The Impacts of Religion and Science in Jose Saramago’s Blindness

Introduction

The defining characteristic of human nature is the formation of belief systems that provide meaning in an empty world. Faith, and the religious connotations that come with it, allows humans to live with purpose, and to care for one another. It is often difficult to assess whether this ability is inherent in humans, or if the human race simply received evolutionary luck, for lack of a better term.

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One thing is for certain, humans are unequivocally the superior species on planet earth. Or are we? In his novel Blindness, Jose Saramago comments on the inherent qualities of the human race when God is stripped away from them. Using blindness as a metaphor for a loss in faith, Saramago illustrates the importance and the necessity faith has in what human’s consider normal life.

Saramago reveals the extraordinary nature of human civilization via negation, by exposing the sinister and often heinous true natures of humans. In addition, Saramago illustrates the similarities between science and religion. Saramago describes the difference between religious faith and scientific faith, or lack thereof, through metaphors and symbolisms weaved effortlessly into his novel. Through these discussions, Saramago highlights the fragility of our society, revealing how lucky humans are to not only have faith, but utilize it for good. By illustrating the animalistic nature of humanity in the absence of faith, Saramago indicates the fundamental importance of both science and religion in society, conveying the need for both rivaling philosophies to coexist.

In order to suggest a loss in God leads to a loss in morals, Saramago must set up biblical imagery in order to establish the religious ties of the novel. According to Peter Schakel, “arriv[ing] on a world utterly unlike” (3) any you’ve ever known can be a symbol for the Garden of Eden. As the characters of the novel become blind, they are transported to a new world, a world with vastly different sensory realities. Only one woman, the doctor’s wife, retains her sight allocating her the role of Eve in the biblical allusion. Schakel describes the Eve of a story as someone who, despite purity and wholesomeness, is constantly tempted to fail, and must resist the temptations provided by the world around her (4). The doctor’s wife, a lonely seeing island in a sea of blindness, remarks that “no one should find out that I can see” (Saramago 144), establishing the temptations that define her as Eve. The reason she must remain in secrecy is also described by Schakel, who explains once you fall to the temptations of the devil, you “belong to [the devil] as [their] lawful prey” (7). This raises a question as to who plays the role of devil in the story. The answer is never specifically mentioned in the novel, but most would say the devil is whatever caused the epidemic of blindness that befell the nation. The devil puts an immense amount of pressure on the doctor’s wife, who could easily take control of the ward with the powers she has, but like the apple in the Garden, this comes at a cost. The doctor’s wife’s survival remains essential to the preservation of her life and the preservation of humanity. These biblical images play an essential role in the understanding of Blindness because they help establish the religious themes that persist throughout the novel.

With these religious ties come motifs of morality, which highlight the true impact a loss of God has on the moral purity of the characters. One moral dilemma in Blindness involves crime, which plays a significant role in establishing the effects the epidemic has on the internees. The first instance of crime occurs before the quarantine has even been established, when one man steals the first blind man’s car. Due to the blind man’s vulnerability, the car thief has an easy job taking the poor man’s car. With only one blind person, hardly an epidemic at this point, humanity already takes advantage of the inconvenienced. Saramago utilizes this to hint at what he believes is the inherent nature of humanity, a theme that will persist. As karma dictates, the car thief eventually goes blind, and meets with the first blind man in quarantine. Justifying his actions, the thief says, “I stole your car, but you stole my eyesight” (Sarmago 52), again hinting at the eye for an eye mentality existent in society.

The Fragility Of Humanity’S Morals

The rapidity at which human relations sunk to blaming and pointing fingers reveals the fragility of humanity’s morals.
The other occurrences of crime occur within the walls of the prison, and come at the cost of a life. Once trapped inside the quarantine, the thief, whose morals are already in question, “fondl[es] [the girl with dark glasses’] breast…, grabbing her firmly” (Saramago 55). In response, the girl with dark glasses stabs the thief with the heel of her shoe, which eventually gets infected and kills the man. While many might say the thief deserved this punishment, many internees, including the girl with dark glasses, begin to feel sorry for him leading up to his death. The balance between self-defense and retaining purity show the rift in faith and morality. The other murder that occurs during the novel involved the doctor’s wife killing the man who raped her. While the significance of this moment will be analyzed later, it is important to note how quickly the miniature society dissolves into harassment, violence, and murder. This imagery helps Saramago drive his message that losing faith in God results in a loss in purity and goodness.

The crimes committed within the walls of the quarantine, as we have seen, all involved some sort of erotic, sexual desire or crime. The eroticism presented in the novel plays a significant role in shaping the theme of the story and establishing the loss in morality that occurs along with the loss in sight. According to Shaoyang Zhang’s article on the works of the poet Kevin Hart, “The ‘essence’ of ‘religion…is the search for lost intimacy’” (1). As the characters within the novel go blind, they lose their intimacy with the world around them. Their loss in sight symbolizes a loss in experience, a loss in love, and a loss in life. Through their sexual behavior, the characters attempt to regain the intimacy they lost.

