Blindness (book review) – José Saramago

Blindness is a journey into the depths of hell and Saramago is the reader’s faithful Virgil. It allows a brutal introspection and questions the resilience of human nature when faced with the nine circles of hell all at once. The story portrays the degradation of an unnamed town when a white blindness plagues all its citizens. The government responds to the crisis by isolating the first cases between the walls of a former asylum, which becomes a container for people who otherwise would not interact: the doctor and his wife, the girl with the dark glasses, the boy with the squint, the old man with the black eye patch, the car thief, the first blind man and his wife, the man with the gun, the blind accountant and other nameless creatures. Names are useless in a world of the blind. Among these blind fellows however, someone still sees but she soon learns that in the world of the blind seeing is as good as being dead. Through her eyes we learn about the slow yet certain degradation of human dignity between filthy bed sheets when the nocturnal nightmare extends far into the day. Life is so fragile when abandoned and abandoning one’s self leads to something more terrifying than death. When humans freely surrender themselves in the arms of lust and violence what replaces humanity is inhumanity. The woman who can still see struggles to save her closest companions from the depths of depravity because she feels that through her eyes they are a little less blind and by saving them she saves herself from becoming dehumanized among monsters. In the world of the blind intimate lovers are strangers, showing the superficiality of human bonds. In the world of the blind love is dead for the eyes no longer see the other. Hands reach out just to take and never give. The white blindness epidemic was a calamity for those who were already blinded by fear and the loss of dignity was easily accepted. The woman who can still see is the only constant in the whole story and maybe, just maybe, her bravery and inner strength say a lot more about human nature than all the raw anger in the new world she finds herself in.

John Keats – Ode to a Nightingale

I haven’t had much time lately to write about anything because of my finals, but I feel compelled to share this wonderful poem by John Keats, who slowly (but surely) finds his way amongst my all-time favorite poets! Him and Robert Burns (an Englishman and Scotland’s favorite son), along with the less known Welsh poet Twm Morys, beautifully complement each other by bringing to life their respective countries. And this is how it goes:

Ode to a Nightingale

By John Keats


My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains  
  My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,  
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains  
  One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:  
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
  But being too happy in thine happiness,—  
    That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,  
          In some melodious plot  
  Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,  
    Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been  
  Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,  
Tasting of Flora and the country green,  
  Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!  
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
  Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,  
    With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,  
          And purple-stained mouth;  
  That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,  
    And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget  
  What thou among the leaves hast never known,  
The weariness, the fever, and the fret  
  Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;  
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
  Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;  
    Where but to think is to be full of sorrow  
          And leaden-eyed despairs,  
  Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,  
    Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,  
  Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,  
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,  
  Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:  
Already with thee! tender is the night,
  And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,  
    Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;  
          But here there is no light,  
  Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown  
    Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,  
  Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,  
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet  
  Wherewith the seasonable month endows  
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
  White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;  
    Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;  
          And mid-May’s eldest child,  
  The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,  
    The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time  
  I have been half in love with easeful Death,  
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,  
  To take into the air my quiet breath;  
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
  To cease upon the midnight with no pain,  
    While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad  
          In such an ecstasy!  
  Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—  
    To thy high requiem become a sod.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!  
  No hungry generations tread thee down;  
The voice I hear this passing night was heard  
  In ancient days by emperor and clown:  
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path 
  Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,  
    She stood in tears amid the alien corn;  
          The same that oft-times hath  
  Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam  
    Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.   

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell  
  To toil me back from thee to my sole self!  
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well  
  As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.  
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
  Past the near meadows, over the still stream,  
    Up the hill-side; and now ‘tis buried deep  
          In the next valley-glades:  
  Was it a vision, or a waking dream?  
    Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

The Elegant Universe (A Book Excerpt)

As read in Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe:

“Calling it a cover-up would be far too dramatic. But for more than half a century – even in the midst of some of the greatest scientific achievements in history – physicists have been quietly aware of a dark cloud looming on a distant horizon. The problem is this: There are two foundational pillars upon which modern physics rests. One is Albert Einstein’s general relativity, which provides a theoretical framework for understanding the universe on the largest of scales: stars, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and beyond to the immense expanse of the universe itself. The other is quantum mechanics, which provides a theoretical framework for understanding the universe on the smallest of scales: molecules, atoms, and all the way down to subatomic particles like electrons and quarks. Through years of research, physicists have experimentally confirmed to an almost unimaginable accuracy virtually all predictions made by each of these theories. But these same theoretical tools inexorably lead to another disturbing conclusion: As they are currently formulated, general relativity and quantum mechanics cannot both be right. The two theories underlying the tremendous progress of physics during the last hundred years – progress that has explained the expansion of the heavens and the fundamental structure of matter – are mutually incompatible.”

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

This marvelous poem was written by Dylan Thomas (1914-1954), one of the most important Welsh poets of the 20th century. Whoever watched the movie Interstellar will remember the scene with the black hole, accompanied by Michael Caine’s voice reciting bits of Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, a highly appreciated piece that explores the helplessness associated with growing old and inching toward death.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Edward Gibbon: a quote on worship

The apotheosis (transformation into gods) of Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina; sculpted relief, c.AD 161

“The various forms of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people to be equally true, by the philosopher as equally false, and by the magistrate as equally useful.”

Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire