The first man on my path is an old man. And you cannot imagine how happy this makes me.
I do not know if there is a greater blessing than to encounter a true old person, that is, one who is joyous. It is a blessing which is rarely given to us, because for most, alas, age is nothing but the blank and degrading addition of physical years. But when an old person is joyous, he is so strong that he no longer needs to speak; he comes and he heals. The one who fills my memory is like this. His name is Jeremy Regard.
It is not I who would give him this name. It was his. How many novelists would like to have invented it?
I would like to be very modest, you know, in describing him, because he was so great and yet seemed so little. He made such a brief passage through my life—only a few weeks—that I can no longer remember his body. I vaguely perceive a man who is vigorous, straight, thickset. Yes, a small man, according to physical measurements. As for his face, I can't see it. I think that I never asked myself any questions about his face even then. I saw another which was much more real.
I met him in January 1944, in the midst of the war, in Germany, when I was in a
concentration camp at age nineteen. He was one of the six thousand French who arrived in Buchenwald between the 22nd and 26th of January. But he was unlike any other.
Here I must stop for a moment, because I have written the word "Buchenwald." I will often be writing of it. But do not expect a picture of the horrors of the deportation. These horrors were real, and they are not pleasant to talk about. To have the right to speak about them, it would be necessary to be a healer—and not just of the body. I will content myself then with the indispensable, the basic scenario.
Sometimes I will even speak of the deportation in a manner which is scandalous for some. I mean paradoxical: I will say in what it was good, I will show what riches it contained.
If I comeback to it sometimes, it is because it stands at the very entrance of my life, an attic bursting with pains and joys, with questions and answers.
Jeremy did not speak of the concentration camps either, even when he was there. He did not have his gaze nailed to the smoke from the crematorium, nor on the twelve hundred terrified prisoners of Block 57. He was looking through.
At first I didn't know who he was—people spoke to me of "Socrates."
My neighbors, who were very numerous, pronounced this name which was utterly unexpected in the swarming fear and cold in which we tossed. "Socrates said...,"
Socrates laughed....," Socrates was over there, a little further, on the other side of this crowd of closely shaven men. I did not understand why all these people called one person out of everyone Socrates. But I wished to meet him.
Finally one day I saw him—that is, I must have seen him, for to tell the truth, I have no memory of the first meeting.
I know only that I was expecting an eloquent prisoner, a clever metaphysician, some sort of triumphant moral philosopher. That is not at all what I found.
He was a simple welder from a small village at the foot of the Jura mountains. He had come to Buchenwald for reasons which had so little to do with the essential that I never knew them or asked about them.
His name was not Socrates, as you already know, but Jeremy, and I didn't understand why this name wasn't enough for his companions.
Jeremy's tale was that of a welder from a particular part of the world, a village in France. He loved to tell it with broad smiles. He told it very simply, as any tradesman talks about his trade. And here and there one could just barely glimpse a second forge standing there, a forge of the spirit.
Yes, I said "spiritual." However, the word has been spoiled by overuse. But this time it is true and full.
I heard Jeremy speak of men who did not come to his shop just for their horse and their wagons but for themselves. They came so as to go home all steeled and new, to take home a little of the life they were lacking and which they found overflowing, shining, and gentle at the forge of father Jeremy.
At this time I was a student. I had hardly ever experienced such men, they do not fill the universities. I thought that when a man possessed wisdom, he immediately said it, and said how and why and according to which affiliation of thought. Especially, I thought that in order to be wise, it was necessary to think, and to think rigorously.
I stood with my mouth open before Jeremy because he didn't think. He told stories, almost always the same, he shook your shoulders, he seemed to be addressing invisible beings. through you. He always had his nose smack in the obvious, the close at hand. If he spoke about the happiness of a neighbor upon leaving his shop, it was as if he spoke about a wart, a bump, which-lad just been removed. He observed things of the spirit with his eyes, as doctors observe microbes through their microscopes.. He made no distinction. And the more I saw him do this, the more the weight of the air diminished for me.
I have encountered startling beings, beings whose gestures and words so dazzled that in their presence one had to lower one's eyes. Jeremy was not startling. Not a bit! He wasn't there to stir us up.
It was not curiosity which moved me toward him. I needed him as a man who is dying of thirst needs water. Like all important things, this was elemental.
