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Clear Water of Childhood
As I remember it, my story always starts out like a fairy tale, not an unusual one, but still a fairy tale. Once upon a time in Paris, between two world wars, there lived a happy little boy. I was that little boy, and today when I look back at him from the midpoint of life which I have reached, I marvel, a happy childhood is so rare. Besides, it is so little the fashion these days that one can hardly believe in it. All the same, if the water of my childhood runs clear, I am not about to muddy it up. That would be the worst kind of foolishness.
I was born in 1924, on September 19 at noon, in the heart of Paris in Montmartre, between the Place Blanche and the Moulin Rouge. I was born in a modest nineteenth-century house, in a room looking out over a courtyard.
My parents were ideal. My grandfather, a graduate of a school for advanced physics and chemistry and a chemical engineer by profession, was both intelligent and kind. My mother, who had studied physics and biology herself, was completely devoted and understanding.
Both of them were generous and attentive. But why say these things? As a small boy I was not aware of them. The small boy attributed no special qualities to his parents. He did not even think about them. There was no need, for his parents loved him and he loved them. It was a gift from heaven.
My parents were protection, confidence, warmth. When I think of my childhood I still feel the sense of warmth above me, behind and around me, that marvellous sense of living not yet on one's own, but leaning body and soul on others who accept the charge.
My parents carried me along and that, I am sure, is the reason why through all my childhood I never touched ground. I could go away and come back. Objects had no weight and I never became entangled in the web of things. I passed between dangers and fears as light passes through a mirror. That was the joy of my childhood, the magic armour which once put on, protects for a lifetime.
My family belonged to “the petite bourgeouisie” in France in those days. We lived in small apartments but they always seemed to me large. The one I know best was on the Left Bank of the Seine, near the great garden of the Champ de Mars, between the Eiffel Tower, with its four paws spread apart, and the Ecole Militaire, a building which was only a name to me and whose shape I have quite forgotten.
My parents were heaven. I didn't say this to myself so precisely, and they never said it to me, but it was obvious. I knew very early, I am quite sure of it, that through them another Being concerned himself with me and even addressed himself to me. [...]
Revelation of Light
For seven years I jumped, I ran, I covered the paths of the Champ de Mars. I scoured the sidewalks of the narrow Paris streets where the houses were crowded into the fragrant thoroughfares. For in France each house has its characteristic smell. Grownups hardly notice this, but children know it well, and can recognize the buildings by their odors. There is the smell of the creamery, the smell of the pastry shop, the confectioner's, the shoemaker's, the druggist's, and the smell of the shop belonging to the man who has such a beautiful name in France, "the merchant of colors." These buildings I knew by sniffing the air like a small dog.
I felt sure that nothing was unfriendly, that the branches I used to swing on would hold firm, and that the paths, no matter how winding, would take me to a place where I would not be afraid; that all paths, eventually, would lead me back to my family. You might say that I had no story, except the most important of all, the story of life.
Still, there was light, and light cast a spell over me.
I saw it everywhere I went and watched it by the hour. None of the rooms in our three-room apartment has remained clear in my memory. But the balcony was different, because on the balcony there was light. Impetuous as I was, I used to lean patiently on the railing and watch the light flowing over the surface of the houses in front of me and through the tunnel of the street to right and left.
This light was not like the flow of water, but something more fleeting and numberless, for its source was everywhere. I liked seeing that the light came from nowhere in particular, but was an element just like air. We never ask ourselves where air comes from, for it is there and we are alive. With the sun it is the same thing.
There was no use my seeing the sun high up in the sky in its place in space at noon, since I was always searching for it elsewhere. I looked for it in the flickering of its beams, in the echo which, as a rule, we attribute only to sound, but which belongs to light in the same measure. Radiance multiplied, reflected itself from one window to the next, from a fragment of wall to cloud above. It entered into me, became part of me. I was eating sun.
This fascination did not stop when night fell. When I came in from outdoors in the evening, when supper was over, I found the fascination again in the dark. Darkness, for me, was still light, but in a new form and a new rhythm. It was light at a slower pace. In other words, nothing in the world, not even what I saw inside myself with closed eyelids, was outside this great miracle of light.
Whenever I ran across the Champ de Mars I was still chasing light. I was just about to jump into it, with my feet together, at the end of the path; to catch hold of it as you catch a butterfly over the pond; to lie down with it in the grass or on the sand. Nothing else in nature, not even the sounds to which I listened so attentively, was as precious to me as light.
When I was about four or five years old, I suddenly discovered that you can hold light in your hands. To do this you only need to take colored crayons or blocks and play with them. I began to spend hours doing all kinds of coloring, without much form I am sure, but I kept diving in, as you plunge into a fountain. My eyes are still filled with those colors.
They told me later that even at this early age I had poor sight. Myopia I think it was, a condition which positive people would think quite adequate to explain my obsession. But as a young child I was not aware that I did not see very well. I was not concerned about it, because I was happy to make friends with light as though it were the essence of the whole world.
Colors, shapes, even objects, the heaviest of them, all had the same vibration. And today, every time I assume the attitude of tender attention, I find the same vibration once again. In those days, when people asked me what was my favorite color, I always answered "Green." But I only learned later that green was the color of hope.
I am certain that children always know more than they are able to tell, and that makes the big difference between them and adults, who, at best, know only a fraction of what they say. The reason is simply that children know everything with their whole beings, while we know it only with our heads. When a child is threatened by sickness or trouble, he knows it right away, stops his games and takes refuge with his mother.
In just this way, when I was seven years old, I realized that fate had a blow in store for me. It happened in the Easter holidays in Juvardeil, a little village in the Anjou where my maternal grandparents lived. We were about to go back to Paris and the buggy was already at the door to take us to the station. In those days, to travel from Juvardeil to the railroad station at Etriché-Chateauneuf, seven kilometers away, we used a horse and buggy. The grocer's truck was the first automobile I really knew in the village, and that was not until three or four years later.
That day in the country, as the buggy was waiting and jingling its bells, I had stayed behind in the garden, by the corner of the barn, alone and in tears. These are not the kind of tears they tell you about later, for I still feel them deeply whenever I think of them. I was crying because I was looking at the garden for the last time.
I had just learned the bad news. I couldn't say how, but there was absolutely no doubt. Sunlight on the paths, the two great box trees, the grape arbor, the rows of tomatoes, cucumbers and beans, all the familiar sights which had peopled my eyes, I was seeing for the last time. And I was aware of it. This was much more than childish sorrow and when my mother, after looking for me, finally found me and asked what the trouble was, I could only say: "I am never going to see the garden again." Three weeks later it came about. On the third of May, I was at school as usual, the elementary school in the part of Paris where my parents lived on Rue Cler. At ten o'clock I jumped up with my classmates who were running for the door to the playground outside. In the scuffle, an older boy who was in a hurry came up from the back of the room and ran into me accidentally from behind. I hadn't seen him coming and taken off guard lost my balance and fell. As I fell, I struck one of the sharp corners of the teacher's desk.
I was wearing glasses because they had discovered I was nearsighted. The glasses were made of shatterproof glass, and it was just this precaution that was my undoing. The lenses did not break, but the blow was so violent that one arm of the spectacles went deep into the tissue of the right eye and tore it away.
