Cover image for Against the pollution of the I : selected writings of Jacques Lusseyran.
Against the pollution of the I : selected writings of Jacques Lusseyran.
Lusseyran, Jacques.
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Publication Information:
New York : Parabola Books, 1999.
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180 pages ; 21 cm
The blind in society -- Blindness, a new seeing of the world -- What ones sees without eyes -- Against the pollution of the I -- Jeremy -- Poetry in Buchenwald.
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BL73.L87 A3 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Six little-known essays by the blind French author and Resistance leader Jacques Lusseyran, gathered together for the first time in English. Four of the six essays are based on Lusseyran's experiences both during and after university life as a professor of literature and philosophy in Europe and in the United States.

Author Notes

Jacques Lusseyran was born in Paris, France on September 19, 1924. He became totally blind in a school accident at the age of 8. In the spring of 1941, at the age of 17, he formed a Resistance group called the Volunteers of Liberty with 52 other boys. The group later merged with another Resistance group called Défense de la France. On July 20, 1943, he was betrayed by a member of his resistance group and arrested by the Gestapo. He was sent to Buchenwald and was liberated in April 1945. After World War II, he became a professor of French literature at Case Western Reserve University. He wrote several books including Against the Pollution of the I: Selected Writings of Jacques Lusseyran and And There Was Light: The Extraordinary Memoir of a Blind Hero of the French Resistance in World War II. He died in a car accident on July 27, 1971.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

From Homer to Borges, the Western canon is replete with blind poet-seers. In this luminous book, Lusseyran (1924-1971; And There Was Light) demonstrates once again his place among the illustrious sightless sages. Here, six biographical essays explore the mystical conjunction among the realms of literature, epistemology and phenomenology. Clear and insightful prose inspires the reader to look beyond the limitations of the senses, as Lusseyran speaks of an inner seeing, reminiscent of the finer works of Martin Buber and Viktor Frankl. Totally blind from the age of eight, Lusseyran went on to become a distinguished student, a leader of the French Resistance, a prisoner at Buchenwald and a distinguished academic. The related but free-standing essays here, appearing for the first time in book form, explore the nature of blindness and our attitude toward the blind; the liberating quality of poetry in the hell of the concentration camp; how, by personal example, a secular saint helped fellow inmates transcend the barbed wire of Buchenwald; the importance of the individual soul rising above the illusory limitations of time and place to unite with the ultimate source of purpose and meaning in the universe. The clarity of the writing, and the force of both grim and exalted experience behind the words, carry an extraordinary authority and wisdom. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One The Blind in Society     The long journey that brought me from the middle of the Pacific, and today gives me the pleasure of meeting you in Switzerland, took place on account of a book. I first wrote that book in my mother tongue, French, and called it Et La Lumière Fut . Then I published it in English in the United States and England. Finally it was translated into German, with the title Das Weidergefundene Licht . It is the story of my life or, rather, of what life taught me between the time when I completely and irrevocably lost the light of my eyes through an accident at the age of seven and a half, and the spring of 1945, when I came out alive from Buchenwald concentration camp in Nazi Germany.     And There Was Light is undoubtedly the most personal of the books I have written--and the most intimate. Yet it has given me the opportunity to establish contact with the greatest number of my fellow men. This does not surprise me. Whenever we take the trouble to plumb the depths df an experience and extract from it all it contains, the simplest as well as the most hidden, we cease to speak of ourselves and ourselves alone. Instead, we enter the realm of the most precious, the realm of universal experience, which we share with all others.     I do not apologize, therefore, for telling you a little more about myself today. What a man has discovered in his life--be it ever so unique--belongs to all. If his discoveries can enhance and enrich the life of others, it is his duty to speak of them.     Well, that is the case here. What thirty-seven years of blindness have taught me--I must admit--is to make great efforts. But they are much more than efforts; they are also discoveries. I can hardly wait to tell you about some of them.     Barely ten days after the accident that blinded me, I made the basic discovery. I am still entranced by it. The only way I can describe that experience is in clear and direct words. I had completely lost the sight of my eyes; I could not see the light of the world any more. Yet the light was still there.     