Discover more from Raids on the Unspeakable
Light and the blessing of blindness
> … like a mirage upon a desert plain which a thirsty man supposes is water, till when he comes upon it, he does not find it to be anything, but finds God there.
I saw, saw with my eyes, until I was eight years old. For more than 35 years now I have been blind, completely blind. … Barely ten days after the accident I made the basic discovery. The only way I can describe the experience is in clear and direct words. I had completely lost the sight of my eyes; I could not see the light of the world anymore. Yet the light was still there.
The boy saw first one light, then another. This second light operated according to other rules than those he had known prior; yet there was in this still something of the same as he earlier had. The light proved itself again a sure guidance:
I had to make the effort to find my way between doors, walls, human beings, and trees. As happens to all blind persons, I hurt myself often. But I quickly learned that I knocked against things only when I forgot the light. When I paid constant attention to the light, I ran a much smaller risk.
Yet here we might doubt this tale, though told of a child by a man then in his old age. This is the story of Jacques Lusseyran—who further relates that during his time in the French Resistance, the one time he rationalised the light was that in which he was mistaken; it was by virtue of his blindness that he gained this sense for souls which led him otherwise so well. This sure guidance was proof sufficient for him:
Don’t you feel that such questions are purely intellectual, and worthy only of those adults who have already forgotten the utter simplicity and unquestionable power of true experiences? For me—I was in my eighth year and lived, instead of thinking—the light was there. Its source was not obliterated. I felt it gushing forth every moment and brimming over; I felt how it wanted to spread out over the world.
He feels himself a vessel and conduit of this light, that it is the purposive principle beneath all things; and this he knows not speculatively but by the necessity of living. The light that he knows is held by an operative faith, that he acts as if and in this finds truth. Such lessons are not taught by reason but experience, after which perhaps rationality may yet parse the prior for public consumption.
Nonetheless we may find echoes of this elsewhere. This strange notion is not entirely unfamiliar, for we find something alike in al-Ghazali’s Niche of Lights. There we find a theology of light, a recollection concerning the symbolism of light in the Quran—in particular, the verse from which his title is drawn:
God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His Light is a niche, wherein is a lamp. The lamp is in a glass. The glass is as a shining star kindled from a blessed olive tree, neither of the East nor of the West. Its oil would well-nigh shine forth, even if no fire had touched it. Light upon light. God guides unto His Light whomsoever He will, and God sets forth parables for mankind, and God is Knower of all things.
Here he engages on an extended analysis in which is developed an entire metaphysics of light—or rather, a metaphysics in which light provides the clay which is reason’s substance. The first principle, of course, is that all light is metaphorical but for Him:
It will become unveiled to you, when the degrees of these lights become manifest, that God is the highest and furthest light, and, when their realities become unveiled, that He is the real, true light—He alone, without any partner in that.
All light thus participates in the radical unity of God, that He alone is self-sufficient in existence. All else exists only to the extent their light is derived from Him. This is as the moon borrows light from the sun. Thus we are told the relationship parallels that of a sultan and his vizier; that the one operates on behalf of the other. All light in this world is borrowed: “He alone, without any partner in that.”
There is alongside this monism, an epistemology of sorts.1 This proceeds by unfolding the hierarchical realms of light: the sensible realm, the imaginal, the rational, the reflective, and finally—the prophetic.
The first of these is that light obvious by the perceptual faculties; it is the shape and colour of existent things. These are likened to the niche, in that these are opening to the world. The second is the imaginal, that which draws from the sensible and provides thus the clay of reason. The rational faculties operates on this basis, that the quality of this ‘clay’ is further understood as glass; it must be polished and refined before it will not obscure. Yet like glass, and like clay, this substance provides a protection for the delicate light within. These offer a structure to thought, without which it would be too nebulous. The rational spirit, that third aspect, is the lamp itself; that we thus illumine the unseen which lies beyond the manifest world of sensibility. This light is higher than the sensible, of which eye al-Ghazali notes many imperfections; and it is by the light of reason alone that the supra-sensible is accessed, whereby man is distinguished.
The fourth realm is that of the reflective, which al-Ghazali likens to the tree:
… one of its specific characteristics is that it begins with a single root and then branches off from it into two branches. Then from each branch grow two branches and so on until the branches of rational divisions become many. Then, at last, it reaches conclusions that are its fruits. These fruits then go back and become seeds for similar fruits, because some of them can fertilise others so that they continue to bear fruits beyond them.
