (the car thief stealing the first blind man’s car. The blind thugs in the asylum stealing all the food rations and demanding sexual payment in exchange for it. The doctor’s wife not telling the blind people in the supermarket there is food in the basement storeroom); infidelity (the doctor sleeping with another women, both of whom are blind in the asylum ward hence their being there, while the doctor’s wife watches without their initial knowledge); and violence (instances of homicide and murder, justified in the novel due to extreme circumstances, but at the same time questioned). In juxtaposition, humanity is also shown in its good nature in the novel as: kindness (the car thief helping the first blind man get home, despite him later stealing this man’s car to earn him this name. The care and protection the doctor’s wife provides her group. The maternal figure the girl with the dark glasses becomes for the boy with the squint); blind love (the girl with the dark glasses and the old man with the black eye patch commit to each other in their blind state, when she regains her sight, her attraction to him is questioned now the less than youthful ‘old man’ is before her, nevertheless, their relationship remains); and ingenuity (the robustness of people and how they adapt to this new form of life without sight, this is demonstrated in the counting of beds to find one’s own bed in the asylum ward, and how people learn to navigate the post-apocalyptic streets, and so on); there is also humour and other good and bad aspects of human behaviour demonstrated throughout the novel.

As seen with the recent pandemic of Covid-19, human behaviour is also shone a light on, displaying our bad and good nature. The bad is demonstrated in: panic buying (toilet roll and food supplies where initially over purchased).[14] Nevertheless, there is something that could be said about the self-interests of people in this scenario being expected behaviour in contemporary Western society due to capitalism advocating individualism and consumerism, among many other things; racism (people of Asian ethnicity have been psychologically, verbally and physically abused, blanketed as the spreaders of the virus);[15] exploitation (the Sicilian Mafia have been providing supplies for victims hit the hardest by the economic impact of Covid-19 in efforts for future influence and control);[16] and violence (through racism and domestic abuse, the latter exacerbated by ‘stay at home’ policies, both already mentioned).[17] In contrast, the good of human behaviour during Covid-19 has been demonstrated by: continued commitment to preserve and save lives (the hard work of health workers and those that support them at their job, along with the many other crucial sectors adapting to support and provide people with essential goods); sacrifice (to normal forms of life with ‘social distancing’ and staying at home, sets of unprecedented social rules and guidelines brought into force never seen in many countries during peacetime); charity (enormous amounts of money have been raised to help combat Covid-19);[18] and ingenuity (adapting to alternative forms of life ‘online’ evident in various sectors, notably the music industry that moved its operations through Zoom, Minecraft and live streaming social media platforms).[19] As such, we can see some comparisons with Saramago’s novel Blindness and the events of Covid-19 in the behavioural responses of people in difficult times.

There are not many interesting metaphors concerning Covid-19, and the emergence of, to some extent, Social Darwinism is distressing;[20] however, in Blindness there are many instances that can be read metaphorically. In the opening of the novel there is a traffic jam stemming from a routine traffic light stop, where the first blind man in his car loses his sight. Allegorical of society it is this single car and its driver that is holding up the lives of everyone else; a broken cog in a machine no longer operating as intended, therefore, in need to be discarded to continue the flow on the production line (or the flow of traffic), this is shown by the novel in the callous people in the street only interested in their need to be somewhere (another example of behavioural selfishness from the novel not previously noted). The disability of blindness itself is used as a literary device,

‘I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see’.[21]

This metaphor of ‘blindness’ could be interpreted as modern society, that within society people are self-interested and not concerned for others, therefore, ‘blind’ to their injustice and suffering. Of course, this is a subjective perspective on human behaviour within society in a generalised sense, we are, of course, not all heartless, not all ‘blind’ to the lives and experiences of others. This ‘blindness’, in a metaphoric sense, could also be extended to the recent Covid-19 situation. The actions of people defying ‘social distancing’ rules are endangering the vulnerable (those at the highest risk to the virus because pre-existing health conditions) because those flouting the ‘social distancing’ measures are possibly spreading the virus further, as it is understood, as many as 50% of people with Covid-19 are asymptomatic and, therefore, ‘blind’ in the knowledge they have it and can consequently spread it.[22]

