Sunday, April 30, 2006


My therapist recently gave me "an assignment" -- I was to visit a bookstore and purchase a novel that I would read for pleasure only. This meant no highlighting, no note-taking in the margins, and no letting my mind drift toward the ways in which I might use the book in one of my papers. This inevitably also meant no Jewish books. The problem is that I love Jewish literature, and after about ten minutes in Border's I found myself armed with Philip Roth's The Plot Against America and something by Nadine Gordimer. I was elated, but it was shortlived when I realized that I wasn't allowed to read these, not for pleasure anyway. After walking around Border's for awhile, my indecisiveness kicked in, and so I called my most trusted source for advice on what books to choose. I decided to take advantage of the "buy 3 for 2" deal, and so I bought three for the price of two: Jose Saramago's Blindness, Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, and a collection of Alice Munro's stories. Walking out of the bookstore with three books that are outside of my field of literature felt like a shameless indulgence, and somewhat of a betrayal as well. I felt as if I had plotted against Philip Roth when I put his book down and chose someone who has actually won a Nobel Prize in Literature (Saramago).

But I'm rambling. The next morning I flew out to Florida for a conference in multi-ethnic Amerian literatures, and chose to take Blindness with me. I took the highlighter out of my carry-on bag. I put it back in. I took it out. I finally put it back in -- but only, I told myself, in case I needed to highlight something in my Claire Katz book on Levinas, which I was also bringing (and which stayed in my bag all weekend). A woman at the conference later told me (not in relation to this highlighter episode) that I'm neurotic enough to be Jewish. Whatever could she mean? But what a fantastic compliment.

More rambling. Blindness is amazing. If I could, I would highlight three quarters of it. It was recommended to me by most trusted literary "friend," and I have yet to see him falsely identify a book as spectacular. He knows good writing. Saramago is a Portugese writer (b. 1922), and this book is about an epidemic of "white blindness" that overtakes an unnamed city. The government tries to quarantine all of the "blind" people, but eventually nearly the entire world becomes blind, with the exclusion of one woman (so far, anyway, since I haven't finished it). It's unclear whether it is spread to others through touch or sight or something else -- one friend reminded me that in many medieval stories the gaze is a material extension of the body, and so I think what is happening in this book is similar. It seems, though, that anyone upon whom a "blind" one sets his or her sights, purposely or inadvertently, becomes overcome in a veil of white milkiness. The writing is absolutely amazing and incredibly provocative, but there is something eerie about this book. It's ripe for Levinasian analysis, because it is very clearly about the breakdown of ethical/human responsibility. In many ways, it seems so far to be a book about the Holocaust if we think of the Holocaust as the ultimate example of the breakdown of ethical responsibility. The ways in which the "blind" of the book stumble about and try to carry on as if they had never lost their sight is chilling. But what is terrifyingly familiar about this story are the ways in which people who were good, ethical people for the most part before their "blindness" become criminals -- thieves, rapists, murderers, liars -- when they realize they are in a world in which nobody can identify their face, and in which, subsequently, they also cannot see the face of the other.

An interesting passage, spoken by the only woman who has miraculously retained her physical (and spiritual, it seems) sight: "...please, don't ask me what good and what evil are, we knew what it was each time we had to act when blindness was an exception, what is right and what is wrong are simply different ways of understanding our relationships with the others, not that which we have with ourselves, one should not trust the latter...I am simply the one who was born to see this horror, you can feel it, I both feel and see it. [Her husband says,] 'If I ever regain my sight, I shall look carefully at the eyes of others, as if I were looking into their souls" (276)

1 comment:

Casey said...

What a great "assignment!" -- I need to get a therapist too. Although mine would probably tell me "Why don't you try reading something actually related to your chosen field?" Since passing my prospectus, I've read, among other unrelated things:

-2 books by E.M. Cioran
-Blindness, by Saramago
-Paradise, by Barthelme
-Stories by Calvino
-Island of the Day Before, by Eco
-A Hero for Our Time, Lermontov
-Essays by Gabriel Marcel
-Liquidation, by Kertez (read it!)

It sure is freeing. Sometimes I feel like the Ph.D. process is "disciplining" in that old Foucault-way... sort of unfortunate. Soon I have to finish this Poe chapter, I guess.

What about the contagious aspect of the Blindness in Saramago? Especially as ethical failure? Is it criticism of ethic-less postmodern society? Whenever I ask my students to take a position on an ethical question, they always respond: "Well whatever she decides, that's just her choice" (as though individual perspectives are all valid and beyond question). How boring.

Tell me if Atwood's is good... she's been lurking on my short list lately.