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Adaptation, abjection, and homecoming in Saramago's Ensaio sobre a cegueira and Meirelles's Blindness.

Fernando Meirelles's Blindness opened the 2008 Cannes Film Festival to scattered applause and sharply divided reviews. While The Guardian hailed the film as "elegant, gripping, and visually outstanding" (Bradshaw), The New York Times panned it as "nasty, brutish, and nowhere near short enough" (Dargis). Responses were equally polarized in Spanish- and Portuguese-language newspapers: the Brazilian Globo celebrated Blindness as "talvez o filme do ano" (Pelli), but the Spanish El Confidencial complained that Meirelles's film was "menos sutil" and cruder than the story on which it was based (Garcia de Francisco). Despite their marked differences, the reviews found common ground in comparing Blindness to its source: Jose Saramago's novel, Ensaio sobre a cegueira (1995). Critics repeatedly invoked the issue of fidelity (or bemoaned its lack), and El Confidencial's Alicia Garcia de Francisco was not alone in judging the cinematographic adaptation inferior to the written text.

Only a few days after Cannes, Meirelles travelled to Portugal to screen the film for Saramago. When the lights came on in the small Lisbon theater, the Nobel laureate judged Blindness "um grande filme" (LUSA). Although in many ways Meirelles's film directly translates Ensaio sobre a cegueira's prose to images, important differences exist. The spoken language shifts from Portuguese to predominantly English, an unnamed but identifiably European city from the end of the twentieth century transforms into a twenty-first-century composite of North and South American cityscapes (Toronto, Sao Paulo, Montevideo), and an ensemble of internationally renowned actors embodies the originally nameless, specter-like characters. (1) Rather than dismiss or criticize these changes, Saramago celebrated them. At a press conference that he gave with Meirelles later that year, the Portuguese novelist emphasized that "E bom que o filme nao tenha uma fidelidade excessiva senao esta condenado. Um realizador e um criador, nao um mero copista" ("Saramago aplaude"). Saramago describes Meirelles as the cinematic "criador" of Blindness. By identifying the Brazilian director as a creator and "nao um mero copista," Saramago makes a larger point about adaptation that resonates with the recent theories of scholars such as Brian McFarlane, Linda Hutcheon, and Kamilla Elliot. (2) Namely, that an adaptation's thematic and stylistic departures from its source constitute filmic misprisions--to borrow Harold Bloom's literary term and adapt it to cinema--that translate the film from slavish imitation ("uma fidelidade excessiva") into original art. (3)

Taking Saramago's defense of Blindness' differences as my starting point, I explore a generative rupture between the novel and the film: Blindness tells a hopeful story of eventual homecoming, while Ensaio "denuncia o vazio e a ruina espiritual do homem em nosso tempo" (Biezus Kunze 16). By analyzing how the hope-filled world in Blindness differs from the abject ruins of Ensaio, this essay intervenes in a critical conversation that has largely ignored how the novel and film offer diametrically opposed interpretations of what Saramago calls "este mundo de cegos" (Ensaio 248). While Blindness has been studied as an adaptation of Saramago's novel, the available scholarship has discussed the dialogic and intertextual relationship between the two works in fidelity-based language. (4) These studies have tended to emphasize how adaptation and source material "colaboram para que o filme conseguisse provocar sensacoes semelhantes as que sao provocadas pela leitura" (Santos Reis and Goncalves 146), or to debate Meirelles's success in "captur[ing] the essence of Saramago's text" (Rueda 12).

By contrast, I argue that through a series of marked revisions, Blindness juxtaposes a narrative of recovery and return against one of horror, abjection, and loss. A story of healing and ultimate faith in the human condition collides with Ensaio's grimmer pronouncements on the political institutions, interpersonal relationships, and economic conditions that structure the modern neoliberal world system. In the afterword to True to the Spirit: Film Adaptation and the Question of Fidelity (2011), Fredric Jameson discusses how "antagonism and incompatibility," strong forms of aesthetic difference, provide "the most productive course to follow" in theorizing adaptation in the twenty-first century (231): they challenge fidelity as an obstacle to be overcome rather than a goal to be achieved. In the next section of this essay, I discuss how contemporary developments in the field of adaptation studies support readings of Blindness in which the film swerves from and actively contests its source material. The blind world of Blindness' cinematic diegesis is ultimately incompatible with--and cannot be meaningfully discussed in qualitative terms of better or worse than, or as narratively faithful or unfaithful to--the "mundo de cegos" that exists within Saramago's Ensaio.

As Saramago wrote in his journal, that "mundo" has become "medonho," or hideous. Ensaio, he explained to a reporter from the Brazilian newspaper O Globo, chronicles a world in which rationality operates irrationally. The novel becomes, by way of that oxymoronic conjunction, an allegory of the abject and horrific consequences that result when "a razao nao e usada racionalmente" (Gomez Aguilera 139). The so-called "mal-branco," a luminous and highly contagious "white blindness," metaphorically represents and is the allegorical consequence of an "enlightened" reason that has grown so radiant it has become blinding, destructive, and even obscene. (5) At one point in the novel, Saramago describes the eponymous blindness as "uma brancura tao luminosa, tao total, que devorava, mais do que absorvia, nao so as cores, mas as proprias coisas e seres" (16), and at another as a "hedionda mare branca" (115). Throughout the pages below, and specifically in the essay's penultimate section, I rely on Julia Kristeva's theories of abjection--combined with the Frankfurt School's critique of the Enlightenment--to structure and methodologically ground my analysis of the "mal-branco" in Ensaio and Blindness. For the blind inhabitants of Saramago's Ensaio (as for the characters in Meirelles's film, although the end result will be radically different), everything appears "branco, luminoso, resplandecente" (96), and yet the text reveals how that resplendent whiteness cannot be distinguished from the many horrors it illuminates.

