Hugues de Montalembert: Accepting blindness, rejecting self pity
Is there an uglier and less useful –or more understandable — human trait than self pity? As Hugues de Montalembert shows in his new memoir, Invisible, it’s not an inevitable response to tragedy or trauma. He should know. A rising French filmmaker and painter, he was blinded in a scuffle with burglars in 1978. He was 35.
A world traveler, de Montalembert enjoyed an enviable creative life in New York City. Then he came home one day to find two men ransacking his apartment. In the struggle that followed, one of the men threw paint remover in de Montalembert’s face.
De Montalembert was rushed to a hospital, but there was little doctors could do. Paint remover, he writes, is not an acid but a base. “If you wash a base with water it doesn’t go away. It continues to dig.” By the next day, he was completely blind.
At first de Montalembert despaired. “You are somebody who used to be totally free and could look and see. I was a painter and I was making films. My life was based on seeing.” At another point, he writes: “What is the point of this battle for hope?”
Yet almost from the beginning de Montalembert resisted self pity. He refuses to let his Mother come from France, fearing he would end up consoling her. He quickly accepted the loss of his eyes–“I don’t want to go on being the gardener of these dead flowers” — teaches himself how to put people at ease, embraces rehabilitation.
Within six months he is navigating his way around the neighborhood, to the consternation of his therapists, who say it is much too early. A year and a-half after the assault, de Montalembert boards a plane to Indonesia. Alone.
With Invisible, de Montalembert revisits the story he told in more autobiographical detail in Eclipse: A Nightmare (1985). He is also the subject of a well-regarded documentary, Black Sun (2006), by Gary Tarn. You can see an excerpt at YouTube.
Forcefully spare, written in clipped sentences and brief paragraphs and chapters, Invisible has the impact of a spirituality book, only the spirit in question is the human spirit. On any page, an arresting line or observation may be found. It is not a poetry book, but in the very center comes this poetic passage:
“People often think that their individul fate is everything.
How wrong we are!
It is enough to contemplate the invisible to know how
much there is that is greater than fate.
Yes, close your eyes, you will see what light renders
On the very next page, however, de Montalembert rejects the notion that blindness automatically places people on “a higher spiritual plane.” Loss of sight, he says is “a mechanical accident, not a state of grace.” First tormented by the thought his affliction is meaningless, he soon draws strength and consolation from it: “Meaning is so much beyond our ability to grasp.”
De Montalembert finds in his solitary travels that he can have faith — in himself, in events, and most of all in the willingness of people to give assistance when needed. He lives a full life, eventually marrying an artist, cultivating friendships.
Near the end of the book, De Montalembert tells of a friendly Cambodian taxi driver who expresses sympathy for his condition. The blind man thanks him, adding, “but you know, there are so many people much more wounded than me, and you see nothing and they don’t receive any compassion.”
Silent for a moment, the driver says, “Monsieur, I understand very well what you say because my wife and four children were killed in front of me in Cambodia.”
The driver’s wound, de Montalembert observes, is not comparable to his own, more obvious one. “It is much worse.”
In the end, de Montalembert writes, “You better eat life while you can because at the end, like everyone else, your body will be defeated.
“At least your mind can be triumphant, independent.”