I have just read a remarkable book, And There Was Light by Jacques Lusseyran. Lusseyran was blinded in a childhood accident but "every day since then," he wrote, "I have thanked heaven for making me blind while I was still a child not quite eight years old." Or, as he put it a little later, "I know that since the day I have been blind I never been unhappy", which is quite a statement coming from someone who only just survived the horrors of Buchenwald.
One of the fascinations of the book is the way Lusseyran described his experience of seeing. It took him a while to adjust to his blindness but then, "I 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 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."
He describes going for walks in the mountains with his friend and teaching his friend to see. He describes the inner canvas of memory which expanded (in a way which reminds me of Matteo Ricci's memory palace) to whatever size was required by his extraordinary mind. He describes the importance of others:
"I hear blind people say this kind of dependence is their greatest affliction, turning them into poor relations or hangers-on ... But can these sad blind point to a single individual anywhere who has not been dependent, even with his eyes, not waiting for someone else, nor subservient to better or stronger men or ones far away; not bound in one way or another to every living creature? Whatever the bond, be it hate, love, desire, power, weakness or blindness - it is part of us, and love is the simplest way to cope with it."
Light and love are the book's main themes, with all else being a variation on their beautiful melodies: the war, the resistance, betrayal, even the concentration camp are caught up in the greater music that Lusseyran creates.
The book also has great narrative power, especially when Lusseyran describes his life during the war. As a 16-year old, he recruited 10 friends to a resistance group, only to find that 52 turned up to the initial meeting. Before long there were 600 in the group of which he was the head.
"Being blind" he writes in another context, "seemed to give me nothing but advantages." But it was true during the war as well. He led his resistance group not despite his blindness but because of it. It was he who recruited and he who could tell, when others could not, who was unreliable, who a spy, who could bring death to them all.
His movement grew in size, merged with another larger group and then was betrayed from within. Along with thousands of others he was sent to Buchenwald. Of the 2000 men with whom he travelled only thirty survived.
But it is the reasons he gives for his survival that set this book apart from many others. Lusseyran is quite clear about what he and his group stood for: "Christian morality and its absolute demands for respect and love."
After almost dying of disease at Buchenwald, Lusseyran "hardly needed to look out for myself, and such concern would have seemed to me ridiculous. I knew it was dangerous and it was forbidden. I was free now to help the others; not always, not much, but in my own way I could help. I could try to show other people how to go about holding on to life. I could turn towards them the flow of light and joy which had grown so abundant in me. ... Often my comrades would wake me up in the night and take me to comfort someone, sometimes a long way off in another block. ... Hundreds of men confided in me. ... I did my best to understand them all. That is how I lived, how I survived."
And, just in case, this seems too safe, too idealistic, Lusseyran reminds us that he knew full well what depth of evil had been plumbed by the Nazis: "The hardest thing was not the cold, not even that. It was the men themselves, our comrades and other prisoners, all the ones sharing our miseries. Suffering had turned some into beasts. ... For years the SS had so calculated the terror that either it killed or it bewitched. Hundreds of men at Buchenwald were bewitched. The harm done them was so great that it had entered into them body and soul. And now it possessed them. They were no longer victims. They were doing injury in their turn and doing it methodically. The man in charge of our quarantine barracks was a German, an anti-Nazi who had been there for six years. Rumour had it that he had been a hero. Now, every day, he killed two or three of us with his own hands, barehanded or with a knife. He struck out in the crowd at random. It was a satisfaction he could no longer live without."
It is a terrifying description because it is so plausible and yet it is not the only picture to emerge from this book. Lusseyran also describes criminals, even murderers, who become saints. He describes men who refused to bow down before the false gods of the Nazis. He lived on hope and describes it beautifully.