Siji Loto

Mind & Pen on Fire

And There Was Light by Jacques Lusseyran: Summary, Notes, And Lessons

I first heard about this book from one of my favorite blog sites. I bought it after a few weeks and dug into it. It was a fascinating read.

The book is an autobiography of Jacques Lusseyran, a blind hero in the French Resistance movement during World War II. When Lusseyran was eight years old, he got in an accident at his school and lost his right eye. His left eye then suffered from “sympathetic inflammation” and he became completely blind by the next day. He said that he was grateful that he didn’t become blind when he was older because the habits of a young boy aren’t fully developed which made it easier for him to adjust. Interestingly, he also said, “since the day I went blind I have never being unhappy.”

Lusseyran said that in this midst of his blindness he discovered a radiant light that came from nowhere and became part of his life.He spoke about the intensity of the light and meticulously described how the light changed the way he viewed life and interacted with people.

 “I found light and joy at the same moment, and I can say without hesitation that from that time on light and joy have never been separated in my experience. I have had them or lost them together.”   

Lusseyran, also started becoming more sensitive to the sound of objects around him (that most people would ignore). He didn’t necessarily believe that blindness sharpens hearing but that blindness makes one use the ears better (he felt his hearing was the same before and after he became blind). He also had the special ability of reading people’s voices beyond their words. He was capable of detecting anger, turmoil, deceit, hypocrisy etc from the sound of people’s voice.

“So there was a moral music. Our appetites, our humours, our secret vices, even our best-guarded thoughts were translated into the sounds of our voices, into tones, inflections and rhythms.”

He could also feel the vibrations or “pressures” of the objects that he touched (sometimes he felt objects even before he touched them). He also had a special way of memorizing names, words, objects, figures and maps. His friends even turned to him for direction whenever they got lost in a city. Jacques also had a heightened sense of smell. He postulated that there were both physical and moral odors. He could detect anger, frustration, humiliation, confusion etc. by scent. WOW!!

Lusseyran controversially argued that special schools for the blind although well-meaning could be an obstacle to the progress of a blind kid. He contended:

“The only way to be completely cured of blindness, and I mean socially, is never treat it as a difference, a reason for separation, an infirmity, but to consider it a temporary impediment, a peculiarity of course but one which will be overcome today or at the latest tomorrow. The cure is to immerse oneself again and without delay in a life that is as real and difficult as the lives of others. And that is just what a special school, even the most generous and intelligent of them, does not allow.”

He didn’t think that special schools were bad. He believed that blind children would fare better in society if they interacted with other children on a daily basis instead being separated for special treatment. He warned that isolation was a bigger threat than any physical problem that a blind child might face. Lusseyran and his parents fought for him to be put back in school with the other students despite societal (prejudicial) resistance. His mother compassionately supported him through out his schooling as a young boy. She even learned Braille with him. He described her actions:

“But to competence she added love, and it is well known that that kind of love removes obstacles more effectively than all the sciences.”

That is the definition of a great mother!!

One of the most riveting part of the book was the description of his friendship with a guy named Jean. They met at the same school and Jean would always take Lusseyran to school and help me out with his school work. Their friendship began to grow gradually. Their bond became so strong they felt they could communicate telepathically and the thought of separating from each other in the future “was like thinking about death”. They swore to tell each other the truth and nothing but the truth or just keep silent. There was even a time that they chatted for 14 hours without interruption (this was music to my ears because I like to talk a lot!!). This is the kind of deep intimacy and friendship that I crave.

Unfortunately, World War II began and the Germans had invaded and occupied France. Paris was swarming with German traitors. Everyone was on guard. School was suspended temporarily. However, classes were restarted again after a few weeks. Lusseyran and his fellow classmates got a new history teacher. He taught the students with conviction, passion and intelligence. He asked them tough questions about their lives. He challenged the students’ sense of morality about them fighting back against Germany invading France. The teacher inspired Lusseyran and friends to stand up against the Nazi evil that was plaguing Europe. He allowed the students to express themselves freely in his class. He taught his students in depth about history, culture, politics, philosophy etc. The teacher even went beyond his syllabus and kept his students in class for 1 – 2 hours after the period was over (they had the freedom to leave if they wanted). And of course Jacques and most of his classmates stayed because of their fascination with the professor and what he taught them. He got Lusseyran to give a presentation in front of the class about a history assignment that he had been given. He took Lusseyran’s presentation notes away from him and told him, “When someone takes off on a trip, he puts his luggage in the baggage car.” Jacques was quite anxious about the speech because that was the first time he ever spoke in public and he notes were taken away from him. Lusseyran then remembered what he called his ‘inner screen’ (in his mind) that he used to memorise facts, names, maps etc. and then he used it to access his notes mentally. He gave a profound speech which lasted an hour and the teacher applauded (which he never did). Lusseyran didn’t even know what he himself said to the class. He had to ask his classmates exactly what he said and he was shocked to hear what they told him. He hadn’t read it anywhere neither was it in his notes. It’s like the speech came out of nowhere and he felt like his mind was outrunning his knowledge.

