"The past is valid only in relation to whether the present recognizes it"

By Emmeline Burdett

This quotation comes from Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, one of the short-stories in a collection by the white South African writer Nadine Gordimer, which was published in 2007. It demonstrates how differing interpretations of the past can easily become a politicized battleground. A new chamber opera which looks at disability history through a highly politicized lens demonstrates both the pitfalls and the possibilities of this approach.  The Paradis Files was created by Graeae Theatre Company and tells the story of Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824), an Austrian composer and pianist who went blind at around the age of three, and who wrote at least five operas, two cantatas, fifteen keyboard works, several songs and a piano trio. Graeae was founded in 1980 by the disabled actor Nabil Shaban, specifically to counter prejudices and popular myths about disabled people. It was named after the Graeae of Greek mythology - three sisters named Deino (dread), Enyo (horror), and Pemphredo (alarm) who shared an eye and a tooth between them.

https//www.greekmythology.com/Myths/Monsters/Graeae/Graeae.html”>Graeae: GreekMythology.com - May 16, 2022
Figure 1 - The three sisters Graeae with one eye and one tooth. Credit: https//www.greekmythology.com/Myths/Monsters/Graeae/Graeae.html”>Graeae:
GreekMythology.com</a> - May 16, 2022.

According to its website,

Graeae is a force for change in world-class theatre, boldly placing Deaf and disabled actors centre stage and challenging preconceptions.


A series of unfortunate events

Much of Paradis’s music has been lost, and her best-known piece, the Sicilienne, may in fact have been composed by the violinist Samuel Dushkin (1891-1976). The reason why so many of Paradis’s works have been lost seems to be that, in common with other female composers, particularly in the past, many of her performances took place in the domestic sphere, and as such her music may not have been extensively printed and republished. This dearth of material may be partly responsible for the fact that Paradis is most well-known today not for her musical abilities, but for the attempts that were made to ‘cure’ her, and for her relationship with the German physician and pioneer of the theory of animal magnetism, Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) by whom she was treated between late 1776 and the middle of 1777. Mesmer’s treatment of Paradis was the least brutal of all those to which she was subjected, and Mesmer is the only physician with whom Paradis built up a relationship. Enduring speculation about the nature of the relationship between Paradis and Mesmer has been the focus of interest for other creative depictions of Paradis’s life story – in recent years there have been three novels, one of which has been the inspiration for a film, as well as a short story and a play. Like The Paradis Files, none of these are historical documents, but they are important, because they tell us which aspects of the past people feel are important to emphasise. In this way they can be seen as what the academic Susanne Knittel calls ‘sites of memory’(Knittel 2015: 7). Knittel writes that 
I conceive of a site of memory as encompassing not only the specific geographic location of a historical event but also the assemblage of cultural artifacts that accumulate around it over time (ibid.).

Of course, Paradis was not a historical event, but she was a historical figure. Knittel continues: 
Literature plays a particularly important role in this dynamic process as a singularly self-reflexive medium of memory that foregrounds questions of representation and respresentability (ibid.).

So, in Knittel’s view, literature in its various forms is a particularly powerful way of addressing the meaning of things that happened in the past, and, by extension, the meaning the lives of people who lived in the past. It seems that most mainstream portrayals of Paradis portray her through the prism of her relationship with Mesmer. In addition, such portrayals seem to have an enduring fascination with how Paradis did things as a blind person. For example, the French author Michèle Halberstadt’s novel about Paradis and her relationship with Mesmer  – entitled The Pianist in the Dark – won the Drouot literary prize in 2008 and was shortlisted for another – the Lilas.  The Drouot prize was founded in 2007 by the Drouot auction house and Le Magazine Littéraire to honour the best French fiction writing about the arts.  So, why was it so well received, and what does its reception tell us about mainstream perceptions of Paradis’s story? And how does this relate to Susanne Knittel’s idea of ‘sites of memory’?
The way that Paradis’s story has been told in mainstream creative representations of it is something that Graeae wanted to address in The Paradis Files and doing so chimes with both Graeae’s vision of placing Deaf and disabled people centre stage, and Susanne Knittel’s concept of ‘sites of memory’. Knittel says that this idea is particularly applicable to minority history, because of the challenge it presents to mainstream ideas of what the past was like. According to Knittel, minority memories 
Must constantly assert themselves in the face of the dominant memory culture, particularly when the latter becomes politicized and instrumentalised in the interest of hegemony (ibid.).

