Sustaining Blindness in Literature:
A Lesson From French History
The ideal of sustaining - indeed celebrating - disability for its own sake tends to be thought of as a post-modern notion which is still being explored and argued for by Disability Studies scholars and activists. But nineteenth-century French blind activist and teacher Maurice de la Sizeranne developed a project in Paris – the creation of a book collection devoted to representations of blindness and to books by blind or partially blind authors - which can be seen as a forerunner of twenty-first century attempts to positively sustain disability.
This collection, which is now housed, in far from ideal conditions, in a meeting room in the Association Valentin Hauy, 5, rue Duroc in Paris, France, is an invaluable source of information not only about how the sighted saw blindness and blind people, but also about how blind writers saw, and continue to see, themselves. In its scope and ambition it is comparable to the Jacobus tenBroek Library at the National Federation of the Blind, the Hayes library at the Perkins School for the Blind and the Migel Library which was once at the American Foundation for the Blind and is now at the American Printing House of the Blind. But unlike these American collections, the Valentin Hauy library is the only one of its kind to deal with works in French. Unfortunately, the present directors of the Association Valentin Hauy do not fully appreciate the importance of sustaining historical archives. Not only are the books not being carefully preserved, the library catalogue only exists in print and can therefore only be consulted in person in Paris by people who can access small typefaces or who can take a reader with them. One of my aims in my current research project is to create a digitised version of the catalogue and of the most significant books it contains.
Inspired by the work of Cathy Kudlick and Zina Weygand, whose reclaiming of nineteenth-century French blind writer Thérèse-Adèle Husson has drawn attention to the existence of Sizeranne’s Valentin Hauy collection, my work seeks both to exploit and to sustain Sizeranne’s collection for current and future generations of Disability Studies scholars and students. In my paper today I would like to provide an insight into the collection by discussing how two texts which I found thanks to the Hauy archive encourage us to rethink received notions of value, normality and tragedy, notions, in fact, whose problematic sustainability poses ethical and representational challenges to Disability Studies.
In their work on Husson, Kudlick and Weygand focused almost exclusively on her autobiographical writings. But Husson also wrote sentimental novels primarily intended for the moral instruction of young ladies. In contrast to the modern and something surprisingly enlightened way that Husson talks about blindness in her autobiography (which you can read in both English and French online - her novels often reinforce traditional nineteenth-century myths or stereotypes of blindness (some of which, as David Bolt’s 2014 work The Metanarrative of Blindness shows, still persist to this day) whereby blindness is a tragedy, even a fate worse than death, and the category problematically labelled ‘the blind’ are either sub or super human beings who should be praised, pitied, neglected or avoided.
Indeed this quotation from Simi Linton’s 1998 Claiming Disability shows how widespread this problem is amongst the non disabled:
’Representations of disability and the representation of disabled people’s place in society are largely in the hands of people schooled in a particular vision of disability, one that is saturated with deterministic thinking and characterised by maudlin and morbid sentiments projected onto disabled people’s experience. The insistence not just that disability is an unfortunate occurrence but that disabled people are, perforce, “unfortunates”, seeps into most reports on the disability experience.’
But in one little-known collection of short moral tales, Moral Distractions or Virtue in Action [Le Passe-temps moral ou la vertu mis en action (Paris: Belin, 1837 3rd edition)], Husson presents an intriguingly modern approach to disability which seems to at least in part alleviate Linton’s worries and foreshadow the concerns of this conference by seeking to celebrate disability for its own sake.
In the story ‘The Good Father’s Lesson’ [‘Leçon d’un bon père’], an eleven-year-old boy, Adolphe, is playing in the park when he sees a so-called invalid, later introduced as Jean-Louis Grossard, talking to Monsieur Dupré, his tutor.
The boy’s reaction to Grossard, who has a wooden leg, a patch over one eye and two missing fingers, is blunt but not unexpected given the prevailing attitudes of the time: ‘How I pity you, you poor man’ [p. 208: ‘Combien je vous trouve malheureux.’] And indeed this exclamation echoes Husson’s descriptions of her own plight which she often describes as ‘unfortunate’ ‘pitiable’ and ‘sad’.
But it is Grossard’s response which is revealing: ‘ "Poor man, you say", said the invalid, getting up proudly, "I’ll have you know I have three sons, the oldest of which is no older than you, and if they ever spoke to me like that I would surely disinherit them!" ' [p. 208 : ‘ – Malheureux, dites-vous? reprit l’invalide en se relevant fièrement, j’ai trios fils, dont l’aîné n’est pas plus âgé que vous ; si jamais l’un d’eux me tenait un pareil langage, je crois que je le désavouerais !’].
It transpires not only that Grossard is proud of his disabilities – which he received during his thirty-six years of military service, but also that he wants to expose his sons to the risk of sustaining similar injuries by encouraging all three of them to become soldiers. Adolphe struggles to understand Grossard’s point of view:
‘The fact that this unfortunate man does not complain about his situation shows a resignation I can well understand even if this kind of resignation is very rare, but that he wants to expose his children to the same dangers, indeed that he attaches a kind of glory to this, is, in my opinion, a sign that he is taking his own enthusiasm much too far.’ [p. 210 : ‘que cet infortuné ne se plaigne point de sa situation, c’est une résignation que je conçois très-bien, quoi qu’elle doive être fort rare ; mais vouloir exposé ces enfants à de pareils dangers, à y attacher toute sa gloire, c’est, à mon avis, pousser l’enthousiasme jusqu’ à l’extravagance’.]