Other human behaviour in Blindness and during Covid-19 can be seen through power relations. In the novel we see this in the doctor making other patients in the waiting room wait longer, while the first blind man is seen before them despite their earlier arrivals. The government strips the freedom of those infected by imprisoning them. The military guards the infected in the asylum and control their lives with a set of rules and the threat of death. There is the initial organising of the asylum ward by the infected, appointing a leader. There is the food distribution debacle and its later disturbing turn (food is always provided by figures of authority). There is also the ‘blind’s’ panopticism.[23] Power relations are also acted out in the recent Covid-19 crisis in authoritarian ways. The recent ‘social distancing’ rules have meant monetary fines by the police for those breaking them despite this, arguably, infringing on human liberty.[24] There is also people informing the authorities on those flouting ‘social distancing’ and lockdown rules, denunciations once commonplace during communist and fascist regimes.[25] Twitter also announced it would work to remove ‘tweets’ that could provoke a narrative of the Covid-19 pandemic in ways it felt were false, curbing free speech online.[26] In both cases, Blindness and the Covid-19 situation, authority tightens its power over the population with the objectives to protect public health, which in turn, affect our behaviour in responding correctly or not correctly to regulations from above.

Regarding Saramago, despite him abandoning Portugal for Lanzarote, Spain in the early 1990s due to offending the Portuguese centre-right PSD Government and the Portuguese Catholic Church with his book, O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo (1991), it would be courteous to Saramago to exclude Portugal entirely from this essay, however, as his is a Portuguese author it should be noted that Portugal throughout the Covid-19 crisis is coping well regarding its health care system in comparison to its neighbour Spain.[27] Economically, however, like much of Europe the damage to Portugal’s economy from the Covid-19 situation will be severe.[28] Nonetheless, like what happens in Blindness we will recover (in all arenas, even if slow, because we always do) and hopefully take stock of the ways in which we behaved during it, in all its shades.

Human behaviour can be analysed through all kinds of literature and real events, the selection of Saramago’s novel Blindness and Covid-19 is simply a contemporary comparison. Sadly, human behaviour in its worst forms often repeats itself, as history and literature shows us so frequently well, but there is also the good in how people behave, as such, much can be ascertained from the literature of epidemics and real pandemics like Covid-19 in shining a light on how we respond in very difficult times.

 


 

Notes :

[1] Self (2020).

[2] Parry (2020), and Willsher (2020).

[3] There is no attempt in this essay of an in-depth psychological analysis on human behaviour in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic, nor the deployment of Behavioural Science in understanding the behaviours this essay highlights. Furthermore, there is no summary on what Covid-19 is or where it came from as this is common knowledge. Instead, it is the focus of this essay to form a brief comparative analysis of human behaviour through a fictional novel. Moreover, a recent article from the Journal of Public Health also sought such a comparison on human behaviour in José Saramago’s novel Blindness with Covid-19, see Zatta and Braut (2020). I further this comparison in this essay.

[4] The Portuguese original was first published in 1995 titled Ensaio Sobre a Cegueira, this translates in English as, an ‘Essay on Blindness’. The English version was first published in 1997 and uses the title Blindness.

[5] Zatta and Braut (2020), p. 1.

[6] Due to extended periods of time within the home, there has been a massive rise in domestic abuse. For domestic abuse during Covid-19 within the United Kingdom, see Townsend (2020). Similarly, for domestic abuse in Latin America during Covid-19, see Sigal et al. (2020).

[7] In the beginning the doctor (an ophthalmologist) examines the first victim of the virus (the first blind man) but soon is infected himself before understanding what quickly becomes a white blindness that is never scientifically understood in the novel, yet it is a real blindness in the sense it is not entirely metaphorical, evident in the countless examples of people desecrating their environment and soiling their beds and clothes due to difficulties finding a toilet or place to properly bathe because they are actually blind. However, it could be argued, though I do not believe it to be such a symbolic notion José Saramago aimed to evoke, but this is a behaviour or actions one could express can be seen as disregard and disrespect for their city, their surroundings, through vandalism or literal defecation.

