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Extraordinary Lives: Disability and Destiny in a Technological Age
Stephen L. Talbott

Chapter 2: Can Technology Make the Handicapped Whole?

If, along our passage to a tolerable, technology-permeated future, there lies a single stretch where we will have to sweat drops of blood in order to stay the course, surely it will be that stretch peopled by "the handicapped". Here is where, no matter how radical or uncertain or dangerous a technology promises to be for society at large, we will be overwhelmingly tempted by our own generous impulses to grant exceptions for the disabled. And, from retinal or cochlear implants to machine-harnessed brain waves to wholesale fiddling with the nervous system, this is probably enough of a beachhead to bring the technology into general use. Who could deny any possible technical assist to the tragic victims of a major functional deficit?

In The Age of Spiritual Machines Ray Kurzweil makes the argument as explicit as possible. Repeatedly reminding his readers that we are on a "slippery slope", he plunges into the downhill slide with resigned abandon. Eventually, he assures us, we will replace the entire human body and its intelligence with vastly more capable digital technologies.

To combine the metaphors a bit awkwardly: the narrow passage is our only alternative to the slippery slope. This chapter is my attempt, not to traverse the passage, but at least to point it out. I may not have sweated drops of blood while writing these words, but I don't think I have ever written a piece under a more compelling sense of urgency, or with a greater awareness of my own inadequacy.

The chapter takes the form of commentary on a book, And There Was Light, by Jacques Lusseyran, 2nd edition (New York: Parabola Books, 1998). The book was originally written in 1953, and does not mention computers. Nevertheless, I do not know any work more germane to the matter at hand. And I count the book among the handful of the most significant productions of this century.



In Paris in the spring of 1941 the sixteen-year-old Jacques Lusseyran stood in front of fifty-two carefully chosen boys and young men. His panic of a few days previous -- panic at the thought of carrying this responsibility -- was now behind him. In assured tones he explained to the fifty-two that
they would not be able to close the door they had opened that night. What we were making, they and I together, was called a Resistance Movement. The fact that the oldest of us was not yet twenty-one, and that I was not quite seventeen, though it did not make all our operations simple, made some of them possible. So long as people thought of us as kids, they would not suspect us, at least not right away.

So it was that Lusseyran created the Volunteers of Liberty in Nazi-occupied France. Growing to six hundred members over the next year or two, it published and distributed an underground newspaper, created a network for the protection and repatriation of downed English airmen, and later joined forces with the Defense of France to publish what would eventually become France-Soir, the most important daily newspaper in Paris.

Hearing with More Than Ears

The young Jacques was entrusted by his co-conspirators with sole responsibility for recruiting new members for the Volunteers of Liberty. For one thing, his extraordinary memory allowed him to report on his contacts and to summarize the week's intelligence without writing notes on scraps of paper -- scraps that might be found by the wrong people. More importantly, those who knew him believed he had a special "sense for the human being" -- a sense that was infallible, or nearly so.

This special inner sense, feeding upon images, colors, textures, sounds, was a gift Lusseyran already possessed as a young boy. He tells, for example, of the time his math teacher "came into the classroom, clapped his hands and boldly began his lecture":

He was lucid that day, as he usually was, perhaps more interesting than ever, a little too interesting. His voice, instead of falling into place at the end of the sentence, as it should have, going a tone or two down the scale, hung in the air, a bit sharp. It was as though the teacher wanted to hide something that day, put a good face on it before an unknown audience, prove that he was not giving in, that he would carry on to the end because he had to. Meanwhile, accustomed to the cadence of his sentences falling as regularly as the beat of a metronome, I listened attentively, and was distressed on his account. I wanted to help, but that seemed foolish, for I had no reason for thinking him unhappy. All the same he was unhappy, bitterly unhappy. The terrible "intelligence" of gossip told us a week later that his wife had just left him.

Lusseyran then goes on:

I ended by reading so many things into voices without wanting to, without even thinking about it, that voices concerned me more than the words they spoke. Sometimes, for minutes at a time in class, I heard nothing, neither the teacher's questions nor the answers of my comrades. I was too much absorbed by the images that their voices were parading through my head. All the more since these images half the time contradicted, and flagrantly, the appearance of things. For instance, the student named Pacot had just been given 100 by the teacher of history. I was astonished, because Pacot's voice had informed me, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he had understood nothing. He had recited the lesson, but only with his lips. His voice sounded like an empty rattle, with no substance in the sound.
....
A beautiful voice (and beautiful means a great deal in this context, for it means that the man who has such a voice is beautiful himself) remains so through coughing and stammering. An ugly voice, on the contrary, can become soft, scented, humming, singing like the flute. But to no purpose. It stays ugly just the same.

