As part of my research project into Disability Studies and French Culture I have been reading the novels of nineteenth-century blind writer Thérèse-Adèle Husson (introduced to me by Zina Weygand). Next week I will present my first findings on Husson's work in a paper entitled 'Monstrous Messages: Representations of the Disabled Body in Nineteenth-Century French Literature' at the 53rd Annual Conference of the Society for French Studies at the University of Exeter. In my paper I use contemporary Disability Studies to look again at depictions of blindness in French. I use examples from Baudelaire, Flaubert and Hugo to argue that blindness is almost always used in literature as a metaphor for something other than itself. The experience of blindness, how it feels to be blind and how it changes the blind person's relationship with the world, is rarely, if ever, touched upon.
Not all Husson's novels are about blindness but in Les Deux Aveugles et leur Jeune Conducteur (The Two Blind Men and their Young Guide), published posthumously in 1838, she tells the poignant story of blind brothers who are disowned by their family and forced to wander France trying to make a living. The story is told from the first-person perspective of one of the brothers. Late on in the narrative, the brothers unexpectedly encounter their neglectful father. As they suddenly realise who they have in front of them, the blind narrator utters the seemingly incongruous line: 'Son regard a rencontré le mien' (his gaze met mine). When I first came across this line I thought it must be there by mistake. Clearly a blind narrator, imagined by a blind writer, could have no understanding of the notion of the 'gaze' or the importance the sighted attach to eye contact. Surely his must be an authorial slip, a careless addition which Husson must have heard read aloud and unthinkingly transported into her text.
Contemporary Disability Study's resistance to the metaphorization of disability made me think again about this sentence. What if Husson was well aware of the incongruity of the phrase as she wrote it? What if she was trying to make her readers, both sighted and blind, think again about the alleged supremacy of sight? Might we read this reference to the blind gaze as an insight into the way the blind relate to others in the world? The shock of this sentence invites us to separate blindness from its metaphoric baggage and put ourselves in the place of the narrator. As we do so we realise that the blind are not cut off from the world, living tragically in a bubble of isolation and self-pity. They are fully engaged and involved citizens who use their other senses to achieve the same kind of contact with others as the sighted manage (or think they manage) with their over-determined gaze.