I lost consciousness but came to immediately after being carried to the school playground. The first thing that occurred to me, I remember vividly, was, "My eyes, where are my eyes?" I could hear frightened people around me talking in panic about my eyes. But even without the voices and the pain I should have known where I had been hit.
They bandaged me up and took me home with fever raging through my body. There everything blacked out for more than twenty-four hours. I learned later that the distinguished specialist my family called at once had declared the right eye was lost and must be removed. As soon as they could they would do the necessary surgery. As for the left eye, there was little doubt that it too was gone since the blow had been so hard as to cause sympathetic ophthalmia. At any rate, the retina of the left eye had been badly torn.
The next morning they operated and with success.
I had become completely and permanently blind.
Every day since then I have thanked heaven for making me blind while I was still a child not quite eight years old.
I bless my lot for practical reasons first of all. The habits of a boy of eight are not yet formed, either in body or in mind. His body is infinitely supple, capable of making just the movement the situation calls for and no other; ready to settle with life as it is, ready to say yes to it. And the greatest physical miracles can follow from this acceptance.
I am deeply moved when I think of all the people whom blindness strikes when they are fully grown, whether it is caused by accident or injury in war. Often they have a hard lot, certainly one harder than mine.
At all events, I have other reasons, not material, for thanking fortune. Grown-up people forget that children never complain against circumstances, unless of course grownups are so foolish as to suggest it to them. For an eight-year-old, what "is" is always best. He knows nothing of bitterness or anger. He may have a sense of injustice, but only if injustice comes from people. For him events are always signs from God.
These simple things I know, and I know that since the day I went blind I have never been unhappy. As for courage, which adults make so much of, children do not see it as we do. For a child courage is the most natural thing in the world, the thing to do, through life, at each moment. A child does not think about the future, and so is protected from a thousand follies and nearly every fear. He relies on the course of events, and that reliance brings him happiness with every step.
From now on I shall find obstacles in my way, very serious ones, as I tell my story: first, obstacles of language, because in what I have to say about blindness, little known and almost always surprising, I shall run the risk of sounding either trite or extravagant; then, obstacles of memory. I went blind at the age of eight, and am still blind, and what I experienced then I still experience every day. Without wanting to, I am bound to confuse dates and even periods. But such barriers are more literary than real. Facts are facts, and I only need to rely on their eloquence.
I recovered with a speed that can only be explained by my extreme youth. Blinded on May 3, by the end of the month I was walking again, clinging to the hand of my father or mother, of course, but still walking and without any difficulty. In June, I began learning to read in Braille. In July, I was on a beach on the Atlantic, hanging by the trapeze, by the rings and sliding down the slides. I was part of a crowd of children who ran and shouted. I was building castles in the sand. But I shall come back to this later, for at the time other matters were more important.
It was a great surprise to me to find myself blind, and being blind was not at all as I imagined it. Nor was it as the people around me seemed to think it. They told me that to be blind meant not to see. Yet how was I to believe them when I saw? Not at once, I admit. Not in the days immediately after the operation. For at that time I still wanted to use my eyes. I followed their usual path. I looked in the direction where I was in the habit of seeing before the accident, and there was anguish, a lack, something like a void which filled me with what grownups call despair.
Finally, one day, and it was not long in coming, I realized that I was looking in the wrong way. It was as simple as that. I was making something very like the mistake people make who change their glasses without adjusting themselves. I was looking too far off, and too much on the surface of things.
This was much more than a simple discovery, it was a revelation. I can still see myself in the Champ de Mars, where my father had taken me for a walk a few days after the accident. Of course I knew the garden well, its ponds, its railings, its iron chairs. I even knew some of the trees in person, and naturally I wanted to see them again. But I couldn't. I threw myself forward into the substance which was space, but which I did not recognize because it no longer held anything familiar to me.
At this point some instinct — I was almost about to say a hand laid on me — made me change course. I began to look more closely, not at things but at a world closer to myself, looking from an inner place to one further within, instead of clinging to the movement of sight toward the world outside.
Immediately, the substance of the universe drew together, redefined and peopled itself anew. I was aware of a radiance emanating from a place I knew nothing about, a place which might as well have been outside me as within. But radiance was there, or, to put it more precisely, light. It was a fact, for light was there.
I felt indescribable relief, and happiness so great it almost made me laugh. Confidence and gratitude came as if a prayer had been answered. I found light and joy at the same moment, and I can say without hesitation that from that time on light and joy have never been separated in my experience. I have had them or lost them together.
I saw light and went on seeing it though I was blind. I said so, but for many years I think I did not say it very loud. Until I was nearly fourteen I remember calling the experience, which kept renewing itself inside me, "my secret," and speaking of it only to my most intimate friends. I don't know whether they believed me but they listened to me for they were friends. And what I told them had a greater value than being merely true, it had the value of being beautiful, a dream, an enchantment, almost like magic.
The amazing thing was that this was not magic for me at all, but reality. I could no more have denied it than people with eyes can deny that they see. I was not light myself, I knew that, but I bathed in it as an element which blindness had suddenly brought much closer. I could feel light rising, spreading, resting on objects, giving them form, then leaving them.
Withdrawing or diminishing is what I mean, for the opposite of light was never present. Sighted people always talk about the night of blindness, and that seems to them quite natural. But there is no such night, for at every waking hour and even in my dreams I lived in a stream of light.
Without my eyes light was much more stable than it had been with them. As I remember it, there were no longer the same differences between things lighted brightly, less brightly or not at all. I saw the whole world in light, existing through it and because of it.
Colors, all the colors of the rainbow, also survived. For me, the child who loved to draw and paint, colors made a celebration so unexpected that I spent hours playing with them, and all the more easily now they were more docile than they used to be.
Light threw its color on things and on people. My father and mother, the people I met or ran into in the street, all had their characteristic color which I had never seen before I went blind. Yet now this special attribute impressed itself on me as part of them as definitely as any impression created by a face. Still, the colors were only a game, while light was my whole reason for living. I let it rise in me like water in a well, and I rejoiced.
I did not understand what was happening to me, for it was so completely contrary to what I heard people say. I didn't understand it, but no matter, since I was living it. For many years I did not try to find out why these things were going on. I only tried to do so much later, and this is not the time to describe it.
A light so continuous and so intense was so far beyond my comprehension that sometimes I doubted it. Suppose it was not real, that I had only imagined it. Perhaps it would be enough to imagine the opposite, or just something different, to make it go away. So I thought of testing it out and even of resisting it.
At night in bed, when I was all by myself, I shut my eyes. I lowered my eyelids as I might have done when they covered my physical eyes. I told myself that behind these curtains I would no longer see light. But light was still there, and more serene than ever, looking like a lake at evening when the wind has dropped. Then I gathered up all my energy and will power and tried to stop the flow of light, as I might have tried to stop breathing.
What happened was a disturbance, something like a whirlpool. But the whirlpool was still flooded with light. At all events I couldn't keep this up very long, perhaps only for two or three seconds. When this was going on I felt a sort of anguish, as though I were doing something forbidden, something against life. It was exactly as if I needed light to live — needed it as much as air. There was no way out of it. I was the prisoner of light. I was condemned to see.
As I write these lines, I have just tried the experiment again, with the same result, except that with the years the original source of light has grown stronger.