It was there. Try to imagine what a surprise that must have been for a boy not yet eight years old. True I could not see the light outside myself any more, the light that illuminates objects, is associated with them, and plays on them. All the world around me was convinced that I had lost it forever. But I found it again in another place. I found it in myself and what a miracle!--it was intact.     This "in myself," however, where was that? In my head, in my heart, in my imagination? Don't you feel that such questions are purely intellectual, and worthy only of those adults who have already forgotten the utter simplicity and unquestionable power of true experiences? For me--I was in my eighth year and lived, instead of thinking--the light was there. Its source was not obliterated. I felt it gushing forth every moment and brimming over; I felt how it wanted to spread out over the world. I had only to receive it. It was unavoidably there. It was all there, and I found again its movements and shades, that is, its colors, which I had loved so passionately a few weeks before.     This was something entirely new, you understand, all the more so since it contradicted everything that those who have eyes believe. The source of light is not in the outer world. We believe that it is only because of a common delusion. The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves.     Yet I had to make the effort to find my way between doors, walls, human beings, and trees. As happens to all blind persons, I hurt myself often. But I quickly learned that I knocked against things only when I forgot the light. When I paid constant attention to the light, I ran a much smaller risk.     The second great discovery came almost immediately afterwards. There was only one way to see the inner light, and that was to love.     When I was overcome with sorrow, when I let anger take hold of me, when I envied those who saw, the light immediately decreased. Sometimes it even went out completely. Then I became blind. But this blindness was a state of not loving any more, of sadness; it was not the loss of one's eyes.     I spoke to you of discoveries. This was one of them, and it was so great that a whole lifetime full of religion and morality is often not enough to enable others to make it.     In another respect, too--I wish to say this here--I was exceedingly fortunate. I had parents who understood. Neither my father nor my mother ever pitied me because of my fate. They never said the word "unfortunate" in my presence. My father, who deeply understood the spiritual life, immediately said to me: "Always tell us when you discover something." I was to discover more and more! And he was right. One should not try to console either those who lost their eyes, or those who have suffered other losses--of money, health, or a loved one. It is necessary instead to show them what their loss brings them, to show them the gifts they receive in place of what they have lost. Because there are always gifts. God wills it so. Order is restored; nothing ever disappears completely.     I knew this when I was eight years old, because I had found the light again. From that moment on, blindness became for me a fascinating experience and the attempt to live a new way.     I could not read with my eyes any more. But what did it matter? I drew within myself letters and words on a canvas greater and more radiant than all blackboards, and within a few weeks I could learn to write again in Braille.     I saw neither sun, nor plants, nor the faces of those around me with my eyes. But it was enough for the warmth of the day to touch me, for a tree to appear along the way, for a voice to call me, and immediately those beings and objects came to life on the inner canvas. All that remained was to learn a few simple techniques in order to tackle everyday problems--the only ones that could still be called difficulties: writing Braille, reading it as fluently as possible, typing on a regular typewriter because it was necessary to be able to establish direct contact with the seeing. All this I learned, fortunately, very early in life, between the ages of eight and ten.     My parents had decided, further, to let me stay among my seeing comrades. This was a bold decision. A special school for the blind would have offered greater guarantees, and I am still of the opinion that for most blind persons a special school is the quickest and most advantageous. Yet the necessity of living under the same conditions as everyone else has taught me a great deal.     I had to forget that I was blind. I had to stop thinking about it. I could compare my experiences with those of the others, and I understood very quickly that my blindness saved me from one great misery: that of living with egotists or fools. Only those who were capable of being magnanimous and understanding sought my company. It was much easier for me to choose my comrades. I never met the boys and girls who expect only personal gain from friendship, because they never came to me. So I met the best, first in public school, then at high school in Paris, without ever having to make an effort. They were there, close to me, with me. They asked me questions, and I asked them in turn. They helped me to live as if I had eyes, to learn to climb trees, to row a boat, and sometimes to steal apples. And to their surprise and often to my own, I taught them to see better.     