Sunday, September 21st, 2014
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1751 / Paris




You know, at least you have heard, of a singular machine with which the inventor proposed to give sonatas in color. 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 colors 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 marvelous powers of the harpsichord, and having no idea of sound, this instrument with colors 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 colored 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 honor to many of those who ridicule it. Our deaf-and-dumb friend imagined that the inventor was also deaf and dumb, and that his harpsichord was the instrument by which he communicated with other men; he imagined also that each shade of color 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 colors.

You may imagine he was pleased with his own perspicacity in finding this out, but our friend did not rest on his laurels; the idea suddenly came into his head that he now grasped what music and musical instruments were. He supposed that music was a peculiar manner of communicating thought, and that musical instruments—lutes, violins, and trumpets—were so many different organs of speech. You will say that only a man who had never heard music or a musical instrument could have happened on such a theory. But please consider that this theory, although obviously false to you, seemed almost proved to a deaf-and-dumb person. When the deaf-and-dumb man calls to mind the attention he has observed us pay to music and to musicians, and the evidences of joy or grief depicted on our countenances and in our gestures as we listen to beautiful music, and when he compares them with the similar effects produced by speech or by visible objects, he cannot imagine that music has no definite meaning and that vocal and instrumental music arouses in us no distinct impressions.

And is not this, sir, an exact symbol of the way in which we form ideas, our theories, and, in a word, the conceptions by which so many philosophers have won fame? Whenever they attempt to explain matters which seem to demand another organ, which is lacking, before they can be completely understood, they have often shown less penetration and have wandered further from the truth than the deaf-mute I have been describing; for, after all, if we do not express our thoughts as distinctly by means of musical instruments as with our lips, and if musical notes do not convey our ideas as distinctly as speech, yet they do convey something.

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Means of Communication
About the Author

Denis Diderot, from “Letter on the Deaf and Dumb.” Assisted by the mathematician Jean d’Alembert beginning in the mid-1740s, Diderot edited the Encyclopédie—a dictionary of the sciences, arts, and trades—to which Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Baron d’Holbach, and Voltaire all contributed. In the following two decades, he also distinguished himself as a playwright and an art critic. Diderot’s fictional works The Nun, Jacques the Fatalist, and Rameau’s Nephew were all published after he died at the age of seventy in 1784.

Making a film means, first of all, to tell a story. That story can be an improbable one, but it should never be banal. It must be dramatic and human. What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out?
Alfred Hitchcock, 1962
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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