Saramago's novel winds through "a geography of despair, desolation, decay, chaos, and above all abjection" (Ornelas 130). Jose N. Ornelas's abject terrain does not adequately represent the journey undertaken in Blindness, however. The film moves from despair toward hope and returns to a light that finally is purged of all its terrible associations in Ensaio. Blindness enacts a triumphant narrative of homecoming. The displaced cohort of primary characters--the doctor (Mark Ruffalo), the doctor's wife (Julianne Moore), the first blind man (Yusuke Iseya), his wife (Yoshino Kimura), the thief (Don McKellar), the girl with dark glasses (Alice Braga), the old man with a black eyepatch (Danny Glover), and the boy with a squint (Mitchell Nye) --undergo numerous ordeals before returning like weathered heroes to homes thought irretrievably lost. (6) In the final section of this essay, I analyze how the compass for their nostos, or homeward journey, is love. As Meirelles records in Diario de Blindness, "as relacoes amorosas, do afeto, de reconhecimento do outro" provide waystations of solace and finally an escape from Saramago's condemnation of contemporary human life, which he described at the time of writing Ensaio as "uma merda" (Cadernos 2: 148). (7) This essay counterpoints Ensaio's narrative of "abjeccao" with Blindnesss' message of "amor." By studying that juxtaposition of aesthetic and moral differences, a deeper understanding not only of novel and film becomes possible, but also of adaptation studies, abjection, the nostos trope, and the "white blindness" that paradoxically exposes and obscures reason's horrific irrationalities.


Fredric Jameson writes that discussions of adaptation always return to fidelity (217). And indeed, the question of in/fidelity has structured the field of adaptation studies since the publication of seminal texts by George Bluestone (Novels into Film, 1957), Andre Bazin (Qu'est-ce que le cinema, 1958-1962), and J. Dudley Andrews ("The Well-Worn Muse," 1980). Recently, scholars have offered many explicit "challenges to the primacy of fidelity as a critical criterion" (McFarlane 11). Brian McFarlane notes how the transfer--and transformation--of narrative functions from page to screen results in "a markedly different affective and/or intellectual experience" (26). Linda Hutcheon, perhaps the best known contemporary theorist of adaptation, argues that while "adaptations are [...] aesthetic objects in their own right, it is only as inherently double- or multilaminated works that they can be theorized as adaptations" (6). Hutcheon does not resort to metaphors of layering and connection to reinforce "fidelity criticism." Instead, she redefines adaptation in a Deleuzian (or even Bloomian) turn-of-phrase as "repetition, but repetition without replication" that privileges difference and recodes adaptation as a re-creative and re-interpretative act (7-8). (8)

Meirelles's work as a director--above all but not exclusively in Blindness--provides a useful case study for reexamining adaptation from beyond the boundary lines of a field that Kamilla Elliot so exemplarily surveys in "Theorizing Adaptations/ Adapting Theories" (2013). All of Meirelles's most critically acclaimed films have been adapted from novels: Cidade de Deus (2002) from Paulo Lins's 1997 novel of the same name, The Constant Gardener (2005) from John Le Carre's homonymous text (2001), and of course Blindness from Saramago's Ensaio sobre a cegueira. (9) As a result, scholarly engagement with Meirelles's films has largely focused on their status as adaptations. However, this attention has tended to reestablish "the primacy of fidelity as a critical criterion" and, consequently, to fault Meirelles for departures from the source text that have resulted in supposedly inferior films.

Thus Ivana Bentes, a respected Brazilian film scholar, trenchantly critiqued the director for his treatment of Lins's Cidade de Deus. According to Bentes, the film version foregoes all of the novelist's political criticism of Rio de Janeiro's favelas to depict an internationally-conditioned "estetica pop" and "o espataculo do exterminio dos pobres se matando entre si" (246, 249). Instead of an "estetica da fome," the titular phrase from Glauber Rocha's epoch-marking manifesto of a politically committed Brazilian Cinema Novo, Bentes claims that Meirelles's film supplies only a commercially-slick "cosmetica da fome" (245). (10) On Bentes's view, the adaptation is twice unfaithful and doubly damned: it departs, infelicitously, from Lins's political vision and it fails to reproduce an ideologically sophisticated mode of depicting urban violence. (That Cidade was a tremendous commercial success did nothing to improve Bentes's opinion of the film.) A theory of fidelity-based adaptation with no tolerance for Hutcheon's "repetitions with variations," Bloom's misprisions, or Jameson's antagonistic incompatibilities runs through Bentes's text like a hidden, organizing thread.

Adaptation, read etymologically, denotes fitting to and adjusting. (The Latin verb adaptare means "to fit, adjust, or adapt to a thing.") Adaptations are "fitted to" earlier works not as linear extensions,--or even, pace Hutcheon, as laminar overlays--but as angular deviations that extend into different media and socio-aesthetic contexts than those of the putative original. Meirelles's camera work and use of montage--a sometimes jarring bricolage of avant-garde techniques and the mise-en-scene of a summer blockbuster--wrenches Cidade away from Lins's novel and depictions of the favelas in the Cinema Novo tradition. In Blindness, Meirelles's fast-paced editing style and "pop aesthetic" noticeably differentiate the film from Saramago's spiraling, baroque prose. But it is the figure of the home, and the trope of the homeward journey, that serve as the unmistakable bend where the trajectory of Meirelles's blind world swerves away from the orbit of Saramago's "mundo de cegos."

Ensaio and Blindness share the same basic plot. An unnamed but modern city has been ravaged by a highly contagious plague, the so-called "mal-branco" that plunges every inhabitant with the exception of the doctor's wife into a blindness unique for being luminous and white. One character from the novel describes it as "uma luz que se ascende" (22). Quarantine measures are initially imposed, and much of Ensaio and Blindness takes place within a repurposed mental institution that the old man with a black eyepatch describes as an "inferno do inferno" (191). Inside of the institution's progressively filthier walls, all manner of physical and emotional violence occurs, ranging from state-sanctioned murder to extortion, theft, and rape among the internees. Eventually the quarantine fails, as the guards themselves go blind, and the doctor's wife guides her companions through the dystopian ruins of the infected city. As I discuss in more detail below, it is during the nostos (homeward journey) that the storylines of Ensaio and Blindness sharply diverge. The recovery scene, which takes place within the doctor's home, provides one signal illustration of that divergence even as it casts Blindness's "repetition, but repetition without replication" of Ensaio into sharp relief.