As recruiter and co-leader of one of the five largest Resistance organizations in France, Lusseyran enjoyed many striking successes. But in 1943 he and many of his comrades were betrayed to the Germans, imprisoned for six months, and interrogated by the Gestapo. Then they were shipped off to Buchenwald. Of the two thousand persons in this shipment, Lusseyran was one of about thirty who remained alive when General Patton's troops liberated Buchenwald fifteen months later. (See the book excerpt below for a vignette drawn from his stay in the concentration camp.)

The remarkable thing is that Lusseyran could not see. He had totally lost his sight in an accident when he was between seven and eight years old. It was to a blind youth that his comrades in the Resistance entrusted their fate, and it was the same blind youth who found the hidden resources to survive the horrors of Buchenwald.

Lost Sight, Second Sight

Growing up, the young Jacques seemed almost intoxicated with life. He was forever running -- "the whole of my childhood was spent running".

Only I was not running to catch hold of something. That is a notion for grown-ups and not the notion of a child. I was running to meet everything that was visible, and everything that I could not yet see. I traveled from assurance to assurance, as though I were running a race in relays.

He recalls a vivid moment of self-realization on his fourth birthday when he was running along the pavement toward a triangle of light. "I was being projected toward this pool of light, drawn up by it, and, waving my arms and legs, cried out to myself: `I am four years old and I am Jacques'".

Before his accident, he was fascinated above all by light. He spent hours watching it flow over the buildings and streets of his neighborhood. Even darkness held light for him, but "in a new form and a new rhythm .... Nothing in the world, not even what I saw inside myself with closed eyelids, was outside this great miracle of light."

Then one Easter holiday as his family was preparing to return to Paris from a country vacation, the young boy was overtaken by the sadness of a strange presentiment. Surveying the sunlit garden of his country home, he began to cry. When his mother asked what the trouble was, he answered, "I am never going to see the garden again".

Three weeks later the accident occurred. Bumped by a fellow student in a classroom, his head fell against the corner of a desk, and the rigid frame of his glasses gouged deeply into him. One eye had to be removed, and the other, with a badly torn retina, was completely blind.

Here it must be said that one of the miracles of Lusseyran's book, although it emerges mostly as unspoken background, is the miracle of his parents. Beyond the first few pages his parents are scarcely mentioned, but what he does say in those first pages bears just about the highest praise any parent could hope for:

My parents were protection, confidence, warmth. When I think of my childhood I still feel the sense of warmth above me, behind and around me, that marvellous sense of living not yet on one's own, but leaning body and soul on others who accept the charge.

My parents carried me along, and that, I am sure, is the reason why through all my childhood I never touched ground. I could go away and come back. Objects had no weight and I never became entangled in the web of things. I passed between dangers and fears as light passes through a mirror. That was the joy of my childhood, the magic armour which, once put on, protects for a lifetime.

This going and coming, this weightlessness or lightness of being, incidentally, is a far different matter from the too-shrilly-celebrated freedom and weightlessness of cyberspace. The latter sort of weightlessness is often spoken of today as a feature of the world of "bits" rather than the world of "atoms". But the lightness of the young Jacques was a consequence of his incessant running to meet the things of the atom-world -- and his discovering that all these things, when truly engaged, speak the weightless language of light.

Amazingly, even after Jacques' accident, his parents never suggested in any way that he was "deprived" of the light, or that he suffered a deficit or handicap. The accident was treated matter of factly, like all other events of childhood, and the assumption was that, just as before, Jacques would continue doing all the things his circumstances allowed, without special fuss.

And why should he have been treated as a special case? As Lusseyran himself says,

Children never complain against circumstances, unless of course grown-ups are so foolish as to suggest it to them. For an eight-year-old what "is" is always best. He knows nothing of bitterness or anger. He may have a sense of injustice, but only if injustice comes from people. For him events are always signs from God.

