Interview with Jose Saramago, Author of Blindness


Editor’s Note: José Saramago was born in Portugal in 1922. His books include The Double, The Cave, Blindness, and All the Names. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998. Political Affairs originally published this intervew in March 2006. His novel Blindness is the basis for the Fernando Meirelles movie of that name out in theaters now.

PA: We see the election of Bush as the consolidation of a conservative authoritarian regime. While not the same, what impact did the struggle against the Salazar dictatorship, colonialism and the revolution of 1974 have on your writings and thinking?

JS: Beginning with adolescence, my political formation was oriented in the ideological direction of Marxism. It was natural, being that my thinking was influenced by an atmosphere of active critical resistance. That was the way it was during all of the dictatorship and up to the Revolution of 1974. With the winning of public freedoms and the assumption of the rights and duties that are in principle inherent to the democratic system, the writer could directly confront themes that could not be addressed during the dictatorship. The period that I could consider the most important in my literary work came about beginning with the Revolution, and in a certain way, developed as a consequence of the Revolution. But it was also a result of the counterrevolutionary coup of November 1975. Once it became impossible for me to continue in journalism, I made the decision to dedicate myself solely to literature.

PA: You have written recently on the need to reinvent democracy and for political democracy to be complemented by economic and cultural democracy. You say economic democracy has been replaced by the market and cultural democracy by industrialized mass culture, where one culture dominates over all others. But in your view how do we who come from the countries where the dominant culture is born understand this issue? For example, while granting the commercialization of culture, we also see many positive aspects on the US cultural scene.

JS: I presume that nobody will deny the positive aspects of the North American cultural world. These are well known to all. But these aspects do not make one forget the disastrous effects of the industrial and commercial process of “cultural lamination” that the USA is perpetrating on the planet. An illusion was created that a supposed collective culture would arithmetically correspond to the sum of personal cultures. But no such thing has ever happened in any moment of history, and North Americans have more than enough bases to recognize this now in their own country.

PA: In a speech at the World Social Forum, you criticized what you called the “so-called left” and trade unions for a certain blindness in not responding to and addressing certain issues before the world today. What is the left blind to?

JS: I think that we are all aware of the left’s state of disorientation and of the loss of power of the labor unions. The right does not need ideas to govern, but the left cannot govern without them. For many years the error of the Marxist left has been to think that the weapons of the past will always serve to win the battles of the present. As the theory has not renewed itself, the practice has lost its way. Pragmatism did the rest, and opportunism finished the job. The majority of the Communist Parties ended up going in for “plastic surgery” that left them unrecognizable.

PA: Perhaps this is too much of a generalization, but many of your characters seem isolated and incapable of controlling their environment, maintaining a grasp on reality, making rational choices in the face of their irrationality. If this is the human condition, can we escape it?

JS: I never appreciated “positive heroes” in literature. They are almost always clichés, copies of copies, until the model is exhausted. I prefer perplexity, doubt, uncertainty, not just because it provides a more “productive” literary raw material, but because that is the way we humans really are. A human being is a being who is constantly “under construction,” but also, in a parallel fashion, always in a state of constant destruction. I recall what Marx and Engels wrote in The Holy Family: “If man is formed by circumstances, then these circumstances must be formed by man.” These words condense, in my opinion, embody political thought at its most generous and humanist.

PA: You’ve said most of your work with the exception of your last novel, is not overtly political. In this post-September 11th world, what’s the relationship between art and politics?

JS: In all of my books one can identify connotations of a political and social nature, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit. As to the relationship between art and politics, I do not make a difference between pre- and post-September 11th (one could also speak of pre- and post-Hiroshima). Writers, artists in general are, or one would wish they were, above all citizens, and their political acts are those of citizens. But their art is under no obligation to give voice to those acts on its own specific plane. Kant was right when he wrote that “the great function of art, as opposed to other sorts of discourses (science or history, for example) is to sensitize the magma that is there to the possibilities of our experience.” Contrary to what it may seem to a hasty reader, there are no metaphysics here.