Thursday, November 13, 2014

Ineluctable Modality of the Visible: Jacques Lusseyran's Literature of Light

Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it, it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see.
So begins Chapter 3 of James Joyce’s Ulysses, in the mind of his character Stephen Daedalus. The confusing opening phrase, “ineluctable modality of the visible,” I remember a college professor telling me, refers to the stubborn fact that reality presents itself first and foremost to us through our sight. Because we cannot avoid seeing, we give primacy to the visual aspects of reality. The appearance of something becomes that thing’s signature, its defining mark. The result is that we inevitably think about the world in structures and categories given to us by our sightedness, something that Daedalus tries to escape by closing his eyes as he walks along the shore. “Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand?” he wonders, as he hears the crack of shells under his boots.

We too, shut our eyes to grasp the eternal, or heighten our other senses. We close our eyes when we pray, sing, concentrate, even make love. Perhaps unconsciously, we recognize, as Joyce did, that in many ways we are prisoners of what we see.

This is an important reality to consider when thinking about the habits of mind of our students. Living as they do in a world spinning with visual stimuli, self-reflection does not come naturally to them, as their gaze is drawn outward toward the world around them, rather than within. I discovered this several years ago, when I gave my 9th graders the following essay prompt: “Given the choice, would you rather lose your sight or your ability to form new memories?” I had hoped that the question would cause them to think about what they valued, and weigh the significance of their inner reality, but I tried my best to avoid influencing their responses.

As I read through their essays I discovered that they had overwhelmingly chosen amnesia over blindness. Most of their justifications went something like this: “Although I won’t be able to make new memories I will still be able to write things down so I can access important names and places and tasks, and therefore function in the world, which is nearly impossible if you are blind.” Though I wasn’t surprised at this logic—what 14-year-old wants to be blind for the rest of his life?—I was struck by how few responses varied from this thesis.

All in all, I think I gained more from the essays than my students did. Reading their responses had forced me, fresh out of graduate school, to confront the world of the American high schooler. It was easy, after spending years reading and writing and thinking, to assume that everyone naturally did the same, and to forget just how visual and tactile a teenager’s world is.

Some of my seniors’ readings this semester have dealt with the theme of blindness, which, as Joyce’s Daedalus knows, can offer an antidote to the “ineluctable modality of the visible.” We’ve recently read Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex and a memoir entitled And There Was Light, written by Jacques Lusseyran (pictured above), a blind French Resistance leader and survivor of Buchenwald.  Both works present blindness as a mode of perception that allows us to access what is most real.

Like so much in Oedipus Rex, the play's treatment of blindness is largely symbolic, equating it with wisdom or insight. Teiresias, the blind prophet, cannot see yet knows the horrible truth that Oedipus has killed his father and married his mother. Apollo, the god of light and knowledge, oversees the play and, in the end, grants insight to Oedipus, who, upon realizing what he has done, chooses to blind himself, rather than following his mother’s lead and taking his own life. This punishment is appropriate in two ways. First, Oedipus cannot bear to look upon the results of his crime, Antigone and Ismene, who are both his daughters and sisters. Secondly, and more powerfully, because Oedipus now knows his crime and understands himself, his new blindness is a symbol that indicates that his gaze is directed inwards, not outwards. Like Teiresias, Oedipus now has wisdom. Apollo has gifted him with knowledge, with figurative light, and to recognize this, Oedipus lives out his days in literal darkness.

I had never heard of And There Was Light until a few months ago, when I came across it in a post at The Catholic English Teacher, an excellent blog from a secondary teacher in the U.K. Lusseyran’s memoir is a gem. He was blinded at a young age in an accident at school, and he speaks at length about how losing his sight, ironically, allowed him to see. He grows more perceptive, able to sense the presence of objects around him through a bat-like sense. In one memorable scene he describes going hiking with a sighted friend through the mountains. The friend helps Jacques navigate the rough trail, while Jacques points out the different peaks and valleys that open up in front of them. Lusseyran’s ability as a judge of human character is especially keen, and he becomes the sage of the resistance group, interviewing every potential member before he or she is allowed in. As such, the book presents blindness not simply as a symbol of wisdom, as Oedipus does, but as the real thing. Lusseyran’s blindness allows him to perceive the world more sharply and profoundly than those who are sighted.

Light, as the title suggests, is central to Lusseyran’s experience. It is not figurative—it is a real presence that allows the author to perceive the world through his blindness. He equates this light with joy, trust, and love, all things that unite him, in his blindness, to the people and places that surround him. In his own words:
…a light so continuous and so intense was so far beyond my comprehension that sometimes I doubted it. Suppose it was not real, that I had only imagined it. Perhaps it would be enough to imagine the opposite, or just something different, to make it go away. So I thought of testing it out or even of resisting it.

At night in bed, when I was all by myself, I shut my eyes. I lowered my eyelids as I might have done when they covered my physical eyes. I told myself that behind these curtains I would no longer see light. But light was still there, and more serene than ever, looking like a lake at evening when the wind has dropped. Then I gathered up all my energy and will power and tried to stop the flow of light, as I might have tried to stop breathing.

