We Preferred to See Less: Poetics and Politics in José Saramago

We Preferred to See Less: Poetics and Politics in José Saramago

by Burghard Baltrusch1 (Vigo, Spain)

2022 is an exceptional year for the Portuguese-speaking world and its cultures. One hundred years ago, the Nobel Prize winner José Saramago was born, as was another great Portuguese writer, Agustina Bessa-Luís. 450 years ago, in 1772, Luís de Camões’ epic poem The Lusiads appeared; 200 years ago, the independence of Brazil was declared; and again, a century ago, the São Paulo Week of Modern Art heralded the beginning of Brazilian Modernism.

But it was also half a century ago that the Wiriyamu massacre was committed in Mozambique, for which the Portuguese Prime Minister has recently issued a public apology on behalf of his country. Also 50 years ago, three books appeared that each, in its own way, contributed to the decline of the dictatorship: Portugal Amordaçado (“Portugal Gagged”) by Mário Soares; Dinossauro Excelentíssimo (“Great Dinosaur”) by José Cardoso Pires; and, above all, the New Portuguese Letters by Maria Isabel Barreno, Maria Teresa Horta, and Maria Velho da Costa. Last but not least, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the song “Grândola, vila morena” (Grândola, Swarthy Town) by Zeca Afonso, which heralded the beginning of the Carnation Revolution.

Out of all these figures, events, and texts, I want to focus on José Saramago, who started writing during the dictatorship and retains his influence on Portuguese and world literatures to this day. The 7th International José Saramago Conference,2 organized in 2022 by the International José Saramago Chair of the University of Vigo and the Paris Institute for Critical Thinking, highlights the theme of Saramago’s philosophical and socio-political heritage, and it is on the poetical-philosophical dimension of the author’s work that I will concentrate here.

A Pandemic of Blindness

A good place to start is with what Saramago said in an interview in 1995, when Blindness was published—a decisive novel in leading him to the 1998 Nobel Prize. “Western societies,” he maintained, “became increasingly blind, because instead of tackling the big problems, we preferred to see less.” I think this statement perfectly fits the global political context of the last few years, in which the world has been witnessing a troubling series of events: climate change, migrations, starvation, and lately, the Covid-19 pandemic as well as the war in Ukraine.

During the pandemic, a handful of older books made a remarkable comeback to the bestseller lists. These were A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe’s 1722 book on the plague in London; Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague; and, most prominently, Blindness, which was translated into English in 1997. Almost a quarter of a century later, in the troubled years of the pandemic, many people rushed to read or re-read Saramago.

Located in an unspecified city and country, the novel tells the story of a strange mass epidemic of blindness and the social breakdown that follows in its wake. Saramago focuses on the misfortunes of a small group of unnamed characters who are the first to go blind, including an ophthalmologist, some of his patients, and others thrown together by chance. Only the doctor’s wife is inexplicably immune.

Fearing a massive contagion, the government tries to contain the apparent infection with brutally repressive measures but cannot prevent social unrest and panic from spreading. Those who go blind are confined in what turns out to be a concentration camp, where the group develops family-like relations in order to survive, aided by the fact that the doctor’s wife has escaped the blindness.

The novel offers an unsparing depiction of life in the filthy and overcrowded, prison-like camp, where the inmates face a total degradation of hygiene, living conditions, and morals, supposedly mirroring developments in the outer society. A clique of armed blind men gains control over food deliveries, allowing them to bully the other inmates and subject them to assault, rape, and deprivation.

The doctor’s wife, who emerges as the main character, acquires an increasing and all-encompassing metaphorical significance. Besides being the only one who can see, she is also the one who most deeply understands, feels, acts, and helps others. However, she too falls into profound moral doubt, for instance when she kills the leader of the depraved clique of blind men.

Eventually, the inmates discover that the government and army no longer control the camp. They leave, joining the masses of helpless, blind people wandering the devastated city. Violence is everywhere. Social collapse is total. Law and order, social services, health care, schools, etc., no longer function. Families have been separated and cannot find each other. People desperately struggle for food and shelter. Violence, disease, and despair threaten to prevail over human sensibility.