At this point Jacques started getting fed up with the lethargy of the french people in the wake of Germany’s occupation of France. He started discussing with a few of his classmates about resisting the Germans. He sent out invitations for a preliminary meeting and he expected only like 10 people to show up. However, on the day of the meeting 52 boys showed up at the location. Everyone sat down and all eyes were on him waiting for him to speak. He didn’t plan anything and he wasn’t expecting that many people to show, but inspiration & strategy came to him as he started talking. He described the scenario:

“…an unaccustomed radiance filled my head, and my heart stopped beating out of rhythm. All at once I began to understand everything I had been seeking and not finding over the past weeks. 

The consciences of my companions seemed to lie wide open before me, and all I needed was to read them. As to my own conscience, it no longer troubled me. I had dedicated it to a cause which must have the power of truth since it was teaching me to speak all those words I had never uttered before.”

He laid out the plan of how the Resistance movement would function to his companions. They called themselves the Volunteers of Liberty. A lot of times in life you have to take the first step of faith in the dark before you see the path that you should be headed on. Inspiration will come when you take action. In case you forgot, he was 16 years old and blind. In our generation we have ’16 and pregnant’ TV shows. Where’s are the ’16 and courageous’ TV shows?

Lusseyran and his friends (who were teenagers) had more courage than men over thirty years old. Men over thirty years old accounted for only a fifth of the French Resistance. The Resistance Movement set out to destroy defeatism and apathy which was infecting the French people. They wanted to show their fellow countrymen how evil the Nazi regime was. Their main weapon was information not arms. The Germans had taken over all news and media outlets in France so all the news was mostly bias or fake. They secretly printed and distributed anti-propaganda bulletins. Their aim was to wake the people of France from their apathy and slumber, so that Germany wouldn’t destroy their way of life.

The Volunteers of Liberty had to screen the new recruits because of the abundance of German spies in France. The Resistance sent the new recruits to an unknown location to be alone with Lusseyran. His blindness cut them off guard. How can you fool a boy who is blind? He focused on reading their voices (as I mentioned before) as he asked them random questions. They could say all the right things but their voices would give them away. Jacques was mostly accurate and the the Resistance grew to about 600 people.

While Jacques was leading the French Resistance he was also high school student. He graduated and went to the University of Paris. to study literature. His teachers advised him to go to a special class which was highly competitive in order to be admitted to the École Normale Supérieure—which was the “highest institution in the French educational system.” The work the students had to do was rigorous and intensive. Lusseyran had to find a way to manage his intense school life along with his secret Resistance life which meant going full throttle for two years. And he pulled it off!! He recounted how he lived for those two years:

“I had made it a point of honor to set up a balance between my two lives, the public and the secret. My days oscillated between studies and action at a frightening pace. In the morning between four o’clock and seven, I walked through books two or three steps at a time. From eight to noon I listened to the teachers, took frenzied notes and tried to absorb knowledge as fast as it was given out. In the afternoon, from two to four, I was still in class. Then at four o’clock the Resistance began.

There were trips across Paris by routes set up in advance for greater safety, meetings, surveys, judgments, discussions, orders to be given, worries, putting the doubting ones back on the road, supervision of founding groups, calls for coolness to those who thought the Resistance was like a detective story, deliberation over the articles for the bulletin, sifting of news, time lost in the kind of summons which could be made neither by letter because of censorship nor by telephone because of lines tapped. By this time it was already eleven o’clock at night, and I believe I only stopped because of the curfew.

Alone in my room at last, I immersed myself in my studies again, and kept on learning until my fingers grew stiff in the pages of Braille. Since my interest in life and my confidence in it were boundless, everything seemed to me as significant the tenth time I encountered it as it had the first. And that gave me an enthusiasm which enabled me to go through fatigue without feeling it, through food which was already very bad, even through cold.”

Yeah, it was that intense. He said that he devoted the same passion to his studies as he did to the Resistance movement. I come back to read those paragraphs when I get into the habit of giving excuses about the time I don’t have for things the that matter to me (and of course I seem to have the time to waste on frivolous things like TV shows and social media).

One day Lusseyran was asked by a friend about a fault in people that he despised the most and he answer was “Dullness and Mediocrity.” He continued:

“Whether they were Catholics, Jews, Protestants, free thinkers or not thinkers at all, all the men of the Resistance shared the same credo. For them life was not made to be lived half-way.”

I really love the idea of living life FULLY without dullness and mediocrity. Why be average like everyone else? This lethargic behaviour was rampant among the French people and it pissed Jacques off. There was a name given to the people who didn’t say or do anything to fight for their country: “les attentistes, the waiting ones”. Lusseyran didn’t understand what they were waiting for. He argued:

“Society for me was divided into two parts, the Hard and the Soft. It was not cowards one found among the soft ones, and certainly not traitors, for traitors were almost always the hard ones who had gone wrong, but the formless race of the procrastinators, all the ones who approved of what we were doing and were careful not to be involved in it. These, of all times, were not times for meaning well.”