Because of my blindness, I had developed a new faculty. Strictly speaking, all men have it, but almost all forget to use it. That faculty is attention. In order to live without eyes it is necessary to be very attentive, to remain hour after hour in a state of wakefulness, of receptiveness and activity. Indeed, attention is not simply a virtue of intelligence or the result of education, and something one can easily do without. It is a state of being. It is a state without which we shall never be able to perfect ourselves. In its truest sense it is the listening post of the universe.     I was very attentive. I was more attentive than any of my comrades. All blind persons are, or can be. Thus they attain the power of being completely present, sometimes even the power of changing life around them, a power the civilization of the twentieth century, with its many diversions, no longer possesses.     Being attentive unlocks a sphere of reality that no one suspects. If, for instance, I walked along a path without being attentive, completely immersed in myself, I did not even know whether trees grew along the way, nor how tall they were, or whether they had leaves. When I awakened my attention, however, every tree immediately came to me. This must be taken quite literally. Every single tree projected its form, its weight, its movement--even if it was almost motionless--in my direction. I could indicate its trunk, and the place where its first branches started, even when several feet away. By and by something else became clear to me, and this can never be found in books. The world exerts pressure on us from the distance.     The seeing commit a strange error. They believe that we know the world only through our eyes. For my part, I discovered that the universe consists of pressure, that every object and every living being reveals itself to us at first by a kind of quiet yet unmistakable pressure that indicates its intention and its form. I even experienced the following wonderful fact: A voice, the voice of a person, permits him to appear in a picture. When the voice of a man reaches me, I immediately perceive his figure, his rhythm, and most of his intentions. Even stones are capable of weighing on us from a distance. So are the outlines of distant mountains, and the sudden depression of a lake at the bottom of a valley.     This correspondence is so exact that when I walked arm in arm with a friend along the paths of the Alps, I knew the landscape and could sometimes describe it with surprising clarity. Sometimes; yes, only sometimes. I could do it when I summoned all my attention. Permit me to say without reservation that if all people were attentive, if they would undertake to be attentive every moment of their lives, they would discover the world anew. They would suddenly see that the world is entirely different from what they had believed it to be. All science would become obsolete in a single moment, and we should enter into the miracle of immediate cognition.     This immediate and complete cognition, I assure you, is not mine. The blind do not have it. Yet they have an additional chance when they try to approach it.     When I was seventeen, I graduated from high school and entered college. But this was no longer essential. The false peace between the two wars had just come to an end. Europe had thrown itself into the worst conflict of its history, and my homeland, France, had been conquered within five weeks. Paris was occupied by the Nazis.     As you can imagine, I have often been asked how it was possible for me to participate in the Resistance and render valuable services to it. Even more frequent was the question why I, as a blind person, chose to do so. Let me explain it to you more simply than ever before.     During the first months of the occupation I experienced something like a second blindness. This happened although I was not a nationalist. Although the occupation of France was a shock to me, I thought about the oppression of Europe even more than of the terrible, all-embracing fact of the occupation. In addition, neither my family nor I were anti-German. I had studied German culture and the German language with awe and fascination. Yet I experienced this second blindness, the occupation by the Nazis, as I had the first.     Nine years earlier the outer light had been taken from me. This time outer freedom was taken from me. Nine years earlier I had found the light again in myself, intact and even strengthened. This time I found freedom there, just as present and demanding. Within a few weeks I understood that fate expected the same work from me a second time. I had learned that freedom was the light of the soul.     No one has the right to interfere with the free will of men or with their self-respect. No one has the right to murder in the name of an idea--still less in the name of an insane idea. Reminding myself unceasingly that freedom existed, and consequently reminding all those I met, had become for me the same unquestionable duty as keeping alive the light behind my closed eyes. There was no other reason for my entering the Resistance movement. But there was the difficulty of how to go about it.     