At eight I came out of this experiment reassured, with the sense that I was being reborn. Since it was not I who was making the light, since it came to me from outside, it would never leave me. I was only a passageway, a vestibule for this brightness. The seeing eye was in me.
Still, there were times when the light faded, almost to the point of disappearing. It happened every time I was afraid.
If, instead of letting myself be carried along by confidence and throwing myself into things, I hesitated, calculated, thought about the wall, the half-open door, the key in the lock; if I said to myself that all these things were hostile and about to strike or scratch, then without exception I hit or wounded myself. The only easy way to move around the house, the garden or the beach was by not thinking about it at all, or thinking as little as possible. Then I moved between obstacles the way they say bats do. What the loss of my eyes had not accomplished was brought about by fear. It made me blind.
Anger and impatience had the same effect, throwing everything into confusion. The minute before, I knew just where everything in the room was, but if I got angry, things got angrier than I. They went and hid in the most unlikely corners, mixed themselves up, turned turtle, muttered like crazy men and looked wild. As for me, I no longer knew where to put hand or foot. Everything hurt me. This mechanism worked so well that I became cautious.
When I was playing with my small companions, if I suddenly grew anxious to win, to be first at all costs, then all at once I could see nothing. Literally I went into fog or smoke.
I could no longer afford to be jealous or unfriendly, because, as soon as I was, a bandage came down over my eyes, and I was bound hand and foot and cast aside. All at once a black hole opened, and I was helpless inside it. But when I was happy and serene, approached people with confidence and thought well of them, I was rewarded with light. So is it surprising that I loved friendship and harmony when I was very young?.
Armed with such a tool, why should I need a moral code? For me this tool took the place of red and green lights. I always knew where the road was open and where it was closed. I had only to look at the bright signal which taught me how to live.
It was the same with love, but let us see how. The summer after the accident my parents took me to the seashore. There I met a little girl my own age. I think she was called Nicole. She came into my world like a great red star, or perhaps more like a ripe cherry. The only thing I knew for sure was that she was bright and red.
I thought her lovely, and her beauty was so gentle that I could no longer go home at night and sleep away from her, because part of my light left me when I did. To get it all back I had to find her again. It was just as if she were bringing me light in her hands, her hair, her bare feet on the sand, and in the sound of her voice.
How natural that people who are red should have red shadows. When she came to sit down by me between two pools of salt water under the warmth of the sun, I saw rosy reflections on the canvas of the awnings. The sea itself, the blue of the sea, took on a purple tone. I followed her by the red wake which trailed behind her wherever she went.
Now, if people should say that red is the color of passion, I should answer quite simply that I found that out when I was only eight years old.
How could I have lived all that time without realizing that everything in the world has a voice and speaks?.
Not just the things that are supposed to speak, but the others, like the gate, the walls of the houses, the shade of trees, the sand and the silence.
Still, even before my accident, I loved sound, but now it seems clear that I didn't listen to it. After I went blind, I could never make a motion without starting an avalanche of noise. If I went into my room at night, the room where I used to hear nothing, the small plaster statue on the mantelpiece made a fraction of a turn. I heard its friction in the air, as light a sound as the sound of a waving hand. Whenever I took a step, the floor cried or sang — I could hear it making both these sounds — and its song was passed along from one board to the next, all the way to the window, to give me the measure of the room.
If I spoke out suddenly, the windowpanes, which seemed so solid in their putty frames, began to shake, very lightly of course but distinctly. This noise was on a higher pitch than the others, cooler, as if it were already in contact with the outside air. Every piece of furniture creaked, once, twice, ten times, and made a trail of sounds like gestures as minutes passed. The bed, the wardrobe, the chairs were stretching, yawning and catching their breath.
When a draft pushed against the door, it creaked out "draft." When a hand pushed it, it creaked in a human way. For me there was no mistaking the difference. I could hear the smallest recession in the wall from a distance, for it changed the whole room. Because this nook, that alcove were there, the wardrobe sang a hollower song.
It was as though the sounds of earlier days were only half real, too far away from me, and heard through a fog. Perhaps my eyes used to make the fog, but at all events my accident had thrown my head against the humming heart of things, and the heart never stopped beating.
You always think of sounds beginning and ending abruptly. But now I realized that nothing could be more false. Now my ears heard the sounds almost before they were there, touching me with the tips of their fingers and directing me toward them. Often I seemed to hear people speak before they began talking.
Sounds had the same individuality as light. They were neither inside nor outside, they were passing through me. They gave me my bearings in space and put me in touch with things. It was not like signals that they functioned, but like replies.
I remember well when I first arrived at the beach two months after the accident. It was evening, and there was nothing there but the sea and its voice, precise beyond the power to imagine it. It formed a mass which was so heavy and so limpid that I could have leaned against it like a wall. It spoke to me in several layers all at once. The waves were arranged in steps, and together they made one music, though what they said was different in each voice. There was rasping in the bass and bubbling in the top register. I didn't need to be told about the things that eyes could see.
At one end there was the wall of the sea and the wind rustling over the sand. At the other there was the retaining wall, as full of echoes as a talking mirror. What the waves said they said twice over.
People often say that blindness sharpens hearing, but I don't think this is so. My ears were hearing no better, but I was making better use of them. Sight is a miraculous instrument offering us all the riches of physical life. But we get nothing in this world without paying for it, and in return for all the benefits that sight brings we are forced to give up others whose existence we don't even suspect. These were the gifts I received in such abundance.
I needed to hear and hear again. I multiplied sounds to my heart's content. I rang bells. I touched walls with my fingers, explored the resonance of doors, furniture and the trunks of trees. I sang in empty rooms, I threw pebbles far off on the beach just to hear them whistle through the air and then fall. I even made my small companions repeat words to give me plenty of time to walk around them.
But most surprising of all was the discovery that sounds never came from one point in space, and never retreated into themselves. There was the sound, its echo, and another sound into which the first sound melted and to which it had given birth, altogether an endless procession of sounds.
Sometimes the resonance, the hum of voices all around me, grew so intense that I got dizzy and put my hands over my ears, as I might have done by closing my eyes to protect myself against too much light. That is why I couldn't stand racket, useless noises or music that went on and on. A sound we don't listen to is a blow to body and spirit, because sound is not something happening outside us, but a real presence passing through us and lingering unless we have heard it fully.
I was well protected from these miseries by parents who were musicians, and who talked around our family table instead of turning on the radio. But all the more reason for me to say how important it is to defend blind children against shouting, background music and all such hideous assaults. For a blind person, a violent and futile noise has the same effect as the beam of a searchlight too close to the eyes of someone who can see. It hurts. But when the world sounds clear and on pitch, it is more harmonious than poets have ever known it, or than they will ever be able to say.
Every Sunday morning, an old beggar used to play three tunes on his accordion in the courtyard of our apartment house. This poor sour music, punctuated at intervals by the metallic scraping of rails from the streetcars on the avenue nearby — these in the silence of a lazy morning created a thousand dimensions in space; not just the steep drop into the court and the parade of the streets on the ground, but as many paths from house to house and court to roof as I could hold with my attention. With sound I never came to an end, for this was another kind of infinity.
At first my hands refused to obey. When they looked for a glass on the table, they missed it. They fumbled around the door knobs, mixed up black and white keys at the piano, fluttered in the air as they came near things. It was almost as if they had been uprooted, cut off from me, and for a time this made me afraid.