I would argue that much of what we have seen in recent months or years involves the politicization of minority history, and that part of equality involves accepting both that one may be wrong even if one is from a minority group, and that one cannot argue that one’s attempt to distort the past does not matter because people like oneself have historically been discriminated against. Nevertheless, Knittel is correct that minority views of the past are significantly more vulnerable than majority ones. For example, reviews of The Pianist in the Dark frequently praised the way Halberstadt portrayed blindness (Williams 2011: unpaged), and this leads to the question of whether the fact that the novel won the 2008 Drouot literary prize can in some ways be compared to the truism that a non-disabled actor or actress who plays a disabled character is virtually guaranteed an Oscar for doing so, while disabled actors and actresses themselves often face avoidable barriers
These are the problems that The Paradis Files seeks to address. In agreement with its ethos, it seeks to put Paradis (rather than Mesmer) at the centre of the story. In addition, it rejects the idea that the ‘cures’ to which Paradis was subjected were benign – it could be argued that mainstream portrayals support this idea by concentrating on Paradis’s treatment by Mesmer and glossing over her treatment by other physicians.  

Cutting, bleeding, heating and freezing!

In The Paradis Files, The Gossips tell the audience that the ‘cures’ to which Paradis was subjected involved ‘cutting, bleeding, heating and freezing’.  Mesmer makes no appearance, and instead, three other physicians feature. As in Resistance, Liz Crow’s art installation about the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ programme, the physicians are unnamed in the programme, which seems to underline the point that this is not their story, and not a story in which their treatment of Paradis will be portrayed as having been in any way well-intentioned. However, an article in the British newspaper The Guardian reveals that these include Dr Joseph Barth (1745-1818) the holder of the first European Chair of Ophthalmology at the Medical University of Vienna, a position to which he was appointed by the Austrian empress Maria Theresa, after whom Maria Theresia von Paradis was named, and to whom her father was Imperial Secretary. The Paradis Files portrays Barth as sticking pins in Paradis’s eyes. The difficulty of finding out whether there is any basis for this claim is compounded by the difficulty of obtaining detailed information about Barth’s techniques, save that he designed the original ‘Beer’s Knife’, which was modified and popularised by his student Georg Joseph Beer. This knife was used for cutting out cataracts.
Though this is something of a grey area, the idea that doctors have always been inherently sadistic towards disabled people is extremely important to the Anglo-US disability movement. In his book By Trust Betrayed: Patients, Physicians, and the License to Kill in the Third Reich, Hugh Gregory Gallagher discusses what he says is the nature of the relationship between a physician and his or her chronic patients: 

The psychological relationship between a physician and his chronic patients is a difficult one…Medicine is a science, and…both doctor and patient must believe in the power of the doctor. The chronic patient challenges this belief (Gallagher 1990: 199).

According to Gallagher, the chronic patient’s failure to respond to treatment leads to frustration on the part of the physician, who then takes revenge for this challenge to his omnipotence by devising sadistic ‘cures’: 
At the end of the nineteenth century, the fledgling specialty of orthopaedic medicine was unable to do much to relieve its paralysed and deformed patients. …It prescribed an array of bizarre braces, casts, and confining devices, hideous and tortuous, with which to torment what it could not cure (ibid.).

The difficulty with this reasoning is that Gallagher’s book is about the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ programme – the systematic murder of institutionalised patients in Germany between 1933 and 1945. Gallagher also writes: 
The Germans are not ‘different’ from the Americans in any critical sense … How they treated their insane, handicapped and retarded during the Third Reich was certainly extreme behavior – tragic and appalling – but it was not inconsistent with patterns of social behavior that can be traced throughout the history of the disabled throughout the centuries. The German physicians actually acted on the basis of feelings which are common, to a greater or lesser degree, to most men and women in most societies (ibid: 24).

Though this interpretation means that the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ programme is not seen as having taken place outside of history, it can also suggest that there is no real difference between things that happen, and that the only important thing is that they happen to members of the same minority group. For example, one point that The Paradis Files labours very heavily indeed is that Paradis’s unsuccessful medical treatment is exactly like things which have happened to members of Graeae: 
I also remember you bringing in ping pong balls and various sharp things … demonstrating the scenes of torture she [Paradis] had to go through…It is an all too familiar narrative with disabled people, the need to ‘fix’ us. I was sent away to be ‘cured’ but I was completely okay with being Deaf (ibid.).

The question of whether there are parallels between modern attempts to ‘cure’ disabled people, and the ethos of the Enlightenment period in which Paradis lived is an important one but insisting that there are direct parallels ignores various points about Paradis’ life and situation. For example, Paradis’ position at court meant that restoring her sight would have been seen as much more of a coup than restoring the sight of a ‘nobody’, and her position allowed her to receive a comprehensive musical education. This meant that she did not have to worry about the necessities of life and was able to become a musician in the first place. Her achievements would have been much more unlikely if she had been of humbler origins. One way that activists have sought to evade this problem is by regarding such things as differing time periods as inconsequential window-dressing which obscures moral issues. For example, a review of Nabil Shaban’s play The First to Go, about the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ programme, suggested that the play’s 1940s setting made its desire to consider contemporary moral questions relating to disability more difficult because 
A modern-day audience can easily distance itself from the events of the Second World War and deny any responsibility.