This tree, moreover, is a blessed olive tree. Blessed because it is a tree whose fruit is without end, and this fruit is the olive; and from this, thereby the oil thought most pleasing for the purpose of lamps because of its plentiful radiance with little smoke. This tree, moreover, is said to be “neither of the East nor the West”—which al-Ghazali interprets as reflecting how “the branches of pure rational thoughts cannot be ascribed to directions [or to] near and farness.” This is a place qualitative, far beyond and above the sensible realm of quantity.
The fifth realm is that of the prophetic faculty; it is this which corresponds in similitude to the oil of this tree: “Its oil would well-nigh shine forth, even if no fire had touched it.” This is the purified light of those friends of God, highest among them the Prophet himself. Here we find the pinnacle, moreover, in revelation: “So believe in God and His Messenger and the light We have sent down.” The Quran itself is thus understood as a light sent by God. Here we find the central source of prophetic light, that which comes immediate by way of revelation.
We have here followed perhaps a detour some way, though it is always difficult to tell where our possibles may be recovered until the event itself. Either way, we might now return to the boy with whom we begun. Thus far we have explored a view of light which perhaps finds room for the experiences of which he spoke. There is a light beyond light, that which corresponds to divine manifestation, which is beyond the possibility of any merely physical severing; it is perhaps to such a light that this boy attends.
Indeed, this possibility is reinforced as probability by a further treatment of the verse which follows that outlined above:
Or like the darkness of a fathomless sea, covered by waves with waves above them and clouds above them—darknesses, one above the other. When one puts out one’s hand, one can hardly see it.
Here we may examine again the similitudes noted by al-Ghazali. The symbol is divided into three layers: “waves with waves above them and the clouds above them.”
The first layer, that of the wave, is that of the appetites; it is this which makes one blind and deaf as the darkness of a wave. The second layer, the second wave, is that of anger and “the attributes of predatoriness.” The final layer is that of the clouds, which are the imaginal distortions which obscure the sun; that is, which veil the sun—ie., the Quran and the rational faculty. These three layers can be understood clearly as “darknesses piled one upon the other.”
We may return here at last to the boy, that he spoke thus of his relation with the light:
When I was overcome with sorrow, when I let anger take hold of me, when I envied those who saw, the light immediately decreased. Sometimes it even went out completely. Then I became blind.
This is clearly in accord with the outline given by al-Ghazali, though we may note one point of tension between the two. The boys tells us that there was “only one way to see the inner light, and that was to love.” Here we may compare the line which al-Ghazali quotes: “love for a thing makes blind and deaf.” There is a plain contradiction—how can this be resolved?
There are plainly two forms of love, that which is a light and those which are darknesses. The two can be reconciled by considering an immediate relation, say that between a man and his wife. One may see not the other but an idol erected in their place, that is, an idol of the ego; it is an image of man’s own fashioning which he worships in place of the actuality of God. If this is the locus of one’s love, then this will be a darkness which “makes blind and deaf.” The one will not see the other but instead the graven image one had made to stand in their place; it will be to this that we cling, thus we may hold the other to our desired image. This is a blindness to the actuality of the individual; it is a violence to their true nature. This is not love.
The second form of love entails an openness to the existent in its actuality, whether that of a partner or even some entity in the environment. We can compare the love one feels for a bird witnessed in its immediacy to the satisfaction an ornithologist may derived from correctly categorising a specimen presented to him. While the ornithologist may well be sensitive to the actual existent, still there is likely the interference of this secondary frame. This is why I can comfortably claim to love birds and yet know nothing about them. I am surprised by each. This second is a love in truth, one which aspires in each instant to love as was once the way of Paradise:
In the Qur’an, the divine command to Adam and Eve is not, strictly speaking, that of not eating the forbidden fruit, but rather that of not “approaching the tree” (Qur’an 2:35). Now the tree (shajara) is, for Ibn ‘Arabi—a meaning dictated by etymology, and more directly by the meaning of the verb shajara, from the same root. In another verse (4:65)—the tashajur (act of dividing). It is this division, this rupture of unity that Adam and Eve should eschew.
This might as much be called a psychology; indeed, al-Ghazali even speculates upon object permanence. There is, we may note here, a soundness to the thought of one who knows children that many today are missing: “This spirit is not found in the suckling child at the beginning of its growth. That is why an infant tries eagerly to take something, but when it is absent from him he forgets about it and his soul does not make him yearn for it. When he becomes a little older, he reaches a point where he cries and demands a thing even when it is hidden from him, because its form remains preserved in his imagination.”