Fortunately, before long I realized that instead of becoming useless they were learning to be wise. They only needed time to accustom themselves to freedom. I had thought they were refusing to obey, but it was all because they were not getting orders, when the eyes were no longer there to command them.
But more than that it was a question of rhythm. Our eyes run over the surfaces of things. All they require are a few scattered points, since they can bridge the gap in a flash. They "half see" much more than they see, and they never weigh. They are satisfied with appearances, and for them the world glows and slides by, but lacks substance.
All I needed was to leave my hands to their own devices. I had nothing to teach them, and besides, since they began working independently, they seemed to foresee everything. Unlike eyes, they were in earnest, and from whatever direction they approached an object they covered it, tested its resistance, leaned against the mass of it and recorded every irregularity in its surface. They measured it for height and thickness, taking in as many dimensions as possible. But most of all, having learned that they had fingers, they used them in an entirely new way.
When I had eyes, my fingers used to be stiff, half dead at the ends of my hands, good only for picking up things. But now each one of them started out on its own. They explored things separately, changed levels and, independently of each other, made themselves heavy or light.
Movement of the fingers was terribly important, and had to be uninterrupted because objects do not stand at a given point, fixed there, confined in one form. They are alive, even the stones. What is more they vibrate and tremble. My fingers felt the pulsation distinctly, and if they failed to answer with a pulsation of their own, the fingers immediately became helpless and lost their sense of touch. But when they went toward things, in sympathetic vibration with them, they recognized them right away.
Yet there was something still more important than movement, and that was pressure. If I put my hand on the table without pressing it, I knew the table was there, but knew nothing about it. To find out, my fingers had to bear down, and the amazing thing is that the pressure was answered by the table at once. Being blind I thought I should have to go out to meet things, but I found that they came to meet me instead. I have never had to go more than halfway, and the universe became the accomplice of all my wishes.
If my fingers pressed the roundness of an apple, each one with a different weight, very soon I could not tell whether it was the apple or my fingers which were heavy. I didn't even know whether I was touching it or it was touching me. As I became part of the apple, the apple became part of me. And that was how I came to understand the existence of things.
As soon as my hands came to life they put me in a world where everything was an exchange of pressures. These pressures gathered together in shapes, and each one of the shapes had meaning. As a child I spent hours leaning against objects and letting them lean against me. Any blind person can tell you that this gesture, this exchange, gives him a satisfaction too deep for words.
Touching the tomatoes in the garden, and really touching them, touching the walls of the house, the materials of the curtains or a clod of earth is surely seeing them as fully as eyes can see. But it is more than seeing them, it is tuning in on them and allowing the current they hold to connect with one's own, like electricity. To put it differently, this means an end of living in front of things and a beginning of living with them. Never mind if the word sounds shocking, for this is love.
You cannot keep your hands from loving what they have really felt, moving continually, bearing down and finally detaching themselves, the last perhaps the most significant motion of all. Little by little, my hands discovered that objects were not rigidly bound within a mold. It was form they first came in contact with, form like a kernel. But around this kernel objects branched out in all directions.
I could not touch the pear tree in the garden just by following the trunk with my fingers, then the branches, then the leaves, one at a time. That was only a beginning, for in the air, between the leaves, the pear tree still continued, and I had to move my hands from branch to branch to feel the currents running between them.
At Juvardeil, in the holidays, when my small peasant friends saw me doing these magic dances around the trees and touching the invisible, they said I was like the medicine man, the man with an old secret who heals the sick by mesmerism, sometimes at a distance, and by methods not recognized by medical science. Of course, my young friends were wrong, but they had a good excuse, and today I know more than one professional psychologist who, for all his scientific knowledge, cannot account for these incongruous motions.
With smell it was the same as it was with touch — like touch an obvious part of the loving substance of the universe. I began to guess what animals must feel when they sniff the air. Like sound and shape, smell was more distinctive than I used to think it was. There were physical smells and moral ones, but of the latter, so important for living in society, I shall speak later on.
Before I was ten years old I knew with absolute certainty that everything in the world was a sign of something else, ready to take its place if it should fall by the way. And this continuing miracle of healing I heard expressed fully in the Lord's Prayer I repeated at night before going to sleep. I was not afraid. Some people would say I had faith, and how should I not have it in the presence of the marvel which kept renewing itself? Inside me every sound, every scent, and every shape was forever changing into light, and light itself changing into color to make a kaleidoscope of my blindness.
I had entered a new world, there was no doubt about It, but I was not its prisoner. All the things I experienced, however remarkable and however remote from the everyday adventures of a child my age, I did not experience in an inner void, a closed chamber belonging to me and no one else. They took place in Paris during the summer and fall of 1932, in the small apartment near the Champ de Mars, and on a beach on the Atlantic, between my father and mother and, toward the end of year, a new little brother who had been born.
What I mean to say is that all these discoveries of sound, light, smell, and visible and invisible shapes established themselves serenely and solidly between the dining-room table and the window on the court, the bric-a-brac on the mantelpiece and the kitchen sink, right in the midst of the life of other people and without being put out of countenance by them. These perceptions were not phantoms which came bringing disorder and fear into my real life. They were realities and, to me, the simplest of them all.
But it is time to make it clear that, along with many marvelous things, great dangers lie in wait for a blind child. I am not speaking of physical dangers, which can well be circumvented, nor of any danger which bIindness itself brings about. I am speaking of dangers which come from the inexperience of people who still have their eyes. If I have been so fortunate myself — and I insist that I have — it is because I have always been protected from perils of that sort.
You know I had good parents, not just parents who wished me well, but ones whose hearts and intelligence were open to spiritual things, for whom the world was not composed exclusively of objects that were useful, and useful always in the same fashion; for whom, above all, it was not necessarily a curse to be different from other people. Finally, mine were parents willing to admit that their way of looking at things, the usual way, was perhaps not the only possible one, and to like my way and encourage it.
That is why I tell parents whose children have gone blind to take comfort. Blindness is an obstacle, but only becomes a misery if folly is added. I tell them to be reassured and never to set themselves against what their small boy or girl is finding out. They should never say: "You can't know that because you can't see"; and as infrequently as possible, "Don't do that, it is dangerous." For a blind child there is a threat greater than all the wounds and bumps, the scratches and most of the blows, and that is the danger of isolation.
When I was fifteen I spent long afternoons with a blind boy my own age, one who went blind, I should add, in circumstances very like my own. Today I have few memories as painful. This boy terrified me. He was the living image of everything that might have happened to me if I had not been fortunate, more fortunate than he. For he was really blind. He had seen nothing since his accident. His faculties were normal, he could have seen as well as I. But they had kept him from doing so. To protect him, as they put it, they had cut him off from everything, and made fun of all his attempts to explain what he felt. In grief and revenge, he had thrown himself into a brutal solitude. Even his body lay prostrate in the depths of an armchair. To my horror I saw that he did not like me.
Tragedies like this are commoner than people think, and all the more terrible because they are avoidable in every case. To avoid them, I repeat that it is enough for sighted people not to imagine that their way of knowing the world is the only one.