Saramago explores a number of intimate relationships within the novel, one of which being the marriage between the doctor and the doctor’s wife. Their marriage could not be better, “they still greeted each other with words of affection after all these years of marriage” (Saramago 32), and the strong bond between them does not seem at all fragile. However, when locked up in the quarantine, the doctor cheats on his wife briefly with the girl with the dark glasses. Rather than become angry, as many would do, the doctor’s wife remarks that “it’s not a crime that calls for pardon” (Saramago 274), again showcasing the twisted moral views taken on by the characters. The failure of marriage, being a deeply religious institution, brings back the religious aspects of the novel. The loss in sight translates to a loss in God and to a loss in institutional faith and religious morality. However, the forgiveness of the doctor by his wife, however noble it may seem, highlights the breaking down of a religious establishment.

Another relationship that establishes itself over the course of the novel is that between the girl with the dark glasses and the old man with the black eyepatch. Knowing that the girl with the dark glasses has conjunctivitis, it becomes significant that both of these people have eye conditions. Their unorthodox love, which develops despite an age and cultural difference, is symbolized by their previous eye conditions. Although they lost their faith through their loss in sight, like the other characters, their faith was already hindered prior to the epidemic, hinted at by the girl’s job as a part-time prostitute, and thus they formed a bond despite the factors fighting against them. According to Shaoyang Zhang, “the more strictly forbidden something is by law or rules, the stronger one’s desire becomes to obtain or possess it” (4). As a result, the forbidden love between the man with the eyepatch and the girl with dark glasses was formed predominantly by erotic desire, and was aided by an already injured faith. Their ability to form a loving relationship hints that morality may not be completely lost; however the methods in which that love is obtained do illustrate the absence of religion in their relationship, furthering Saramago’s claim that faith has been lost by humanity.

Not all religious messages in Blindness are strictly ties to Christianity or an established faith. Saramago weaves other theological theories into the novel, including the divinity of women. In Blindness, women play a significant part in not only shaping the plot of the story, but also shaping the thematic messages of the story as well. According to Shaoyang Zhang, women have a “proximity to the divine” (3) that shapes human interaction and spirituality. The most obvious example of the religious impact women have on the blind society is when the ward with the gun prompts the rest of the wards to “bring us [their] women” (Saramago 180) in order to rape them.

The blunt statement illustrates the immense power the women have over the men in the wards. The women become a spiritual currency, exchanging their sexual favors for food, water, and resources. “Reminiscent of the ‘forbidden fruit’ that Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden” (Zhang 4), the women tempt the men, who attempt to get closer to God due to women’s closeness to God. This supports Shaoyang Zhang’s claim that “religious desire and erotic desire are neighbors” (6). However, as Zhang points out, “the stronger one’s desire becomes…physical death may be caused, which can…show the relationship between desire and death in eroticism” (4). The similarities between erotic desire and death are highlighted in the novel. Men revert to animalistic tendencies, their need to take control ends up backfiring as the women, with the help of God, fight back and end up killing the men who raped them. Due to their absence from God, the men sought for some sort of pleasure, and since spiritual pleasure could not be achieved, they believed their only option was to turn to sex and rape.

As stated earlier, the doctor’s wife kills the man who raped her, digging “deep into the blind man’s throat” (Saramago 204) as he was raping another woman, revealing “the ‘sacred world’ and the ‘profane world’ are complementary to each” (Zhang 7) other. The relationship between death and sex links the concepts of sin and the afterlife. It is implied the man who raped the doctor’s wife, killed while sinning, is transported straight to hell. His loss in morals is made obvious, and by extension Saramago establishes that every blind person has lost their way. The doctor’s wife, who as a woman is close to God, passed judgement on the blind man and deemed him unworthy of life. While this harsh fate may not be justified for all of the blind men and women, clearly God is not fond of what they have done and what they have become. Similar to the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, God punishes humanity, forcing them to fend for themselves, illustrating the loss in morality and the animalism that persists in man.

As the characters begin to feel punished by God, we begin to see one of the most predominant themes of the novel creep in: the death of God. The ‘God is dead’ movement, which “discussed the need for society to recognize that it behaved as if God were no longer active in the world” (Baugham 1), becomes incredibly apparent in the novel due to an increase in dissent, and the aspect of finding God again. This movement is analogous to the characters’ loss in sight. Even in classical Christian hymns, sight and faith have been described hand in hand, such as the line “I once was lost but now I see,” from the song Amazing Grace.

As they lose their vision, so do they lose their faith, and God, for all intents and purposes, becomes dead to them, leaving them with no torch or beacon to follow. Explained by Gregory Stephens, a loss in God will often lead to the questions, “‘And I am allowed no explanation?’ ; ‘I am to suffer hell without any account from heaven?’” (6). The heartwrenching thought of losing faith in one’s God is terrible enough, but having no explanation for the absence of God only makes the situations more unbearable for the characters. The characters in Blindness ask God directly, “dear God, how we miss having our sight, to be able to see,… anything that has light does not belong to me” (Saramago 75). The characters seek justification, some sort of sign that they will be okay, or at the very least that they deserve the pain and suffering they are struggling through. The lack of such reasoning often leads the characters to lash out at God, exclaiming “God does not deserve to see” (Saramago 345), an anger so intense it is directed at what may be the center of all creation. Because of this anger, the characters are driven to dissent, and are pushed away from religion, in turn pushing them away from their morals.

