A Book About Courage and The Love of Freedom
If we think about the ways in which books enter our lives, there are those that seem fated to become part of us. Once I visited three bookstores during the course of a day – I used to do that sort of thing, back when there were bookstores - and on each occasion I was confronted by The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot. It was in my face – front and center – and naturally I purchased it after the third encounter. It’s a thought-provoking work and turned out to be very important to me. We have a lifelong relationship with some books.
About ten years ago I formed a connection with And There was Light: The Autobiography of Jacques Lusseyran, Blind Hero of the French Resistance. I was intrigued by the title. How could someone without sight fight against the Nazi occupation? That would require courage beyond anything I could imagine. I wanted to know all about Jacques Lusseyran.
He was born in Paris in 1924 to highly educated and idealistic parents who adored their son. Jacques developed severe myopia as a young child, but still enjoyed nature and exploring outdoors. In a few pages we come to love this author, while knowing that something terrible awaits him. Jacques had a premonition that he would lose his vision. He was in a garden that he loved and suddenly knew that it was the last time he would see that place.
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 Jacques became completely blind as the result of an accident at school.
His description of adjusting to blindness is remarkable and not all all what you might expect. After a time of despair and disorientation, he learned to look within instead of without, and a light appeared:
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 that 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 altogether.
Jacques discovered that fear, anger or impatience separated him from the radiant light that was the center of his existence. For that reason, he decided that he could not afford negative emotions and learned to live without such self-indulgence. He describes a youth full of happiness and friendship in spite of the difficulties of being blind, and living though the dark years of World War II.
Jacques was fifteen and a university student at the time of the German occupation. By the age of sixteen, he had formed and was leading an underground resistance movement, Les Volontaires de la Liberté. At first there were fifty-two boys, all under twenty-one years old. In less than a year there were six hundred members. Jacques was in charge of recruitment because he had a remarkable ability to sense the true nature of people, being able to hear and pay attention with extraordinary acuity. His gift made him almost infallible at choosing dedicated and honest members of the resistance.
Unfortunately, he acted without absolute conviction just one time and that led to the downfall of the movement. They were betrayed in 1943, and Jacques was among two thousand resistance fighters who were sent to Buchenwald concentration camp; he was one of only thirty who survived. Ordinarily, the Nazis would have executed a disabled person immediately, but Lusseyran presented himself as an interpreter in French, German and Russian. He did not actually know Russian but learned it quickly from his fellow prisoners. Almost all of his friends perished, some just days before Buchenwald was liberated by Patton’s Third Army on April 11. 1945.
After the war, Jacques went on to complete his education and taught French literature at American universities, one of which was my old school, Hollins University in Hollins, Virginia.
He wrote his autobiography while living in the United States, as a gift to a country he loved and to which he felt profound gratitude. In the epilogue, he expresses two truths, “reaching beyond all boundaries.”
The first of these is that joy does not come from outside, for whatever happens to us is within. The second truth is that light does not come to us from without. Light is in us, even if we have no eyes.
He died with his wife in a car accident at the age of 46.
So, now I’ve given you the outline of the story, but I encourage you to read the book. It is a rare and beautifully written account of the inner life of a brave and unique person, a model of the sort of courage that triumphs over the worst kind of adversity.
There is another book by Jacques Lusseyran available in English: Against the Pollution of the I.
This is a book of essays in which Lusseyran writes about the social and spiritual aspects of blindness.
It is interesting to note that the well-received All the Light We Cannot See was said to be partly inspired by the life of Jacques Lusseyran. The writing is very good, but in my opinion, the novel is not as profound and significant as Lusseyran’s autobiography, one of the books that has changed my life.
And There was Light, Jacques Lusseyran, Morning Light Press, 2006
(The book is also available in an abridged Audible version.)
Against the Pollution of the I, Jacques Lusseyran, Parabola Books, 1999
The Holographic Universe: The Revolutionary Theory of Reality, Michael Talbot, Harper Perennial, 2011