At the age of eight everything favored my return to the world. They let me move around, they answered all the questions I asked, they were interested in all my discoveries, even the strangest. For example, how should I explain the way objects approached me when I was the one walking in their direction? Was I breathing them in or hearing them? Possibly, though that was often hard to prove. Did I see them? It seemed not. And yet, as I came closer, their mass was modified, often to the point of defining real contours, assuming a real shape in space, acquiring distinctive color, just as it happens where there is sight.
As I walked along a country road bordered by trees, I could point to each one of the trees by the road, even if they were not spaced at regular intervals. I knew whether the trees were straight and tall, carrying their branches as a body carries its head, or gathered into thickets and partly covering the ground around them.
This kind of exercise soon tired me out, I must admit, but it succeeded. And the fatigue did not come from the trees, from their number or shape, but from myself. To see them like this I had to hold myself in a state so far removed from old habits that I could not keep it up for very long. I had to let the trees come toward me, and not allow the slightest inclination to move toward them, the smallest wish to know them, to come between them and me. I could not afford to be curious or impatient or proud of my accomplishment.
After all, such a state is only what one commonly calls "attention," but I can testify that when carried to this point it is not easy. The same experiment tried with trees along the road I could practice on any objects which reached a height and breadth at least as great as my own: telegraph poles, hedges, the arches of a bridge, walls along the street, the doors and windows in these walls, the places where they were set back or sloped away.
As with the sense of touch, what came to me from objects was pressure, but pressure of a kind so new to me that at first I didn't think of calling it by that name. When I became really attentive and did not oppose my own pressure to my surroundings, then trees and rocks came to me and printed their shape upon me like fingers leaving their impression in wax.
This tendency of objects to project themselves beyond their physical limits produced sensations as definite as sight or hearing. I only needed a few years to grow accustomed to them, to tame them somewhat. Like all blind people, whether they know it or not, these are the senses I use when I walk by myself either outdoors or through a house. Later I read that they call this sense "the sense of obstacles," and that some kinds of animals, bats, for instance, are highly endowed with it.
According to many traditions of the occult, man has a third eye, an inner eye, generally called "the eye of Siva," located in the middle of his forehead, an eye which he can bring to life in certain conditions by certain exercises. Finally, the researches undertaken by the French writer and member of the Academy, Jules Romains, have demonstrated the existence of visual perception outside the retina, situated in certain nervous centers of the skin, particularly in the hands, the forehead, the nape of the neck and the chest. I hear that more recently this kind of research has been carried on with success by physiologists, especially in the U.S.S.R.
But whatever the nature of the phenomenon, I experienced it from childhood, and its effects seem to me much more important than its cause. The indispensable condition for accurately pointing out trees along the road was to accept the trees and not try to put myself in their place.
All of us, whether we are blind or not, are terribly greedy. We want things only for ourselves. Even without realizing it, we want the universe to be like us and give us all the room in it. But a blind child learns very quickly that this cannot be. He has to learn it, for every time he forgets that he is not alone in the world he strikes against an object, hurts himself and is called to order. But each time he remembers he is rewarded, for everything comes his way.
The Living and the Dead
[In the excerpt here, he describes how, having been betrayed by a man he thought of as his comrade in the Resistance, he was imprisoned first in a Parisian jail in German-occupied France and then in Buchenwald. Of the 2,000 men who had been shipped to Buchenwald with Lusseyran, only 30 survived to be liberated by the US Third Army in April 1945. Lusseyran was one of those 30. He was 20 years old at the time. This excerpt begins when he is in the French jail. - Anne Finger.]
One evening after the guard had been changed, a jailer, a stocky old man, and one we had spotted for his timidity and gentleness, no doubt a peasant from the Territorials, came into our cell. He shut the door behind him, a thing that bad never happened before. Then he handed me a scrap of paper which Jean [one of Lusseyran's comrades from the resistance] had signed. One of my cellmates read it to me: "I am in the third section. They have done me no harm. I have high hopes for you. I love you more than myself. Jean." I dictated a word of reply which the jailer took. It was over. I had had my news. And it was the last.
"I have high hopes for you." Did Jean ... mean they were going to set me free? The three characters in my cell thought it was a sure thing. Again the road inspector said: "What in hell can they do with a blind man?".
It was no good my saying to myself that all three of them were talking like that to please me, or because they were ignorant, or because, like everybody else, they couldn't keep from talking even when they had nothing to say — it was incredible how talkative we had grown as time passed — still the idea of my liberation obsessed me and the idea of my blindness along with it. Blindness again, but this time in a strange dress, since perhaps my blindness was going to protect me. At the Gestapo they had had such a hard time believing in my guilt. A cripple must be harmless in spite of all appearances. Or else he must be another man's tool. They had looked for the other man, but they hadn't found him...
[A]n SS lieutenant opened the door to our cell. He consulted a list. He was in a hurry. He called my name. I had ten minutes to get ready. Either it was freedom or its opposite. But suddenly, while I was picking up my small package of clothes, the outcome became unimportant. I was already dreaming, but I couldn't tell you what I was dreaming about, perhaps about the return of the SS man in three minutes, even in one. I was breathing in my destiny greedily.
We went downstairs. I asked the lieutenant, "Where are you taking me?" In passable French he explained that I was lucky, because they were taking me to Germany, and Germany was a great big generous country. The mechanism of hope in our hearts must have a thousand springs, almost all of them unknown to us, because when I heard this news about Germany, the most dramatic they could have given me except for the announcement of my own death, I felt a kind of passionate pleasure. It was bitter and sudden, cutting as a wound, but pleasure for all that. That's the only way I can describe it.
The danger which had been hanging over me for three years, since the day when I joined the Resistance, suddenly stopped being a danger to become the minute ahead of me, my tomorrow. At least this time I knew where I was to go. They had assigned me my place. The transformation was instantaneous. The hope of being free, which an hour earlier had raised my temperature, had become the courage not to be free, not yet and, if need be, never...
[Having been taken by train and bus to the town of Compeigne, two thousand French prisoners were loaded into cattle cars for the trip to Buchenwald.].
On the second day some of the men suddenly remembered that I was blind. They were lost in the tangle of bodies in the middle of the night and called out to me to help them. Then I began groping my way through the mass of flesh, moving as delicately as I knew how after twelve years of practice. I put one foot down in the space between two heads, the other between two thighs, and managed to reach the corner the cries were coming from without hurting anybody. An old doctor from Bourges who was shaking with fever, the one I had led to the latrine, mumbled: "I could swear you were made for emergencies like this." ...
Then the doors slid open. We had arrived. Some of us called out, "Trinken! Bitte, trinken!" The answer was a hail of blows raining down on flesh and blood in the car, blows of clubs and rifle butts. The men standing too near the door fell out.
We had to form a line and walk. Fast. All around us there were dogs biting the ones who hung back. It was almost impossible to move because of our swollen legs.
I passed through this gateway going in the opposite direction fifteen months later, on April 18, 1945. But here I come to a halt. I can't say how, but it is no longer I who am conducting my life. It is God, and I haven't always understood how he went about it.
I think it would be more honest to warn you that I am not going to take you through Buchenwald, not all the way. No one has ever been able to do it...
