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. He had never lived through an Occupation, and did not know what it was "supposed" to be like. 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 redeeming illnesses 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 in the end we might pay 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. But on this we should allow the "victims" to speak for themselves. 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?
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?
There will be no shortage of people eager to lay out a path for us down the slippery slope Ray Kurzweil so enthusiastically describes. 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.
Lest there be any misunderstanding, let me repeat myself. It is not for you or me to say to anyone: use, or do not use, this prosthesis. Continually new devices will be, and ought to be, taken up by those who can benefit from them. But if we don't at the same time sweat those drops of blood if we don't cultivate with all the powers at our disposal the kind of inner light that Lusseyran was forever running toward then Kurzweil and all his kin will have been right: we will become machines.
In other words, 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 solution for 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 most 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.