In Ensaio it is near midnight when the first blind man regains his sight. His eyes are closed and he hovers on the edge of sleep when "de repente o interior das palpebras se lhe tornou escuro" (306). He fears that "tinha passado de uma cegueira a outra" and says--somewhat "estupidamente" as the novel unkindly records--"Estou cego" (306). In fact, the first blind man's seemingly tautological observation is anything but insignificant or foolish, as he exactly repeats his words from the beginning of the novel, when he went blind waiting at a traffic signal. The analepsis compounds vision with its loss, and the recovery is rendered even more ambiguous by virtue of the fact that the afflicted man's eyes are closed. The blurring together of sight and blindness anticipates the doctor's wife's ultimate diagnosis of the city's inhabitants, found on the final page of the novel, as "Cegos que, vendo, nao veem" (310). Vision has returned by the end of Ensaio, but nothing demonstrates that the moral, rational blindness that infects apparently healthy eyes has truly disappeared or been overcome. The doctor's wife tropes Dr. Rieux's warning from the end of Albert Camus's classic contagion narrative La peste (1947): "le bacille de la peste ne meurt ni ne disparait jamais" [the bacillus of the plague never dies nor does it disappear] (279). The white blindness persists; it even extends into Ensaio's ostensible sequel, Ensaio sobre a lucidez (2004), as Ludmila Ferrarezi, Soraya Maria Romano Pacifico, and Lucila Maria Sousa Romao have demonstrated.

The film, however, offers a different message, one fundamentally at odds with Rieux's caution and Saramago's pessimism. In a change replete with symbolic importance, late night has become early morning in Meirelles's version of the first blind man's recovery. Moreover, the character's eyes are wide open when the world reappears. Looking at the doctor's wife, he immediately says, "It's you," and then, "I can see everything." A series of POV camera shots shows his delighted companions. To heighten the moment's affective appeal still further, non-diegetic music streams in, as it were, from the heavens.

The variations are striking. Subjective interiority (and even isolation) gives way to interpersonal recognition, and an emotionally jubilant affirmation of sight--"I can see everything"--replaces the fear of a different form of blindness. Meirelles wrote in Diario de Blindness that "Acho que estamos dando uma enfase maior a estas relacoes entre os personagens do que o livro da," and the first change demonstrates the film's "greater emphasis" on relationships. The second variation reinforces the first, as Blindness depicts the newly recovered (and now all-encompassing) sight as principally the vision of the other, but it also represents Meirelles's interpretation of the line from Ensaio about the blind who, seeing, do not see. In the sixth post for the Diario (28 September 2007), Meirelles writes:
   A metafora da cegueira branca ilustra nossa falta de visao. "Eu nao
   acho que ficamos cegos," diz um personagem. "Acho que somos cegos.
   Cegos que podem ver, mas nao veem." Por quanto sofrimento
   precisamos passar para que consigamos abrir os olhos e ver? Essa
   foi a primeira questao que me coloquei ao fechar a ultima pagina.

Meirelles's answer to that question differs radically from Saramago's. The novelist, discussing the same line from Ensaio that Meirelles cites (and slightly rewords) in Diario, wonders if the "experiencia vivida pelas minhas personagens os mudou ou nao" (Gomez Aguilera 315). His response is skeptical: "penso que os seres humanos nao aprendem nada com as experiencias que fazem" (315). For Meirelles, however, the suffering the principal characters endure in Blindness does open their eyes, and they learn from what they have experienced. In McFarlane's terms, the mise-enscene, dialogue, and soundtrack of the recovery scene in Blindness generate "a markedly different affective and intellectual experience" from that of Ensaio.

The narrative of recovery and homecoming in Blindness culminates in the final image of the film: an unexpected framing shot of the city skyline where glitteringly modern buildings grow from densely green, flourishing trees. Meirelles's film encodes the utopian trope of regeneration hidden inside of catastrophe, and the framed cityscape represents the possibility for a new beginning. (And it is precisely at the beginning of a film when such a wide-angle establishing shot would be expected.) On one level, the wall of skyscrapers adapts the final sentence of Saramago's novel literally: "A cidade ainda ali estava" (310). But on another level, it inverts the tenor of that phrase as it effectively erases an earlier, perhaps more important sentence from Saramago's text: "o que ali estava nao era uma cidade, era uma extensa massa de alcatrao que ao arrefecer se moldara a si mesma em formas de predios, telhados, chamines, morto tudo, apagado tudo" (260). Saramago's cadaverous "cidade" has been replaced with a sunlit metropolis in Blindness. The remaining two sections of this essay delve into that substitution, charting how a narrative of abjection transforms into a celebration of homecoming.


Maria Alzira Seixo argues in Lugares da ficcao em Jose Saramago (1999) that Ensaio "trata-se, no fundo, sobre a abjeccao" (99). She remakes that claim more forcefully in a later essay, when she stresses that "abject attitudes and atrocities" characterize Saramago's novel ("The Edge of Darkness" 214). The fact that Saramago only uses the words "abjeto/a" and "abjeccao" three times in Ensaio would seem to undermine her claim. Nevertheless, and the words' scarcity notwithstanding, recent Saramago scholarship has generally followed Seixo in interpreting Ensaio as a novel that deals, "no fundo," with abjection. (11) In this section I continue in that vein, analyzing what Seixo calls Ensaio's "attitude of death and oppression" first through the socio-philosophical lens provided by the Frankfurt School critics Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, and then through the psychoanalytic theories of Julia Kristeva (Seixo 214). Doing so not only yields a greater understanding of the determinative role that abjection plays in Saramago's novel, it also sets up my discussion in the final section of this essay of how the "attitude" of Blindness differs radically from that of Ensaio.

Perhaps no one has better explored--and exploded--the myth of an enlightened Western culture (the same myth informing Kant's cosmopolitan dream of a universal history and scores of Rousseauian social contracts on the one hand, and the brown and black shirts of Nazism and fascism on the other) than Horkheimer and Adorno. The two began writing Dialectic of Enlightenment as World War II still raged to illustrate how "the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity" (1). The supposedly innate splendor or "lumiere naturelle" of human rationality that Rene Descartes and later Enlightenment thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, Voltaire, and Denis Diderot privileged as an infallible guide to order, truth, and civility in fact led to "the very inhumanity which civilization has sought from the first to escape" (24). (12) "The fault," insist Horkheimer and Adorno, "lies in a social context which induces blindness" (33).