I see Jeremy walking through our barracks. A space formed itself among us. He stopped somewhere and, all at once, men pressed in tighter, yet still leaving him a little place in their midst. This was a completely instinctive movement which one cannot explain simply by respect. We drew back rather as one steps back to leave a place for one who is working.
You must picture that we were more than a thousand men in this barracks, a thousand where four hundred would have been uncomfortable. Imagine that we were all afraid, profoundly and immediately. Do not think of us as individuals, but as a protoplasmic mass. In fact, we were glued to one another. The only movements we made were pushing, clutching, pulling apart, twisting. Now you will better understand the marvel (so as not to say "miracle") of this small distance, this circle of space with which Jeremy remained surrounded.
He was not frightening, he was not austere, he was not even eloquent. But he was there, and that was tangible. You felt it as you feel a hand on the shoulder, a hand which summons, which brings you back to yourself when you were about to disappear.
Each time he appeared, the air became breathable: I got a breath of life smack in the, face. This was perhaps not a miracle, but it was at least a very great act, and one of which he alone was capable. Jeremy’s walk across the quad was that: a breathing. In my memory I can follow distinctly the path of light and clarity which he made through the crowd.
I didn't understand then who he was, but certainly I saw him. And this image began to work inside me until the moment it lit up like a torch. I didn't know who he was because he didn't say.
He had a story which he came back to often: it belonged, he belonged to the-Christian Scientist sect. He had even been to America once to meet his fellow Christian Scientists. This adventure, quite out of the ordinary for a welder from the Jura, intrigued but did not enlighten me. It gave another layer of mystery to his character. That was all. Jeremy, without stories, mattered.
Is it necessary to apologize for using so many images which are linked to simple acts: to eating, to breathing? If I were tempted to do so, Jeremy would prohibit me. He knew too well that one does not live on ides.
He was truly, a manual man. He knew that at Buchenwald we would not live on the ideas which we had of Buchenwald. He said this; he even said that many of us would die from them. Alas, he was not mistaken.
I knew there were men who died because people had killed them. For them there was nothing left to do but pray. But I also knew many who died very quickly, like flies, because they thought they were in hell. It was of such matters that Jeremy spoke.
It was necessary for there to be a man as simple, as clear, who had gone to the depths of reality, in order to see the fire and beyond the fire. More than hope was needed.
It was necessary to see.
The good man Jeremy saw. There was a spectacle before his eyes, but it was not the one we saw. It was not our Buchenwald, that of the victims. It was not- a prison, that is that is to say, a place of hunger, blows, death, protest, where other men, “the evil” ones, had committed the crime of putting us. For him, there were not us, the innocents, and the other, the big anonymous Other with the tormenting voice and the whip—"the Brute."
How did I know? You have the right to ask; after all, Jeremy said almost nothing about such things. Well, without a doubt, there exist in certain beings, as there existed in him, a rightness and wholeness so perfect their way of seeing communicates itself, is given to-you; for, at least, an instant. And the silence then is truer, more exact, than any word.
When Jeremy came to us across Block 57, in the midst of his little halo of space, it was clarity which he gave to us. It was an overflowing of vision, a new vision. And that is why we all made way for him.
Above all, do not imagine that Jeremy consoled us. At the point we had reached, any consolation would have been mere romance, a taunting nursery story. We were not in the land of Cockaigne, and if we had been crazy enough to think so for one second, waking up afterward would have been bitter indeed. Jeremy spoke hard. But he did so gently.
There was no trace of glibness about him. He had a mellow voice, precise and deliberate gestures, but this was the habit of his craft a natural tranquility. He was a good fellow, I'm telling you, not a prophet.
Jeremy was so little a prophet, he created so little uproar, that I don't know how many, among the dozen men who survived those days of Winter 1944 in Barrack 57, remember him today. I would so much like not to be the only one.
One didn't notice anything special about Jeremy, no sign. He carried the banner of no faith, except from time to time that of Christian Science. But at this time, for me, and for the other Frenchmen around me, this word had only a bizarre resonance.
One went to Jeremy as toward a spring. One didn't ask oneself why. One didn't think about it. In this ocean of rage and suffering there was this island: a man who didn't shout, who asked no one for help, who was sufficient unto himself.
