Book Review

The Light that never Failed

by Steve Talbott


If, along our passage to a tolerable, technology-permeated future, there lies a single stretch where we will have to sweat drops of blood in order to stay the course, surely it will be that stretch peopled by 'the handicapped'. Here is where, no matter how radical or uncertain or dangerous a technology promises to be for society at large, we will be overwhelmingly tempted by our own generous impulses to grant exceptions for the disabled. From retinal or cochlear implants to machine- harnessed brain waves to wholesale fiddling with the nervous system, this is probably enough of a beachhead to bring the technology into general use. Who could deny any possible technical assist to the tragic victims of a major functional deficit?

In The Age of Spiritual Machines Ray Kurzweil makes the argument as explicit as possible. Repeatedly reminding his readers that we are on a 'slippery slope', he plunges into the downhill slide with resigned abandon. Eventually, he assures us, we will replace the entire human body and its intelligence with vastly more capable digital technologies.

To combine the metaphors a bit awkwardly: the narrow passage is our only alternative to the slippery slope. This article is my attempt, not to traverse the passage, but at least to point it out. I may not have sweated drops of blood while writing these words, but I don't think I have ever written a piece under a more compelling sense of urgency, or with a greater awareness of my own inadequacy.

The article takes the form of a review of a book that was written in 1953 without any mention of computers. Nevertheless, I do not know any work more germane to the matter at hand. And I count the book among the handful of the most significant productions of this century.

You may find the initial unfolding of the story strange, and wonder about its relevance to the theme of technology and the disabled. Please stick with it and read on.

In Paris in the spring of 1941 the sixteen-year-old Jacques Lusseyran stood in front of fifty-two carefully chosen boys and young men. His panic of a few days previous -- panic at the thought of carrying this responsibility -- was now behind him. In assured tones he explained to the fifty-two that they would not be able to close the door they had opened that night.

What we were making, they and I together, was called a Resistance Movement. The fact that the oldest of us was not yet twenty-one, and that I was not quite seventeen, though it did not make all our operations simple, made some of them possible. So long as people thought of us as kids they would not suspect us, at least not right away.

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.

Hearing with More Than Ears

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':

He was lucid that day, as he usually was, perhaps more interesting than ever, a little too interesting. His voice, instead of falling into place at the end of the sentence, as it should have, going a tone or two down the scale, hung in the air, a bit sharp. It was as though the teacher wanted to hide something that day, put a good face on it before an unknown audience, prove that he was not giving in, that he would carry on to the end because he had to. Meanwhile, accustomed to the cadence of his sentences falling as regularly as the beat of a metronome, I listened attentively, and was distressed on his account. I wanted to help, but that seemed foolish, for I had no reason for thinking him unhappy. All the same he was unhappy, bitterly unhappy. The terrible 'intelligence' of gossip told us a week later that his wife had just left him.

Lusseyran then goes on:

I ended by reading so many things into voices without wanting to, without even thinking about it, that voices concerned me more than the words they spoke. Sometimes, for minutes at a time in class, I heard nothing, neither the teacher's questions nor the answers of my comrades. I was too much absorbed by the images that their voices were parading through my head. All the more since these images half the time contradicted, and flagrantly, the appearance of things. For instance, the student named Pacot had just been given 100 by the teacher of history. I was astonished, because Pacot's voice had informed me, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he had understood nothing. He had recited the lesson, but only with his lips. His voice sounded like an empty rattle, with no substance in the sound.

A beautiful voice (and beautiful means a great deal in this context, for it means that the man who has such a voice is beautiful himself) remains so through coughing and stammering. An ugly voice, on the contrary, can become soft, scented, humming, singing like the flute. But to no purpose. It stays ugly just the same.

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.

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.

Lost Sight, Second Sight

Growing up, the young Jacques seemed almost intoxicated with life. He was forever running -- 'the whole of my childhood was spent running. Only I was not running to catch hold of something. That is a notion for grown-ups and not the notion of a child. I was running to meet everything that was visible, and everything that I could not yet see. I traveled from assurance to assurance, as though I were running a race in relays.'

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 ' 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:
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.

This going and coming, this weightlessness or lightness of being, 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,

Children never complain against circumstances, unless of course grown- ups 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.
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 entry by the collaborationist goverment at Vichy. Why? Because of his physical 'defect'.


