restricted access Pierre and Camille
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Pierre and Camille by Alfred de MlAssef EDITORS' PREFACE "Pierre and Camille" is a nineteenth century story written by a Frenchman, de Musset, who obviously had great sympathy for the deaf people of his time. The story reflects a great deal of awareness of the difficulties a deaf child faces in growing up in a hearing world, especially if the child has hearing parents. De Musset correctly locates Camille's greatest problem: the attitudes (and ignorance) of others, especially those of her parents, toward deafness. Camille's mother and father feel overwhelming guilt; the father assumes he has been cursed by God and cannot see Camille without seeing her as a living accusation; the mother feels guilty also, and tries to compensate for Camille's deafness by sacrificing her own life. How Camille is able to emerge from such an oppressive environment of guilt to become a happily married mother is a feat that tests our credibility as much as it gratifies our heart. It is clear from the story that most people of the time assumed that deaf people could not be educated-there was the common assumption, which we are all familiar with, that deafness automatically meant muteness also, but, in addition, it is clear that people felt any kind of language or communication was impossible, that somehow the mind was deadened to systematic thinking by the condition of deafness . As de Musset says: "Unfortunately, at this time, when 5 • The Nineteenth Century • so many prejudices were destroyed and replaced, there existed a most pitiless one against those poor creatures known as deaf-mutes." By pointing out such ignorance, de Musset accomplishes a world of good with this story. He reveals not only an awareness of the facts of deafness, and of attitudes toward deafness, but, also, something of the existential aspect of deafness for the deaf person: the sense of isolation, offrustration at seeing so much going on that the deaf person is necessarily excluded from. Camille feels this isolation so strongly at one point that she decides to wear the mourning clothes she had put on after her mother's death for the rest of her life, signaling her own spiritual death. De Musset captures another aspect ofthe deafexperience that is subtle, elusive, but which may lie at the heart of the attitude of society toward deaf people. Because the handicap is invisible, there is a certain unbelievability about it: there is often a vague suspicion that the deaf person is just putting on, or if he is not, there is still the sense of it somehow being wrong, because the person is apparently normal, yet does not respond or act like other people. (Ernest Tidyman's Dummy, of recent vintage, contains statements by police officers wherein they refuse to believe that Donald Lang is deafeven though the evidence is absolutely conclusive. See especially pages 217-218.) Camille, as a baby, was perfect, it seemed, and beautiful; her mother thanked God (before learning of Camille's deafness) for sending her such a perfect baby. When the parents learn of her deafness, there is a horror for them in such knowledge , and neither can accept it, the father eventually running away, the mother committing suicide. There is something wrong, something unjust or cruel in the ironic combination of beauty and grace and the fact of deafness: for the father such a combination was so horrible that it "almost turned his brain." We find in this story one of the earliest fictional accounts of the facts of the deaf experience and also an example of a theme running all through nineteenth century western literature: to be isolated from society is also to be free of 6 • Pierre and Camille • its corruption. It is apparently because of this theme and the convenience of using a deaf character for it that much of the early literature about deafness exists, the deaf character being the one, ofcourse, who is isolated and therefore superior. Camille is no exception. "Her reflective and melancholy air gave to her every movement, to her childish ways and poses, a certain aspect of grandeur; a painter or a sculptor would have been inspired by it." At another point: "Coquetry shows itself at an early age in women. Camille gave no indications of it." Or at another: "If her heart is in the right place, people will know it without it being necessary for her to put honey on the end of her tongue." (The implication is that...