I had already solved many problems, problems related to my studies, intelligence, and inner life. Now, however, I was faced with a very difficult one. How could I find a place in the others' society, in order to prove myself useful and necessary to them and with them? A blind person would never be admitted to a group of the Resistance. No one would be able to visualize a place for him.     In the spring of 1941, therefore, I did what I certainly never would have done so completely and so suddenly had I possessed the light of my eyes: I myself founded a Resistance group.     By taking the initiative I immediately rendered all prejudices invalid. By my decision alone I had proved that I was necessary. And that was not really difficult. Underground work required hands and eyes, but also courage and clear thinking. Also necessary was a certainty that did not depend on an idea, even an honest one, but on experience gained every day anew. This certainty I had.     Everything else came about as if by itself. I gathered around me several hundred young people, mostly students. We wrote and published an underground newspaper. We formed small action groups that one day could become the cadre of a national movement. As a matter of fact, at the beginning of 1943 I and six hundred of my comrades were finally able to join the Défense de la France movement, one of the five most important non. Communist Resistance groups.     I repeat: I am not sure I would have succeeded without my blindness. It was the blind leader whom all my comrades chose, and in whom they believed. From the first hour, I took full responsibility for enrolling new members. Each new applicant was introduced to me, and to me alone. I talked with him for a long time; I directed at him that special look which blindness had taught me. It was much easier for me than for anyone else to strip him of all pretenses. His voice expressed his inner being, and sometimes it betrayed him.     Finally I could make use of that inner life which fate had forced me to discover so early and so thoroughly. I used it to know better what I wanted myself, to realize what the others were capable of. The ability to join thoughts and feeling, to bring order into the world in my heart and my spirit without the help of objects, could finally be used for a task whose aims were outside myself. I know for certain that in more than two years none of my comrades ever thought of the limits blindness imposed on my work. I could neither carry arms nor run through the streets of Paris with a pack of underground newspapers over my shoulder, nor could I set out to discover a German military installation. My comrades went for me. But before they went they came to me to ask the way; afterwards they came again to report on their success, and it was my task to put the results in order and to decide on new actions.     In short--forgive me this statement, which I am making again without wanting to--I discovered that no blindness exists when it is a question of reflecting, intending, planning something, or even of helping men to live. And when in 1943 I joined, with my small forces, the Défense de la France , and suddenly was a member of its Comité Directeur Clandestine and was responsible for the distribution of a newspaper that appeared every two weeks in an edition of more than 250,000, no one around me was really surprised.     The test I was subjected to somewhat later was of an entirely different nature. In July 1943, I was arrested by the Gestapo. This happened, as it did with almost all Resistance fighters, because of a betrayal; without traitors, the Gestapo would never have been able to throw its net over a single underground organization. I was interrogated for forty-five days, kept in jail for six months, and in January 1944, taken to Buchenwald concentration camp. This time my fate was in no way extraordinary.     It is impossible to say in a few words what a concentration camp was, and I shall not attempt it. Is there a single person in Europe who does not already know? But I was not a prisoner like any other, because I was blind. I must tell you at least why I survived.     Of the two thousand Frenchmen who arrived in Buchenwald the day I did, only thirty were alive when the United States Third Army liberated the camp. That I am still here is one of those thirty miracles. My twenty-nine comrades cannot explain it any better than I can.     Yet I do not hesitate to say that I owe to my blindness more than to anything else that I was able to hold on. You must not understand this in a physical sense. When I succeeded in being tolerated in a camp where the Nazis systematically annihilated those whom they classified as "incapable of work," it was because I had found a way to make myself useful in the community of prisoners. I had become an interpreter. This was a real function. I was not an interpreter between the Nazis and my comrades--the Nazis ignored us except in the hours of destruction--but between my comrades themselves. In this international society, which lived in terror, it was very important to speak French, German, and later some Russian. I established communications, carried news; I listened to the mendacious news of the Wehrmacht high command, explained it to my comrades, deciphered it, corrected it. This activity assured me a place among them. I was no longer an invalid.     