What happened was a disturbance, something like a whirlpool. But the whirlpool was still flooded with light. At all events I couldn’t keep this up for very long, perhaps only for two or three seconds. When this was going on I felt a sort of anguish, as though I were doing something forbidden, something against life. It was exactly as if I needed light to live – needed it as much as air. There was no way out of it. I was the prisoner of light. I was condemned to see.
Lusseyran speaks in an ironic sense here. It’s clear that as “prisoner of light,” he implies that this light sets him free, allowing him to live closer to God, to being itself. In this way, he is more free than his sighted companions, who must live with Joyce’s “ineluctable modality of the visible.” Because he is not suscept to the tyranny of sight and visual appearance, Lusseyran is liberated in a way that can only be described by paradox: “I was the prisoner of light… condemned to see.”

One of the most refreshing things about Lusseyran’s memoir is that he refuses to follow the trite formula that so often our high schoolers are subject to: that of “overcoming obstacles.” Everywhere, from ESPN’s human-interest stories to motivational speakers to movies, we hear stories about people who have struggled to overcome difficulties (physical, emotional, situational, etc.) to become successful. Usually these stories end in the protagonist becoming the head of a company, or champion of an event, or at the very least the proud recipient of the admiration of their peers.

These stories, of course, can be quite moving, and quite true, and I don’t mean to suggest here that the story of a handicapped youth who went on to win a Special Olympics medal should not be heard. From a Catholic perspective, though, these types of narratives often suffer because they present the difficulty to be overcome as merely an obstacle, as something that gets in the way of the individual achieving worth in the eyes of the world. Lusseyran refuses to follow this script. Blindness, in his memoir, is a gift, not an obstacle. It enables him to experience the richness of the world around him. He criticizes those parents who heap pity on their blind children and keep them shut in, rather than have them beholden to others. Even the blind themselves, he writes, often adopt this perspective:

I have heard blind people say this kind of dependence is their greatest affliction, turning them into poor relations or hangers-on. Some of them even look on this dependence as an added punishment, quite unjust, and call it a curse. I think they are wrong in two ways. They are wrong for their own sakes because they torment themselves without cause. They are wrong as they face life, since they are the ones who make a misfortune of dependence.

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.

As a Catholic, Lusseyran knows that we should aspire not to autonomy but to dependence on God. As a blind person, he has to live this reality every day. His memoir allowed me to glimpse that world, of trust, joy, and light, in a way that I never had before. The description of his experience in Buchenwald is perhaps the most poignant writing on the Holocaust that I’ve ever come across. I say not because of his horrific descriptions of suffering (there’s that, too), but for passages like these:
Of myself I can’t say why I was never entirely bereft of joy. But it was a fact and my solid support. Joy I found even in strange byways, in the midst of fear itself. And fear departed from me, as infection leaves an abscess when it bursts. By the end of a year in Buchenwald I was convinced that life was not at all as I had been taught to believe it, neither life nor society. For example, how could I explain that in block 56, my block, the only man who had volunteered day and night, for months, to watch over the most violent mad, to calm them down and feed them, to care for the ones with cancer, dysentery, typhus, to bathe them and comfort them, was a person of whom everyone said that in ordinary life he was effeminate, a parlor pederast, a man one would hesitate to associate with? But here he was the good angel, frankly the saint, the only saint in the Invalids’ Block. How account for the fact that Dietrich, the German criminal, arrested seven years before for strangling his mother and his wife, had turned brave and generous? Why was he sharing his bread with others at the risk of dying sooner? And why, at the same time, did that honest bourgeois from our country, that small tradesman from the Vendée, father of a family, get up in the night to steal the bread of other men?

These shocking things were not what I had read in books. They were there in front of me. I had no way of not seeing them, and they raised all kinds of questions in my mind. And last of all, was it Buchenwald, or was it the everyday world, what we call the normal life, which was topysy-turvy?
Our society is reluctant to admit dependence on others. One need look no further than last week’s news, from which we learned that a young Oregon woman had decided to end her life rather than suffer through the debilitating effects of cancer and palliative care. “I did not want this nightmare scenario for my family,” she writes. Though some who argue against assisted suicide may cast her as a villain, I think of her, rather, as a victim of modernity's social vision. We have created a society that sees reliance upon others as a defect, rather than the natural order. Given this premise, doesn’t it make sense that we would want to avoid burdening others with our suffering?
Lusseyran’s book presents a completely contrary vision. We are always dependent, he knows, sustained at all times by a light that connects us to everyone and everything. His book, and Sophocles’ play, are just some of many that can introduce our students to mystery, to a vision of the world that does not start from the premise that the self is isolated or that reality is primarily observable through our senses. I was fortunate to come across such a memoir from Lusseyran, from someone who, like Stephen Daedalus, Teiresias, and eventually, Oedipus, shuts his eyes and sees.


  1. Mike, another great post. As I was reading, I kept thinking about this opening scene from the film _The Apostle_. I've always loved it. Check it out if you haven't seen it before. -Steve

    1. First comment! Wish I had an award for you, Steve. I remember you talking about The Apostle, but that clip is the first I've seen from it. What a great scene--it looks like it was the real thing, not actors. I just saw that the movie is streaming on Netflix, so it's on my to watch list.