Finally, the group finds the old apartment of the doctor and his wife, where the new “family” manages to establish a permanent home and a new order of life. One day, the blindness vanishes from society just as suddenly and inexplicably as it had arrived. But the doctor’s wife is left with a troubled feeling.

We could certainly think of many other books that depict our troubled times. But Blindness goes beyond the experience of recent years to offer an incisive description of our human condition and shortcomings in general. It paints a vivid and disturbing picture of our reality and our attitude towards life on this planet, past and present alike, and especially when applied to the near future, when climate change will strike us mercilessly.

Therefore, I dare say it is far more interesting to (re-)read Blindness in these times than, say, The Plague. The two novels have much in common: they highlight human dilemmas like cowardice vs. engagement; opportunism vs. small heroism; meanness and egoism vs. generosity. And they evoke the necessity of human ideals like love and goodness, happiness, mutual connection, and care. Still, Camus writes specifically about the German invasion of France and the résistance, whereas Saramago generates a more timeless and universal context where human behaviour, in its apparent “humanity” and civilization, is put into question.

One of the greatest differences may be that Camus’ novel lacks important female characters. In this sense, it is rather old-fashioned and might not prevail in a hopefully post-patriarchal world. Saramago, in contrast, creates an absolutely outstanding literary figure in the doctor’s wife: she combines aspects of a classical tragic heroine with those of a modern existentialist individual, and even offers glimpses of an ecofeminist activist. Saramago is among the first male Portuguese authors to consciously start deconstructing patriarchy, and his women protagonists are altogether admirable. He is also an anti-speciesist—we need only think of the “dog of tears” in Blindness, whom Saramago considered his dearest literary character.

Doubtlessly, what drew many readers back to Blindness in our times is its power as a political metaphor, especially for our postmodern, neoliberal, partially already post-democratic and illiberal societies in the West. We face a mounting fear of losing our democratic freedom, amplified during the confinement, a moment of loss also shared by many other countries around the world. We feel that this loss of personal freedom may happen suddenly, from one day to the next; that our political systems are incapable of dealing with extreme situations competently, especially nowadays with inflation and recession; that we are overwhelmed by the dilemma between saving lives and the planet; between reasonable economic degrowth and saving the capitalist economy.

Saramago writes before the emotional, ethical, and political background of these and many other problems central to our time. And that is why Blindness is so politically cutting-edge. The novel, Saramago often maintained, “criticized and unmasked a rotten and disengaged society.” The ultimate cause of this rottenness is that we, as Western societies, chose to go blind. Rather than tackle the big problems, we prefer to see less—and, in most cases, to look away altogether, to forget.

Things have not improved since the novel’s publication in 1995. Covid-19, it has been pointed out, is inseparable from climate change, from the Anthropocene, or, more precisely, the Capitalocene. Many thinkers view global warming, growing epidemic threats, migrations, social differences, political unrest, and most of our current wars as a consequence of capitalism and colonialism. Saramago underlined many of these interrelations long before the Nobel Prize. But with Blindness, it seems to me, he truly became a Tiresias of our crumbling Western Civilization. Sadly, only the few listen.

Rewriting History

Blindness is not the only work in Saramago’s œuvre to link the poetical and the political, and it is not the only one worth revisiting in our times. Consider, for instance, The History of the Siege of Lisbon, published in 1989. The story of proof-reader Raimundo Silva, who reverses a central statement in a book of history simply by inserting the word “not,” is a revelation for our contemporary information society in which so much that is published or broadcast goes through an endless cycle of verification and disproval until sight of the truth seems to be hopelessly lost.

Raimundo Silva inserts his “not” in a volume on Portuguese history because he decides to reject the official history that the Templars helped the Portuguese conquer the city of Lisbon in medieval times. He finds it necessary to introduce a mistake, or what can be considered a mistake from a certain perspective, because he wants to provoke a shift of attention.

