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Wednesday, February 24, 2016
WHAT ONE SEES WITHOUT EYES: An Excerpt from AGAINST THE POLLUTION OF THE I by Jacques Lusseyran
 
Jacques Lusseyran led an incredible life. Despite being blinded as a child, he went on to help form a key unit of the French Resistance — and survive the Nazis’ Buchenwald concentration camp. Against the Pollution of the I: On the Gifts of Blindness, the Power of Poetry, and the Urgency of Awareness is a remarkable collection of essays in which Lusseyran writes of how blindness enabled him to discover aspects of the world that he would not otherwise have known. Just as Lusseyran transcended his most difficult experiences, his writings give triumphant voice to the human ability to see beyond sight and act with unexpected heroism. These powerful essays on blindness, spirituality, and triumph over Nazi atrocities reveal how all people can learn to experience disabilities as gifts, and “see” beyond what we see. We hope you’ll enjoy this short excerpt from the book. 

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Something has astonished me for a long time. It is that blind people never speak about the things they see. At least I never hear them talk about them to those who see with their physical eyes.

Rather often, however, when blind people are together, suddenly they tell each other what they perceive. Then why do they ordinarily keep quiet about this?

I think that basically the reason is rather simple. They keep quiet because of society. To live in society one must at any cost resemble everyone else. Society demands it. In order to adapt to the world of the seeing, blind people are obliged to declare themselves unable to see — and, believe me, I know what I’m talking about, for that has happened to me even when I knew very well that it didn’t correspond to reality and was not true.

Therefore tonight, excuse me for not saying to you a single time that I am blind. I will not speak to you about blindness, but about its opposite.

To begin with, I have a very strong memory: something which stays alive for me as an experience every minute, but which presents itself to me, when I think about it, as a memory. It is what happened to me when I became blind at the age of eight.

I believed — oh, I believed, and with a great dizziness, as you may well imagine, despite my young age — that from the moment I lost my eyes, I would from then on never see again. And then that was not true. What a surprise! I still haven’t forgotten it. I verified immediately and in a concrete way that I had not lost anything, or rather that what I had lost was of a practical order, and only of that order.

Oh, indeed, I could no longer walk around freely; I had to be accompanied. I was sometimes obliged to ask others for help — those who saw with their eyes, who were passing around me. But the others responded to me. Usually they responded very well. I learned very quickly that this was not very serious. No, truly, I had lost nothing at all.

What does this mean?

It does not mean that the situation must be explained in a moral manner or by poetic images — I will adamantly insist on that.

It means uniquely positive, concrete, and elementary things.

I had rediscovered inside myself everything which others described as being outside of us: on the exterior. And I verified for myself that they were wrong. They said, “But he can no longer see the light,” or even, “If he says that he sees it, he is actually imagining it or remembering it.” And people spoke to me of the marvelous memories I must have of the time when I could see. Or of the faculty that I possessed, as they put it, to an extraordinary degree: imagination. But, for my part, I was obstinately resolved not to believe them. I knew very well that I was not “imagining things.” I knew that I was perceiving, that I was sensing.

Inside me was everything I had believed was outside. There was, in particular, the sun, light, and all colors. There were even the shapes of objects and the distances between objects. Everything was there, and movement as well.

I verified that sometimes the shapes I perceived inside myself were not exactly like those which others described to me. There were slight differences, little divergences. For example, a friend who had eyes told me that a wall at the side of the road was still quite a ways away from us, that it was about ten meters distant. Rather strangely, I felt it much closer. And then, several years later, I understood where the difference came from: The wall was very large and very tall, much taller than the other walls in the neighborhood. So nothing had really changed for me. My blindness did not prevent the wall from being a wall. It didn’t change its being strong, solid, and immobile along the side of the road.

This is how things went for me right from the beginning, and it was and still is amazing to me.

From the moment I became blind, I did not enter a world of privations supported by courage, to “see” heroically what others described to me. Not at all.

I entered a world of enchantment, but an enchantment which supported my life, which nourished me, because it was real. It was not an imaginary fairy-tale enchantment, and I sensed that clearly.

And now, at the interior of this positive enchantment, I found a small understanding which was immediately a very great prize for me which I treasure to this day: the nature of light.

I knew very well that most of those who see with their eyes — I hardly dare call them “the seeing,” for there would be an unpleasant ambiguity to that — usually say that light comes to them from the outside, that they catch it like a ball which is thrown to them.

I know very well that is not true. I know the nature of light is not to be outside of us, but, on the contrary, within us.

Exactly what is this nature of light? I could not tell you. I don’t know. I only know how it really manifests itself. It is an element that we carry inside us and which can grow there with as much abundance, variety, and intensity as it can outside of us. Maybe even more intensely, and in a more stable, better balanced way, inside rather than outside.

There was this phenomenon that surprised me: I could choose when the light came or went. Yes, I could make it appear or disappear. I had that astonishing power: I could light myself. You heard right: “light myself.” That is to say, I could create a light inside me so alive, so large, and so near that my eyes — oh, it was very strange — my physical eyes, or what remained of them, vibrated, almost to the point of hurting, just as yours would hurt if you suddenly fixed them on the sun’s ray too attentively. I could in the same way extinguish all, or almost all, light impressions, or at least reduce them, soften them into a monotonous gray, a sort of obscurity, whether pleasant or disturbing. In any case, for me the variations of light no longer depended on external phenomena — do I need to repeat that medically I was one hundred percent blind? — but on my own decisions.

All my childhood was sustained by these experiences and inclined — as you already must understand — toward joy. Not toward consolation — I have never needed to be consoled — but toward joy.

By all this, I learned at the same time that we should never give way to despair, that no matter what brutal and negative events occur in our lives, just as quickly the same sum of life is given back to us; that actually everything in the universe adds up to continuity. I no longer saw with the eyes of my body, as men of letters say, but with the eyes of my soul.

To tell the truth, I hardly need to involve my soul, because for me it was something much more direct, a great deal more physical, and quite simple.

Yes, there was continuity: I had lost nothing. I had been given as much as I had had taken from me, perhaps more.

When one realizes that, when one knows it from the age of nine or ten, I assure you it is not difficult to believe in God, because God is there. He is there under a form that has the good luck to be neither religious, nor intellectual, nor sentimental, but quite simply alive. And that is an extraordinary support for all the rest of life. I would sometimes forget that — I forget it even today — but that support remains alive. And when I do remember it, I have exactly the sensation of someone taking my hand, or that a ray of light — it is exactly this way — comes toward me and touches me. If I know what the ray of light is, I no longer have any problems.

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Jacques Lusseyran (1924–1971) is the author of And There Was Light. He was blinded in an accident as a child and went on to be a hero of the French Resistance. After World War II, he was a professor in the United States at Case Western Reserve University. He died in a car accident while visiting France in 1971.

Excerpted from Against the Pollution of the I. Copyright © 2006, 2016 by Claire Lusseyran.  

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