No small coincidence that I should choose to extract from my book wall (yes, here’s a picture of it), fifth down on the right, Blindness by Saramago. Actually, so as not to disturb the wall I read the e-book via Oyster.
Like the Berlin Wall, my book wall must come down soon, to allow free access to all, particularly me. I say no small coincidence because while I took it to be a bit of dust in my eye, it seems instead I have what the Spanish would call a “waterfall,” which we call simply a film over my left-eye lens, or a cataract. (I know, I’m too young for that, right?)
In Saramago’s masterful book there is a sudden and unexplained whiteness which envelops all, robbing them of their sight in the blink of… in an instant. You rub your eyes and open them and you see nothing, you stop at a traffic light and in the moment before it changes from red to green you see only the creaminess of blindness, this particular hell of blindness that Saramago presents in such a way that the reader almost feels the oppressive snow of invisibility, the absence of all.
Such a sudden loss of a sense is the stuff of nightmares, expressed in books and films. (Note that I’ve yet to see the film adaptation of this book, but have rented it to watch on a long flight next week.) It reminded me of the film “Perfect Sense,” (which I mentioned here) which similarly treats not simply the loss of our senses, but how we as humans fail or succeed at adapting to this loss, what we do once we are done grieving its absence (the stages of grief over the loss of a sense similar to those over the loss of a person, unavoidable and universal). But then, as our grief dissipates, we find that nothing else matters, none of the petty concerns which just moments ago plagued our minds, our unseeing focus now on how to reinvent our selves, our lives in order to survive, to release our trappings and find ways to live and breathe and even thrive in our new lives.
The acuity of the senses, particularly of those which remain after the loss (total or partial) of another is at once blessing and curse. In Blindness the stench of human waste, of the ripeness of unwashed bodies, of rotting food and flesh, permeates all. It burns itself into the reader’s nostrils and sullies the fingertips which tread the book’s pages. Yet somehow these characters find ways to utilize what is left to them to navigate, to find beauty and love amidst the ruins, sensations lost balanced out with others intensified. Odd couples form, for a moment, forever, and the intensity of each encounter is that of a thousand encounters prior to that moment when the world was turned upside down.
Aaron Rasmussen has once again been in the news regarding his video game BlindSide, which he created in part as a response to his own experience with temporary blindness following a chemistry experiment gone awry. We can’t, I suppose, really know what it is like to lose something until we have indeed lost it. But what we can do is hone our appreciation of the beauty and magnificence of what we possess by placing ourselves, virtually or through our imaginative response to the words or images of others, in the shoes of one without, to realize how very fortunate we are to be with.
I’ll leave you with what I found one of the most powerfully beautiful images from the book, which takes place when this rag-tag group of survivors makes their way to the home of the one woman who has miraculously and inexplicably retained her sight. There they are washed, and clothed, and sit on sofas not stained with feces, as she serves them water, cool, clean water, that she’s taken from the toilet cistern.
“…I’ll put our best glasses on the table and we are going to drink fresh water. This time she took the lamp and went to the kitchen, she returned with the bottle, the light shone through it, it made the treasure inside sparkle. She put it on the table, went to fetch the glasses, the best they had, of finest crystal, then, slowly, as if she were performing a rite, she filled them. At last, she said, Let’s drink. The blind hands groped and found the glasses, they raised them trembling. Let’s drink, the doctor’s wife said again. In the middle of the table, the lamp was like a sun surrounded by shining stars. When they had put the glasses back on the table, the girl with the dark glasses and the old man with the eyepatch were crying.”
Open your eyes, wide, and see with new ones.