We could reproduce the same strategy in a sentence like this: “today, the Ukraine War is not our main problem.” And this would be true insofar as the central global problem continues to be climate change. Who would not agree, and what would be the use in denying something so seemingly evident? Or, by forming the sentence, would we just be engaging in another kind of Trumpism? I, for one, do not think so. Clearly, Covid-19 had to be tackled immediately, as does the Ukraine War, but not at the cost of getting blinded by day-to-day politics. The Climate Clock gives us a little over 5 years to avoid its worst-case scenario. Others say we have 12 years left, others yet a bit more, but the consensus is that sometime within the next two decades, we will face climate effects much worse in their consequences than Covid-19 or the Ukraine War.

Or consider Seeing, which Saramago published in 2004. Something of a sequel, or rather conclusion, to Blindness, this novel has people become lucid, with a vast majority of voters casting blank ballots during elections. Once again, the government reacts aggressively, accusing its own citizens of terrorism. And once again, our supposedly democratic institutions fail to respond to reality, as Saramago always warns us they will. Ursula K. Le Guin, whose literary work I consider to be as philosophically important as Saramago’s, felt that Seeing says more about the days we live in than any other book she had ever read. Had she not passed in 2018, she may well have related our recent pandemic and wars to Saramago’s writing as well.

The doctor’s wife, who takes the law into her own hands in Blindness, and Raimundo Silva, whose anarchical action literally rewrites history in The History of the Siege of Lisbon, find their counterpart in the police commissioner in Seeing. All these protagonists break with the status quo and make free choices that transcend their individuality while also taking others into consideration, and they all assume responsibility for their actions in their social and historical context. In Seeing, the idea of freedom manifests in the form of a liberating political action, whether practiced individually by the protagonist or as a collective by all those who cast blank ballots. Saramago suggests that any ethical and moral orientation can only be deduced from an understanding of freedom that expresses itself in action.

None of this can be isolated from another fundamental aspect of Saramago’s work, namely his peculiar take on history. When asked why he wrote historical novels, Saramago used to respond that, in a general sense, all novels are historical, and that his intention was just to seek out what had been forgotten by history. He repeatedly stressed the well-known fact that official history typically lacks the perspective of the underprivileged, of women, of marginalized races, classes, and cultures.

In The History of the Siege of Lisbon, Raimundo Silva intentionally rewrites the official perspective on how the Galician-Portuguese army conquered Arab Lisbon in the Middle Ages. In his version, the process is no longer a so-called “reconquista,” a reconquest, as the education systems in Spain, Portugal, and elsewhere around the world still wrongly teach to generation after generation. There was no “reconquest,” simply because the kingdoms of Portugal and Spain did not exist prior to the Arab-Berber presence. It was the Portuguese and Spaniards who conquered and colonised the south of the Iberian Peninsula and assimilated its multicultural population.

Saramago’s insistence on all that official history has left out and continues to leave out is especially pertinent today, as we face a growing insecurity about how to interpret “reality.” Covid-19 and the Ukraine War are just two current examples of how we distract ourselves from, say, the forgotten hunger in Africa, but also from all those who cannot defend themselves against state terror, such as the indigenous peoples of Brazil. European viruses have killed millions of such people since the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century, and even today, miners and woodcutters spread Covid-19 among them.

Saramago certainly would have taken action in condemning the pandemic policies of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, where more than half a million people died in Covid-related ways—just as he took action in 1998, a few weeks before the Nobel Prize, when he travelled to Chiapas and wrote about the sufferings of the indigenous people of southern Mexico. Giving visibility and power to the forgotten was always a central concern of his political activism and literary œuvre alike—witness the poor peasants in the pre-revolution Alentejo of Raised from the Ground, or the forty thousand workers who build the convent of Mafra in Baltasar and Blimunda.

Still, as I already said, Saramago denied being a writer of historical novels, maintaining that his sole commitment was to “reinventing history,” in the sense of bringing to the forefront what has been excluded or silenced. He compared the novelist to the historiographer because he couldn’t conceive an apprehension of the world that was not fictional—just as neuroscientists and cognitivists today maintain that our memory is both highly selective and far from being objective. In one of his most crucial essays, “History and Fiction,” published in 1990, he said that both the writer and the historical researcher are “choosers of facts” and “makers of history.”

