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It is just another day. The traffic light is red as pedestrians cross the street before you, always in a hurry. At last, the light turns green, but just as you prepare to start the car, the world goes white. People shout, cars honk, and rage fills the place, but you cannot see any of it. Then, you realize, “I am blind.”
Such is the beginning of Essay on Blindness by the Portuguese author José Saramago, written in 1995. Born into a working-class family in 1922 in Azinhaga, Portugal, Saramago could not finish grammar school and studied literature on his own while attending a mechanics school. In 1947 he published his first work, The Land of Sin, although its lack of success led him to stop writing and to work in a publishing house until he composed Possible Poems in 1966. In 1969 he joined the Portuguese Communist Party because of his opposition to the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. In the following years, he wrote several narratives, with Raised from the Ground (1980), The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991), Essay on Blindness (1995), and All the Names (1997) being his most successful books. In 1998, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the only Portuguese author to ever do so. In June 2010, he died from of chronic leukemia at the age of 87, but his work is still some of the most relevant in contemporary literature.
In Essay on Blindness, Saramago describes a dystopic world in which human beings suddenly turn blind during a pandemic disease known as the “white evil.” As a result, the government decides to isolate all affected in a mental asylum guarded by the military, punishing by immediate death any attempt to leave. Social order is at first preserved inside the institution, but in the end, anarchy prevails, and human actions are reduced to the most primitive instincts. Only one person, the doctor’s wife, is able to preserve the sight, leading a small group of individuals to survive amidst the chaos. Finally, the disease spreads throughout the population, and the isolated are allowed to join the outside world, now ruled by blindness and where hardly a trace of humanity remains.
In the narrative, Saramago criticizes society and warns about the need to preserve morality when others have been completely deprived of it. He describes a dramatic situation in the asylum in which people are forced to live under inhumane conditions, surrounded by their own waste and without food, water, hygiene, and electricity. As a result, even when a small group of individuals led by the doctor’s wife try to preserve justice and establish an organization system, a group of blind men assume control and initiate an abusive regime in which morality is degraded up to the point of being unable to distinguish between right and wrong. Even the doctor’s wife, one of the few who still preserves a human sense, is led to commit a murder. She tries to justify it by thinking: “When is it necessary to kill?… When it is dead what is still alive,”1 demonstrating the moral degradation humans can experience. In this way, Saramago censures the limits the human condition can reach when people are exposed to utmost degradation and reveals the importance of remaining human when others have completely lost themselves: “These blind people, if we do not help them, will promptly turn into animals, or worse, blind animals.”2
While reading the novel, I could not avoid thinking about the COVID-19 pandemic and its parallels with the narrative. The connection gave me hope for society, as unlike what occurs in Saramago’s essay, the real world did not turn blind, but preserved its humanity. People, no matter their origin or culture, were able to put their differences aside to fight for the survival and well-being of others, and they did not transform into “blind animals.” Nonetheless, the author’s message is still relevant to our times. When mankind is threatened, we must continue to fight against such blindness and be the eyes of those who cannot see (“Thanks to your eyes, we are still alive”3) because, in the end, it is up to each one of us to open our eyes and safeguard our humanity.
“I do not think we became blind, I think we are blind, Blind people that see, Blind people that seeing, they do not see.”4
Thus, let us not become blind.
- José Saramago, Ensayo sobre la Ceguera, personal translation (Barcelona: Penguin Random House, 2022), 223.
- Saramago, Ensayo sobre la Ceguera, 159.
- Saramago, Ensayo sobre la Ceguera, 339.
- Saramago, Ensayo sobre la Ceguera, 375.
- “Biografía José Saramago.” Fundación José Saramago. Accessed March 8, 2023. https://josesaramago.org/es/biografia/.
- José Saramago. Ensayo sobre la Ceguera. Barcelona: Penguin Random House, 2022.
MAITE LOSARCOS SANTAMARIA is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Navarra, Pamplona. Interested in research early on, she participated in the International Genetically Engineered Machine synthetic biology competition with her high school. Nowadays, she is involved in an Investigation Program at her university, focusing her studies on obesity-associated nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. She is also a volunteer at the Red Cross of Navarra.
Submitted for the 2022–23 Medical Student Essay Contest