Vision and Souls in Jose Saramago&'s Blindness
The eyes are the window to the soul. Love at first sight. Among the blind the squinter rules.
Oft cited traditional proverbs, these platitudes reflect the mystery and power associated with eyes in human culture. In Saramago’s Blindness, eyes are portrayed as a manifestation of the human soul, mirroring their aforementioned role as a “window to the soul.” In the abandoned mental hospital where the government has contained all blind citizens, everyone is blind save the wife of an optometrist. A few days into their internment, the doctor says to her, “I’ve spent my life looking into people’s eyes, it is the only part of the body where a soul might exist and if those eyes are lost…” (p. 134). Without meaning to, he implies that she is the only one in the ward who still may have a soul.
As she struggles with the concepts of her soul, morality, and her continued ability to see, the doctor’s wife seeks to maintain her sense of dignity and humanity. The Doctor’s Wife clings to her morality because believes in her own soul as a result of her continued vision. After the soldiers in charge of barricading the hospital refuse medical treatment to a gravely injured prisoner, the doctor’s wife remarks, “I can’t believe this is happening, it’s against all the rules of humanity.” (p. 63). It is soon established, however, that “the rules of humanity” no longer apply.
According to the rules of humanity, excrement should be disposed of in a hygienic and private manner, yet the hospital inhabitants quickly transform the hallways and corridors into unventilated and unplumbed latrines. “It doesn’t matter, no one can see me,” they tell themselves, demonstrating the power of vision over human behavior (p. 132). The pressures of being watched cause humans to act more morally; the lack of shame and dignity needed to defecate in the hallway implies a lack of compunction. The doctor’s wife, however, continues to hang on to her sense of morality and belief in the “rules of humanity,” while every other inhabitant of the hospital digresses into animalistic mayhem. She cannot forgo her commitment to morality as easily as the others do because she still has her sight, so she feels an obligation to behave in a more upright manner.
The idea of a soul is often associated with religion, particularly as it pertains to the afterlife. Those with relatively pure souls at the time of their passing will be rewarded after death for their good behavior, while those who have sinned excessively will be punished. If one lacked a soul completely, however, these typical ideas of the afterlife would be shattered. When the doctor inadvertently suggests to his wife that the blind cannot have souls, she realizes that familiar tenets of religion, morality, and what she defines as “human” mean nothing to the other people living in the hospital. A soul represents probity and humanity, ideas which the doctor’s wife clings to (“If we cannot live entirely like human beings, at least let us do everything in our power not to live entirely like animals,” (p.
116)). She hopes to maintain her humanity for as long as possible, and because of her continued ability to see, she has a strengthened resolve to do so. The aforementioned commitment to maintaining humanity is described as “words she repeated so often that the rest of the ward ended up transforming her advice into a maxim, a dictum, into a doctrine, a rule of life,” (p. 116). Yet, she is the only one who truly abides by this mantra.
She clings to her humanity as her companions slowly fall to filth and squalor, repeating this to herself over and over again, and while the others appreciate the sentiment, they are far more vulnerable to the animalistic digression than she is, because she can still see. Her continued vision causes her continued belief that she has a soul, and thus she is capable of conducting herself in a respectable and moral fashion. After the seven women from the first ward are brutally raped by the thugs, the doctor’s wife collects water and returns to wash first the corpse of the woman who suffered from insomnia, who had died during the night’s atrocities, then the other women of the ward, and finally herself. Saramago describes the scene thus: “She wanted to wash the corpse of the woman who had suffered from insomnia, to wipe away her own blood and the sperm of others, to deliver her purified to the earth, if it still makes sense to speak of the purity of the body in this asylum where we are living, for purity of the soul, as we know, is beyond everyone’s reach… When the doctor and the oldman with the black eyepatch entered the ward with the food, they did not see, could not see, seven naked women and the corpse of the woman who suffered from insomnia stretched out on her bed, cleaner than she had ever been in all her life, while another woman was washing her companions, one by one, and then herself.” (p.
184-5). The scene has a religious tone, engendered by the concept of purifying the soul. Typically, one would seek to purify a soul with the hopes of admission to heaven, yet in this scene the purification process also seeks to ride the woman who suffered from insomnia from the horrors she has just experienced. This scene depicts the doctor’s wife’s unrelenting hope: her commitment to her own morality and resignation to the lack of morality in others implies that she agrees her husband, and doubts the existence of souls without eyes. Here, however, she seeks to purify the soul of the dead woman, demonstrating her cautious hope that perhaps not all sense of humanity has been lost inside the hospital.
The first half of the quote implies that she seeks a physical purification for the woman, but a physical purification would be impossible given the squalor in which the internees are living and the trauma that the women have just experienced. It would be impossible for them to be physically clean from just water given all they have endured, so therefore the cleanliness is metaphorical. Thus, the purification must be intended for the soul, which is consistent with the religious tone of the parallels to baptism throughout the scene. The phrase, “cleaner than she had ever been in all her life” especially points out the spiritual nature of the cleanliness. After going weeks without bathing, walking through excrement, blood, semen, and urine, and festering in the fetid mixture every night, the woman who suffered from insomnia was likely dirtier than she had ever been in all her life, not cleaner. This startling contrast demonstrates that her clean pureness was metaphysical, because her physical self, despite the best efforts of the doctor’s wife, remained unclean.
Bathing is a steeling of doctor’s wife’s decision to fight back; if she had given in to the thugs and resigned herself to her squalid fate she would just lie in her own filth and allow the other women to do so, too. Instead, she chooses to go and fetch water and bathe her companions, strengthening her sense of morality. She washes them for her own sense of responsibility, then washes herself as a spiritual cleansing. Religion is inextricably linked to morality and altruism, and thus this religiously toned scene denotes the doctor’s wife’s continued altruism. She still feels the need to uphold her morality because she is the only one who can see, and thus is the only one who may still have a soul.