A few hours after we arrived at the camp, we were shunted through the offices. A Nazi concentration camp is highly organized, full of red tape, aimed at persecution and death, but extremely complex, hierarchical and artful to the nith degree. The ultimate artfulness consisted in leaving the SS, who were the real masters, out of the everyday routines. There were seventeen thousand of them to supervise our camp but we prisoners hardly ever saw them. When they came in, it was in groups, heavily armed, for mass hangings or shootings...
They had dressed us in rags. My shirt had only one button, my jacket had holes in ten places. I had open wooden clogs on my feet, and no socks. The cold literally winnowed out my comrades. Nearly two hundred of the two thousand died of it before the end of February, particularly the boys between twenty and twenty five who looked strong. Eating so little, being so cold and so frightened killed them off ...
I must be frank. The hardest thing was not the cold, not even that. It was the men themselves, our comrades and other prisoners, all the ones sharing our miseries. Suffering had turned some into beasts. But they at least were not malicious. They could be calmed with a sign or a word, in the toughest cases with a blow. Worse than the beasts were the possessed. For years the SS had so calculated the terror that either it killed or it bewitched. Hundreds of men at Buchenwald were bewitched. The harm done them was so great that it had entered into them body and soul. And now it possessed them. They were no longer victims. They were doing injury in their turn, and doing it methodically.
The man in charge of our quarantine barracks was a German, an anti-Nazi who had been there for six years. Rumor had it that once be had been a hero. Now, every day, he killed two or three of us with his own hands, barehanded or with a knife. He struck out in the crowd at random. It was a satisfaction he could no longer live without. One morning when it was snowing hard, we discovered that he had disappeared. When the snow was swept off the steps of the barracks, they found his body with a large knife wound in the back. ...
I came very close to dying.
In March I had lost all my friends. They had all gone away. A small child was reborn in me, looking everywhere for his mother and not finding her. I was very much afraid of the others and even of myself since I didn't know how to defend myself. One day out of two, people were stealing my bread and my soup. I got so weak that when I touched cold water my fingers burned as if they were on fire. All month long a blizzard which had no beginning and no end had been buffeting the Buchenwald hill.
Being blind, I still avoided one of the greatest miseries, the labor commandos. Every morning at six o'clock all the men who were fit left the camp to the blare of the orchestra, an efficient orchestra and functional, the liturgy of forced labor in caricature. The whole day these men moved rocks and sand in the quarries, dug into the frozen ground to put down pipes, carried rails for the tracks, always in range of submachine guns and SS Kapos who were blind with rage. The prisoners came in at five o'clock at night, but never all of them. The yards were littered with the day's dead... .
I was spared the labor commandos because I couldn't see. But for the unfit like me, they had another system, the Invalids' Block. Since they were no longer sure of winning the war, mercy had become official with the Nazis. A year earlier being unfit for physical work in the service of the Greater German Reich would have condemned you to death in three days.
The Invalids' Block was a barracks like the others. The only difference was that they had crowded in 1,500 men instead of 300 — 300 was the average for the other blocks — and they had cut the food ration in half. At the Invalids' you had the one-legged, the one-armed, the trepanned, the deaf, the deaf-mute, the blind, the legless — even they were there, I knew three of them — the aphasic, the ataxic, the epileptic, the gangrenous, the scrofulous, the tubercular, the cancerous, the syphilitic, the old men over seventy, the boys under sixteen, the kleptomaniacs, the tramps, the perverts, and last of all the flock of madmen. They were the only ones who didn't seem unhappy.
No one at the Invalids' was whole, since that was the condition of entrance. As a result people were dying there at a pace which made it impossible to make any count of the block. It was a greater surprise to fall over the living than the dead. And it was from the living that danger came.
The stench was so terrible that only the smell of the crematory, which sent up smoke around the clock, managed to cover it up on days when the wind drove the smoke our way. For days and nights on end, I didn't walk around, I crawled. I made an opening for myself in the mass of flesh. My hands traveled from the stump of a leg to a dead body, from a body to a wound. I could no longer hear anything for the groaning all around me.
Toward the end of the month all of a sudden it became too much for me and I grew sick, very sick. I think it was pleurisy. They said several doctors, prisoners like me and friends of mine, came to listen to my chest. It seems they gave me up. What else could they do? There was no medicine at all at Buchenwald, not even aspirin.
Very soon dysentery was added to pleurisy, then an infection in both ears which made me completely deaf for two weeks, then erysipelas, turning my face into a swollen pulp, with complications which threatened to bring on blood poisoning. More than fifty fellow prisoners told me all this later. I don't remember any of it myself. I had taken advantage of the first days of sickness to leave Buchenwald...
Sickness had rescued me from fear, it had even rescued me from death. Let me say to you simply that without it I never would have survived. From the first moments of sickness I had gone off into another world, quite consciously. I was not delirious. Louis was right, I still had the look of tranquility, more so than ever. That was the miracle.
I watched the stages of my own illness quite clearly. I saw the organs of my body blocked up or losing control one after the other, first my lungs, then my intestines, then my ears, all my muscles, and last of all my heart, which was functioning badly and filled me with a vast, unusual sound. I knew exactly what it was, this thing I was watching: my body in the act of leaving this world, not wanting to leave it right away, not even wanting to leave it at all. I could tell by the pain my body was causing me, twisting and turning in every direction like snakes that have been cut in pieces.
Have I said that death was already there? If I have I was wrong. Sickness and pain, yes, but not death. Quite the opposite, life, and that was the unbelievable thing, that had taken possession of me. I had never lived so fully before.
Life had become a substance within me. It broke into my cage, pushed by a force a thousand times stronger than I. It was certainly not made of flesh and blood, not even of ideas. It came toward me like a shimmering wave, like the caress of light. I could see it beyond my eyes and my forehead and above my head. It touched me and filled me to overflowing. I let myself float upon it.
There were names which I mumbled from the depths of my astonishment. No doubt my lips did not speak them, but they had their own song: "Providence, the Guardian Angel, Jesus Christ, God." I didn't try to turn it over in my mind. It was not just the time for metaphysics. I drew my strength from the spring. I kept on drinking and drinking still more. I was not going to leave that celestial stream. For that matter it was not strange to me, having come to me right after my old accident when I found I was blind. Here was the same thing all over again, the Life which sustained the life in me...
On May 8, I left the hospital on my two feet. I was nothing but skin and bones, but I had recovered. The fact was I was so happy that now Buchenwald seemed to me a place which if not welcome was at least possible. If they didn't give me any bread to eat, I would feed on hope.
It was the truth. I still had eleven months ahead of me in the camp. But today I have not a single evil memory of those three hundred and thirty days of extreme wretchedness. I was carried by a hand. I was covered by a wing. One doesn't call such living emotions by their names. I hardly needed to look out for myself, and such concern would have seemed to me ridiculous. I knew it was dangerous and it was forbidden. I was free now to help the others; not always, not much, but in my own way I could help.
I could try to show other people how to go about holding on to life. I could turn toward them the flow of light and joy which had grown so abundant in me.
From that time on they stopped stealing my bread or my soup. It never happened again. Often my comrades would wake me up in the night and take me to comfort someone, sometimes a long way off in another block.
Almost everyone forgot I was a student. I became "the blind Frenchman." For many, I was just "the man who didn't die." Hundreds of people confided in me. The men were determined to
talk to me. They spoke to me in French, in Russian, in German, in Polish. I did the best I could to understand them all. That is how I lived, how I survived. The rest I cannot describe.
