Wednesday 29 July 2009


Reading Jose Saramago’s ‘Blindness’ made me think of Oedipus. Blindness, as a metaphor for human condition, is so overly generous, so overly inclusive, that it can cloud rather than clarify. Yes, we are blind to our human condition. We are blind to the darkness of our cruelty, to the light of our compassion. And it is true that Saramago’s novel helps us do what we may go to lengths trying to avoid in everyday life - encounter a situation which would reveal to us our true character. Yet, just like in the Greek tragedies, there is a confusion as to what is so tragic about being blind to one’s nature.

One could make an argument that tragedies are tragic because suffering is inevitable and escaping one’s fate impossible. Witness Oedipus, upon hearing of his prophesied future, attempting to do that very thing – leave the country of his supposed birth, as to not fulfill the prophesy. Many commentators emphasize that Oedipus’s sins were unknowing – he unknowingly killed his father and bedded his mother. There is the tragedy, they say, in the unknowing.

So, Oedipus blinds himself (rather than cutting off his patricidal arm, or mutilating his incest-making genitals) as a condemnation for his own lack of in-sight. It is facile to assume that the knowing that would have dispelled the blindness and prevented the tragedy was the knowing of the fact that the man at the cross-roads was his father, the woman in his arms his mother. Let us presume Greeks are more consistent, and assume Oedipus’s downfall was due to a cardinal character flaw omnipresent in Greek tragedies - hubris. One could then imagine that it was Oedipus’s character-ingrained lack of humility that made him kill a man over a right of way at a cross-road, and that it was the same lack of humility that had made him think that despite the oracle he should risk bedding a woman twice his age. The question that centers the tragedy is whether this lack of humility is a condition that could have been changed? What kind of knowing is necessary to block the rolling stone of tragedy from running us over?

Frye (1957) said: “The moment of discovery… [for the tragic hero is] the recognition of the determined shape of the life he has created for himself, which an implicit comparison with the uncreated potential life he has forsaken.” What is tragic about Oedipus’s fate, like any of the ‘oracled’ fates in Greek tragedies, is not that they had to come to be, but that they did. Heraclitus’s ‘character is fate’ is true only in a pre-individualist sense, in which one can predict one’s character from that of their parents, their culture, their environment. Another oracle, concurrent with writing of many Greek tragedies (5th century BC) gives a prophesy that young Siddharta Gautama would become either a great king or a great sage. Here, within an oracle, like within everyday life, there is a choice. It is strange, from our 21st century perspective, to think that Buddha had a choice to not become himself, but instead remain one in a series of forgettable conquerors.

Tragedy of blindness, then, is not lacking the insight into one’s character, but blindness to its potential transformation. Yet as long as we think of ‘fate’ as predetermined, we shall think of character as predestined, unchanging, revealing itself to us rather than being made in the very moment of revelation. It is this blindness that will make our stories into tragedies rather than stories of enlightenment. And it is an answer to this blindness that is far harder to formulate than solving Sphinx’s puzzle. Perhaps that is why, contemplating sheer insufficiency of her riddle, she threw herself off the cliff.

Frye, N. (1957). The Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Saramago, J. (1997). Blindness. London: The Harvill Press.


Jarucia said...

The screenwriters of the movie "Knowing" might have better executed their plot had they read this article first.

Nicely put.

Paul Lamb said...

Saramago wrote a sequel called Seeing, but I think a good companion novel to this one is Camus' The Plague, which many interpret as trying to live under Nazi Occupation.

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