Wednesday, February 16, 2011

silent speech

Today I have been amazed and amused by Denis Diderot (1713-1784)'s Letter on the Deaf and Dumb (Lettre sur les sourds-muets). Here are some excerpts (from Diderot: Early Philosophical Works, LENOX HILL Pub. & Dist. Co., Trans. Margaret Jourdain):

My idea would be to analyse, as it were, a man, and to examine what he derives from each of his senses. I have sometimes amused myself with this kind of metaphysical anatomy, and I consider that of all the senses the eye was the most superficial, the ear the proudest, smell the most voluptuous, taste the profoundest and most philosophical. It would be amusing to get together a society, of which each should have only one sense; there can be no doubt that all these persons would look on one another as out of his wits, and I leave you to judge with what reason. And yet this is an example of what happens amongst us every day; we have, so to speak, only one sense, and we judge of everything. We may remark that this group of five persons, each possessing only one sense, might by their faculty of abstraction have one interest in common--that of geometry,--and that alone. (p. 165)

You know, at least you have heard, of a singular machine with which the inventor proposed to give sonatas in colour. I thought that if anyone could appreciate a performance of ocular music, and could judge of it without prejudice, it would be a man born deaf and dumb. I therefore took my friend to the house in the rue St Jacques, where the operator and the machine with colours was exhibited. Ah, sir, you would never guess the kind of impression that it made on him, nor the ideas it suggested.
You see that it was impossible to explain to him beforehand the nature and marvellous powers of the harpsichord; and, having no idea of sound, this instrument with colours could not suggest to him any musical impressions. The purpose of the machine was as incomprehensible to him as the use of our organs of speech. What, then, were his thoughts, and what was the cause of his admiration for Father Castel's coloured fans. Guess, sir, his conjectures about this ingenious machine, which very few people have seen, though many have talked about it, and whose invention would do honour to many of those who ridicule it. Our deaf-and-dumb friend imagined that the inventor was also deaf and dumb, and that each shade of colour represented a letter of the alphabet, and that by touching the keys rapidly he combined these letters into words and phrases, and, in fact, spoke in colours.(p.p. 170-171)

[...] if you fancy that everyone who walks thorough a picture gallery is really unconsciously acting the part of a deaf man who is amusing himself by examining the dumb who are conversing on subjects familiar to him. This is one of the points of view with which I always look at pictures; and I fancy it a sure means of divining ambiguous actions and equivocal movements; of being at once aware of the frigidity and confusion of an ill-arranged action or of conversation; and of seeing at once, in a scene rendered in painting, all the faults of languid or exaggerated acting. (p. 173)

[...]I am hungry, is expressed in Latin by a single word esurio. The fruit and its quality are perceived at the same time; and when a Roman said esurio he only imagined he was expressing a single idea. I would much like to eat that are only modes of single sensation. I denotes the person who experience it; would like to eat, the desire and the nature of the sensation experienced; much, its intensity; it, the presence of the desired object. But in mind there is not the successive development we observe in speech; if it had twenty mouths, and each mouth able to say a word, all the above ideas would be expressed at once. (p. 184)

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