One imagines that, without the claim that there are parallels between Maria Theresia von Paradis’ sufferings and contemporary efforts to ‘cure’ disability being relentlessly hammered home, a similar problem might exist regarding The Paradis Files. Nevertheless, the way Paradis’ individual story is ignored in favour of making a socio-political point is problematic – it suggests that disabled people have not existed over time.  Appearing to be interested in Paradis only insofar as her situation allows one to talk about one’s own creates the impression that, in Graeae’s view, disabled people are entirely interchangeable, even when they live hundreds of years apart and in completely different societies. In a sense The Paradis Files isn’t even Paradis’s story, but one in which Graeae metaphorically stand in front of her shouting ‘Me! Me! Me!’ and feel that they are entitled to do so. 
The hijacking of Paradis’ story for socio-political ends is also evident in the simplistic way that The Paradis Files’ co-librettist, Selina Mills, insists that Paradis has been ‘forgotten’. In some ways this is true – Paradis is hardly a household name, and the way she did things as a blind person has had to be rediscovered, rather than being known. This does suggest that Paradis has been seen only as an exceptional individual, rather than as a comprehensive challenge to the idea that one must be sighted to compose. Nevertheless, in addition, to all the creative depictions of Paradis’s life, there is a street in Vienna named after her, and the wrongly attributed Sicilienne was played at the 2018 wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. None of these things suggest very convincingly that Paradis has been forgotten. Instead, perhaps, what has happened is that she is improperly remembered. This is something that Graeae’s approach is unable to challenge, as, in agreement with its philosophy, it refuses to make any real acknowledgement that most people aren’t blind. This is particularly problematic because it cannot tackle stereotypes – most notably those which prevent Paradis being adequately appreciated. Tackling stereotypes was one reason why Graeae was founded.

Tackling Stereotypes

One of the most enduring stereotypes about disabled people is that that, without non-disabled people to help them, they would be unable to achieve anything. Paradis’s Wikipedia entry describes how others invented things for her but is completely silent on the things that she invented for herself. These inventions included different-shaped playing cards so she could participate at card-tables, tactile maps of the cities she toured in, and a system of knotted cords which she used when performing to enable her to recall changes of key and tempo (The Paradis Files 5: The Forgotten Enchantress). It is noteworthy that this information makes no appearance in the opera itself. Of course, if Paradis had not been a person of note she would not have had a Wikipedia entry, but the problem of everything which allowed Paradis to achieve her potential being attributed to somebody else is something which I also found when trying to research the disabled German seamstress Margarete Steiff. Paradis’s Wikipedia entry also records that she ‘assisted’ Valentin Haüy in founding a school for blind children, which opened in 1785. In fact, she showed him the tactile alphabet she had developed herself.
No information about this appears in The Paradis Files itself (although it is in the programme) but by taking this approach, Graeae leaves itself unable to tackle the perception that Paradis’s achievements were possible solely because of the involvement of other people. Trying to solve problems of historical inequality by pretending that the person who has been treated unequally was the same as everyone else also makes it impossible to evaluate different types of inequality. For example, the director of the 2017 film Mlle Paradis, Barbara Albert, made the point that Paradis’ friend Maria Anna (‘Nannerl’) Mozart was as talented as her famous brother Wolfgang Amadeus, but she still had to give up her career when she married, meaning that, in a sense, Paradis’ own career was only possible because she was considered ‘unmarriageable’.

