From comme les monstres to hommes de la nature

The afternoon of 1799, drew attention to the Théâtre de la République, where just five weeks after Napoleon’s seizure of power, the dramatist Jean-Nicolas Bouilly (1763-1842) was showcasing his new play, L’Abbé de l’Épée.

Jean-Nicolas Bouilly

A comedy in five acts, the play dramatized a fictionalized version of the case of the Comte de Solar, a young deaf-mute who was found wandering in the Paris countryside, seen as a ragged savage and assumed to be abandoned by his poor peasant parents. Found by Abbé de l’Épée and taken under his care, the boy is taught to communicate through sign-language, upon which he uses to unfold his chilling tale: he is really an aristocrat, left to die, in a conspiracy to prevent him from receiving his inheritance.

Stirred with the scene of clemency and moved by the Abbé de l’Épée’s devotion to his pupils, the audience during the second performance stood up, shouted, and demanded the immediate release of Roch-Ambroise Cucurron Sicard (1742-1822), the Director of the Institution Nationale des Sourdes-Mutes who was imprisoned in 1796 for the dissemination of illegal religious tracts.[1] Following a persistent campaign led by the deaf teacher Jean Massieu (1772-1846), Sicard was eventually granted amnesty by Napoleon in 1800.

As Jonathan Rée writes, the

[p]ublic agitation about the case brought to light dozens of other deaf and dumb children, abused, exposed, or confined, or exploited as meek and unprotesting chimney-sweeps, and the Abbé found himself converted into a public symbol of enlightened good works: the genial champion of poor little voiceless children, heralding an epoch where they would at last be able to enjoy their natural birthright.[2]

More significantly, the play raised questions about the relationship between language and the pre-lingustic homme de la nature.”[3]Deafness was associated in various ways: with madness, clairvoyance, illiteracy, savagery, supernatural insight, possession by the devil, and even with Christian benevolence and humility. To claim otherwise was to invoke all sorts of philosophical speculation that raised wider questions of French Enlightenment thought, particularly the images of the deaf as another aspect of the Rousseau and Condillac’s ‘noble savage.’ Even legal cases of deaf men on trial tended to leans towards the “philosophical” and offered “concerned parties an especially prime opportunity to grapple with the political implications of some of the most radical claims of Enlightenment epistemology and moral theory.”[4]

Like Rousseau, l’Épée felt there was a primordial human language that was innocent from its social constraints and able to express emotion more directly and purely. He argued that instead of being categorized with other “outsiders”—the aged, the indigent—whose social status and economic condition depended on the attitudes of “knowledgeable leaders” who defined the terms of their social integration, the deaf were better off understood in a class of their own.[5] They were not comme les monstres, he insisted, incapable of experiencing reason, memory, or judgement and thought to be no better than savages, but rather more as homme de la nature: representations of our primordial ancestors as Condillac and Rousseau argued.[6]


[1] Jonathan Rée, I See a Voice: Deafness, Language and the Senses—A Philosophical History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1999), 182.

[2] Rée, I See a Voice, 150.

[3] Rosenfeld, “Deaf Men on Trial,” 166.

[4] Rosenfeld, “Deaf Men on Trial,” 158. For instance, the Caulier case—Parisan avocats argued he should not be held responsible for his crimes using an unusual line of argument: that the defendant was not violating any natural laws and that he did not know of societal laws. I.e. “that the duty of the prelinguistic individual was only to the prelinguistic law of nature.”

[5] Anne T. Quartararo, “The Perils of assimilation in Modern France: The Deaf Community, Social Status, and Educational Opportunity, 1815-1870,” Journal of Social History, vol.29, no.1 (Autumn 1995): 5-23; 5.

[6] Sophia Rosenfeld, “Deaf Men on Trial: Language and Deviancy in Late Eighteenth-Century France,” Eighteenth-Century Life vol.21, no.2 (1997): 157-175.

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