But that was not enough. In order to survive in a concentration camp, no ruse is sufficient. No form of intelligence is enough. When death is present every minute, when all those we love disappear, when humaneness vanishes, when no concrete reason any longer exists, nor a single sensible reason to hope, then an immediate refuge is necessary, an all-powerful refuge. And that is faith. Yet even the most fervent faith usually is no more than faith. A kind of faith is necessary that has its roots in our very being, that in time has become our very self. In other words, an experience is necessary. I had encountered that experience. Blindness had taught it to me one day.     I knew that when the light was taken from me, I could bring it to life again in myself. I knew that when love was taken away from me, its spring would flow again in myself. I even knew that when life is at stake, it is possible to find its source within oneself.     I know these are explanations that may seem abstract and that one does not live by theoretical solace. But for me they were not abstract. Every time the sight and the tests of the camp became unbearable, I closed myself off from the world. I entered a refuge where the SS could not reach me. I directed my gaze toward that inner light which I had seen when I was eight years old. I let it swing through me. And quickly I made the discovery that that light was life--that it was love. Now I could again open my eyes--and also my ears and nose--to the slaughter and the misery. I survived them.     If someone does not accept this explanation, which is the only correct one, then it seems to me that he does not know an all-important truth, namely, that our fate is shaped from within ourselves outward, never from without inward. Blindness, like any other great physical or moral loss, teaches this truth so thoroughly that in the end it is impossible to deny. Can I still call an accident that brought me such a gift "misfortune"?     Misfortune I met only later. What I call misfortunes here are the circumstances that our personal efforts cannot change, those which are imposed upon us by the prejudices of the majority and the indolence of those in power.     Let us never forget that the fate of the blind community is the fate of all minorities. It is of no importance whether these minorities are of national, religious, or physical origin. At the very best they are tolerated. They are almost never understood.     When the war ended, I returned to my homeland prepared to finish my studies and choose one of the professions for which I believed myself best qualified: diplomacy or teaching. But in 1942 the Vichy Government, in imitation of the Nazis, had enacted a new law. This law established the physical qualifications that were required of candidates for admission to the professions supervised by the government. It applied specifically to teaching and diplomacy.     Today this absurd law no longer exists. But seventeen years of unending effort were necessary to abolish it. And in those seventeen years I discovered the gulf that separates the seeing from those who do not have the light of their eyes.     I know that in this respect France showed a narrowness and stubbornness that does not exist in other countries. But the French example remains very meaningful. The seeing do not believe in the blind.     Their unjust and stupid doubt directed my actions during all those years. I decided not to fight the law directly, but to offer proof. I wanted to teach. I taught, so to speak, by force. I took it upon myself to teach without guarantees, without fixed employment, without pension rights, without pay during vacations. I offered my services with persevering stubbornness. I asked only that they be judged by their value, instead of by what was believed to be their value. I carried on a long and lonely battle, which undoubtedly was the hardest of my life. Again, the story of my struggle is not my personal story; the struggle is the same one that all blind persons must fight.     I am convinced that the time has come to show the world what blindness really is. It is not an infirmity for which the afflicted constantly try to compensate according to their ability--that is, always incompletely. It is instead another state of perception. This state has its inherent practical difficulties. A blind professor needs a secretary to obtain the material he requires for his work. The blind manager of a trading company must be accompanied wherever he goes. But under modern conditions such obstacles are hardly noticeable. What lawyer, what engineer, even, could manage today without the help of a few competent assistants? Blindness is a state of perception which--when taken in all seriousness, accepted, and used--is capable of increasing many faculties sorely needed in every intellectual and organizational activity.     The memory of a blind man is better than that of a seeing person, given equal talent. And when we say "memory," we imply at the same time that other valuable ability: the ability to combine facts and ideas, to compare, to perceive new connections. There is no mystical reason for the better memory. It is simply that the blind in the course of time are forced to remember more than are the seeing. Thus a blind person, as I have frequently said, immediately discovers the all-powerful and! entirely unexplored realm of attention.     