Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hugues de Montalembert

by Wendy Moonan

It’s every New Yorker’s worst nightmare. When walking home, you are attacked, overwhelmed and dragged into your own apartment. Drug-addled muggers ransack your place and beat you up.

For Hugues de Montalembert, a French painter and filmmaker living in New York in 1978, the situation was far worse. He was not only ambushed but also blinded during a violent assault when one of his attackers threw paint thinner in his eyes. By the next morning, he was blind, permanently.

Yet de Montalembert is not bitter. His story, as recounted in his moving new mini-memoir, Invisible (Simon and Schuster) shows amazing resourcefulness, intelligence, wisdom and, yes, even humor.

Since 1978, de Montalembert has determinedly traveled solo to Kashmir, Bali, Greenland and Nepal, written a best seller, been the subject of a British documentary, Black Sun, taught modern French literature at Xian University and created a ballet for the Grand Opera in Warsaw.

“My life was based on seeing,” he writes in his book, describing his initial despair.

(Now on a New York book tour, he will speak this Thursday, Feb. 11, at 6 PM at Lighthouse International, 111 E. 59th St. Tickets are free, but you must call for reservations: 212-821-9431.)

Now sporting chic, shiny steel glasses, the dashing count comes from a noble French family whose line goes back to the 13th century and includes army officers, scientists and diplomats. Expected to serve as a banker, the rebel Montalembert became a painter, which may partly explain his courage after the attack.

“Blindness is a monster,” he writes. “Not physical blindness, which is a mere technical accident that prevents images from reaching the brain, but the psychic blindness brought about by that privation. The beast had to be tamed every morning, piteously, as soon as I woke up.”

How did he manage to return to the world as a functional human being?

“At the beginning, nothing comes, but little by little it builds,” he writes. “You have to organize chaos. Independence is essential.” (He spent a year and a half at Lighthouse learning how to live on his own.)
Women also played a major role.

“I believe I have been saved, mentally saved from nervous breakdown and despair, by women,” he writes. (For the past 15 years, he has been married to a Danish artist, Lin Utzon, daughter of architect Jorn Utzon, who designed the Sydney Opera House.)

Others simply abandoned him.

“I lost many friends along with my sight,” he writes. “People don’t like tragedy.” He is candid about other losses.

“If you love somebody and cannot look into the eyes of the person, something is missing,” he writes. “For some people, it is unbearable. For love, not to see or be seen can be unbearable.”
In the book he asks himself: “What meaning was I to find in what happened to me?”

In the end, he cannot find it. “Meaning is so much beyond our ability to grasp,” he writes.

Interviewed this week as to how he can be so philosophical, he said, “I’m not religious but that doesn’t mean I’m not spiritual. I read a lot of philosophy. I say eternity is now, and I believe it completely.”
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