Unlike Adolphe, who is clearly horrified by the idea that Grossard’s sons might voluntarily put themselves in a position where they become as disabled as their father, all three boys do in fact want to be soldiers, despite, or perhaps because of, being confronted with their father’s disabilities every day.
Although it is possible to read this story as nothing more than a sentimental celebration of national pride and the glories of war, I would like to suggest that Grossard’s desire for his sons to risk their own limbs and sight foreshadows the late twentieth-century Disability Pride movement and encourages the nineteenth-century reader, who, like Adolphe, may not have been exposed to such feelings before, to think carefully about the assumptions which are too easily and quickly made about the value and quality of life.
Husson’s attempt to celebrate disability is extended in a 1882 story ‘Amongst the Blind’ [‘Entre aveugles’] by nineteenth-century Franco-Italian writer Marc Monnier. In this story the author offers a striking argument in favour of the sustaining of disability. He uses a question and answer style dialogue reminiscent of Cara Liebowitz’s persuasive blog post ‘Explaining Inspiration Porn to the Non Disabled’on her That Crazy Crippled Chic blog: like Cara’s piece, this short story is deliberately didactic and as such is written in a persuasive and provocative way in an attempt to both enlighten and convince an audience who may not have encountered such views before.
Indeed, in this short story, Monnier does a great job of avoiding the ableist traps which Linton highlights in her book.
A painter has come to a rural town to decorate its church when he happens across an old doctor friend he used to know in Paris. The Doctor lives in an institution for the blind [‘hospice d’aveugles’] and takes the painter to visit it. What follows is a dialogue in which the doctor – in a fascinating deconstruction of the medical model - debunks a succession of myths and misconceptions about blindness and 'the blind' voiced by the painter. One example occurs as the painter admires the beautiful scenery and then exclaims:
- How sad it is!
- The poor blind people here can’t appreciate it.
- Who gave you that idea?
- Can they see the river?
- No, but they can feel it. They love to come and sit, as you are sitting, on the edge of the balcony.
[p. 238 : ‘C’est triste!
Les pauvres aveugles qui sont ici n’en jouissent pas.
Qui te l’a dit ?
Ils voient la rivière ?
Ils la sentent. Ils viennent, volontiers s’asseoir comme toi sur le parapet.]
The Doctor goes on to explain how the blind residents appreciate the smell and feel of the breezes coming off the river and that they notice sounds that the sighted do not.
The painter functions in this text as a symbol of ocularcentrism – he has an unshakeable belief that sight is the most important and privileged of the senses and that anyone who does not have it is necessarily doomed to have a lesser experience of life and the world. The Doctor counters by explaining that Milton’s gradual sight loss opened him up to a wider world of experiences than sighted poets like Dante, and demonstrates how 'the blind' are better placed to appreciate the finer qualities of poetry, arguing that the newly blind are sometimes so pleased with their new appreciation of poetry that they do not just find consolation but positive joy and pleasure in being blind. Even when the Dr goes on to reverse the normal-abnormal binary by arguing that he knows blind children who see sightedness as a disability, the painter remains unconvinced. Despite the fact that this statement still relies on the binary opposition between disabled and non-disabled which can be problematic, it nonetheless demonstrates a positive approach to blindness which celebrates it for its own sake. The Doctor’s opinions thus hopefully encourage the non-disabled to rethink what they assume to be their own privileged position in the hierarchy of perfection and normalcy.
The twist in the story comes when the doctor suddenly stops referring to the blind using ‘they’ as he says: ‘our other senses become sharper : we learn to listen, something we hadn’t known how to do until now.’
The Doctor’s switch from ‘they’ to ‘we’ in his discussions of the blind is intriguing. At this point in the story we have not been told whether he is blind or sighted but because we are reading from the point of view of the implicitly sighted reader, and because he is a doctor, we assume that he is sighted and lives in the hospice as a professional rather than a patient. His use of ‘we’ challenges the distinction made throughout the text between the two disparate groups ‘the sighted’ and ‘the blind’: it argues that sight or lack of sight is not a defining characteristic but one amongst many elements and that there exists a continuum between people with different levels of blindness or non-blindness. In this way it is a forerunner of David Bolt’s use of the ‘those of us who’ formulation which emphasizes that blindness is not a marker of inherent and inhuman difference.
In fact as the doctor continues to refute the painter’s increasingly ocularnormative assumptions, we learn that the doctor lives in the hospice because his parents, who met in the hospice as blind children, still live there. Before revealing his true identity to the painter, the doctor describes the love affair between these two blind children who were eventually allowed to marry despite some peoples’ concerns over the consequences of allowing two blind people to marry and have children. When the painter asks if their child was born blind, the doctor replies, ‘no more than me’ before revealing that he is in fact the son in question. By refusing to clarify how much the son - and thus the doctor - can or cannot see, Monnier frustrates the painter’s – and indeed the reader’s - attempt to construct a hierarchical relationship between blindness and non-blindness. Instead he playfully calls into question the non-disabled person’s tendency to see disability as lack by rendering the blindness (or not) of the doctor unknowable and thus ultimately inconsequential, indeed irrelevant.
In conclusion, I would like to suggest that the presence of such enlightened ideas within texts written in nineteenth-century France reveals that current arguments about the value of disability have been around for much longer than we might have thought. These texts have, until recently, remained hidden, buried in archives, and ironically inaccessible to the very people who need to use them as evidence against the kind of reductionist views represented in these stories by the boy Adolphe and the painter.