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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf Identity and Social Images in Nineteenth-Century France

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Desloges stressed that Abbé de l’Epée had not invented sign language, if only because his friends who had never gone to school made extensive use of the language. He understood, however, that there was a difference between natural signs that easily emerged in deaf society and the invented methodical signs that Epée tried to meld with the French language. Throughout his book, Desloges did not conceal his great admiration for Epée, the educator. He vigorously defended Epée and his “excellent method” against those hearing people who continued to press for oral language in the education of deaf children. On a more personal level, Desloges’ short book was also a defense of a way of life that the bookbinder routinely experienced. Desloges cautioned his readers that it would be a great mistake to think that deaf people were like “automatons” that were only going to vegetate in society.22 The disturbing fact that hearing people had constructed a negative image of deaf people based on physical difference was not lost on Desloges. In so many ways, Pierre Desloges was as perceptive as he was combative.

With the publication of his book, Desloges momentarily became the center of attention in several of the Parisian salons. He would eventually meet with the Marquis de Condorcet, who was interested in the philosophical arguments set forth in Observations d’un sourd et muet, and attended other social gatherings among the intellectual elite. Desloges also published some short articles for different publications like the Mercure de France and the Journal encyclopédique, and the Affiches de Paris, in which he continued his defense of sign language.23 After the publication of his book, Desloges also met with Jacob-Rodriguez Pereire (1715–1780), a hearing educator who had rejected sign language as a pedagogical method for deaf students.24 The two men met twice in late 1779, and they carried on their conversations through written French.25 From this exchange we learn that Desloges had actually sent Abbé Deschamps a copy of his book with a personal letter. Desloges, however, was perplexed by the cleric’s response: “[F]riend of truth, I [would] like to hear your voice . . . . It has guided my book, it will guide my answer.” Desloges asked Pereire what this really meant. Pereire speculated that Deschamps did not think that Observations d’un sourd et muet was truly Desloges’ own work. In other words, Deschamps had brushed off Desloges’ book as a fraud.26 Pereire, however, had to admit that after his first meeting with Desloges, “at present, I believe that you [Desloges] are capable of everything.”27 During the second meeting between the bookbinder and the tutor of deaf children, Desloges reiterated that in his book, he had “followed only [his] own experience and [his] own conviction in the defense of signed language [in his book].” Although Epée apparently did read the manuscript before it was published, Desloges told Pereire that Epée did not volunteer any comments that would have changed the book’s content. During this second meeting, Pereire remained skeptical that sign language should be the only method used to instruct deaf children. Though Pereire told Desloges that he respected Abbé de l’Epée very much, he was personally unwilling to become involved in the controversy between Deschamps and Epée, claiming, “I am just too busy.” For his part, Desloges was very respectful of Pereire, saying that “the judgment of such a well-known man” would be of great help if Deschamps chose to instigate a fight over Desloges’ book.28 But given Pereire’s wariness of sign language, it seems unlikely that he would have taken a personal risk to defend Desloges in public.

With the outbreak of the French Revolution, it is more difficult to trace the steps of Desloges in Paris. In July 1789, the day after the fall of the Bastille, he published a brief pamphlet entitled Letter Addressed to the Voters of Paris, in which he lauded the actions of the National Guard in defense of the Revolution.29 Meanwhile Abbé de l’Epée, who did not want his name associated with revolutionary activities, felt he had to disavow any personal knowledge of the tract, making it plain that his students were not responsible for its publication.30

In 1790, Desloges wrote a letter to the minister of justice that revealed his dreadful poverty during the early years of the Revolution. Desloges had been living at the hospital at Bicêtre, a place whose “name alone makes humanity tremble.”31 If we think that Desloges was exaggerating his plight at Bicêtre, we only have to turn to the account by the Duke de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, who had visited the hospital in his capacity as chairman of the Poor Relief Committee for the National Assembly. During his tour in May 1790, Liancourt could scarcely hold back his disgust with what he found there. Mental patients were lumped together with paralyzed men and those with syphilis. People accused of various crimes like stealing were also among the mix of humanity. In all, Liancourt counted some 3874 inmates, of whom 435 were male paupers and another 769 were servants.32 Because Desloges found himself in this hospice by 1790, the turmoil of the early days of the Revolution may have led to his unemployment or even physical disability. Once a simple bookbinder, Desloges was now reduced to indigence.

Even from his abysmal location at Bicêtre, Desloges was still interested in making the government aware of the needs of deaf people. He wrote directly to the Poor Relief Committee “to ask for an educational house for deaf people, accompanied with a hospice, for those ‘infirm’ as I am who cannot earn their livelihood.”33 As it turned out, the Poor Relief Committee had already been deliberating in 1790 about the creation of a national school for deaf people. By the time the Poor Relief Committee read Desloges’ letter, the committee members had already selected Abbé Sicard as director of the new Paris Deaf Institute. Several years later, while still living at Bicêtre, Desloges published a thirty-sevenpage almanac called the Almanac of Reason, for Year Two of the French Republic. The almanac included “hymns to liberty and reason and a moral catechism for republican education.”34 This would be his last publication; after 1794, Desloges disappears from the historical record.

The insights that we can draw today from Pierre Desloges’ Observations d’un sourd et muet are important for the history of the French deaf community. Desloges pointed out that deaf culture would emerge where enough deaf people congregated and interacted socially. Moreover, deaf society was different than a community formed around an educational institution. Though he strongly supported education for deaf people, he did not see it as a prerequisite to the formation of a deaf society. Desloges also defied the image of the ignorant tradesman who understood little beyond his immediate surroundings. He read books and formulated his own opinions. His friends in Parisian deaf society were also interested in debating ideas, even though most of them could not read or write French.

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