Blindness not only to what the two philosophers, following Marx, identify as the exploitation and increasingly technological estrangement of global capitalism, but, and which is worse, blindness to how human life "is apprehended in terms of manipulation and administration" (65). Actuarial tables (euphemisms for the more sinister but accurately named mortality tables) and records of all kinds reduce men and women to fungible percentages, probabilities, dates, and mathematical statistics. This implacable systematization, which Horkheimer and Adorno diagnose as "a new form of blindness" (28), results in the reduction of human as well as animal life to a "repeatable, replaceable process, a mere example of the conceptual model of the system" (65). Saramago's novel fictionalizes this "new form of blindness" most noticeably through the erasure of identifying toponyms and character names. The blind inhabitants of Ensaio are progressively stripped of identifying markers until the novel describes them as ghosts and phantoms (233), a gothic troping of capitalism's spectralization of labor and, by extension, of laboring bodies. (13) Ensaio dramatizes the horrific consequences of the coldly logical "manipulation and administration" of the world.

Patricia I. Vieira has argued that "the understanding of reason adumbrated by Horkheimer and Adorno" aligns "with the notion of rationality underlying" Saramago's novel (4). Saramago etiologically translates Enlightenment rationality, the subject of Horkheimer and Adorno's withering critique, into Ensaio's "mal-branco," a visually resplendent but morally and ethically degenerative plague. (14) "The luminous blindness portrayed in the work," writes Vieira, "is presented as the point where reason and unreason intersect" (1-2). Ensaio conjoins rationality with irrationality to reveal how reason has grown blind to unimaginable terrors: "horror mais do que pudera[-se] imaginar," recounts the narrator (152). Yet that horror must be imagined and represented, however imperfectly, so that it may be resisted, if only incompletely. Otherwise the global epidemic of Horkheimer and Adorno's "new form of blindness," which finds its metaphoric equivalent in Saramago's "white blindness," will inevitably worsen without possibility of a cure. In a masterstroke of irony, Saramago inverts and provides the missing counterpart to the famous capricho of Goya's that "el sueno de la razon produce monstruos." Night turns to day, darkness has become light, and "la razon" is wide awake, but as Ensaio shows, "el despertar" of an overly enlightened reason produces monsters no less terrifying than those haunting its dreams.

Horkheimer and Adorno insist that the "light-bringing writers" of occidental thought--authors such as Kant, Voltaire, and Descartes--"protected the indissoluble alliance of reason and atrocity, bourgeois society and power" (92). In contrast, "the bearers of darker messages"--and they list the Marquis de Sade as one such messenger--"pitilessly exposed the shocking truth" of their supposedly enlightened world. Saramago also exposes the dangers of too much light. Ensaio intensifies Descartes's "lumiere naturelle" until it has the blinding and destructive force of a proximal star. In a novel that Harold Bloom has called "a parable as dark as any could be," inadvertently marking the Portuguese novelist as one of Horkheimer and Adorno's "dark messengers" ("The One with the Beard" 165), Saramago dialectically resolves the luminous and tenebrous with a Hegelian flourish. Ensaio reveals what Horkheimer and Adorno call "a world of horror" not through its depictions of darkness but through its portrayals of light, and specifically, the light of reason. It is, as the doctor's wife realizes, "a luz que nao os deixa ver" (260), and the results of that enlightened sightlessness are disastrous. Saramago explains:

nos nao usamos racionalmente a razao. E um pouco como se eu dissesse que nos somos cegos da razao. Essa evidencia e que me levou, metaforicamente, a imaginar um tipo de cegueira, que, no fundo, existe. Vou criar um mundo de cegos porque nos vivemos efectivamente num mundo de cegos. Nos estamos todos cegos. Cegos da razao. (Gomez Aguilera 140)

The "cegueira" that Saramago diagnoses does not differ in kind from the blindness Horkheimer and Adorno call socially induced. All three complain that we do not look often or hard enough at what Saramago elsewhere calls the "sistematica accao perniciosa" of a contemporary sociopolitical reality now overdetermined by globalization. As one character in Ensaio remarks, "ja eramos cegos no momento em que cegamos" (131). What cannot be seen--or rather, what vision turns blind in order not to see--is, in Marx's language, the "blood and dirt" that stains modern capitalism, "which has the globe as its battlefield" (Capital 926, 915). Neoliberalism has spread that bloodstain--and blindness to it--across Marx's global battlefield. The sanguine imagery of Capital becomes scatological and abject in the pages of Ensaio, and Saramago's essay on blindness functions as a planetary allegory.

The famous description of Capital "dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt" segues into a discussion of abjection, whose foremost critic remains Julia Kristeva. Throughout Pouvoirs de l'horreur (1980; Eng. The Powers of Horror, 1982), Kristeva theorizes abjection in terms of boundaries. The abject limns the "entre-deux pervers" ["perverse interspace"] between the psychologically integrated (or in Ensaio, healthy) individual and a functioning society on the one side, and filth, waste, rot, bodily decay, death, and the general collapse of social order on the other (23/16). As Kristeva writes, "le danger de la salete represente pour le sujet le risque qu'encourt en permanence l'ordre symbolique lui-meme, pour autant qu'il est un dispositif de discriminations, de differences" ["the danger of filth represents for the subject the risk to which the very symbolic order is continually exposed, to the extent that it is a device of discriminations and differences"] (84/69). Filth, in other words, threatens the effacement or dissolution of symbolic--and socially necessary--differentiation through the grotesque homogenization of digestion and rot.

