All the Light We Cannot See

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Literature History Human Rights

If you are interested, you can read Lloyd Davis’ response to Irving Goh’s talk on All the Light We Cannot See HERE.


Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See for Today: Toward a Right (to) Touch – Irving Goh

Anthony Doerr is perhaps one of our century’s most insightful writers on touch. His investment in the question of touch in literary terms was already clear to see in his short stories collection, The Shell Collector. In All the Light We Cannot See, that question gets a more extensive treatment, as Doerr pursues it at an almost grand, novelistic scale. Certainly, at first glance, All the Light We Cannot See might read like a typical novel, that is, one focused on characters and plot. Set largely in the period between 1934 and 1945, it tells the story of two children living apparently separate lives in different parts of Europe at the time of Hitler’s rise to power and the subsequent outbreak of World War II. One of the children, the main protagonist, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, lives in Paris and is blind. The other, Werner Pfennig, lives with his sister Jutta in a children’s home in the mining town of Zollverein in Germany. Undercutting the stories of these two children is the adventure concerning the Sea of Flames diamond, which, according to its legend, would grant immortality to the one possessing it while bringing ruin and death to those around. The Natural History Museum of Paris supposedly possesses it, locked in a vault. With the outbreak of war, the museum director knows that the Germans would come for it, and to sidetrack the latter, orders three reproductions to be made. One of them remains in the museum, while the other two, along with the supposed real one, are passed to trusted personnel ordered to relocate across the country. Daniel LeBlanc, Marie-Laure’s father, presumably carries the authentic diamond. As expected, the Third Reich does send Sergeant Reinhold von Rumpel for it, who religiously carries out his duty as much for his masters as for his own survival, as one learns that fatal tumors are growing inside his body.

According to the narrative of All the Light We Cannot See, it is through the adventure of the Sea of Flames that the lives of Marie-Laure, Werner, and von Rumpel will physically cross. Yet, a more attentive reading would further unravel how touch is actually central to the narrative. It will be some form of touch that connects Marie-Laure to Werner, which also subsequently enables Werner to save Marie-Laure from the destructive grasp of von Rumpel. Touch would also seemingly enable von Rumpel to discern the authentic Sea of Flames, but he would first need a different and more delicate touch to unlock the puzzle box that conceals the diamond, a touch of which he, in contrast to Marie-Laure and Werner, is clearly not capable. And while the imminence of death, so prevalent in the time of war, is clearly felt through touch, the narrative does not fail to underscore that touch is at the same time crucial for survival: it is largely with touch that the blind Marie-Laure will negotiate her way in a world ravaged by war and allow her to survive it. Now, even though we are not living in a time of a world war today, All the Light We Cannot See nevertheless reflects the urgency of touch that we all feel in the current pandemic, one in which many state powers have not hesitated to mobilize the language of war in order to rally their populations to overcome it. Reading All the Light We Cannot See today, then, reminds us of the critical function of touch in our lives: how it teaches us to live, to live with others, to live for others; how it teaches us about death; and how it defines our sense of existence, which is essentially ineluctable from a coexistence with others. The novel might even encourage us to think, alongside the right to live or exist, a right to touch, provided we touch in a right way, which, as the philosopher of touch Jean-Luc Nancy has always reminded us, is all about tact, that is, touch that also knows when to let go or even not touch.





French Resistance

While not afraid to confront the horrors of the Second World War, All the Light We Cannot See is a story of hope and resistance. The novel offers the reader an interesting glimpse into the French Resistance, Le Maquis, in his portrayal of the occupied city of Saint-Malo.

As soon as the French surrendered to the Nazis in 1940, cells started forming – individuals opposed to occupying Germans and opposed to France´s Vichy Administration. The actions of these groups varied – from general mischief and non-violent obstruction of the occupying forces, to bombings, sabotage and trail derailments (as seen on the picture below):

Trail derailment. Source: LAPI/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

As Doerr points out, resistance activities were carried out at local, national and international levels, and many resistance collaborators were women. These women´s stories are still being written. Madame Fourcade´s Secret War, for example, focuses on the woman behind “Noah´s Ark,” the most effective spy ring of Le Maquis, who used animal names for all her spies. Marie-Laure, in All the Light We Cannot See is “The Whelk;” Marie-Madeleine Fourcade herself was “The Hedgehog.” Fourcade published her memoirs in 1974, but her bravery and skill remain little known.

The collective effort by the French Resistance to gather information about key-targets and undermine strategies of occupying forces was essential in the planning and execution, of the land-invasion of Europe by Allied forces in June 1944. Resistance collaborators broadcasted coded messages, as Etienne does, published newspapers, and held secret meetings. Some Resistance fighters hid in the mountains and forests – aiming to kill Nazi officers using guerrilla tactics.

Radio operation was a particularly dangerous role to play in the Resistance. Stephan Wilkinson writes that “Given the diligence with which the Geheime Staatspolizei, or Gestapo, sought to ferret them out, Resistance radio operators were reputed to have an average life expectancy of just six months. They weren’t particularly skilful amateurs, and their radios were bulky, hard-to-hide units. Mobile German radio direction finders could triangulate their positions as the French made their slow transmissions, virtually ensuring their capture.” According to Wilkinson´s estimate, “fully 90% of the French population” either collaborated with the Vichy government or were too frightened to resist, so he warns against inflating the Resistance to mythic proportions. But does not dispute the bravery required to do the things Doerr portrays – slip a code into a loaf of bread, send a message on the radio, lie about having heard it.


   Human Rights

The Rights of the Disabled

A good chunk of All the Light We Cannot See is focused on the experiences of Marie-Laure LeBlanc and her gradual transition from being visually impaired to full blindness. From her perspective, we are shown the way in which her father does his utmost to ensure that she is able to orient herself around town. By a combination of guidance and challenges, he lets her fail, try again and master the world around her. And when being forced to evacuate from Paris to Saint-Malo, the process starts all over again. The way her father protects Marie-Laure underlines a crucial point in warfare: people with disabilties are among the groups most vulnerable during war. The U.N reports that as many as 1 billion people, or 15% of the world’s population are considered disabled.

The Human Rights Watch’s research in “the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Iraq, Myanmar, South Sudan, and Yemen shows that people with disabilities in situations of armed conflict have faced violent attacks, forced displacement, and ongoing neglect in the humanitarian response to civilians caught up in the fighting. In some cases, people with disabilities were abandoned in their homes or in deserted villages for days or weeks, with little access to food or water. Many died because they could not flee attacks. People with disabilities who reached sites for internally displaced people or refugees often faced difficulties accessing food, sanitation, and medical assistance.”

The issue of disabled people in warfare has been steadily gaining attention by the world community, perhaps most notably with the passing of the 2475 resolution, adopted by the U.N Security Council in 2019. The resolution, unanimously adopted by the 15-member states, “called upon all parties to armed conflict to allow and facilitate safe, timely and unimpeded humanitarian access to all people in need of assistance.  It further urged them to prevent violence and abuses against civilians in situations of armed conflict, including those involving in killing and maiming, abduction and torture, as well as rape and other forms of sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations.”.

If you want to learn more about the U.N’s work on the rights of persons of disabilities, you can check out this link. You can also check out the original Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons from 1975 right here.