In his 1998 masterwork, Blindness, José Saramago pricked one of the most cherished illusions of the modern world: the notion that we exert any meaningful control over our own lives. A dreamlike allegory narrated in a cool, dispassionate, often quite funny voice, Blindness pulled apart our unthinking urban routines with a simple, nameless terror: a viral epidemic of sightlessness, whiting out the vision of its sufferers, and producing in short order all manner of personal and social breakdowns, from rape and food hoarding to mass internment and vigilantism. Blindness was a multi-service work of satire, working as an assault on the veneer of civilization sheltering from view the unlovely facts about human nature while doubling as a defense of certain unalloyed social virtues, such as charity, solidarity and skepticism about the state.
This latter quality takes center stage in Seeing, Mr. Saramago’s sequel to Blindness. Set four years later in the same unnamed national capital of a country very much like Mr. Saramago’s native Portugal, Seeing concerns a crisis in political self-expression: how to shore up a government’s legitimacy when 85 percent of the ballots in a national election are simply returned blank. This is no Bush v. Gore question of interpreting the voter intent behind botched ballots; this, rather, is the ultimate vote of no confidence.
As with that other, earlier epidemic of blankness, no one has a clear fix on the deeper meaning beneath the opaque course of events. The most that any confessed blank voter—or “blankers,” as they soon come to be known—will explain under state interrogation is: “I’m not to blame for what you call the result, I voted as I wanted to vote, within the law, now it’s up to you … to respond.”
The bemused narrator has some theories of his own, largely to do with the media’s panicked debauching of the common weal; his sentiments (which students of our own media will find particularly apropos) are well worth quoting at length: “Driven by an understandable urge to try and please everyone, some newspapers thought they could combat the absence of readers by plastering their pages with naked bodies, whether male or female, together or alone, singly or in pairs, at rest or in action, disporting themselves in modern gardens of delight, but the readers, grown impatient with images whose minimal and not particularly arousing variations in color and configuration had, even in remote antiquity, been considered banal commonplaces of man’s exploration of the libido, continued, out of apathy, indifference and even nausea, to cause print-runs and sales to plummet …. [T]he old game of public virtues masking private vices, the jolly carousel of private vices elevated to the status of public virtues, which, until recently, had never lacked for spectators or for candidates willing to strut their stuff, failed to have a favorable impact on the day-to-day balance sheet of debit and credit, which was at an irremediably low ebb. It really seemed as if the majority of the city’s inhabitants were determined to change their lives, their tastes and their style.”
This mordant, allusive and digressive mini-dissertation perfectly captures Mr. Saramago’s style—the sort of writing that “lapidary” was coined to describe. At times, it gets away from him, and he succumbs to metafiction gimmicks like commenting on gaps in the narrative’s chronology and plausibility. But Seeing nonetheless builds into a compelling saga of state intrigue, as the nation’s governing class interprets the populace’s strategic silence as subversion, hostility and—by the novel’s end—a virtual act of war.
The state’s first response is, of course, a procedural one: The initial vote occurred on a fearsomely rainy day and must be an aberration, the nation’s leaders reason. They schedule a make-up vote. When that vote, too, yields an identical 85 percent count of blankness, they decide to answer secession with secession, moving the entire administrative apparatus of the state out of the capital city under cover of night. Like spurned lovers, the departing leaders set out “to isolate the population and then leave them to simmer,” so as to break a near-unanimous turn of the civic mind they deem “too perfect to be real.”
This new gambit fizzles. “It seemed that the police were, after all, not essential for the city’s security, that the population itself, spontaneously and in a more or less organized manner, had taken over their work as vigilantes.”
Eventually, the government-in-exile resolves to connect up the present crisis to the earlier one. The prime minister declares “the blindness of those days has returned in a new guise,” and proposes a “parallel between the blankness of that blindness of four years ago and the blind casting of blank ballot papers now.” Yet for this to be anything more than a rhetorical claim, there has to be a bad actor to pivot both events forward—what our own maximum crisis manager likes to call an “evildoer.” The closest the leaders can come is the sole woman who survived the blindness epidemic with her sight intact: the wife of the ophthalmologist who first diagnosed the virus. After a citizen-vigilante writes a letter denouncing her—citing trespasses she also allegedly committed during the blindness plague—the nation’s interior minister dispatches a surveillance team to produce evidence of her guilt, by means honest or otherwise.
At this point, one midlevel bureaucrat recognizes that a line has been crossed—Bertolt Brecht famously described it as the moment when “a government dissolves the people and decides to elect another.” The consequences are suitably grim and dystopian, but true to form, Mr. Saramago abjures any permanent judgment: “The genetic code of what, somewhat unthinkingly, we have been content to call human nature, cannot be reduced to the organic helix of deoxyribonucleic acid, or dna, there is much more to be said about it and it has much more to tell us, but human nature is, figuratively speaking, the complementary spiral that we have not yet managed to prise out of kindergarten.” Or as one of his characters puts it, altogether more poetically: “When we are born, when we enter this world, it is as if we signed a pact for the rest of our life, but a day may come when we will ask ourselves, Who signed this on my behalf.”
Early reviews of Mr. Saramago’s book have made much of its topicality, how it mirrors all manner of recent political crises, from Bush v. Gore to the “war on terror” to this month’s immigration rallies. But the larger point about this searching, dry-witted, spot-on political parable is its pertinence to any political age in which government is blind to the will of the governed.
Chris Lehmann is an editor at CQ Weekly and the author of Revolt of the Masscult (Prickly Paradigm).