Proper names become targets of that effacement in Ensaio. In a note about Saramago's novel, Meirelles remarks with particular lucidity that "Os personagens desta historia nao tem nomes e nem precisam" (Diario). As the director explains, the loss of vision results in the "desumanizacao" of the characters in Blindness: the need to survive becomes paramount, and their lives are reduced to eating, acquiring sexual partners, and eliminating bodily waste--often, as the film shows, on the floor of the asylum. In such a corrupt and fetid environment, "Para que iriam servir-nos os nomes," asks the doctor's wife (Ensaio 64). The abject, continues Kristeva, threatens "[l]es interdits qui instaurent les frontieres internes et externes dans lesquelles et par lesquelles se constitue l'etre parlant" ["the prohibitions that found the inner and outer borders in which and through which the speaking subject is constituted"] (85/69). Identity, secured by means of what Kristeva calls "cette logique de l'exclusion" (80), disintegrates as those "frontieres" are re-crossed by what has been cast out.

The "realidade abjeta" that overwhelms the doctor's wife in the mental institution is not limited to that dilapidated and marginal space (136). It is coterminous with, and in fact is necessary to the construction and maintenance of, the ostensibly more "civilized" world from which the blind are expelled--or rather, to use the bureaucratic doublespeak of the novel's Minister of Health, quarantined "ate ver" (45). That such notice may be delayed (in witty play on quarantine's Judeo-Christian etymology) "quarenta dias" as easily as "quarenta anos" does not matter. "O que e preciso," states the government official, "e que no saiam de la" (45-6). Sandra Oh's cameo as the Minister in Blindness, if powerful, nevertheless overly humanizes this fork-tongued bureaucrat. Acting with an eye only to the "implicacoes sociais e aos seus derivados politicos" (45), the Minister gives the appropriate forces "carte blanche" authority to perform the first wave of purges.

"Durante o tempo que estivemos internados," reflects the doctor's wife late in the novel, "descemos todos os degraus da indignidade, ate atingirmos a abjeccao" (262). What Seixo calls Ensaio's "abject attitude" becomes nearly intolerable during the period that the doctor's wife describes: the hallways of the once abandoned mental institution become filthier; the bathrooms unusable and likened to "antros fetidos [...] no inferno" (133); and the building's one courtyard strewn with waste and hastily dug gravesites. David G. Frier's description of the "picture of humanity" in Ensaio as "essentially an abject one" ("Righting Wrongs" 104) does accurate if scant justice to what the novel more crudely describes as the "natureza eminentemente escatologica do ser humano" (Ensaio 133), a characterization that vividly recalls Saramago's remark about "merda" above.

Historically and symbolically, mental institutions and psychiatric hospitals have been relegated to the edges of populous cities, as though they were the final outposts between civilization and the savage, indomitable (or abject) wilderness. Michel Foucault has discussed the social and individual necessity of such margins in "Des espaces autres" (1967, 1984) and throughout his archaeologies of madness and institutionalized discipline. Ensaio takes those edges and folds them back over the center. At a structural level, the asylum's position in the novel reflects this: it occupies most of the book, stretching from pages 47 to 210. The asylum's centrality is noted thematically as well: "O mundo esta todo aqui dentro" (102), says the doctor's wife to her husband. As Kristeva's "perverse interspace" becomes thoroughly internalized in the yet more perverse interior of the asylum, social relationships in the initially policed microcosm quickly unravel.

In a critique of fascism generally, and specifically of the Estado Novo regime that Saramago experienced firsthand, machine-gun toting guards kill with little compunction and no regret. Although the guards quickly abandon the internees to their fate, each night a loudspeaker blares out regulations and the government's hope that "cada um cumpra seu dever" (51). In a brilliant touch of irony, the loudspeaker becomes a television set in Blindness. Matters take a turn for the decidedly worse when a contingent of blind men, armed with a pistol and metal pipes, seize control of the food supply. They distribute rations of little more than bread and water in exchange for valuables and later women. (Gael Garcia Bernal delivers a standout if chilling performance in Blindness as the "king" of this lascivious rabble.) The rape of the filthy and emaciated women, which only ceases when the doctor's wife kills the gang's leader by plunging scissors into his throat, graphically captures what Frier calls "the seemingly inexhaustible potential of humans for inhumanity" and functions as the nadir of wretchedness in both the novel and film (The Novels 31).

The doctor's wife is the moral counterweight to the crushing horror of the asylum. She repeats "Se nao formos capazes de viver inteiraments como pessoas, ao menos facamos tudo para nao viver inteiramente como animais" so often that it becomes the motto of her ward (Ensaio 119). But her exhortations have little effect on what her husband calls "o reino duro, cruel, e implacavel dos cegos" (135). The "reino duro" of the manicomio is, as Ornelas notes, "the metaphor of a prison/country without any doors or exists, a prison/country populated by virulent and horrific images" (130). Ornelas's metaphor underscores how the narrative world of Ensaio trespasses and ultimately collapses abject "frontieres" between the prison/asylum with its "horrific images" and the surrounding city/country. Crushed into the narrow corridors of the asylum and dispersed throughout Ensaio's unnamed country is the "new form of blindness" that Horkheimer and Adorno believe plagues contemporary society, but in Saramago's novel that blindness has become illuminated, and in its illumination, obscene. No character or space in the novel fully escapes the socially disintegrative abjection that results from a "mal-branco" unchecked by boundaries or "frontieres." In Meirelles's film, by contrast, the flight from the asylum and return home accomplish what Ensaio renders impossible: an escape from--and an overcoming of--the (ir)rational terrors of the "realidade abjeta" portrayed in Saramago's novel.


Meirelles wrote fifteen entries for Diario de Blindness that formed the basis for his later book, Cegueira, um ensaio (2010). While many entries contain the director's thoughts about Saramago's novel, the sixth post, "Sobre coco, civilizacao e barbarie" (28 September 2007), includes his lengthiest and most detailed analysis of Ensaio. Meirelles discusses the abject content of his source, and he reveals the signal difference of his adaptation:
   Ao perder a visao, os personagens fazem o percurso da
   desumanizacao, passam a se mover pelo instinto de sobrevivencia e
   suas vidas se resumem a comer, transar, defecar. E so o
   restabelecimento das relacoes amorosas, do afeto, do reconhecimento
   do outro que lhes da estrutura para reconstruir suas vidas e se
   humanizarem novamente. Acho que estamos dando uma enfase maior a
   estas relacoes entre os personagens do que o livro da.

