Lit from within

The extraordinary story of Jacques Lusseyran

by Geoff Olson

portrait of Jacques LusseyranThey told me that to be blind meant not to see. Yet how was I to believe them when I saw?

– Jacques Lusseyran

Of all the exceptional figures of the 20th century, Jacques Lusseyran is among the least known. Thankfully, there’s an antidote available in the reissued edition of his 1963 memoir, And There Was Light: The Extraordinary Memoir of a Blind Hero of the French Resistance in World War II.

Lusseyran was born in the fall of 1924, in the Montmartre neighbourhood of Paris. A product of the French “petite bourgeoisie” – what we now call the upper middle-class – he was raised by what he called “ideal parents.” He was mothered without being smothered, guided without being goaded.

“That was the joy of my childhood, the magic armour which, once put on, protects for a lifetime,” the author wrote in his memoir.

Before a schoolroom accident took his eyesight, young Jacques was always in motion. He recalled constantly running through the streets and alleyways, even attempting to outrace light itself.

“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.”

In his adult years, he had little memory of his parents’ three-bedroom apartment, except for the balcony. He remembered leaning on the railing to watch “the light flowing over the surface of the houses” and through the tunnels and archways of the streets to the right and left.

“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.”

His peculiar kinship with light did not cease when night fell. Darkness 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.”

One day, the Lusseyrans took their seven-year-old son for Easter holidays to a small village where his maternal grandparents lived. When it came time to leave, the boy could not be found. He was sitting in the garden, crying, gripped by a certainty he was seeing “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… for the last time.”

The accident happened three weeks later. A fellow schoolboy ran into Jacques from behind, sending him falling toward a teacher’s desk. His head contacted a sharp wooden corner, breaking his glasses and rendering Jacques unconscious. One eye was lost and the other had a detached retina. The next morning doctors operated, rendering him completely blind.

Lusseyran was retrospectively thankful the accident happened while he was still young and adaptable. Within a month, he was walking again, with the guidance of his parents. In another month, he began to read in braille.

The eight year-old discovered blindness was not at all as he imagined it. For days after the accident, he tried to see in the normal way, outward with focused intent, but there was only the anguish of a black void. But then he realized he was looking “too far off and on the surface of things.” He 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 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.

“A light so continuous and so intense was so far beyond my comprehension that I sometimes doubted it,” the author recalled. He could perceive light streaming through the foliage of plants of trees or emanating from people. This is not to say the radiance was constant. If he was angry or afraid, the light withdrew, leaving darkness it its place. If he was playing games with friends and he “suddenly grew anxious to win, to be first at all costs,” then all at once he could see nothing.

Calmness and serenity brought his companion back. When young Jacques approached people with confidence and thought well of them, he was “rewarded with light.”

In time, the boy found he could successfully navigate about the family home – an unremarkable skill repeated by many blind people through kinaesthetic memory. But, as he claimed, he could also point out objects on the horizon of places he had never visited before, to the point of being able to identify trees along a country road by height.

His inner radiance did not mirror the outer world with photorealistic precision, however. On hikes into forests, Lusseyran’s best friend Jean kept a hand on his shoulder to indicate where he should turn, to avoid tree roots, large rocks and sudden drops.

As for people, they came into Lusseyran’s field of “vision” as various shades of colour, expressive of their character. The summer after his accident, his parents took him to the seaside where he made friends with an eight-year-old girl. “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.”

What to make of this? Was it some unique form of synesthesia? The author offers no explanation other than mentioning the French author Jules Romains, who wrote about “extra-retinal vision,” the alleged ability to perceive colours, images or text through some sensory modality involving the surface of the skin, rather than the eyes. In any case, Jacques told only his closest friends about his “secret.”

The adolescent Parisian achieved first-class grades through his mastery of reading and writing in braille. But a storm was building on the horizon of France and the thunder came through on the Lusseyran family’s radio. Alarmed by the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich, young Jacques spent several years teaching himself German. His first intimations of “outer darkness” came through listening to the broadcasts on Radio Vienna.

France fell to the Nazis in 1940. Any blind schoolboy was above suspicion of subversive activity during the German occupation of Paris, an advantage exploited by the teenage Lusseyran. At the age of 17, he and his closest friends began to organize a local Resistance movement called The Volunteers of Liberty. The teenager became head of recruitment, thanks to his gift of accurately reading character through pitch variations in people’s voices. He approved the would-be underground resisters, while weeding out potential traitors and spies.

At great risk, he and his young friends began to covertly print a newspaper detailing Nazi atrocities and distributed copies across Paris in the middle of the night. But eventually the circle’s luck ran out. On July 20, 1943, Lusseyran was arrested by the Gestapo. He and 52 friends in his young circle of resisters were sent to Buchenwald concentration camp – the infamous death mill for non-Jewish prisoners of the Nazis. Joining the boys in the cattle cars were several thousand other prisoners from across France.

“We had no rank, no dignity, no fortune left… and no face to save. Every man was cut down to himself to what he really was,” Lusseyran wrote in his memoir.

“The camp was the witches’ well. They had thrown them all in there together, the Benedictine monk, the Kirghiz shepherd who prayed to Allah three times a day with his face to the ground, the professor from the Sorbonne, the mayor of Warsaw, the Spanish smuggler, the men who had killed their mothers or raped their daughters… the wise one and the fools, the heroes and the cowards, the good and the evil. The only thing was… and you had to get used to it… all these categories were dead and gone, for we had passed over into a different world.”

You can read the account of Lusseyran’s time in Buchenwald in the New World Library edition of his moving memoir. Suffice it to say that the author’s fierce will to live fused with his joyous sensation of an inner light. There is no way of knowing whether it was his remarkable faculty, his status as a healing presence among other prisoners or just blind luck that allowed him to survive in the camp. In Lusseyran’s telling, of the several thousand resistance fighters who went to Buchenwald, only 30 survived.

The blind hero of the French resistance went on to teach literature in the United States. He died together with his third wife Marie in a car accident in France in 1971.

“Joy does not come from outside, for whatever happens to us it is within,” Lusseyran concludes in his memoir. “The second truth is that light does not come to us from without. Light is in us, even if we have no eyes.”

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