So it was that Lusseyran created the Volunteers of Liberty in Nazi-occupied France. Growing to six hundred members over the next year or two, it published and distributed an underground newspaper, created a network for the protection and repatriation of downed English airmen, and later joined forces with the Defense of France to publish what would eventually become France-Soir, the most important daily newspaper in Paris.
The young Jacques was entrusted by his co-conspirators with sole responsibility for recruiting new members for the Volunteers of Liberty. For one thing, his extraordinary memory allowed him to report on his contacts and to summarize the week's intelligence without writing notes on scraps of paper — scraps that might be found by the wrong people. More importantly, those who knew him believed he had a special "sense for the human being" — a sense that was infallible, or nearly so.
This special inner sense, feeding upon images, colors, textures, sounds, was a gift Lusseyran already possessed as a young boy. He tells, for example, of the time his math teacher "came into the classroom, clapped his hands and boldly began his lecture":
Lusseyran then goes on:
As recruiter and co-leader of one of the five largest Resistance organizations in France, Lusseyran enjoyed many striking successes. But in 1943 he and many of his comrades were betrayed to the Germans imprisoned for six months, and interrogated by the Gestapo. Then they were shipped off to Buchenwald. Of the two thousand persons in this shipment, Lusseyran was one of about thirty who remained alive when General Patton's troops liberated Buchenwald fifteen months later. (See accompanying story for a vignette drawn from his stay in the concentration camp.)
The remarkable thing is that Lusseyran could not see. He had totally lost his sight in an accident when he was between seven and eight years old. It was to a blind youth that his comrades in the Resistance entrusted their fate, and it was the same blind youth who found the hidden resources to survive the horrors of Buchenwald.
Growing up, the young Jacques seemed almost intoxicated with life. He was forever running — "the whole of my childhood was spent running".
He recalls a vivid moment of self-realization on his fourth birthday when he was running along the pavement toward a triangle of light. "I was being projected toward this pool of light, drawn up by it, and, waving my arms and legs, cried out to myself: "I am four years old and I am Jacques".
Before his accident, he was fascinated above all by light. He spent hours watching it flow over the buildings and streets of his neighborhood. Even darkness held light for him, but "in a new form and a new rhythm ... Nothing in the world, not even what I saw inside myself with closed eyelids, was outside this great miracle of light."
Then one Easter holiday as his family was preparing to return to Paris from a country vacation, the young boy was overtaken by the sadness of a strange presentiment. Surveying the sunlit garden of his country home, he began to cry. When his mother asked what the trouble was, he answered, "I am never going to see the garden again".
Three weeks later the accident occurred. Bumped by a fellow student in a classroom, his head fell against the corner of a desk, and the rigid frame of his glasses gouged deeply into him. One eye had to be removed, and the other, with a badly torn retina, was completely blind.
Here it must be said that one of the miracles of Lusseyran's book, although it emerges mostly as unspoken background, is the miracle of his parents. Beyond the first few pages his parents are scarcely mentioned, but what he does say in those first pages bears just about the highest praise any parent could hope for:
This going and coming, this weightlessness or lightness of being, incidentally, is a far different matter from the too-shrilly-celebrated freedom and weightlessness of cyberspace. The latter sort of weightlessness is often spoken of today as a feature of the world of "bits" rather than the world of "atoms". But the lightness of the young Jacques was a consequence of his incessant running to meet the things of the atom-world — and his discovering that all these things, when truly engaged, speak the weightless language of light.
Amazingly, even after Jacques' accident, his parents never suggested in any way that he was "deprived" of the light, or that he suffered a deficit or handicap. The accident was treated matter of factly, like all other events of childhood, and the assumption was that, just as before, Jacques would continue doing all the things his circumstances allowed, without special fuss.
And why should he have been treated as a special case? As Lusseyran himself says,
The stance of Lusseyran's parents meant that — in an era when this was almost unheard of — he continued going to the same school he attended before, where he received First Prize in his class at the end of the next year.
Eventually he would enter an elite Upper First class in the University. Later, after passing tests for the highest educational institution in France, the Ecole Normale Superieure, he would be denied
But most remarkable of all was Lusseyran's claim that, despite his total blindness, he learned to see.
And so he changed course, looking "not at things but at a world closer to myself, looking from an inner place to one further within, instead of clinging to the movement of sight towards the world outside."
But this inner light sometimes departed. Fear, anger, and impatience were enough to make Jacques blind again. When he lost his confidence and began to fear the obstacles in his way, he could no longer move easily among them. Everything hurt him. "What the loss of my eyes had not accomplished was brought about by fear".
Perhaps an even greater danger than his own fear lay in the reactions of others. In his book Lusseyran gives great credit to his parents for not imagining that their own way of knowing the world was the only one. He advises parents of a blind child never to say "You can't know that because you can't see" — and to say as little as possible, "Don't do that; it's dangerous". The adult's pity, fear, and embarrassment are the worst disaster for someone who has been blinded, as one of Lusseyran's encounters makes clear:
When we devise technical aids for the disabled, we need to ask ourselves to what degree our thinking aligns itself with Lusseyran's upbringing or with that of his unhappy acquaintance. Our attitude in this respect, after all, is probably much more significant for the person we would help than is the technical wizardry we put at his disposal.
Lusseyran's story presents a mystery for us sighted people, who speak so naturally of the "night" of blindness. It's not easy to understand what he means by "seeing". Throughout his book he tells how his freedom of movement was restricted by his blindness, and how he spent much of his time guided by friends as he walked — or ran — through city and countryside. But at the same time these friends quickly learned to take it for granted that, in some ways, he saw more of this passage than they did, so that he was often at least as quick as they to warn of danger or to announce what lay over the next rise.
He tells how objects in his environment would come to life on his "inner canvas", how his senses of hearing, smell, and touch gained revelatory qualities that departed in wildly unexpected ways from the "normal" performance of these senses, and how all objects exert a kind of "pressure" even from a distance — a pressure one can respond to in an intimate sensory dance that blurs the visually enforced boundaries commonly felt between object and perceiver.
As to his "seeing" in particular, here is one of his attempts to describe it:
All this may remind some readers of the ancient doctrine that we actually see by virtue of two lights, one of which, more subtle, streams out from us, and the other of which streams from without into our eyes. It may remind others of the findings of twentieth-century studies in perception.
In his book, "The Organism", neurologist Kurt Goldstein demonstrated that the senses (like all other part of the organism) never deliver isolated and local performances. For example, every visual sense impression corresponds to a different muscle tension:
If one asks a patient, preferably a cerebellar patient (who exhibits these phenomena, often exceptionally clearly), to raise his arms forward so that they are in a somewhat unstable position, and if one exposes him to various colors (e.g., large sheets of colored paper), we notice that green and blue stimulation lead to a change of the position of the arms in the opposite direction as that induced by yellow or red stimulation.
More generally, color influences our volitional movements, so that, depending on whether a light is red or green, "movements are carried out with a different speed" even though the difference is not subjectively experienced. Likewise, the estimates of traversed distances vary as to length; seen and felt distances, time intervals and weights are judged differently under the influence of different colors.