During the period that the doctor's wife and her companions spend quarantined in the asylum, interpersonal relationships break down, culminating in the horrors discussed in the previous section. As the characters return home through the plague-ravaged city, Blindness portrays the successful "restabelecimento" of "relacoes amorosas, do afeto, do reconhecimento do outro" to an extent, Meirelles correctly notes, not present in the novel. Meirelles's "personagens [...] se humanizarem novamente," but Saramago's do not. In Ensaio, that "novamente" never occurs, in part because Ensaio complicates the storyline of health-sickness-recovery that forms a basic narrative arc in Blindness, and in part because the novel denounces "desumanizacao" without providing an explicit solution for what it condemns. (Meirelles discovered this latter point for himself in the process of adapting Ensaio. As he writes in Diario, "Esse e um texto que gera muitas perguntas, mas nenhuma resposta.") The journey home in Blindness occasions a recovery not only of eyesight but of the characters' lost humanity.

Nostos, originally a Greek trope of homecoming, derives from the verb neomai ([TEXTO IRREPRODUCIBLE EN ASCII]), "to return home," but also to embark upon a journey, and so "to go" or "leave" (Alexopoulou; Bonifazi). As Marigo Alexopoulou notes, "the departure and the return" are the "basic prerequisites of nostos" (4, 18). The emblematic nostos text is, of course, Homer's Odyssey, which narrates Odysseus's epic homecoming after the Trojan War: "His heart set on his wife and his return [[TEXTO IRREPRODUCIBLE EN ASCII], nostou]" (Odyssey 1.16; Greek 1.13). Odysseus endures the wrath of gods and goddesses, the sirens' honeyed but fatal song, and the Cyclopes' anthropophagic hunger to safely reach the arms and bed of Penelope--who has patiently awaited him, spinning the long years away at her loom.

Classical homecoming narratives, as Gregson Davis observes, frequently employ two additional Greek tropes: katabasis, a descent into Hades, and its opposite, anabasis, the ascent or return to the land of the living. "The visit to the domain of the deceased," writes Davis, "entails important repercussions for the maturation of the heroic figure, since it obliges him to come to terms with the unalterable circumstances of human mortality" (195). Before Odysseus can sail homeward, he has to visit "the house of Death and the awesome one, Persephone" (11.621), a detour recounted in the eleventh book of the Odyssey. That sojourn, although necessary, can only be temporary: the hero's death would constitute the complete failure of nostos (Bonifazi 493).

Katabatic narratives are hardly foreign to Brazilian cinema, and Marcel Camus's 1959 Orfeu negro--an adaptation of Vinicius de Moraes's play Orfeu da Conceicao (1956)--remains one of the country's most discussed films. While Blindness has little directly in common with either the Odysseus or Orpheus myths, and still less with Camus's film, the basic pattern of "Absence, Wandering, Return" that Alexopoulou identifies as governing the nostos trope organizes the narrative structure of Meirelles's film just as it does Homer's poem (18). The quarantine creates and enforces an absence, the blind internees aimlessly wander the asylum hallways, and, as the infernal building smolders behind them, they return home. (15) The final point in this pattern, "return," maps onto and connects the homecoming narrative of nostos to the contagion storyline of health-sickness-recovery. In Blindness, "return" and "recovery" coincide in the space of the home, the endpoint of the nostos journey.

Anna Bonifazi complicates the middle term of Alexopoulou's paradigm even further, situating it in a dialectical relationship with suffering, danger, and the threat of death (492-93). Blindness dramatizes that dialectic in the rape sequence which culminates in the asylum burning down. Fragmented and discordant to begin with, the camera-work and soundtrack become increasingly disjointed and unsettling as the women of the first ward, led by the doctor's wife, trudge barefoot toward the men who holler and grab for them. In the hospital's primitive and violence-driven economy, women's bodies have become commodities exchangeable for packets of bread and cartons of unrefrigerated milk. Shadows and silhouettes are juxtaposed against brilliantly white backgrounds and unfocused close-ups in a series of quick, jarring cuts. Blindness uses fades, blurs, temporal variations, and alternating shrill and clanging sound effects "a fin de representar la experiencia de la ceguera" (Conde de Boeck and Lencina, "Fronteras del hiperrealismo"). Meirelles films the nightmarish events following the women's arrival as though through the fractured lens of traumatized memory. The brutalities endured no doubt satisfy all the suffering that Bonifazi claims nostos requires.

It is only in the wake of such agony that the last stage of Alexopoulou's paradigm (homecoming) can occur. Galvanized by what has taken place, the doctor's wife finally takes action. As the men abuse a fresh group of women, she threads her way through the writhing bodies to the self-proclaimed king and drives a pair of scissors into his throat. In the ensuing pandemonium, fire is set to the mattress barricading the door into the men's ward. The flames, lapping at the accumulated filth, quickly spread, literalizing the oft-repeated description of the asylum as an "inferno" or hell. The internees who manage to escape congregate in the asylum's main yard. As they push through the abandoned gates, the doctor's wife shouts, "We're free."

The argument has been made that after the asylum goes up in flames, the pervasive gloom of Ensaio begins to lift (Frier 2007). The doctor's wife leads a small band of the survivors (the characters--with the exception of the thief--listed above) to her home. Angela Ingnati Silva and Lilian Lopondo analyze this homecoming in the context of Saramago's novel. Their reading concludes that the "volta ao lar" results in "elevacao espiritual depois de tanto sofrimento" (516). However, their interpretation better pertains to Blindness than to Ensaio, as Saramago's novel includes no shortage of "sofrimento," but it contains little "elevacao"--spiritual or otherwise. Blindness possesses ample quantities of both. The kata--then anabatic trajectory of homecoming demands resurgence (in the etymological sense of "rearising") after the infernal suffering that Davis, Bonifazi, and Silva and Lopondo have discussed.

