Adeus Jose Saramago

“Life is like that, full of words that are not worth saying or that were worth saying once but not anymore, each word that we utter will take up the space of another more deserving word, not deserving in its own right, but because of the possible consequences of saying it.” Jose Saramago, The Cave, p.28

Jose Saramago, Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1998, died yesterday. He was 87. (Here’s the Wikipedia biography, if you need it:

I cannot add to his biography, so to pile words on top of him that have already been piled would be to obscure the life he lived and the death he died in ways that would prove to any student of his life (or death) that I did not know Saramago except through his writings, knowledge that has only spanned the last four years anyway, and I don’t know Portuguese which it would be vital to know if a credible biographical sketch were to be written, but what I do know is this and it is why I was fruitlessly looking for his newest book yesterday at Books-a-Million before I came home and discovered on Yahoo News that he had died: he set words loose for me.

And for thousands of others, maybe millions.

I know a run-on sentence when I see one and Saramago, the purists would say and have said, used them a lot, along with more than usual commas and less than normal periods. When I first read The Gospel According to Jesus Christ– as banned in his homeland Portugal and as awarded a Nobel in Sweden- it was as if God godself had smashed the grammatical link which had kept me chained to my eighth grade English teacher Mrs. Bair and untangled me from the sentence diagrams in which I had been by her, wrapped.

I would have liked to have met him and felt the frailness of his hand in mine and to have been made stronger and more courageous by the very fingertips which had tapped out the words, two decades ago, “A rope was also tied around his feet to prevent him from running away, and Jesus said to himself, Too late, I have already fled.”

He made words be adequate- as perfect as they could be for a moment, or for decades, never forever. He tortured them as they tortured him and his readers were that contest’s winners. He understood that to use a word meant not being able to use a hundred others; that words both explained and hid, enhanced and destroyed our human realities, our remembered dreams, and our unleashed imaginings.

“Compared with the instantaneous speed of thought, which heads off in a straight line even when it seems to have lost its way, because what we fail to realize is that, as it races in one direction, it is in fact advancing in all directions at once, anyway, as we were saying, compared with that, the poor word is constantly having to ask permission from one foot to lift the other foot, and even then it is always stumbling, hesitating and dithering over an adjective or a verb that turns up unannounced by its subject..” The Cave, p. 32

Adeus, Sr. Saramago, não sou tão cego por causa de você

Goodbye, Mr. Saramago, I am not so blind because of you..



Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road. This book of fiction, perhaps prophecy, follows several days of the journey of a man and his son over the burned and devastated terrain of our planet.  Their quest is for food.

McCarthy’s use of language is razor-sharp and spare. His words slice cleanly and deeply into the ashen surroundings which the man and boy know are all they will ever know. Occasionally, however, we are able to recognize how very finely honed is the knife of McCarthy’s word-crafting skills, as he reaches into time for that one word that will speak his intent. This paragraph, seven lines of hauntingly fluid evocation of the emptiness the pair must face, describes the man’s walking alone onto a road:

The black shape of it running from dark to dark. Then a distant low rumble. Not thunder. You could feel it under your feet. A sound without cognate and so without description. Something imponderable shifting out there in the dark. The earth itself contracting with the cold. It did not come again. What time of year? What age the child? … The silence. The salitter drying from the earth. The mudstained shapes of flooded cities burned to the waterline. At a crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering. No sound but the wind.[P220]


Search for the word; it will not be found in dictionaries or in recent literature. Search more, though- this is the reader’s quest for spiritual food- and only when I found it did I know how hungry I had been for it.

Salitter seems only to have occurred, used in this way, in the writings of Jakob Boehme, a 17th century German Christian mystic. Here is enough of what he says about it, to begin to understand the exquisite choice made by McCarthy in using the word:

“What is in Paradise is made of the celestial Salitter..[it] is clear, resplendent..The forces of the celestial Salitter give rise to celestial fruits flowers, and vegetation.” (1.)