In other words, he is less distracted by the world. Why not take advantage of this? Why shouldn't a blind person be assigned those tasks in the world that require his rare talent?     Let me make a practical suggestion. Since it is a fact that prejudices against the blind are strong, and prejudices are what human beings find most difficult to overcome, I would suggest the following rule: Every time a blind person applies for work, let us give him a chance. Let us employ him on probation. We could plan a probation of perhaps six or twelve months, during which the school, the office, or the firm that has hired him would be under no obligation. Nine out of ten blind persons have been denied employment not because they have proved themselves incapable, but because they have not even been permitted to furnish proof of their abilities. Let us allow them to work! Let us trust them for a while! The results would probably be amazing.     What I am suggesting is exactly what I achieved for myself. (Actually, we only really know what we have experienced ourselves.) It happened that I became a university professor in spite of my country's feudalistic laws, and I have pursued my profession for twenty-four years without encountering any difficulties except those connected with the profession itself.     I even dare to make the following statement: Teaching is often less difficult for a blind person than for a seeing one. When this point is disputed, the delicate question of discipline is always mentioned. But I ask you, are no seeing professors unable to command the respect of their students? It is obvious that discipline depends on the natural authority, the moral strength, of the teacher, on his ability to make his material come to life. Moral authority has nothing to do with having eyes.     I have been a teacher for twenty-four years without having encountered any difficulty caused by my lack of sight. As a matter of fact, the opposite is true. A lecture, a course, is an exercise of mind and character. It is based entirely on our ability to develop our inner life and to transmit it to others. In that respect blindness is a school without equal.     Why should it be necessary, when I stand before my students, to observe the position of their arms and legs? Why should I watch the vague expression of their faces, which convey only their lack of attention or their curiosity? Blindness has shown me a space other than the physical one, which only serves to separate me from them and them from me. This is the space where the stirrings of the soul and the spirit come into being. I know it from long practical experience. And silence, a certain quality of silence, shows me much better the degree of understanding, of interest, or of objection I cause in my students than could any enlargement of a movie showing their physical presence in slow motion.     What causes the failure of so many teachers today--and in Europe as well as in America much is made of that failure--is their inability to step out of their own heads. Many teachers are capable, many make praiseworthy efforts, but very few are able to enter the one realm where teaching can flourish. That realm is the common space between minds. Blindness has helped me there. I had for a long time practiced the techniques of an immediate exchange between human beings: the evaluation of voices, the evaluation of silence. Thanks to blindness I learned to read many signs that came to me from others, and that usually escape the notice of the seeing. If there is one realm in which blindness makes us experts, it is the realm of the invisible.     An audience is not an enemy for me; it is a new entity. Many new connections are suddenly formed within me. Since I cannot observe my audience with my eyes, and since I need not make the futile endeavor to divide it into single perceptions, it speaks to me as a whole, as a unit that can communicate.     I will not hide from you that I love my profession. It permits me every day to impart some of the unexpected, disquieting wealth that blindness has brought me.     I must come to an end. Can I add anything more? Perhaps it is this: If blindness is regarded as privation, it becomes privation. If we think of blindness as a deficiency that must be compensated for at any price, a path may open; but it will not lead far. If, however, we regard blindness as another state of perception, another realm of experience, everything becomes possible.     Continuing to see in their own way is undoubtedly all-important for the blind. I did not tell you that I have your eyes; I told you that I have other eyes. I did not tell you that my experiences are truer or more complete than yours. That would be a ridiculous presumption, even a lie. I said that the time has come to compare our experiences. When my wife paints, I ask her what her eyes see, ask her about all the lines they follow, all the colors they meet. At the same time, I paint within myself another picture. I know it is she who sees the physical picture, but I see it as well as she does. Isn't it a miracle that there are many ways of perceiving the world, not merely one?     Yes, you have heard me correctly: many ways of perceiving--but that very fact is our chance! Copyright © 1999 Parabola Books. All rights reserved.