The film manages that ascent by "dando uma enfase maior a estas relacoes entre os personagens do que o livro da." In the novel, however, resurgence and re-arising are limited to a future that has not arrived. During the burial of an old woman who lived in the same building as the girl with dark glasses, for example, clusters of blind men and women appear on the neighboring verandas and balconies. The doctor's wife "gritou para aqueles cegos e para todos os cegos do mundo, Ressurgira" (Ensaio 287). The narrator describes "aqueles cegos," as well as "todos os cegos" in Ensaio's "mundo de cegos," as "espectros" and "fantasmas" (287). only weeks after writing the first pages of Ensaio, Saramago noted in his journal that he wanted the novel's characters to be mere "sombras de sombras" (Cadernos 1: 102)--ghosts, in other words. Although these "sombras" return to their homes, they never fully arise from "the joyless kingdom of the dead," to borrow a final Homeric description.

Brunilda T. Reichmann and Camila Melfi Meneghini have argued apropos of Blindness that the "mudanca" from the asylum to the city "provoca uma sensacao de alivio e estabilidade nos espectadores" (172). Not only do the spectators experience relief and stability, the characters do as well. In the final half hour of the film, all of the adult characters either repair or establish romantic relationships. The doctor and his wife begin mending the damage to their marriage caused by his infidelity during the quarantine. The old man with the black eye patch confesses his love for the girl with dark glasses--a love which, despite the marked differences in their ages, she reciprocates. And the icy wall that has been up for most of the film between the first blind man and his wife finally thaws as they murmur by the fireplace in the doctor's home, a space of reconciliation and renewal in Blindness.

Blindness enacts that renewal most clearly during the candlelit dinner that the doctor's wife and her companions share the night before the first blind man regains his sight. They are celebrating, and the doctor's wife sets out her finest crystal and china. The day before, she and her husband had discovered a fully stocked storeroom of dried meats and canned foods--a treasure trove, considering the circumstances. "O ambiente, apresentado a luz de velas," write Reichmann and Meneghini, "e organizado e limpo. A atmosfera entre as personagens e de comunhao e partilha" (172). An overhead shot of the table ringed by firelight reveals the contents of their meager but joyous feast: bowls of rehydrated carrots and peas, a plate of crackers, and dishes of olives and salted anchovies. As the doctor pours sparkling water for his guests, he announces that he would like to make a toast: "To our family." His wife gently interrupts and corrects him, adding the word "human" before family.

Following the "desumanizacao" of the asylum, Blindness transforms the doctor's home into a chrysalis where the film's traumatized characters, in Meirelles's words, "se humanizarem novamente." It is not coincidental that following the dinner with its celebration of "human family" the blind begin to recover. Nor that such healing, unmarked by any of the ambivalence or sightlessness of Saramago's novel, takes place in the warm light of a new day. Writing about Ensaio, Sandra Stanley Kumamoto has observed that Saramago "reduce[s] a technological and urbanized society into an exhausted ruin" (294). The doctor's wife, late in the novel, reveals that little if any difference exists between the "exhausted ruin" of the city and the burnt ruins of the asylum: "Nao ha diferenca entre o fora e o dentro, entre o ca e o la [...], entre o que vivemos e o que teremos de viver" (233). The people, she adds, "vao como fantasmas." In Ensaio's nameless city, where everything is "morto" and "apagado," Saramago's "sombras" haunt the refuse-strewn buildings and filthy streets like wandering ghosts. By contrast, the characters in Blindness go through hell (in the doubly figurative sense of the suffering they endure and the katabatic descent into an infernal space), but the trajectory of their nostos propels them on to what Alexopoulou, in her study of Homer's epic, calls a "joyful homecoming" (21). By returning home, their vision is restored and their humanity fully recovered.

The triumph of nostos in Blindess marks the film's swerve from, antagonistic incompatibility with, and re-creative re-interpretation of Ensaio. It demonstrates the accuracy of Saramago's description of Meirelles as a "criador" and not a copyist. The Brazilian director's filmic misprisions, which redirect Blindness from a storyline of abjection onto a nostos-driven trajectory of homecoming and recovery, reveal that the dialogic relationship between adaptation and source text communicates in two directions. Ensaio conditions any viewing of Blindness: Saramago's novel provides a precursor text against which the film's "repetitions with variations" can be charted and discussed. The film, however, in the almost Borgesian sense of "Kafka y sus precursores," allows us to re-view the novel differently. Meirelles's adaptation "modifica nuestra concepcion del pasado," in this case, that is, of Ensaio (Borges 712). Blindness, through its distinct emphasis on "relacoes amorosas," generates intertextual and comparative rereadings of Ensaio that underscore the novel's greater focus on "abjeccao" as a means to critique the horrific consequences of a world full of "cegos da razao." Yet as the critics cited above reveal, the tendency to interpret Blindness according to a fidelity-based theory of adaptation still exerts tremendous influence. Such interpretations insist on "uma fidelidade excessiva" that Saramago has denied and that Meirelles, through the revisionary nature of Blindness, has refused.

Micah K. Donohue

Eastern New Mexico University


(1) Saramago erases all identifying geographic or linguistic markers from Ensaio sobre a cegueira. However, in Ensaio sobre a lucidez (2004), a sort of sequel to the earlier novel whose narrative takes place in the same city, Saramago makes its European location evident: government officials coordinate with Interpol, earlier European wars are mentioned, and the novel refers--albeit ironically--to the city's inhabitants as "Portugueeeesas, Portugueeeeeses" (93).

(2) Brian McFarlane's Novel to Film: An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation (1996) and, to a still greater extent, Linda Hutcheon's A Theory of Adaptation (2006) have exerted a tremendous influence on adaptation studies in the twenty-first century. Kamilla Elliot has also made signal contributions in Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate (2003) and in her more recent essay, "Theorizing Adaptations/Adapting Theories" (2013). I discuss these critics at greater length in the section immediately following the introduction.

(3) In The Anxiety of Influence (1973, 1997), Harold Bloom defines or rather amends misprision to mean "a doing amiss (and taking amiss) of what the precursors did, but 'amiss' has a dialectical meaning here. What the precursors did has thrown the ephebe into the outward and downward motion of repetition, a repetition that the ephebe soon understands must be both undone and dialectically affirmed, and these simultaneously" (83). It is this simultaneous undoing and dialectically affirming (or repeating) that makes "misprision" a useful term for adaptation studies. The adaptation, a kind of "ephebe" or youthful student of its source, exists in a similar dialectical relationship with its "precursor" that demands repetition and, simultaneously, the overcoming of repetition through the Bloomian "swerve" of introduced differences and things redone "amiss."