The stance of Lusseyran's parents meant that -- in an era when this was almost unheard of -- he continued going to the same school he attended before, where he received First Prize in his class at the end of the next year. Eventually he would enter an elite Upper First class in the University. Later, after passing tests for the highest educational institution in France, the Ecole Normale Superieure, he would be denied entry by the collaborationist goverment at Vichy. Why? Because of his physical "defect".

Dangers

But most remarkable of all was Lusseyran's claim that, despite his total blindness, he learned to see.

Not at once, I admit. Not in the days immediately after the operation. For at that time I still wanted to use my eyes. I followed their usual path. I looked in the direction where I was in the habit of seeing before the accident, and there was anguish, a lack, something like a void which filled me with what grown-ups call despair.

Finally, one day, and it was not long in coming, I realized that I was looking in the wrong way. It was as simple as that. I was making something very like the mistake people make who change their glasses without adjusting themselves. I was looking too far off, and too much on the surface of things.

And so he changed course, looking "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.

Not only light, but also color.

My father and mother, the people I met or ran into in the street, all had their characteristic color which I had never seen before I went blind. Yet now this special attribute impressed itself on me as part of them as definitely as any impression created by a face. Still, the colors were only a game, while light was my whole reason for being. I let it rise in me like water in a well, and I rejoiced.

But this inner light sometimes departed. Fear, anger, and impatience were enough to make Jacques blind again. When he lost his confidence and began to fear the obstacles in his way, he could no longer move easily among them. Everything hurt him. "What the loss of my eyes had not accomplished was brought about by fear".

Perhaps an even greater danger than his own fear lay in the reactions of others. In his book Lusseyran gives great credit to his parents for not imagining that their own way of knowing the world was the only one. He advises parents of a blind child never to say "You can't know that because you can't see" -- and to say as little as possible, "Don't do that; it's dangerous". The adult's pity, fear, and embarrassment are the worst disaster for someone who has been blinded, as one of Lusseyran's encounters makes clear:

When I was fifteen I spent long afternoons with a blind boy my own age, one who went blind, I should add, in circumstances very like my own. Today I have few memories as painful. This boy terrified me. He was the living image of everything that might have happened to me if I had not been fortunate, more fortunate than he. For he was really blind. He had seen nothing since his accident. His faculties were normal, he could have seen as well as I. But they had kept him from doing so. To protect him, as they put it, they had cut him off from everything, and made fun of all his attempts to explain what he felt. In grief and revenge, he had thrown himself into a brutal solitude. Even his body lay prostrate in the depths of an armchair. To my horror I saw that he did not like me.

When we devise technical aids for the disabled, we need to ask ourselves to what degree our thinking aligns itself with Lusseyran's upbringing or with that of his unhappy acquaintance. Our attitude in this respect, after all, is probably much more significant for the person we would help than is the technical wizardry we put at his disposal.

Attending to the World with New Eyes

Lusseyran's story presents a mystery for us sighted people, who speak so naturally of the "night" of blindness. It's not easy to understand what he means by "seeing". Throughout his book he tells how his freedom of movement was restricted by his blindness, and how he spent much of his time guided by friends as he walked -- or ran -- through city and countryside. But at the same time these friends quickly learned to take it for granted that, in some ways, he saw more of this passage than they did, so that he was often at least as quick as they to warn of danger or to announce what lay over the next rise.

He tells how objects in his environment would come to life on his "inner canvas", how his senses of hearing, smell, and touch gained revelatory qualities that departed in wildly unexpected ways from the "normal" performance of these senses, and how all objects exert a kind of "pressure" even from a distance -- a pressure one can respond to in an intimate sensory dance that blurs the visually enforced boundaries commonly felt between object and perceiver.

As to his "seeing" in particular, here is one of his attempts to describe it:

As I walked along a country road bordered by trees, I could point to each one of the trees by the road, even if they were not spaced at regular intervals. I knew whether the trees were straight and tall, carrying their brances as a body carries its head, or gathered into thickets and partly covering the ground around them.

This kind of exercise soon tired me out, I must admit, but it succeeded. And the fatigue did not come from the trees, from their number or shape, but from myself. To see them like this I had to hold myself in a state so far removed from old habits that I could not keep it up for very long. I had to let the trees come towards me, and not allow the slightest inclination to move towards them, the smallest wish to know them, to come between them and me. I could not afford to be curious or impatient or proud of my accomplishment.