Salitter, as used by Boehme, as used by McCarthy, is the essence of God. It is the essence of God which is “drying from the earth” in this apocalyptic novel. It is the end of the Earth for humanity, and also the abandonment of the Earth by what had been divine.

As humans seeking to know, then understand, then communicate, we are all bound by the language we know. Our language is our always-personal set of metaphors which we grasp at, and sometimes are successful in doing so, in order to describe whatever-it-is that we are perceiving that we need to share. Often, we feel frustrated in being able to convey the depths of meaning, or wonder, or urgency about a particular subject because we don’t have the words we want in the repertoire  of words we know. We feel sometimes like the painter who wants to paint a wildflower field, but has only her fingertips and must smear a wildflower field instead. Some things demand a precision in description beyond the impressionistic display of colors.

I have watched ocean tides, purple thistle blossoms, my dogs’ trust, and babies’ laughter. I have heard cicada songs, whispered confessions, Gregorian chants, and the squeaking of bamboo growing. I have held the hands of dying people in my own and tasted tears of both heartache and joy. I have ached to describe the commonalities in all of these things; I have crumpled pages of text in my inability to convey to my own satisfaction,  the relatedness of all things beautiful, the essence of goodness which permeates all that is.

No more.

I will use it very sparingly and with respect for those who probably do not yet know it, but salitter is one of those words which give me great satisfaction. It means what I have wanted some particular word to mean for many years. It is both transcendent and specific and, for some persons, who might want to know exactly what it is I am describing, and whose curiosity will take them beyond the easy sources of definition, salitter will be revelatory.

Then, should that ever happen, I will have been able to pass on the gift given to me by McCarthy.

1. Further definition of the term as used by Boehme may be found here, in Boehme: An Intellectual Biography of the Seventeenth Century Philosopher and Mystic, by Andrew Weeks, SUNY Press, 1991.

~Further gratitude to Miranda McLeod and Joshua Weber 🙂

"Blindness" by Jose Saramago



Published in 1997 and now, 11 years later, read by me.

I had forgotten- for far too long- the great joy, and the discordant but necessary misery that is a part of that joy, that indeed makes that joy possible when words are crafted, sculpted by such an artist.

Saramago, 86, is Portuguese. I am 58, and American. An artist, like Saramago, makes us aware, if we allow him, of the diverting and dehumanizing veneer which such numbers and adjectives, in reality, are. He points us toward that within ourselves which enables us to see, and- if we are courageous enough- to observe. He peels away the layers of grey mythologies we are buried beneath so that we might remember the colors and tiny, very human events that gave rise to them. He invites us to smell human excrement so that we may remember, perhaps for the first time, the splendors of rain and tears.

Saramago writes with as few punctuational and structural barriers as are possible, thus allowing the reader to become part of the creative process. I attempt that now, too, by simply offering several of the quotations from Blindness which made me gasp, or linger, or begin to observe. To give you my synopsis of the story itself would only take away from what is waiting in dormancy within you now for the cleansing waters of Saramago’s words. Here:

..if, before any action, we were to begin by weighing up the consequences, thinking about them in earnest, first the immediate consequences, then the probable, then the possible, then the imaginable ones, we should never move beyond the first point where our first thought brought us to a halt. The good and evil resulting from our words and deeds go on apportioning themselves, one assumes in a reasonably uniform and balanced way, throughout all the days to follow, including those endless days, when we shall not be here to find out, to congratulate ourselves or ask for pardon, indeed there are those who claim that this is the much-talked-of immortality.. (pg.78) my opinion we’re already dead, we’re blind because we’re dead, or if you would prefer me to put it another way, we’re dead because we’re blind, it comes to the same thing.. (pg.251)

Do you mean that we have more words than we need, I mean that we have too few feelings, Or that we have them but have ceased to use the words they express, And so we lose them.. (pg.292)

Don’t lose yourself, don’t let yourself be lost, he said, and these were unexpected, enigmatic words that didn’t seem to fit the occasion. (pg.294)

If I’m sincere today, what does it matter if I regret it tomorrow.. (pg.306)

Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see. (pg. 326)

Get Blindness. See. Look. Observe.