A man who did not dream: that was more important than anything. The rest of us were dreamers: we dreamed of women, of children, of houses, often the gory miseries of other times which we had the weakness call "liberty." We weren't at Buchenwald. We didn’t want anything to do with Buchenwald. And each time we came back, it was still there, and hurt just the same.
Jeremy was not disappointed. Why would he have dreamed? When we saw him coming with his immense serenity, we felt like shouting, "Close your eyes! What one sees here burns!" But the shout remained in our throats because from all the evidence, his eyes were solidly fixed on all our miseries and did not blink. Even more, he did not seem like someone who takes a great burden upon himself, the air of a hero. He was not afraid, and that just as naturally as we were afraid.
"For one who knows how to see, things are just as they always are," he said. At first I did not understand. I even felt something quite close to indignation. What? Buchenwald like ordinary life? Impossible! All of these crazed, hideous men, the howling menace of death, these enemies everywhere, among the SS, among the prisoners themselves, this wedge of hill pushed up against the sky, thick with smoke, with its seven circles, and over there across the forest, the electric fences, all of this was just as usual! I remember that I could not accept this. It had to be worse--or if not—then more beautiful. Until finally Jeremy enabled me to see.
It was not a revelation, a flashing discovery of the truth. I don't think there was even an exchange of words. But one day it became obvious, palpable to me in the flesh, that Jeremy, the welder, had lent me his eyes.
With those eyes, I saw that Buchenwald was not unique, not even privileged to be one of the places of greatest human suffering. I also saw that our camp was not in Germany as we thought, in the heart of the Thuringee, dominating the plain of Lena, in this precise place and in no other. Jeremy taught me, with his eye, that Buchenwald was in each one of us, baked and re-baked tended incessantly, nurtured in a horrible way. And that consequently we could vanquish it, if we desired to with enough force.
"As always," Jeremy explained to himself sometimes. He had always seen people living in fear and in the most invincible of all fears: that which has no object. He had seen them all desire secretly and above all else one thing: to do harm to themselves. It was always, it was here, the same spectacle. Simply, the conditions had finally been completely fulfilled. The war, Nazism, the political and national follies had created a masterpiece, a perfect sickness and misery: a concentration camp.
For us, of course, this was the first time. Jeremy had no use for our surprise. He said that it was not honest and that it did harm us.
He said that in ordinary life, with good eyes, we would have seen the same horrors. We had managed to be happy before. Well! The Nazis had given us a terrible microscope: the camp. This was not a reason to stop living.
Jeremy was an example: he found joy in the midst of Block 57. He found it during moments of the day where we found only fear. And he found it in such great abundance that when he was present we felt it rise in us. Inexplicable sensation, incredible even, there where we were: joy was going to fill us.
Imagine this gift which Jeremy gave us! We did not understand, but we thanked him, time and again.
What joy? Here are explanations, but they are feeble: the joy of being alive in this moment, in the next, each time we became aware of it. The joy of feeling the lives of others, of some others at least, against us, in the dark of night. What do I know? Isn't that enough for you?
It was much more than enough for us. It was a pardon, a reprieve, there, all of a sudden, just a few feet from hell. I knew this state through Jeremy. Others knew it also, I am sure.
The joy of discovering that joy exists, that it is in us, just exactly as life is, without conditions and which no condition, even the worst, can kill.
All of this, you will say, came from Jeremy because he was lucid. I didn't say that he was lucid—this quality belongs to intelligence and, in the world of intelligence, Jeremy was not at home. I said that he saw. I have spoken of him as a living prayer.
Subtle people will pretend that the faith of Jeremy was without nuances. Who cares! For him, and for us through him, the world was saved in each second. This benediction had no end. And, when it ceased, it was that we had ceased wanting it, that we—and not it—had ceased being joyful.
These are not great words. And if nonetheless you have that impression, then it is that I am clumsy. Jeremy was an ordinary man. Ordinary and supernatural, that's it.
One could very well live next to him for weeks and not see him, and speak only of "an old guy not like the others." He was not a spectacle in the manner of heroes or street hawkers.