After all, such a state is only what one commonly calls "attention", but I can testify that when carried to this point it is not easy.

All this may remind some readers of the ancient doctrine that we actually see by virtue of two lights, one of which, more subtle, streams out from us, and the other of which streams from without into our eyes. It may remind others of the findings of twentieth-century studies in perception.

In his book, The Organism, neurologist Kurt Goldstein demonstrated that the senses (like all other part of the organism) never deliver isolated and local performances. For example, every visual sense impression corresponds to a different muscle tension:

If one asks a patient, preferably a cerebellar patient (who exhibits these phenomena, often exceptionally clearly), to raise his arms forward so that they are in a somewhat unstable position, and if one exposes him to various colors (e.g., large sheets of colored paper), we notice that green and blue stimulation lead to a change of the position of the arms in the opposite direction as that induced by yellow or red stimulation.

More generally, color influences our volitional movements, so that, depending on whether a light is red or green, "movements are carried out with a different speed" even though the difference is not subjectively experienced. Likewise,

the estimates of traversed distances vary as to length; seen and felt distances, time intervals and weights are judged differently under the influence of different colors.

Goldstein notes that stimulation of the skin by different colors can also lead to different effects. In sum, "it is probably not a false statement to say that a specific color stimulation is accompanied by a specific response pattern of the entire organism." This is even true when the stimulation does not involve sense objects in the usual sense of the term, as when infrared or ultraviolet light is experienced.

All this stands to reason. If the organism is a unity, a whole in the deepest sense, then every effort precisely to define a deficit -- a missing piece or a missing function -- is problematic. Given a true organism, you can, to one degree or another, without predefined limit, arrive at the whole through any of its parts, because the whole is immanent in each of the parts. All our senses form a unity that can be gotten at -- with more or less success depending on our inner resources -- through any combination of them.

The Human Being as a Developing Potential

Today we are strongly inclined to technologize every disability, conceiving it as wholly defined by a specific malfunction of a piece of machinery, and immediately setting about the task of "fixing" the malfunction, as if that were the whole story.

What Lusseyran's experience suggests is that this is only a tiny part of the story -- and perhaps the least important part. By restricting our notion of "seeing" to the narrowest of mechanisms -- the eyeball understood as a camera -- we close ourselves off to many of life's richest possibilities.

Lusseyran himself had little patience for such attitudes. Noting that the blind suffer greatly "from the inexperience of those who still have their eyes", he goes on to laud his parents,

whose hearts and intelligence were open to spiritual things, for whom the world was not composed exclusively of objects that were useful, and useful always in the same fashion; for whom, above all, it was not necessarily a curse to be different from other people. Finally, mine were parents willing to admit that their way of looking at things, the usual way, was perhaps not the only possible one, and to like my way and encourage it.

Indeed, as Lusseyran remarks elsewhere, after his accident his father said to him: "Always tell us when you discover something." What extraordinary and liberating advice! One of my own sons had experience of synaesthesia (perception of sound as color) when he was young, and I have often regretted our not having found a way to make a natural place for such experiences in the home. In general, I suspect that if the imaginations and perceptions of childhood -- above all, the perceptions of ensouled nature that come so naturally to children -- were not systematically suppressed by adult obtuseness, we would live in a radically different world today.

In the introduction to a collection of Lusseyran's essays (Against the Pollution of the I, Parabola Books, 1999), Christopher Bamford mentions a Dutch girl born deaf. Remarkably, her parents decided to treat her as if she could hear. So they spoke to her constantly, read stories, sang songs. The girl grew up to be exceptionally intelligent and happy. And "she speaks clearly, without the slurring common among the deaf." Today she counsels the parents of deaf children. She also enjoys music and goes to concerts.

As Bamford observes, "Evidently we hear with more than our ears". In fact, "the story of the Dutch girl puts in question whether we 'hear' sound in the usual sense at all". His point, if I take him correctly, is that understanding comes to us along innumerable dimensions, the sum of which is that one person participates with another "in a world of love and meaning". To reduce the possibilities of that shared world to the bare potentials of an imagined set of one-dimensional mechanisms is to lose sight of nearly everything that counts.