In this framework, Saramago strove to achieve a different discourse, one less beholden to patriarchal and traditionally ideological constraints, one that could rewrite and reshape our knowledge of history via the medium of poetical expression, one that demonstrated that meaning itself is heterogeneous and determined by sociohistorical factors. In an interview published in 1998, he said that his attempt to rewrite history was nothing less than an “attempt of an all-including description,” an attempt to “tell everything,” that is, an attempt to include all excluded voices and perspectives in a decolonized, non-hierarchical manner.

Allegory and Essay

This also explains why his novels appear to become more and more “allegorical” as time goes by, especially after The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, published in 1991. From that moment on, something changed in Saramago’s work. The first time he himself alluded to the change was during a 1998 lecture in Turin, Italy, where he compared his literary work to a statue made of stone. Until The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, he said, he had been describing the surface of the statue. But since Blindness, he was trying to describe the material itself, to penetrate the interior of the stone, looking for what he thought to be essential, for what usually remains hidden.

This was, of course, a quest for a wider understanding of things, but it also had a political impact. The Gospel According to Jesus Christ had been censored by the Portuguese government of the time, which removed Saramago’s name from a list of nominees for the European Union Prize for Literature in 1992. In the aftermath of the following polemic, Saramago decided to leave Portugal and start a new life on Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands—he would later describe Lanzarote as his personal “Stone Raft,” in allusion to his novel of the same name published in 1986. But in another essay, written for the Times Literary Supplement in 1988, Saramago had already made clear that this shift away, first from Portugal, then from Europe, had begun very early in his life.

Paradoxically, though, the more universal his literary work and thinking became, the more Saramago rooted himself in his Portuguese, and originally rural, identity. Like Jorge de Sena before him, he went into exile, but he also became one of the greatest modern Portuguese humanists and universalists, and a modernizer of the Portuguese and Iberian cultures. His proposed idea of transibericity invites us to think all Iberian cultures together, both before and after the Portuguese and Spanish colonizations, avoiding all hierarchies or impositions. The task, he once said, is of “translating, while respecting the place from which [we] came and the place to which [we] are going.”

Saramago’s transibericity brings a new perspective to cultural history. It implies that the Iberian Peninsula does not belong entirely to Europe since it must assume responsibility for its colonialist past. A historical and symbolic unity of the Iberian cultures can be achieved, so Saramago, in a global transiberic discourse informed by a perspective that is post-colonial and decolonial in equal measure. In other words, a dialogue must be established with the alternative discourses offered not only by the various Iberian cultures, but also, and to an even greater extent, with those offered today by the American and African post-colonial cultures. In his Nobel lecture, Saramago extended the task to Europe as a whole, calling for an ethical Europe, a European identity that takes responsibility for its past.

Descriptions of Saramago’s writing and thinking are plagued by  a lot of imprecise terminology. Let’s take, for instance, the term “magical realism,” a term invented in Europe to describe a narrative style in Latin American and African literatures that certain Western perspectives were unable to grasp. Saramago’s use of fantastic elements cannot be equated to that of, say, Gabriel García Márquez, whose influence on him is sometimes overstated. In Saramago, what we might call fantastic or supernatural elements are always a tool to question standardized history and its narratives: What if this would have happened? What if people could do this? What if we could change things this way?

The idea is very Marxist on the one hand and very existentialist on the other: you, as a human being, are always capable of making something meaningful of what the circumstances have made of you. But in order to do so, you must translate me and yourself sensibly, you must interpret me and yourself critically. As Saramago once said, “we are all translators,” and translation is always political.

It is curious that the titles of some key Saramago novels have been domesticated in English translation: Essay on Blindness has become Blindness; Essay on Lucidity has become Seeing. Saramago once said that he would have liked to be an essayist, but that he didn’t feel prepared for the role. Still, all his novels are essayistic: they represent interventions in reality, seek to be paradigmatic, and do not seek refuge in allegory.