(4) Comparative studies of Blindness and Ensaio sobre a cegueira have been written in multiple languages. See Brunilda T. Reichmann and Camila Melfi Meneghini, "Fernando Meirelles: a recriacao filmica de Ensaio sobre a cegueira" (2009); Jose Augustin Conde de Boeck and Eva Veronica, "Fronteras del hiperrealismo: Los signos alternativos y su reconcepcion audiovisual en las adaptaciones cinematograficas de El perfume de Patrick Suskind y Ensayo sobre la ceguera de Jose Saramago" (2010); Elisandra Pereira dos Santos Reis and Claudio do Carmo Goncalves, "Representacoes de cidade em duas perspectivas: Literatura e cinema" (2011); Carolin Overhoff Ferreira, "Losing Sight in the Globalized City: Estorvo/ Turbulence (2000) by Ruy Guerra and Ensaio sobre a cegueira (2008) by Fernando Meirelles" (2013); and Carolina Rueda, "Aesthetics of Dystopia: Blindness from Novel to Film" (2015). However, as I discuss above, these texts analyze the relationship between the two works largely in terms that reaffirm the overarching importance of fidelity and influence. The present essay substitutes difference for fidelity and re-creative originality for overdeterminative and unidirectional influence.

(5) "White blindness" translates "mal-branco" in Giovanni Pontiero's excellent English translation of Saramago's Ensaio (Blindness 1997). The film opts for the less felicitous--albeit linguistically more accurate--translation of "white sickness."

(6) In the novel these characters are named o medico, a mulher do medico, o primeiro cego, a mulher (do primeiro cego), o ladrao, a rapariga dos oculos escuros, o velho com uma venda preta, and o rapazinho estrabico.

(7) Diario de Blindness is a blog that Meirelles wrote during the process of filming Blindness. The entries range from August 2007 to March 2008. Diario can be accessed electronically at:

(8) Linda Hutcheon's figures of "repetition without replication" and--elsewhere in A Theory of Adaptation--"repetition with variation" have much in common with, and would seem to be informed by, Gilles Deleuze's analysis of the dialectic of repetition and difference in Difference et repetition (1968). Adaptation, as "both (re-)interpretation and then (re-creation" (Hutcheon 8), effectively performs and is made possible by "la repetition" as "la puissance de la difference et de la differenciation" [the force of difference and of differentiation] (Deleuze 284). A similar "puissance," redirected from philosophy to literature, galvanizes the ephebe's dialectical overcoming of a precursor text in Bloom's Anxiety of Influence.

(9) For a brief account of Saramago's decision to finally allow Meirelles adapt Ensaio (he initially told the Brazilian director no), see the 28 October 2008 entry "Fernando Meirelles & Co." in Saramago's The Notebook (53-54).

(10) Bentes's conclusions have been cogently rebutted by Sophia McClennen, a scholar of Latin American literature and film. She acknowledges that the film Cidade breaks with long-established representations of violence and urban misery in the Cinema Novo tradition, an "estetica da violencia" that Rocha theorized in "Uma estetica da fome" (1965) and which Bentes claims has degenerated in Meirelles's film into an "estetica MTV" (Bentes 251). However, McClennen rejects the notion that Meirelles's pop aesthetic depoliticizes his film or renders it a Hollywood clone. "In fact," McClennen writes, "the commercially oriented features of the film are used strategically to expose a large audience to a film that combines pleasure with social critique through a very specific mode of montage and shot construction" (100-101).

(11) See, for example, Hania A. M. Nashef's "Becomings in J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians and Jose Saramago's Blindness" (2010); Patricia I. Vieira's "The Reason of Vision: Variations on Subjectivity in Jose Saramago's Ensaio sobre a Cegueira" (2009); Jose N. Ornelas's "Convergences and Divergences in Saramago's Ensaio sobre a Cegueira and Camus's The Plague" (2006); Sandra Kumamoto Stanley's "The Excremental Gaze: Saramago's Blindness and the Disintegration of the Panoptic Vision" (2004); and David G. Frier's "Righting Wrongs, Re-Writing Meaning and Reclaiming the City in Saramago's Blindness and All the Names" (2001).

(12) Descartes extols that "natural light" on no less than 25 occasions in Discours de la methode. In many ways the first appearance of the term in part one of Discours is emblematic of all subsequent uses: "et ainsi je me delivrais peu a peu de beaucoup d'erreurs qui peuvent offusquer notre lumiere naturelle, et nous rendre moins capables d'entendre raison" [and thus I gradually delivered myself from many errors that could obscure our natural light and make us less capable of understanding reason] (10).

(13) For Marx's discussion of the spectral or "phantom-like" qualities of the "products of labour," see the first chapter of Capital (128). The young Marx's essay "Alienated Labour" provides the rationale for describing capitalism's spectralization of laboring bodies, despite their seemingly pronounced materiality. The coercion of labor, a sine qua non of capitalism, results in the "loss of reality for the worker" (133), since the free employment and self-direction of labor is, for Marx, a defining characteristic of human life in its fullest and most complete sense. Deprived of the freedom to work to and for self-chosen ends, workers become ghosts of their true but unrealized or actively denied selves.

(14) It is worth noting that Jose N. Ornelas has argued against such an interpretation, claiming that the characters in Ensaio are in need of more "ethical enlightenment," not less (124). Saramago's great concern for ethics cannot be disputed, and the writer has described his novels as attempted expressions of "um sentimento etico da existencia" (Gomez Aguilera 118). But to yoke ethics and enlightenment, insofar as the latter word operates in Ornelas's essay within a history of western philosophy, is to ignore rationality's fatal potential to dazzle.

(15) Ensaio emphasizes the katabatic nature of the asylum. The building--and life within it--is frequently described in infernal terms (54, 72, 133, 174, 191). Niv Fichmann, the producer of Blindness, uses similar language; he describes the film's asylum in the DVD commentary as a "torturous hell."


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Title Annotation:Jose Saramago and Fernando Meirelles
Author:Donohue, Micah K.
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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