[8] A concise summary of knowledge on Covid-19 is listed by Zatta and Braut in six-parts, see Zatta and Braut (2020), p. 2.

[9] Brooks (2020), Durkee (2020), and Hannon (2020).

[10] Anderson (2020).

[11] The first slogan was argued as possibly ‘one of the most successful communications in modern political history’, see Hope (2020). For criticism of the second slogan see Bush (2020). Regarding Scotland’s stance on the slogan see Sturgeon (2020), and for Scotland again, and the rest of the United Kingdom’s Union’s stance on the second slogan see Woods (2020).

[12] The use of the word ‘bad’ is too gentle a word for the behaviour conducted which is more brutal and malicious, but due to the juxtaposition with ‘good’ I use the word ‘bad’ when it is more abhorrent behaviours that I put under this wording.

[13] Regarding society, despite Saramago not preaching communism in his novels (his political preference and long-time member of the Portuguese Communist Party, see Jaggi, 2008, Schudel, 2010, and Jacoby, 2010), we can assume he is referring to a Western capitalist society in Blindness, perhaps as a critique of its economic and social fragility. However, this is an over intellectualising of the society in which the characters of his novel live within, as this idea cannot be fully ascertained, yet in the sequel to Blindness, Seeing (the English translation first published in 2006) there is a clear rejection of the democratic parties through the process of mass voting with blank ballots, here democracy is questioned and in need of change.

[14] Jankowicz (2020).

[15] Gwyer (2020), Jack (2020), Russell (2020), and Sojo and Bapuji (2020).

[16] Bettiza (2020).

[17] See footnote no. 6 and no. 11.

[18] Edmond (2020).

[19] As music festivals and concerts were cancelled or postponed due to Covid-19 lockdown, music artists and DJs performed live concerts online through the video conference platform Zoom, the computer game Minecraft, and social media platforms, see Colyar (2002), Frank (2020) and Shutler (2020).

[20] The notion of ‘survival of the fittest’, where the weak, poor and marginalised in society are left to die. This has been demonstrated within the UK where many people in care homes have been grossly neglected resulting in surging deaths while the British Government portrayed a picture of national success, see Grey and MacAskill (2020). In Italy, doctors have had to decide who lives and who dies, ‘those who are too old to have a high likelihood of recovery… would be left to die’, see Mounk (2020). It is clear, those regarded as the ‘fittest’, those in good health with the higher social status, resources and wealth are less at risk to Covid-19, whereas, the working class, labour migrants, the homeless, and many others in society are most at risk due to their lower social status and everything that comes with this category of life. For more on the social impact of Covid-19 see Barker (2020).

[21] Saramago (2017), p. 309.

[22] Plater (2020).

[23] Panopticism in the sense, within the asylum the ‘blind’ are imprisoned, guarded and watched (though only under surveillance in the grounds and not within the asylum buildings itself the matter still holds). In the Foucauldian sense, the ‘blind’ invert the gaze of the watcher and surveillance is internalised knowing their behaviour can be seen at any moment by the doctor’s wife (the only one who has not lost her sight). An example of this occurs when the group, the doctor’s wife cares for, are embarrassed to undress together despite being among people that cannot see their nudity, partly because ingrained social conventions of decency and the possible voyeuristic gaze of the doctor’s wife who is in a position of power over them due to her advantage of sight. Panopticism in José Saramago’s Blindness is explored in-depth by Esmaeili and Zohdi (2015).

[24] Cuthbertson (2020a).

[25] Chambers (2020), and Dodd (2020).

[26] Cuthbertson (2020b).

[27] Wise (2020).

[28] Carvalho et al. (2020).

 


 

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Published: May 24, 2020. Last edited: August 26, 2020.


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