Goldstein notes that stimulation of the skin by different colors can also lead to different effects. In sum, "it is probably not a false statement to say that a specific color stimulation is accompanied by a specific response pattern of the entire organism." This is even true when the stimulation does not involve sense objects in the usual sense of the term, as when infrared or ultraviolet light is experienced.
All this stands to reason. If the organism is a unity, a whole in the deepest sense, then every effort precisely to define a deficit — a missing piece or a missing function — is problematic. Given a true organism, you can, to one degree or another, without predefined limit, arrive at the whole through any of its parts, because the whole is immanent in each of the parts. All our senses form a unity that can be gotten at — with more or less success depending on our inner resources — through any combination of them.
Today we are strongly inclined to technologize every disability, conceiving it as wholly defined by a specific malfunction of a piece of machinery, and immediately setting about the task of "fixing" the malfunction, as if that were the whole story.
What Lusseyran's experience suggests is that this is only a tiny part of the story — and perhaps the least important part. By restricting our notion of "seeing" to the narrowest of mechanisms — the eyeball understood as a camera — we close ourselves off to many of life's richest possibilities.
Lusseyran himself had little patience for such attitudes. Noting that the blind suffer greatly "from the inexperience of those who still have their eyes", he goes on to laud his parents, whose hearts and intelligence were open to spiritual things, for whom the world was not composed exclusively of objects that were useful, and useful always in the same fashion; for whom, above all, it was not necessarily a curse to be different from other people. Finally, mine were parents willing to admit that their way of looking at things, the usual way, was perhaps not the only possible one, and to like my way and encourage it.
Indeed, as Lusseyran remarks elsewhere, after his accident his father said to him: "Always tell us when you discover something." What extraordinary and liberating advice! One of my own sons had experience of synaesthesia (perception of sound as color) when he was young, and I have often regretted our not having found a way to make a natural place for such experiences in the home. In general, I suspect that if the imaginations and perceptions of childhood — above all, the perceptions of ensouled nature that come so naturally to children — were not systematically suppressed by adult obtuseness, we would live in a radically different world today.
A new collection of Lusseyran's essays is just now coming out (see below), and in its introduction Christopher Bamford mentions a Dutch girl born deaf. Remarkably, her parents decided to treat her as if she could hear. So they spoke to her constantly, read stories, sang songs. The girl grew up to be exceptionally intelligent and happy. And "she speaks clearly, without the slurring common among the deaf." Today she counsels the parents of deaf children. She also enjoys music and goes to concerts.
As Bamford observes, "Evidently we hear with more than our ears". In fact, "the story of the Dutch girl puts in question whether we `hear' sound in the usual sense at all". His point, if I take him correctly, is that understanding comes to us along innumerable dimensions, the sum of which is that one person participates with another "in a world of love and meaning". To reduce the possibilities of that shared world to the bare potentials of an imagined set of one-dimensional mechanisms is to lose sight of nearly everything that counts.
It is one of the characteristic pathologies of our day that we would like to deny the connection between limitation and suffering, on the one hand, and profound accomplishment on the other. But the link remains, and one particular episode in Lusseyran's autobiography offers a beautiful illustration of it:
After the Germans invaded France, the young Jacques was struck by what became of Paris. It was a puzzle he could not solve. Yes, the Germans were largely invisible, and life went on much as before. Everything seemed roughly the same. Yet he sensed in everyone's attitude that the world had somehow shifted catastrophically. He could not help noticing the tenseness, the withdrawal of his neighbors into their private shells, the studied silence as one person after another — especially Jews — were summoned by the authorities, never to return.
All this ate away at the teenage boy terribly, like a great societal illness that could neither be clearly identified nor shaken off. He had never lived through an Occupation, and did not know what it was "supposed" to be like. The official story was of the Germans as benefactors. He could not fit the pieces together.
Then, after the arrest of a friend, Lusseyran fell badly ill with the measles. At the height of the illness, with fever raging, the situation suddenly became crystal clear to him. He was gripped by a powerful resolve. All the while his system was purging itself of poisons — "but the poison was moral as much as it was physical, of that I am sure".
Thus was born the iron will and the whirlpool of renewed energy that set his Resistance activities in motion:
If only we allowed ourselves more such personal crises today as we confront the deeply embedded, systemic ills of our society! But, as our readiness to submit ourselves to mass vaccination campaigns for every minor malady suggests, we can't easily accept that illness might be necessary and beneficial — that we might end up paying more in bodily and social damage for its absence than for its presence.
Accepting such a link is as hard as conceiving that blindness might be a gift. But on this we should allow the "victims" to speak for themselves. Lusseyran's own conclusion is direct as can be: "Since I went blind I have never been unhappy". How do you gainsay a life that could heartily serve others in the French Resistance and find peace in a concentration camp? [...]
When Jacques Lusseyran arrived at Buchenwald, totally blind, he didn't know how to defend himself. "One day out of two", he writes, "people were stealing my bread and my soup. I got so weak that when I touched cold water my fingers burned as if they were on fire."
And yet, jumping past the story he tells below, we find that Lusseyran became the "official" newscaster for some thirty thousand prisoners in the concentration camp. He made it his business to listen carefully to the German newscasts that came over the loudspeaker system, inferring everything he could from the gaps and circumlocutions in the reports. He also received news from France, England and Russia via a clandestine radio set up by some prisoners in one of the cellars. With this intelligence he went around to the several blocks in the camp and announced the daily progress of the Allied invasion of France and Germany.
It is hard to imagine what this service meant in Buchenwald. Lusseyran found that rumors were rampant, impossible to trace. "Paris had fallen once a day .... All were guilty, all were peddling rumors .... Doubt and agony were taking root .... Everyone lied at Buchenwald, some from discouragement, some from fear, others from ignorance, and some viciously. I have watched men inventing the bombing of cities just for the pleasure of torturing a neighbor who had all his dear ones in that place".
It would have been possible to write the news out, have it translated by other prisoners into the several languages of the camp, and then distributed. But this disembodied communication, Lusseyran says, would not have served the need, which was for "realities that went straight to the heart. Only a man standing before them could give them that. They needed his calm and his voice, and it was I who had become the voice."
So he worked all day long at his task, digesting the news and going from block to block to announce it — in German and French himself, and in other languages with the help of others. He first repeated the bulletins of the German high command word for word, then explained what he understood them to mean. He took the pulse of a block when he entered it.
"I could sense the condition of a block by the noise it made as a body, by its mixture of smells. You can't imagine how despair smells, or for that matter confidence. They are worlds apart in their odor."
Depending on this reading, he gave out more of one part of the news or another. "Morale is so fragile that a word, even an intonation can throw it out of balance."
The remarkable thing was that listening to the fears of others had ended by freeing me almost completely from anxiety. I had become cheerful, and was cheerful almost all the time, without willing it, without even thinking about it. That helped me, naturally, but it also helped the others. They had made such a habit of watching the coming of the little blind Frenchman with his happy face, his reassuring words delivered in a loud voice, and with the news he gave out, that on days when there was no news, they made him visit them just the same.
'And There Was Light' ends with the liberation of Buchenwald. Following the war, Lusseyran eventually won the right to teach. He
held a professorship at the Sorbonne before emigrating to the United States in 1958. He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Hawaii when he died in a car accident in 1971.
Autobiography of Jacques Lusseyran, Blind Hero of the French Resistance
título original francês: Et