When critics talk of “allegory” in Saramago’s writing, this is often a simplification, and, in my opinion, indicates an extended misuse of the term. Saramago didn’t create allegories in the sense of rhetorical tropes or of allegoresis in the theological sense. We can, of course, use the word in the restrictive context of literary studies, where allegoresis is simply a hermeneutical technique. But in the case of Saramago, I prefer to think of the term along the lines proposed by Walter Benjamin.

To Benjamin, allegory signals a dissociation, a profound difference between the use of language and its cultural past, a process that breaks any classical metaphysical relation between the image as being and its meaning. This understanding of allegory relates to decay, to the finitude of everything that is historical or natural, with the work of art no longer able to serve as a totality that conciliates contradictions. In Benjamin’s materialistic redefinition, allegory represents a form of deconstruction, and it is up to the reader, to us, to reconstruct meaning, if only in part.

Like Benjamin, Saramago opens up an ongoing and never-ending process of deconstruction and re-construction of meaning, a continuum of translations and transformations. It is only in this way that we may call Blindness and Seeing allegories. They are allegories that deconstruct, and ultimately deny, any metaphysical meaning—a denial that, in turn, points us to Saramago’s atheism. As is the case with Sartre, as long as we don’t accept atheism as paradigmatic of Saramago’s works, we will never fully understand his thinking.

Blindness and Seeing are good examples of the paradigmatic tone in Saramago’s fiction—paradigmatic in the etymological sense of offering an “example,” “model,” or “sample” of something that is a priori to experience, although it always has to be tested against experience. This tone ties back in with Saramago’s essayistic style. Blindness and Seeing can be considered essays because they both show a disposition towards experimentation. As always, Saramago focuses on the “what if.” His novels always raise new questions, outline new problems.

At the same time, though, Saramago tries to avoid moralization and the creation of dogmatic doctrines. He was an admirer of Montaigne, but not of Francis Bacon; and like Montaigne, he lets his readers make their own associations and reach their own conclusions, enabling the development of their own thoughts and viewpoints. Finally, precisely because he was a political essayist, Saramago has always been severely criticized by conservatives and the church. Just as Montaigne’s essays were placed on the index in the 16th century, an essayistic novel by Saramago was censored at the end of the 20th century.

In this sense, Saramago’s work is never detached from real life. Whether dealing with impoverished farmers at the beginning of the 20th century as in Raised from the Ground; the construction of an oversized convent in 18th-century Portugal as in Baltasar and Blimunda; the magical scission of the Iberian Peninsula as in The Stone Raft; or the sudden disappearance of death in Death with Interruptions, there is always a firm and solid link to our current time and society.

In an etymological sense, all of Saramago’s novels, but also his short stories and plays, could be considered essays because they share the firm intention to “check something out,” to examine an idea, to assess it, to consider different possibilities. A prime example is The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, published in 1984. In this novel, recently adapted to film, Fernando Pessoa’s Hellenistic and monarchic heteronym is placed in the midst of reality: the novel depicts urban life in 1930s Lisbon, with Pessoa’s heteronym having real love affairs, embedded in the real political situation of the time, and constantly reading real newspaper headlines on the rise of fascism in Europe—all in an effort by Saramago to see if the stoic and falsely epicurean philosophy in Ricardo Reis’ poems holds up in real life. The novel is a superb and profoundly poetical essay on contemporary history, but also on the mutilated and evasive way in which we relate to the ethical implications of our present, and on the ubiquity of colonial, patriarchal, or capitalist constraints.

In Defiance of Pessimism

At the end of Baltasar and Blimunda, the will of the dying Baltasar is captured by Blimunda: it “did not ascend to the stars, for it belonged to the earth.” This sentence is engraved on the stone that marks the burial site of Saramago´s ashes, before his foundation in Lisbon, beneath an olive tree from Azinhaga, his native village.3 Saramago was always conscious of his rural roots. He was not an academic intellectual but a self-taught person, a philosopher who made himself in and through real life. His sense of realism and freedom made him an atheist and a dissident communist who did not believe in the determinism of history; they also made him an activist, and I would even say that, ultimately, he was an eco-anarchist in the most exemplary sense.

