Does literature ever give anything other than a negative image of disability?
By Flora Amann
“Does disability ever represent anything other than a negative image?” In 1998, Paul Longmore, a pioneer of the Society for Disability Studies (London, UK), had chosen this unsettling question to open a conference regarding the disabled bodies in European painting given by Henri-Jacques Stiker. In his presentation, he showed how images of disability allowed modern European culture to portray corrupt humanity but also to acknowledge its lower instincts. The discussion which followed met with this pitfall: if the fiction of misery was paralleled with the representation of disabled bodies, could the fiction of disability represent something else than miserable people? This debate led two members of the Society, David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, to theorize the humanities’ input for Disability Studies. Through a quick investigation around the character of the “mute” aristocrat and its links with speeches on deafness in post-revolutionary French sentimental novels, this contribution will attempt to tackle this subject.
Anatole by Sophie Gay (1815) is well known by 19th-century specialists for the coherence which it creates between its form and its subject: until the very end, the novel silences the deafness of its eponymous character, Anatole, as if to mime his muteness. The character’s disability is harmoniously entwined within a sentimental plot which readers applauded. Valentine, a young and fair provincial widow discovers the worldly intrigues of Paris and takes a long time to discover that the handsome stranger who saved her from under the wheels of a carriage in front of the Opera is a young aristocrat plagued with birth deafness.
Though Anatole’s deafness may appear at first as a variation on the commonplaces of the sentimental novel of the time (the silent language of love, communication through gestures and shares, shy silences and unspoken words), it finally serves as a satire of salons, worldly morals and perverted language which is one of its symptoms. Those who wield it are the actual infirm of the novel: Valentine hence mention society’s defects as “these incurable infirmities which one has to tolerate in others, but from which one should remain guarded against”. The novel’s message indeed lies in the fate it stores for Valentine’s stepsister, the very indiscrete Madame de Nangis, who has as much taste for infidelity as for gossip. When her rashness eventually leads her to being caught, she suddenly falls into “muteness” herself. By contrast, the outcome of the novel redeems Anatole by both unveiling his hidden mysteries and the purity of his intents.
Far from being enthralled by the deprivation of hearing, it thus seems that Sophie Gay was enraptured by its corollary, mutism and this element entices one to study the interdiscursive links entwining the novel and its political and social context. The new political and scientific revolutionary elites had indeed granted a great role to the education of the deaf in their social regeneration program while the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” of 1789 had placed deliberation as the principal means of construction of a reciprocal political and civic space. Speech was also the sole medium for the universal principles proclaimed by the revolutionary regime. Finally, on a more anecdotic level, one has to be reminded of a legal case which made the news between 1776 and 1792 and which questioned the links between speech and social origin: the Solar case, stirred by the abbé de L’Épee, who claimed he had welcomed into his own home a deaf and noble child. The case, with its many twists and turns, was wildly advertised, mostly by the abbé himself, which spread several versions of the story in the press. In that context, it is not surprising that Sophie Gay chose a deaf(-mute) character to criticize the verbal disorders which she blames the Revolution for. The study of Anatole thus confirms what Mitchell & Snyder have showed: the specificity of the literary speech on disability is only able to function as long as it is replaced within its political, social, intellectual and artistic context.
Joseph, count of Solar. Print by Jean-François Janinet, Paris, 1777. Source: Gallica, Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Anatole thus provides us with the possibility of a mutual enrichment of literature history and Disability Studies. As a piece of literature, Anatole allows one to answer affirmatively to Paul Longmore’s question. As a methodological frame, Disability Studies, beyond the interdiscursive method recommended by Mitchell and Snyder, may broaden the field of literary studies to the greater scope of history of representations.
Flora Amann holds a joint PhD from the Université of Montréal (Canada) and the Sorbonne University. She is an associate researcher at the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
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Mitchell, David T. and Sharon L. Snyder, « Representation and Its Discontent: The Uneasy Home of Disability in Literature and Film », in Gary Albrecht, Katherine Seelman et Michael Bury (ed.), Handbook of Disability Studies, Thousand Oaks, CA and London, Sage Publications, 2001, p. 195-215.
Thomas, Jack, « Le sourd-muet de l’abbé de L’Épée : récits concurrentiels d’une affaire judiciaire au siècle des Lumières », in Lucien Faggion, Christophe Regina and Bernard Ribémont (ed.), La culture judiciaire. Discours, représentations et usages de la justice du Moyen Âge à nos jours, Dijon, Presses universitaires de Dijon, coll. « Histoires », 2014, p. 463-483.
Flora Amann (2021): Does literature ever give anything other than a negative image of disability? In: Public Disability History 6 (2021) 1.