What was supernatural in him, from all evidence, didn't belong to him; it was meant to be shared. The spectacle, if it existed, was for us to find and to find within ourselves. I have the clearest memory of finding it. I perceived, one day like the others, a little place where I did not shiver, where I had no shame, where the death-dealers were only
phantoms, where life no longer depended on the presence of the camp or on its absence. I owed it to Jeremy.
I have carried this man in my memories as one carries an imag e with one because it has been blessed.
And now, how has he disappeared? I hardly know. Without a sound, in any case, just as he came.
One day, someone told me that he had died. This must have been several weeks after our arrival in the camp.
Men went like this there. One almost never knew how. They disappeared in too great numbers all at once; no one had either the time or the inclination to look into the details, the "how" of their death. We let them melt into the mass. There was a solid ground of death in which we all participated more or less, we who were alive. The death of others was so much our own affair that we didn't have the courage to look it in the face.
I do not remember the "how" of Jeremy's departure. I remember only that he came to see me, several days earlier, and told me that it was the last time. Not at all in the way one announced an unhappy event, not so solemnly. Simply—this was the last time, and since it was thus he had come to tell me.
I don't think this caused me pain. It must not have been painful. Indeed it was not, because it was real and known.
He had been of service. He had the right to leave this world which he had completely lived.
I am well aware that people will say to me, "What do you see of the supernatural in your welder? He gave you an example of serenity, at a time when serenity was very difficult to attain. That's good, but that's all. This peace of Jeremy was the result of courage and a strong constitution."
Well, no! We will not have done with Jeremy for that price.
What I call the supernatural in him was the break with habits which he had completely realized. Those habits of judgment which make us call any adversity "unhappiness" or "evil," those of greed which make us hate, desire vengeance, or simply complain—a minor but incontestable form of hatred—those of our dizzying egocentricity which make us think that we are innocent each time we suffer. He had escaped from the network of compulsive reflexes, and it was this necessary movement which neither good health—po even perfect health, if such exists—can explain.
He had touched the very depth of himself and liberated the supernatural or, if this word 'bothers you, the essential, that which does not depend on any circumstance, which can exist in all places and in any time, in pain as in pleasure. He had encountered the very source of life. If I have used the word "supernatural," it is because the act of Jeremy sums up to me the religious act itself: the discovery that God is there, in each person, to the same degree, completely in each moment, and that a return can be made toward Him.
This was the good news which Jeremy told, in his turn, and in his very humble manner. We would all gain a lot by putting memory in quarantine.
The petty memory, at least, the stingy, encumbering memory which makes us believe in this unreality, this myth: the past.
It is this which suddenly brings back—without a shadow of reason—a person, or the shred of an event which then installs itself in us. The image throws itself on the screen of consciousness; it swells, soon there is nothing else but it. The mind's circulation stops. The present disperses. The moments which follow no longer have the force to carry us. They no longer have any flavor. In short, this memory secretes melancholy, regret, all manner of inner complication.
Fortunately, there is the other memory. For me, it is the one to which Jeremy belongs.
This man haunts me, I confess. But he does not haunt me in the manner of the memory. Simply, he has entered into my flesh, he nourishes me, he works to make me live. I spend very little time thinking about him: one could say it is he who thinks of me.
To speak to you of him, I have had to allude to Buchenwald. But do not be misled. Jeremy was never "at Buchenwald." I encountered him there in the flesh and blood. He wore a registration number. Others beside myself knew him. But he was not there in the particular, exclusive, individual manner in which we hear the phrase "to have been at Buchenwald."
This adventure of the camp was for him only an adventure: it did not concern him in a fundamental way.
There are people whom I remember only in letting the "little memory' function in me. These people, if I encounter them there, remain there. Jeremy, when he speaks to me, does not do so from out of my past, but from the depths of my present, there, right in the center. I cannot move him.
They are all this way, the people who have taught us something. Because this something, this knowledge, this increase of presence
in life, they give to us only because they clearly know that they are not the owners. Imagine Jeremy happy as it happens to others to be happy: for personal reasons, due to a history different from that of others, precious and subtle. Do you think that he would still be in my life?
He would have rejoined those picturesque characters, passing figures. But Jeremy was not happy: he was joyous. The good which he enjoyed was not his. Or rather, it was—but by participation. It was just as much ours.
This is the mystery and power of those beings who serve something other than their own provisional personalities: one cannot escape them.