The present as a substitute for the past

When I went to see The Paradis Files, there were many more obviously disabled people than one would see in the audience of a typical production, and there could have been several reasons for this. Firstly, people might simply have been interested to learn about the life of a historical disabled person. Secondly, they might have been keen to support Graeae, which is well-known and well-respected amongst politically active disabled people and those involved with disability arts. Thirdly, they might have known members of Graeae’s cast and crew personally. Fourthly, they might themselves be involved with Graeae, either now or in the past. Lastly, the Southbank Centre, where The Paradis Files was shown, makes a particular effort to embrace ‘diversity’. The production presented a past that would be recognised as ‘relevant’ by its audience because it would support their own experiences and view of the world.  This is most obvious in terms of Paradis’ unsuccessful medical treatment and the way in which The Paradis Files praises Paradis’ decision to give it up in preference for remaining blind. I showed above how important the idea of doctors’ persistently malign attitude towards disabled people is to the disability rights movement, and this is carried through into The Paradis Files. The scene in which pins are stuck in Paradis’s eyes is the most distressing in the whole opera. It seems to have been included to create a sense of Paradis as a member of a persecuted minority, but to what extent does it reflect the lived experiences of actual disabled people?
Graeae produced several films exploring aspects of The Paradis Files, and in one of these Bethan Langford, the visually impaired mezzo-soprano who plays Paradis related how, when she was a child, it was decided (although not by her) that she had to wear an eye-patch for a period. Long after it had been taken off, she continued to experience extreme anger, a psychological reaction to being treated unfairly and feeling powerless to do anything about it. Though this will be familiar to a lot of people, it is disabled people who are told that whatever is happening is ‘for their own good’. The assumption that those who are treating them are acting out of benevolence, or that because it is a ‘natural’ reaction to an impairment, the disabled person has no right to complain and is not a reliable witness anyway, all conspire to make it hard for disabled people to be taken seriously. In The Paradis Files, by contrast, when another of the physicians is ‘treating’ Paradis, the Gossips sing  
This man should be in prison (ibid.).
It’s certainly a radically different way of looking at history. 

The Paradis Files’ penchant for asking ‘timeless’ questions designed principally to appeal to its modern audience is also evident in the opera’s other main storyline, that of the relationship between Paradis and her mother, Hilde. Very little is known about Paradis’s actual mother, and the perceived timelessness of the questions involved was addressed in the opera’s programme in a discussion between Graeae’s Artistic Director Jenny Sealey and the librettist of The Paradis Files, Nicola Werenowska: 
The other thing we all loved was the mother-daughter relationship…Throughout history and still today, women are ‘blamed’ for having a disabled child…Hilde was desperately trying to navigate the world for Theresia, to protect her, but she failed her in many ways (The Paradis Files 3: In Conversation).

There are various ways in which this portrayal of familial conflict might speak to Graeae’s intended audience. For example, embracing the social model of disability might be incomprehensible to parents who believe that a disabled person should fade into the background, or if this is not possible, should uncomplainingly abandon attempts to participate in society, and instead tolerate endless, pointless ‘pity’. Such differing reactions would inevitably cause conflict, resentment, and possibly, estrangement.

But was the past really just like the present, and do the same questions arise? The Paradis Files was certainly made with the present in mind, and its attitude is summed up by something that happens near the beginning of the opera. We are told that ‘The doorbell goes’. Given that Paradis died in 1824 and the doorbell was not invented until 1831, this seems unlikely. This might seem like a pedantic quibble, were it not for the implications for both disability history, and for the history of any minority group. Getting such elementary things wrong because, apparently, you cannot be bothered to get them right, seems lazy and amateurish. As such, it does not suggest that disability history is something that needs to be taken seriously by the majority. It also gives no sense of people from a minority group existing over time. In my view, what is needed is to reintegrate Paradis into a collective past, and part of this requires an appreciation that she lived in a society in which the doorbell did not exist. Concepts of what disability is and what it means likewise change over time – for example, in many societies, a woman’s inability to give birth – either at all or to a male heir for her husband – is considered to be a disabilityIf we go back to the example of Bethan Langford and the eyepatch, maybe one way forward is to separate the wearing of the eyepatch from Langford’s feelings about it – we don’t know why she had to wear it, and there may have been a perfectly legitimate reason for her doing so. However, the way it was foisted on her ‘for her own good’ may not have been so legitimate.

Dr Emmeline Burdett is an independent researcher.



Miller, B. R. (2014) History of the blind. Britannica. unpaged.

Gallagher, H. G. (1990) By Trust Betrayed: Patients, Physicians, and the License to Kill in the Third Reich. New York: Henry Holt and Company. 

Heisel, W. (2020) Time for Hollywood to make disabilities more than just Oscar material. Center for Health Journalism

Jeffries, S. (2022) ‘People were always trying to fix her’: the ‘blind enchantress’ who wowed Mozart. The Guardian. unpaged.

Knittel, S. C. (2015) The Historical Uncanny: Disability, Ethnicity, and the Politics of Holocaust Memory. New York: Fordham University Press. 

Mills, S. (2020) The forgotten female composer fêted by Mozart and Haydn. The Spectator. unpaged.

Shechet Epstein, S. (2019) Mesmer and Mlle Paradis. Sloan Science and Film

Softely, R. (2008) Review of Nabil Shaban, The First to Go. Disability Arts Online.

The Paradis Files, programme.  pp. 3-5.

Williams, H. (2011) Review of Michèle Halberstadt, The Pianist in the Dark. The Historical Novel Review. 58. unpaged.

Recommended citation:
Burdett. Emmeline (2022): Disability and video game culture. In: Public Disability History 7 (2022) 4.

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