But most remarkable of all was Lusseyran's claim that, despite his total blindness, he learned to see.

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 grown-ups 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.

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.'

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.
Not only light, but also color.
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 being. I let it rise in me like water in a well, and I rejoiced.

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 seldom 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 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.
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.

Attending to the World with New Eyes

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:

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 brances 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 towards me, and not allow the slightest inclination to move towards 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.

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 parts 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 to precisely 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.

The Human Being as a Developing Potential

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. 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 understand 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.

Saving Illnesses

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. 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:

What a fortunate case of measles that was! In me it had catalyzed a pack of fears and desires, intentions and irritations which had held me closed in a tight fist for weeks, and which I should never have been able to break open myself. On the first day of convalescence I said to myself aloud in my room: 'The Occupation is my sickness'.
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. 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?

Finding the Place for Technology

After reading And There Was Light, I am compelled to ask whether Jacques Lusseyran is the one with the greater deficit, or whether I am. Might the disabled offer our main hope for discovering a world much larger than the prison we have carved out for ourselves with our 'known' senses? As we descend toward an ever more mechanistic view of our own capacities, living images of what the human being can become in the other direction will gain all the more importance. And what we can become, as Lusseyran's life demonstrates so well, is inseparable from that narrow passage I mentioned at the beginning. It requires us to recognize the positive potentials in every limitation, every unwelcome blow of destiny -- perhaps even every willing sacrifice of technical possibility.

If it is less important for each of us, as I believe it is, that we retain our most direct instruments of sight than that we profoundly deepen from within the perceptual capacities of our entire organism, and if it is also true, as Lusseyran's story suggests, that a physical defect can lead to achievements that are in many respects beyond most 'normal' people, then we should not assault the dignity of the blind by assuming too quickly that we know what they need in order to be whole. We should leave at least as much room for Lusseyran's achievement as we do for the idea of reproducing some sort of camera vision through technical virtuosity. In slightly different terms: the welfare of society, and the happiness and fulfillment of its citizens, do not depend fundamentally on the availability of whatever technical devices happened to be available in 10,000 B.C., or 1200 A.D., or 1999, or 2100. They do depend fundamentally on the light that streams out from us to meet whatever comes toward us from the world.

This distinction frames that narrow passage. I am not suggesting that we should deny prostheses and other aids to the blind, or even that I would not use them myself, to one degree or another. Certainly it would be an abomination for me to dictate to a blind person whether or not he can receive a particular assist. But we need to add: it would also have been an abomination if the prevailing social attitudes about the limitations of blindness -- attitudes his parents so marvelously transcended -- had prevented Lusseyran from entering fully into the distinctive richness of his own life. To traverse the narrow passage is to keep both these abominations in mind -- an act of mental balancing that few salesmen of technology, with all their talk of 'solutions', will be eager to encourage.

The lessons in Lusseyran's story run at right angles to the gifts of technology. My worry arises precisely when this incommensurability is lost sight of by the proponents of technology, replaced by the assumption that technology is the answer to blindness. Such a stance might give a future Lusseyran something like 'normal' vision. But it will also continue the ongoing reduction of normal vision to a kind of blind mechanism. Lusseyran, extraordinary figure that he was, might have accepted the gift of machine-assisted vision and still gone on to discover the deeper sources of sight that evidently live within us all. But the rest of us, even without having (yet) wholly aligned our vision with cameras and all the other image-producing devices around us, have managed precious little of Lusseyran's deepened sight. What can we hope for in the way of inner development as the technological model is fastened ever more securely upon our ever more machine-entranced minds?

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.

And There Was Light by Jacques Lusseyran, 2nd edition

(New York: Parabola Books, 1998). Paperback, 328 pages, $14.95.

Steve Talbott worked for sixteen years in the high-tech industry, first as a technical writer, programmer, and manager for computer manufacturers, and then as a senior editor for O'Reilly & Associates, publishers of computer books. He is author of 'The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst' (1995), and editor of the NETFUTURE newsletter. He is currently a senior researcher at The Nature Institute, a non-profit research organization in Ghent, New York. The Institute seeks a renewal of science through the discipline of qualitative and holistic research. e-mail: [email protected]

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