Saving Illnesses

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 personal crises 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?

Finding the Place for Technology

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 I 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 answer to 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 the rest 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.


The Living and the Dead

When Jacques Lusseyran arrived at Buchenwald, totally blind, he didn't know how to defend himself. "One day out of two", he writes, "people were stealing my bread and my soup. I got so weak that when I touched cold water my fingers burned as if they were on fire."

And yet, jumping past the story he tells below, we find that Lusseyran became the "official" newscaster for some thirty thousand prisoners in the concentration camp. He made it his business to listen carefully to the German newscasts that came over the loudspeaker system, inferring everything he could from the gaps and circumlocutions in the reports. He also received news from France, England and Russia via a clandestine radio set up by some prisoners in one of the cellars. With this intelligence he went around to the several blocks in the camp and announced the daily progress of the Allied invasion of France and Germany.

It is hard to imagine what this service meant in Buchenwald. Lusseyran found that rumors were rampant, impossible to trace. "Paris had fallen once a day .... All were guilty, all were peddling rumors .... Doubt and agony were taking root .... Everyone lied at Buchenwald, some from discouragement, some from fear, others from ignorance, and some viciously. I have watched men inventing the bombing of cities just for the pleasure of torturing a neighbor who had all his dear ones in that place".

It would have been possible to write the news out, have it translated by other prisoners into the several languages of the camp, and then distributed. But this disembodied communication, Lusseyran says, would not have served the need, which was for "realities that went straight to the heart. Only a man standing before them could give them that. They needed his calm and his voice, and it was I who had become the voice."

So he worked all day long at his task, digesting the news and going from block to block to announce it -- in German and French himself, and in other languages with the help of others. He first repeated the bulletins of the German high command word for word, then explained what he understood them to mean. He took the pulse of a block when he entered it.

I could sense the condition of a block by the noise it made as a body, by its mixture of smells. You can't imagine how despair smells, or for that matter confidence. They are worlds apart in their odor.

Depending on this reading, he gave out more of one part of the news or another. "Morale is so fragile that a word, even an intonation can throw it out of balance."

The remarkable thing was that listening to the fears of others had ended by freeing me almost completely from anxiety. I had become cheerful, and was cheerful almost all the time, without willing it, without even thinking about it. That helped me, naturally, but it also helped the others. They had made such a habit of watching the coming of the little blind Frenchman with his happy face, his reassuring words delivered in a loud voice, and with the news he gave out, that on days when there was no news, they made him visit them just the same.

But "cheerful" hardly describes all of Lusseyran's Buchenwald recollections. In particular, we reprint here a passage from And There Was Light describing some of his early experiences in the camp. (The following is reprinted by kind permission of Parabola Books.)


The Invalids' Block was a barracks like the others. The only difference was that they had crowded in 1500 men instead of 300 -- 300 was the average for the other blocks -- and they had cut the food ration in half. At the Invalids' you had the one-legged, the one-armed, the trepanned, the deaf, the deaf-mute, the blind, the legless -- even they were there, I knew three of them -- the aphasic, the ataxic, the epileptic, the gangrenous, the scrofulous, the tubercular, the cancerous, the syphilitic, the old men over seventy, the boys under sixteen, the kleptomaniacs, the tramps, the perverts, and last of all the flock of madmen. They were the only ones who didn't seem unhappy.

No one at the Invalids' was whole, since that was the condition of entrance. As a result people were dying there at a pace which made it impossible to make any count of the block. It was a greater surprise to fall over the living than the dead. And it was from the living that danger came.

The stench was so terrible that only the smell of the crematory, which sent up smoke around the clock, managed to cover it up on days when the wind drove the smoke our way. For days and nights on end, I didn't walk around, I crawled. I made an opening for myself in the mass of flesh. My hands traveled from the stump of a leg to a dead body, from a body to a wound. I could no longer hear anything for the groaning around me.

Towards the end of the month all of a sudden it became too much for me and I grew sick, very sick. I think it was pleurisy. They said several doctors, prisoners like me and friends of mine, came to listen to my chest. It seems they gave me up. What else could they do? There was no medicine at all at Buchenwald, not even aspirin.