Lusseyran and his friends felt like the Volunteers of Liberty was stagnating. They lacked the resources and manpower needed to increase the amount of anti-propaganda newspapers needed for distribution. They decided to partner with another Resistance group called the ‘Defense de la France’ led by a man called Phillipe who really left riveting first impression on Jacques and his friend (you can read it hear). There were also devout and strong-willed women who were leaders in the French Resistance movement.  This partnership caused an exponential increase in the distribution of those newspapers. The people involved in the circulation of those papers increased from six hundred to five thousand with at least twenty thousand newspapers in print. The main aim of the paper was to awaken the conscience of the French people. The newspapers contained information and visual proof of what the Nazis were really doing i.e. political prisons, concentration camps, mass graves and extermination of the Jews etc. The Resistance considered their newspaper a Christian paper. The Defense de la France “stood for Christian morality and its absolute demands for respect and love.”

The bond between the men in the Resistance was captivating. Jacques explained it as follows:

There were about twenty of us, living intertwined with our hearts open to one another, one protecting the next man, the next man protecting him, in a traffic of common hopes so close and so continuous that in the end it made an opening in our skins and fused us all into a single person…Phillipe’s wife gave birth to a son, the child was for all of us, our son also, born in a sacred spot.

Friendship was salvation, in this fragile world the only thing left that was not fragile. I promise you one can be drunk on friendship as well as on love.

I love that. Unity of the souls of men fighting for a great cause. We always experience and see people being drunk on love & romance. But can you imagine being drunk on friendship?

However, this beautiful story didn’t go so well. Lusseyran and a bunch of his companions in the Resistance got arrested because of a German traitor (You got to hate snitches!!). Lusseyran was interrogated for a few months before he was finally taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Only Jacques and about thirty other men survived out of the two thousand men who were transported to the concentration camp with him. After a painful near-death battle with sickness Jacques became a beacon of hope, light and joy to his fellow inmates at the concentration camp. People secretly confided in him. Sometimes, someone would wake him up at night to go and comfort someone who lived on the other side of the camp. A bunch of Ukrainians in the camp did something so delightful for him. He recounts it:

…fifteen hundred Ukrainians set me down in the middle of their block, made a ring around me, sang, danced, played the accordion, wept, sang again…that night I promise you I no longer needed to defend myself against the past or the future. The present was as round and full as a sphere and it warmed me many times over.

After a few months the American and the Allied forces won the war and released the prisoners. When he got released he found out that number of his friends in the Resistance had died. It was sad. However, he later on got married and became a father. In 1958 he moved to the United States and became an Associate Professor till his death in 1971. He wrote this book with a sense of gratitude towards God and his country. I’m going to end it with the two truths that defined his life.

…first…joy does not come from outside, for whatever happens to us it is within. The second truth is that light does not come to us from without. Light is in us, even if we have no eyes.  


Other quotes I found interesting

…children know everything with their whole beings, while we [adults] know it only with our heads.

…a child’s courage is the most natural thing in the world, the thing to do, through life, at each moment.

Children are much more ready to change their environment than adults. They haven’t had time to be smug about the one they already know.

Try telling a grown-up person that you don’t see things as he does! Beware! You will annoy him and probably even shock him.

Most grown-ups seemed to be either imbeciles or cowards. They never stopped telling us children that we must prepare for life, in other words for the kind of life they were leading, because it was the only good and right one, of that they were certain.

I have no intention of putting stupidity and malice on trial.

I couldn’t understand why the teachers never talked about the life going on inside them or inside us….There was never any talk of real people like the teacher or ourselves.

As for the subjects of all subjects, the fact that the world is not just outside us but also within, this was entirely lacking.

This interior world of mine was so important to me that I was determined to protect it from shipwreck, and to rescue it I never stopped making concessions to the public, to books, to my parents and teachers

Friendship was a fragile state of mind or body, one that vanished as soon as you made a habit of it. To renew it every day was an obligation and hard work.

I sat up late at night. I had thrown myself furiously into the study of philosophy. I wanted to understand it all,and felt it was urgent. I don’t know why, but it seemed to me that such a chance would not come again, that I was going to be snatched away to more wordly responsibilities.

A country in disaster is swarming with traitors.

And nothing is more revealing of any individual…than elaborate explanations.

I was aware that my conscience was in touch with the conscience of hundreds of others, growing in rhythm with their suffering or their hopes.

None of use had the illusion of being important, but all of us were sure of being necessary.

All of us had plunged into courage. It was our element. We were swimming in it and had no eyes left but for the shore.

Girls were a strange breed. They managed to breathe life into your body and even your mind.

If only in peacetime men could find a way of being more like the friends I made in time of war!

You hardly suffer when you’re not suffering alone. I was beginning to find that out.

Don’t even believe in yourself. Only God exists.

If God’s pity does not exist, then there is nothing left.

Fear is the real name of despair.

If they didn’t give me any bread to eat. I would feed on hope


Get the book – And There Was Light

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