My name is Denis Diderot. On a humid evening in May 1749, my friend, Monsieur de Rambert, a board member of the University, and I took a carriage from Paris to Puiseaux. The purpose of our journey was to visit a blind man who Rambert was acquainted with, named Armand Philibert.
I must confess that I had a rather unhealthy fascination with the blind, which you can blame on my reading of Newton’s Optics and the research of European doctors. I had been told that there had been new experimental procedures to ‘cure’ someone of their blindness, and to remove cataracts. I was, and still am, all for scientific progress. Poor Rambert had to sit through me lecturing him on my fascination and - dare I say it - ignorance of the subject. To satisfy me, and perhaps to shut me up, he said he knew a fellow who lived outside Paris whose father was a professor.
We had not been on the road for long when I asked Rambert what Philibert was like.
“He’s rather clumsy,” he replied without looking at me. “He doesn’t know the difference between day and night. You’ve dressed well, but I’m afraid he won’t see it.”
“Can he fend for himself?” I asked, conscious of society’s uncharitable view of the blind.
“To a degree.”
For all of Rambert’s rambling about what our blind man could not do, he did not think to tell me what he could do. Perhaps it was to keep me in suspense, or to amuse himself and see my reaction when Philibert answered the door, or perhaps it was pure ignorance. Whatever Rambert’s motive, I had no clue what to expect of this man. I was half-expecting an old man with a wooden stick, fumbling about the house like a drunkard.
How wrong I would be.
The carriage stopped in the middle of a quiet street, secluded from the rest of the town. Rambert stepped out first and knocked on the door of the nearest house. It was soon answered by a tall, fetching gentleman, whose distinguished clothing gave him great stature.
“Yes?” he asked, and I saw at that moment that his eyes were closed. This was Armand Philibert.
Dumbfounded, my mouth dropped open. Rambert, close to laughing, looked at me with a broad grin. I looked like a fool. I was expecting a miserable man with no appreciation of life and standing before me was a gentleman better dressed than some of the nobles at Versailles.
Seeing that I was too stunned to introduce myself, Rambert spoke up. “This is Monsieur Diderot, who I trust will find his senses again.”
“Ah!” the gentleman smiled. He bowed at me and then held out his hand for me to shake. “From Paris, yes? My father was a professor of philosophy at the University, which I hear you also studied. Come inside, both of you.” He stood aside to let us in.
Rambert insisted I walk in first, and so I did. Rambert had hinted, I now realised sardonically, that this man was clumsy, but I saw no evidence of that in this house. We came into a drawing room where a dog was sprawled out on the carpet. A young boy had been at its side, scratching its ears. The dog trotted over and sniffed my offered hand before proceeding to lick it. It soon lost interest in me and sat by its master. After patting the dog’s head, Philibert ordered the boy to fetch some wine.
“Good evening, monsieurs,” the boy said with a bow before scurrying off.
“My son,” Philibert said. “Jacques. I’m teaching him to read.”
“Is he also blind?” I dared.
Philibert was unoffended. “Yes.” He sensed my baffled expression. “He cannot see, but what he lacks in one sense, he makes up for in another. He will learn through touch, as I did.”
Jacques came back with two wine glasses, which he was desperately trying not to spill. His face was red with concentration, and he was relieved when Rambert and I took the glasses from him.
“Jacques, show these gentlemen what you’ve been learning,” Philibert said.
Jacques smiled eagerly and went over to the table. Philibert invited me to go and watch him. Rambert was grinning. I approached the table, leant over Jacques’ shoulder and watched as he arranged wooden letters, tied together with wire, until he eventually made a sentence. He touched each one, tracing the letters with his fingers. Proud of his work, he stepped back and let me look.
My name is Jacques Philibert. My father is Armand Philibert.
I turned around in astonishment.
“Few books are made that way,” Philibert said, almost sadly. “It takes time, but it is the only way Jacques and I can read. Yet people do not have time, especially for folk like me. They look upon me and think me incapable. That’s why I left Paris. I could have stayed there – and how I would have loved to – but there are cruel people in this world. They took advantage of my impairment. How quick they are to judge. I came here so I could live on my own without the prying eyes of others. I’ve yet to show Jacques the city, but I fear what people will think of him.”
“I think he’s remarkable,” I said.
“That is because you took the time to see him, Monsieur Diderot. Many would not. I really appreciate you coming here and meeting me. Rambert says you’re curious about the blind and have some questions. What is it you want to know?”
I wanted to know how the blind lived: how did they think, feel, cope? What did they make of the recent advancements in scientific procedures?
I explained this to Philibert, who nodded with intrigue. He dismissed Jacques and invited me to sit down. Then, I let him talk. I had hitherto never met such a fascinating man. He told me of his days in Paris and how he had attended lectures in natural history and chemistry. He told me that he relied upon his hearing and touch to get around. He sensed more than Rambert and I could ever hear, feel and smell. He said that if God granted him vision, he would be an astronomer and a botanist. He wished to teach at the University, an aspiration society did not allow him.
“Would you like to be able to see, Armand?” Rambert asked.
Philibert was deep in thought. His answer moved me. “No. Having been accustomed to darkness, I could not imagine a life without it. You gentlemen have the privilege of sight: would you be happy if suddenly it was taken away from you? This is the only world I’ve known.”
Rambert and I looked at each other. How foolish I was to come here with such an uncharitable image of Philibert. Before I even knew him, I had formed a picture of him. These thoughts moved me to apologise to him for staring at him the way I did.
“Make no apology, Monsieur Diderot,” Philibert said solemnly. “I’m used to it, but I appreciate your apology all the same.”
“But you shouldn’t have to be used to it,” I said, leaning forward. “You must come to Paris with me! I’ll introduce you to my friends.”
“In a kinder world, Monsieur Diderot. In a kinder world.”
We finished our wine and stayed until my stomach rumbled. My wife was waiting and Rambert was expected back at the University for a board meeting, so we rose and took our leave. Philibert saw us out.
“Monsieur Diderot!” he called as we were stepping into the carriage. “Thank you.”
“For what?” I asked.
“For taking the time to meet me.” Though his eyes were closed, I saw his expression of gratitude.
I habitually doffed my tricorn as he closed the door.
“I will write about this,” I announced as the carriage was on the move.
“I thought you might,” Rambert said.
I was not lying. I would call it Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those who Can See. The blind live with the curse of society’s judgement. If only they could see who Philibert really was rather than what they perceived him to be! How the views and eyes of society can hurt someone so, for Philibert was afraid of even setting foot in Paris. They robbed him of the chance of enjoying the life he once had, without getting to know him. Even if I did not achieve my philosophical mission of proving the value of sense experience, I hoped my work would deliver a message: esse quam videri.
To be rather than to seem.