Very soon dysentery was added to pleurisy, then an infection in both ears which made me completely deaf for two weeks, then erysipelas, turning my face into a swollen pulp, with complications which threatened to bring on blood poisoning. More than fifty fellow prisoners told me all this later. I don't remember any of it myself. I had taken advantage of the first days of sickness to leave Buchenwald.

Two young boys I was very fond of, a Frenchman with one leg, and a Russian with one arm, told me that one morning in April they carried me to the hospital on a stretcher. The hospital was not a place where they took care of people, but simply a place to lay them down until they died or got well. My friends, Pavel and Louis, didn't understand what happened. Later they kept telling me that I was a "case". A year afterwards Louis was still amazed: "The day we carried you, you had a fever of 104 or more, but you were not delirious. You looked quite serene, and every now and then you would tell us not to put ourselves out on your account." I would gladly have explained to Louis and Pavel, but the whole affair was beyond words and still is.

Sickness had rescued me from fear, it had even rescued me from death. Let me say to you simply that without it I never would have survived. From the first moments of sickness I had gone off into another world, quite consciously. I was not delirious. Louis was right, I still had the look of tranquillity, more so than ever. That was the miracle.

I watched the stages of my own illness quite clearly. I saw the organs of my body blocked up losing control one after the other, first my lungs, then my intestines, then my ears, all my muscles, and last of all my heart, which was functioning badly and filled me with a vast, unusual sound. I knew exactly what it was, this thing I was watching: my body in the act of leaving this world, not wanting to leave it right away, not even wanting to leave it at all. I could tell by the pain my body was causing me, twisting and turning in every direction like snakes that have been cut in pieces.

Have I said that death was already there? If I have I was wrong. Sickness and pain, yes, but not death. Quite the opposite, life, and that was the unbelievable thing that had taken possession of me. I had never lived so fully before.

Life had become a substance within me. It broke into my cage, pushed by a force a thousand times stronger than I. It was certainly not made of flesh and blood, not even of ideas. It came towards me like a shimmering wave, like the caress of light. I could see it beyond my eyes and my forehead and above my head. It touched me and filled me to overflowing. I let myself float upon it.

There were names which I mumbled from the depths of my astonishment. No doubt my lips did not speak them, but they had their own song: "Providence, the Guardian Angel, Jesus Christ, God." I didn't try to turn it over in my mind. It was not just the time for metaphysics. I drew my strength from the spring. I kept on drinking and drinking still more. I was not going to leave that celestial stream. For that matter it was not strange to me, having come to me right after my old accident when I found I was blind. Here was the same thing all over again, the Life which sustained the life in me.

The Lord took pity on the poor mortal who was so helpless before him. It is true I was quite unable to help myself. All of us are incapable of helping ourselves. Now I knew it, and knew that it was true of the SS among the first. That was something to make one smile.

But there was one thing left I could do: not refuse God's help, the breath he was blowing upon me. That was the one battle I had to fight, hard and wonderful all at once: not to let my body be taken by the fear. For fear kills, and joy maintains life.

Slowly I came back from the dead, and when, one morning, one of my neighbors -- I found out later he was an atheist and thought he was doing the right thing -- shouted in my ear that I didn't have a chance in the world of getting through it, so I had better prepare myself, he got my answer full in the face, a burst of laughter. He didn't understand that laugh, but he never forgot it.

On 8 May, I left the hospital on my two feet. I was nothing but skin and bones, but I had recovered. The fact was I was so happy that now Buchenwald seemed to me a place which if not welcome was at least possible. If they didn't give me any bread to eat, I would feed on hope.

It was the truth. I still had eleven months ahead of me in the camp. But today I have not a single evil memory of those three hundred and thirty days of extreme wretchedness. I was carried by a hand. I was covered by a wing. One doesn't call such living emotions by their names. I 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. From that time on they stopped stealing my bread or my soup. It never happened again. Often my comrades would wake me up in the night and take me to comfort someone, sometimes a long way off in another block.

Almost everyone forgot I was a student. I became "the blind Frenchman". For many, I was just "the man who didn't die". Hundreds of people confided in me. The men were determined to talk to me. They spoke in French, in Russian, in German, in Polish. I did the best I could to understand them all. That is how I lived, how I survived. The rest I cannot describe.

Copyright 2003 The Nature Institute

Steve Talbott :: Can Technology Make the Handicapped Whole?

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