One was in which dissent is treated in Blindness is the focus on having a “strong, centralized authority” (Ward 4), which is “especially important” (Ward 4) in dealing with religious fragmentation. Throughout the novel, there are multiple authorities that attempt to take control of the situation. However, these authorities often turn violent, including both the guards, who “release[d] a blast of gunfire” (Sarmago 83) into the blind internees, and the ward with the gun, who threaten that the internees will “suffer the consequences” (Saramago 151) for doing anything out of line. The violent leadership does no good, according to David Ward, who believes the authorities must be “enlightened, unbiased citizens…drawn from all classes” (9). The lack of fair leadership and the contrasting personalities fighting for power results in a society where dissent from faith and from norms becomes acceptable.

According to Ward, “right religion consists of righteous living, or ‘goodness’…rather than the embracing of a certain set of abstract, narrowly defined propositions about the deity and the condition of mankind” (15). Ward believes faithful living comes from following an example, and setting an example, rather than simply abiding by arbitrary rules set by someone in power. Within Blindness, the authorities rely on rules, such as the loudspeaker within the prison, which “repeat[s] the rules of orderly conduct” (Saramago 126) daily, establishing the very authoritarian power Ward speaks against. The officials attempt to govern what everybody does in order to assert and retain their power, and yet in doing so, they create controversy and conflict, which gets civilians shot and killed. Had they relied on a set of principles governing the morality of how they should act, less conflict would arise and dissent could have been avoided. However, due to the loss in morals experienced by the blind, the internees become savage, sleeping “in beds where they had frequently defecated” (Saramago 146), illustrating humanity’s tendency to “look at an animal and see a mirror” (Stephens 5). The animalistic becomings of the blind society highlights the impact losing God has on morality and purity.

Another way in which society tends to deal with dissent, according to David Ward, is physical assault. As evidenced throughout the book, physical violence is utilized repeatedly to deal with people who differ from the norm. The ward with the gun establish themselves as a deity for the internees. They place themselves on a pedestal, serving “as a metaphor for removing the threat posed by religious dissent…by the simple means of force and exclusion” (Ward 2). The ward create separate groups, the haves and the have-nots, not only encouraging dissent but institutionalizing dissent, using physical assault as their tool of persuasion. Matthew Arnold, analyzed by David Ward, believes this is the worst way to deal with dissenters, and throughout the novel he is repeatedly proven correct.

The social ladder created by the physical threats is supported via a physical manifestation of God. Much like bread and wine, a tangible symbol for God is important in establishing the “continuity” (Zhang 2) of God. The gun creates this embodiment of faith, however, the weapon describes violence. God is portrayed as ravenous, murdering, and harmful, damaging the image of God again promoting dissent and damaging morality. Rather than see God in a positive light, his image is tainted with blood. God becomes an image of death, rather than a bringer of life.

As a result of this, physical assault brings the internees closer to animalism instead of forcing an orderly society. Without God, Saramago again illustrates the innate nature of humans. According to Schakel, every dissenter “belongs to [the devil] as [his] lawful prey and…for every treachery [he] has a right to kill (7). By removing God from their lives, the internees enter a world with no order and no purpose, and as a result physical violence appears to be the only answer to the lawless landscape that surfaces. Throughout the story, dissent from God leads to an arduous journey for the characters to create a new image of God and regain a deity figure in their lives.

Conclusion

The novel depicts many instances where the image of God becomes damaged or twisted, leading to changes in the belief system of the characters. One such instance occurs when the doctor’s wife enters a church after escaping the prison. In the church, she discovers “statues with a white cloth tied around the head, paintings with a thick brushstroke of white paint,… and a man with wounds on his hands and feet and his chest, and he had his eyes covered” (Saramago 344). Covering the religious figures’ eyes with white illustrates the betrayal the blind feel towards God. In order to retain their sanity, they do to God what God did to them, highlighting the bitter feelings society has developed towards their deity. As described by Timothy Kelley, “God is in his mind another threat, or perhaps the source of all threats and all darkness” (7), suggesting that the blind feel as if God is punishing them. In return, the blind punish the thought of God, making Him blind just as He made them blind, depicting the damaged image of God.

In order to understand the linkage between man and God, there must be sensory experience. According to Timothy Kelley, “sensory experience…provides both the basis for human reason and a connection to the spiritual world” (2). As a result, losing sight is synonymous with losing an aspect of God, losing a side of faith that cannot be recovered without sight. Without sight, our “connection… with the ‘great Thing’” (Kelley 13) is hindered, and as a result, there are more questions, more unknowns, that haunt society, for there is no way to answer said questions until sight is regained. The impact of losing sight digs deeper than a loss in God, it causes an entire aspect of human life, the ability to observe and learn, the ability to ask questions and enquire, to be rendered useless. 

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