I No Longer Saw Faces

Blinded by an accident when he was six years old, the French memoirist Jacques Lusseyran learned to prefer his blind life over his previous sighted experience. “I no longer saw faces, and knew in all probability I should go through life without seeing them,” he wrote of those early sightless days, in his book And There Was Light.

Lusseyran’s greatest challenge wasn’t the lack of sight, but a world of confounding new messages encoded in sound. Without the distractions of vision, he could now hear what sighted people couldn’t. “People were not at all what they were said to be, and never the same for more than two minutes at a stretch. Some were, of course, but that was a bad sign, a sign that they did not want to understand or be alive . . . not having their faces before my eyes, I caught them off guard. People are not accustomed to this, for they only dress up for those who are looking at them.”

Sound changed for Lusseyran, forcing him, at first against his will, toward a secret entry into the world: “How should I explain to other people that all my feelings toward them, feelings of sympathy or antipathy, came to me from their voices? I tried to tell a few people it was so, that they could do nothing about it and neither could I. But soon I had to stop because it was clear that the idea was frightening to them.”

This hard-won ability to navigate the hidden psychological landscape of voices led him, at the age of 17, to become the leader of one of the largest French resistance organizations during the Nazi occupation of Paris. He was present at every recruiting interview because he alone could determine who could be trusted to join the cell, as he writes in his essay collection What One Sees Without Eyes: “Each new applicant was introduced to me, and to me alone. It was much easier for me than for anyone else to strip him of all pretenses. His voice betrayed his inner being, and sometimes it betrayed him. Finally I could make use of that inner life which fate had forced me to discover so early and so thoroughly.”

Only once was he overruled, and when that new conscript betrayed the underground cell Lusseyran and his comrades were sent to Buchenwald. Where, remarkably, he—a blind man—survived. In his essay “Poetry in Buchenwald” he explains that he did so by reciting aloud, from memory, poetry, and teaching others to do so as well. “Poetry chased men out of their ordinary refuges, which are places full of dangers. These bad refuges were memories of the time of freedom, personal histories. Poetry made a new place, a clearing . . . I learned that poetry is an act, an incantation, a kiss of peace, a medicine. I learned that poetry is one of the rare, very rare things in the world which can prevail over cold and hatred. No one had taught me this.”

Over the years I’ve found that I keep coming back to Lusseyran’s writing, for the particular mix of clarity and spirituality that marks his vision of the world, and his simple but powerful credo of paying attention. When Lusseyran could summon his concentration, he could, sightless, identify nearby trees, even small details of the landscape around him. “Being attentive unlocks a sphere of reality that no one suspects . . . the seeing commit a strange error. They believe that we know the world only through our eyes . . . permit me to say without reservation that if all people were attentive, if they would undertake to be attentive every moment of their lives, they would discover the world anew.”

This sort of deep attentiveness is a discipline a writer can direct not only outward, but inward as well. In creative non-fiction, in memoir, you write about what has happened to you, and how you have happened to others, but that is only the merest beginning. What is most important in non-fiction is how you tell what happened. And that brings us to voice, the creative nonfiction coin of the realm.

Voice is, in many ways, the written equivalent of your speech patterns, or the shifting landscape of your thought, or some combination thereof. One way to discover your own pattern would be to close your eyes, though not to imagine what it would be like to be blind. Instead, imagine what someone who is blind and attentive, like Lussreyran, might hear in your voice. Try listening, when you speak, to what your voice reveals and tries to conceal of what you know of yourself. If Jacques Lusseyran were listening to you, what do you think he would hear?

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7 Comments

  1. Dnty says:

    There is so much here, and so true. It is hard to speak to the more hidden ‘craft’ elements of nonfiction writing, the mystery part, but you, through Lusseyran, do it here. Thanks Philip.

  2. admin says:

    Thanks, Dinty! I was thinking of you when I posted this, because though Lusseyran was a Christian, I see him as more of a Sufi mystic, or a Buddhist . . .

  3. dw says:

    Here is the bit with which I resonated:

    “Poetry made a new place, a clearing . . . I learned that poetry is an act, an incantation, a kiss of peace, a medicine. I learned that poetry is one of the rare, very rare things in the world which can prevail over cold and hatred. No one had taught me this.”

    I usually balk at such deep claims for poetry, perhaps because I have never experienced such situations of extremity, and, more likely, because I don’t think poems can/have to hold the weight of such social power. But here I love that the power comes in making “a clearing.” Yes. That is the way poetry can be “an act,” a making of a spot to stand. Indeed, “no one taught me that” is a pretty good impetus to rethink my own pedagogy.

  4. Rebecca says:

    I like the suggestion to practice “listening” ” to oneself, discerning one’s own voice. It’s a bit like sonar, sending out sounds and hearing them more clearly as they come back. What alchemy takes place that transforms our own familiar yammering into some newly discovered “voice?” That may be the miracle of attentiveness, which has a required patience about it. (French attendez=wait)

    As to the comments about poetry, it seems to me that in rush hour traffic, for example, one might not sufficiently apprehend the marrow of poetry, but in Buchenwald…well, poetry and song are what we turn to when mere conversation no longer suffices. In times of suffering and crisis we may be forced into an attentiveness that places life and death perilously close to one another (as they are all the time, although we delude ourselves into keeping them far apart), and so as the luxury of preoccupation is removed we may long to find a place of peace, to dwell in a clearing, and to hear truth. Good poetry affords these things. What a beautiful reminder Lasseyan has offered.

  5. Rebecca says:

    Lusseyran! I have no idea where the other name came from.

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