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Hugues de Montalembert: Accepting blindness, rejecting self pity

February 17, 2010

Hugues de Montalembert

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.”

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice permalink
    February 17, 2010 1:53 pm

    Wow. Very deep. Thanks, Chauncey Mabe.

  2. February 17, 2010 2:13 pm

    Thank you for this morning’s inpsiration, Chauncey. Echoes of Borges (quoting Milton) upon losing his eyesight: I have lost merely the inconsequential skin of things. Also, brings to mind a recent memoir of another indomitable spirit: The diving bell and the butterfly, by journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby. Physically paralyzed after a stroke, but mentally alive, he suffers a condition called locked in syndrome and can only ‘write’ by blinking his left eyelid as a transcriber recites alphabet for him. 200,000 blinks later we have his incredible book.

    Very moving to learn of De Montalembert, and I found his exchange with Cambodian taxi driver especially touching. It’s true, there are many handicaps, some more or less obvious, yet not all receive compassion or have the clear-sighted courage of these extraordinary men

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 17, 2010 8:22 pm

      Some are born with compassion, while others have it forced upon them. De Montalembert, I think, is a bit of both. Extraordinary little book. Could be read in an hour or so.

  3. rachel permalink
    February 17, 2010 5:13 pm

    Thanks Chauncey Mabe. Like the other commenters I was moved by this blog. I think that what you say in the beginning is very true and very important, self pity is ugly. And unuseful. And understandable. It seems so natural. When we lose a loved one we mourn, sometimes to our detriment. We lose something of our own, our eyesight for example, and it is natural that we mourn that, although sometimes we do excessively. True, blindness alone doesn’t put one on a higher plane, but perhaps dealing with it in the way that de Montalembert did does. Like any damaging and life altering event, when you come to the other side you are changed and either you have grown from it or you are stuck in self pity and you haven’t.

    Thanks for another great blog, I think I’d like to read this book.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 17, 2010 8:32 pm

      You’re welcome, and thank you. Even so dauntless a spirit as Montalembert suffered something like self pity at the beginning, but he shook it off. He realized he had a choice, and he chose to live, as fully as possible. And thereby he robbed his handicap of its power to defeat him. We all have handicaps, as he notes, but most of these are not visible. We all deserve compassion, and should in consequence be ready and able to give it.

      I can’t overstate how profound this small, modest, very European book is.

  4. Tommy permalink
    February 17, 2010 7:54 pm

    “What is the point of this battle for hope?“
    I actually asked myself this question in the early hours today. I’ve asked myself this question many many times before. The best answer I’ve come up with yet is simply: That without hope there is nothing, Absolute Blackness. Also, why does hope always have to be fought for? Why does it come (or at least seem to) naturally to some while others need a daily recharging of the dynamo that is the soul?

    Self-pity is an extension or a part of pride is it not?

    Two inspirational blogs in a row. Both Montalembert’s and Francis’ stories have been welcome signposts along my own personal path out of disaster towards achievement and contentment. A path traveled daily.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 17, 2010 8:35 pm

      Two inspirational blogs in a row? Damn, I must be slipping. I’ll be drummed out of the Cynics Club, and have to give up my membership card, along with its rewards program.

      But let me say, before I fwow up, that like most things worth having or cultivating, hope is its own point. It is a mistake to think of it as a tool. It is its own value, whole and entire.

  5. Tommy permalink
    February 17, 2010 8:58 pm

    I always suspected those selfish bastards would throw you out anyway. At least they cannot make you forget the handshake, where you don’t actually touch each other for fear the other is really just trying to steal your watch.

    Having hope or a continued cultivation of hope is the only way for me. The alternatives being an absence of hope, or possessing little. Even if the niggling cynic inside says “It’s all for naught.”

  6. John Karwacki permalink
    February 17, 2010 9:52 pm

    “You better eat life while you can…” yummy. If I keep reading your blog, my library will definately grow. “(Self-pity) is a bar to all spiritual progress and can cut off all effective communication with our fellows because of its inordinate demands for attention and sympathy.” from a letter Bill Wilson wrote in 1966… and then there’s a few words from my guru – “Trust your God by Dharma activity, Dharma effort and working towards your goals.” Writers write, keep up the good work!

  7. Candice permalink
    February 18, 2010 9:55 am

    “Meaning is so much beyond our ability to grasp.” I once was blind, but now I see.

  8. Aoife FitzGerald permalink
    March 16, 2010 8:44 am

    Hugues is a chip of the old block, his mother Yolande is made of the same stuff, she has suffered all her life and never complained, alway fights and tries to find the beauty around her. Hugues is the same, a wonderfully person with more vision into what life is then many a sighted person

  9. August 1, 2013 12:17 am

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