Rose on Thompson (2017)

Thompson, Hannah. Reviewing Blindness in French Fiction, 1789–2013. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, pp. ix + 199, ISBN 978-1-137-43510-1

In Reviewing Blindness in French Fiction, 1789–2013, Hannah Thompson reorients the reader’s typical perspective, immersing readers in the sensorial richness of sounds, odors, tastes, and tactile impressions that coalesce in the narratives she examines. The originality of Thompson’s study lies in her perceptive close readings of narratives of blindness spanning an impressive variety of literary genres and time periods. As Thompson mines these texts, she points out positive depictions of blindness and in the process questions readers’ acceptance of negative clichés surrounding blindness, the focus of much previous scholarly research. The pun in the title, “Reviewing Blindness,” serves both as an invitation to the reader to rethink the origins of myths linked to blindness, and as a playful critique intended to draw awareness to the prevalence of ocularcentric rhetorical devices, such as visual metaphors (re-viewing), embedded in language (2, 9). Thompson argues that the most interesting fictions of blindness are those in which the content and form subvert or revisit preconceived notions of blindness, often complicating interpretation of the texts and dislodging sight as the privileged sense (3). Rather than adopting the embodied, personal perspective common in disability studies, her critical approach to the texts she examines reflects the influence of Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction and Roland Barthes’s assertion of the death of the author. Thompson believes, and rightly so, that in letting the texts speak for themselves, what emerges is a celebration of “blindness as a valuable and important way of being in the world” (4).

Thompson’s monograph, as part of the Literary Disability Studies series, offers a unique vantage point by prioritizing the lived experiences of blind characters over metaphorical readings of them. It is worth noting that most of Thompson’s texts were selected from print holdings at the Bibliothèque Valentin Haüy in Paris, which houses a large collection of texts (yet to be digitized) relating to blindness dating from 1886 to the present (7–8). By juxtaposing canonical texts alongside lesser-known works, the author allows Anglophone readers to engage with a wide variety of contemporary genres such as “literary fiction, autofiction, crime fiction, science fiction and popular fiction” (8). Thompson draws principally from work done by literary scholars and historians, including David Bolt, William Paulson, and Zina Weygand, among others. Throughout her study, she makes frequent recourse to Bolt’s concept of the “metanarrative of blindness,” defined as “[t]he stereotypes, clichés and misconceptions which constitute what most non-blind people describe as ‘blindness’” and its pervasiveness in literature (1). Thompson demonstrates that while the texts she has selected challenge this “metanarrative,” they often simultaneously participate in it, revealing unexpected or contradictory understandings of blindness. 

The book’s second chapter, “The French Metanarrative of Blindness,” builds on Bolt’s “metanarrative of blindness” in order to generate a thorough list of negative stereotypes commonly used to describe the blind. By underlining these misconceptions at the outset, Thompson facilitates a deeper appreciation of how texts in her subsequent chapters resist these negative associations. Examples range from the blind being aligned with darkness, to their status as victims, as those easily tricked, and as objects of pity (18, 28). The list is lengthy, drawing from canonical authors such as Guy de Maupassant and André Gide as well as less familiar authors such as Hervé Guibert and Lucien Descaves. While this sprawling chapter provides an important overview, the large number of characters, texts, and authors from the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries render it unwieldy at times. Thompson also does not consistently give the publication date of a work when introducing it, which may further frustrate readers attempting to situate the texts—many of which are not widely known—in their broader historical context. That aside, the chapter serves as a useful point of comparison with subsequent chapters organized by theme or genre. Indeed, many of the texts presented in this chapter are revisited in the following chapters so that by the work’s conclusion several lenses of analysis have been applied to the same text in a fruitful manner.

Chapters three through six adopt thematic approaches, while the next two are oriented around genre. The third chapter focuses on the relation between blindness and creativity by reexamining the figure of the “blind seer” in Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, Thérèse-Adèle Husson, Marc Monnier, and Romain Villet. Thompson convincingly argues that these authors’ blind narrators, or surrogate narrators, cultivate non-visual ways of “seeing” and communicating information that undercut the supposed ocularcentric nature of realist texts, and instead celebrate alternate sensorial modes of writing (42). Chapter four draws upon the power of non-visual language in Hervé Guibert, Jean Giono, Romain Villet, and Lucien Descaves in order to question how content and style might be employed from within the ocularcentric confines of language to generate auditory and tactile descriptions in narratives (58). 

Blind sexuality is then brought to the forefront of chapters five and six, in which Thompson overturns the myths of blind men as asexual or perverse in order to show how authors such as Hervé Guibert, Georges Bataille, Lucien Descaves, and Romain Villet emphasize a synesthetic approach to blind sexuality (90). On the other hand, as shown in Didier Van Cauwelaert, blind women are often silenced and objectified when they are twice mediated through a sighted male narrator; or, as in Thérèse-Adèle Husson’s autobiographical fiction, they are represented by a female narrator as participating in the same stereotypes against which they struggle (117–43). The last two chapters preceding the conclusion explore the notion of a “blind noir” within the ocularcentric genre of crime fiction, especially in Fred Vargas, and how imaginary technological advances in works of science fiction, by such authors as Maurice Renard, can challenge our assumptions about vision by offering apertures into parallel non-visual worlds (146–66).

Thompson’s nuanced reflections on the creative powers of French fictions of blindness provide a welcome re-viewing of canonical nineteenth-century and twentieth-century works, while also encouraging scholars and general readers alike to discover the multi-faceted sensory fabric of contemporary works which celebrate blindness in engaging ways.

Sherri Rose
Hillsdale College
Volume 47.1–2