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The story of Marie Heurtin

Maurice Blondel: «L’invention de la coscience»

Marie con sr. Sainte-Marguerite

At the age of ten, Marie, blind and deaf since her birth in 1885 in Vertou Loire-Inférieure, was taken in at the institute in Larnay near Poitiers in France by the Filles de la sagesse who usually cared for young deaf but sighted girls. The girl's behavior can be described in two words: aggressive and animalistic. Devoid of conscience, with no signs of reflection or distinct awareness of her acts, she seems to be condemned to remain in this animal state. It will be her encounter with Sr. Sainte-Marguerite who, from the moment she takes care of her, will enable her to move from «darkness to light» as the subtitle of the film «Marie Heurtin» (France, 2014) that we saw last Sunday declares.


A conscious being knows what it is doing. A nonconscious being does not ask itself any questions. Its very being remains in a kind of shadow and sleep. It is not conscious of its own being. Where then is the leap from this immanent order to the transcendence of thought?


To answer this question, we have allowed ourselves to be accompanied by the description and reflections of the philosopher M. Blondel in the chapter «L'invention de la coscience» in La Pensée, from which we quote a few passages.


«In a child endowed with all the senses, the life of relationship is stimulated from an early age by the simultaneous and comparative exercise of sight, hearing and touch, which envelop objects with concomitant testimonies,» not to mention all that involves the visible presence of people with their gestures, words and «the whole tradition of thoughts conveyed by human language. Now, in regard to a deaf-mute-blind person, is it possible to realize the abyss of darkness, silence and isolation in which he or she is buried, without being able to imagine the means of exchange on which, primarily or even uniquely, human education is ordinarily based?» Not only not capable of making contact with others, but she [like other living people with this lack] «in their solitude, reduced to tactile impressions, remain incapable of inventing a language to first of all intend with themselves.»


Marie often kept with her an ivory object «whose soft touch undoubtedly had the charm of a caress for her.» Contrasting the pleasure of holding it and feeling it by imposing in this empty moment of desire a sign, arousing the idea of a gesture (concrete with the hands) that translated the desire for the desired object, here is that with the help of the nun by receiving and then reproducing the sign the girl's consciousness is awakened: Knife, this is a knife. Here begins a dialogue, here not acoustically or visibly, but sensitively with the sign of the fingers initially moved by the nun.


From the moment the invention of the expressive sign illuminated the darkness of the sleeping intelligence, the psychological miracle was produced: thanks to this small detail that seemed so infinitesimal, all the fertile initiative of thought could burst forth, glimpsing in the midst of chaos the possibility of distinctly depicting one object, then another, a desire, then another. Finally, Marie Heurtin's thought, while deprived of most of the furnishings of human cognition, was not deprived of any of the essential truths, any of the aspects of moral and social order, or even any of the aesthetic joys.
But what we will have to understand is that, even in those who are endowed with all the senses, the voluntary institution of the conventional sign is, strictly speaking, the universal, necessary and sufficient condition of distinct consciousness.


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