All of Saramago’s fiction was about this world—about real people but also animals, about real suffering, about solidarity, about changing circumstances in a humane way, about ethical responsibility. This is why his thoughts and literature could be transformed into a Universal Charter of Duties and Obligations of the Individuals4 that has already been submitted to the United Nations since, in one of his Nobel Prize lectures, Saramago suggested that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not sufficient to guide humanity.

Saramago’s fiction and life-long activism focused on the same problems we still face today: the feeling of living in a constant state of crisis, in a world that lacks orientation, with only a feeble ethical basis at best. Saramago wrote on the conflict between the individual and the public, the freedom of the individual and of the other, existence and moral values, and the absurdity of our existence and the necessity of error.

There is, of course, a lot of scepticism and dystopian pessimism in Saramago’s work. In part, this has to do with a certain melancholy aspect of the Portuguese mentality. But it is also related to the fact that Saramago became a writer in a very difficult, even hostile, context: he began writing under a fascist regime; had no academic education; didn’t belong to the cultural, bourgeois elite; and found it difficult at times to make a living. All this surely contributed to his increasingly pessimistic character.

In his last Notebook of Lanzarote, only recently discovered and published in 2018, Saramago says that after Blindness, something changed in him, especially regarding literature and its importance in life. He said that he was no longer interested in talking about literature, that he even doubted if it was possible to talk about literature at all. He left those reflections unexplained. But perhaps he felt that writing was no longer enough. Before, during, and shortly after the Portuguese Revolution, writing had certainly been a “desire for freedom” on his part, an act of liberating humanity. But after Blindness, I think he began to feel that literature was excessively strangled by the regime of genres, narratives, clichés, personal vanities, commercial and cultural politics.

Surely, he always wanted writers and artists to intervene, to be political, but he also became very sceptical about the allegedly empowering potential of literary fiction. This is why, long ago, he had already abandoned the neo-realist style of his beginnings. He did not want to be characterized as a writer with a project or a mission. He felt that what he had done was not enough, that all such projects would fail in the end, and that they were only for blind believers. Perhaps only people with a deeply rooted, rural kind of common sense, people who have experienced poverty and lack of freedom, are capable of this humility and critical self-awareness.

Be that as it may: for many of his readers, Saramago was, and still is, a writer with a political message that offers orientation in a world out of joint. And I would tend to agree, for there is also optimism and hope in Saramago. Blindness and Seeing show us just how lucid we need to be to confront the turmoil of world events in a meaningful way. While thoroughly disturbing, they are also among Saramago’s most hopeful novels. They paint a frightening picture of how socio-political structures may collapse under certain circumstances, but they also show how individuals may develop enough strength not to abandon themselves (or others) in a context of abuse, violence, or disorder.

This belief in the human capacity for goodness, even if restricted to the very few, is a constant in Saramago’s work. His fiction abounds with examples of what Sartre called a groupe en fusion, a small group spontaneously constituted on the basis of free individual choice and in a non-institutionalized way. The Stone Raft, Baltasar and Blimunda, Blindness, and Seeing offer perhaps the best examples of such groups that realize the idea of an accomplished community by practicing individual freedom as collective freedom.

In conclusion, I think that the positivity or optimism we can retrieve from Saramago’s literature and activism lies precisely in this contradiction: that of a humble writer of essayistic and poetical novels who never relied on the “power” and “fame” he had achieved with the Nobel Prize; who always strove for a way of being that was political and poetical alike; and who tackled, head-on, one of life’s greatest dilemmas: the necessity of an ethics of individual and collective responsibility, in constant defiance of the inevitable pessimism imposed by circumstances.

And that is why, in these troubled times, we should read and re-read José Saramago.

Note: This essay is based on the podcast, PICT Voices #22: Burghard Baltrusch, “From Blindness to Seeing with José Saramago,” hosted by Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte, 25 January 2021 [6 October 2022]. The English has been revised by David Selim Sayers.

1. International José Saramago Chair, University of Vigo.
2. See the conference website.
3. See the José Saramago Foundation website.
4. Full text available here.