not your typical…

No, this is not your typical writer’s residency.  It’s in India.  So, having been in Chennai – the bustling, matter-of-fact capital of Tamil Nadu – for just over 3 days now, I’m still adjusting.  Having done a few residencies in the last few years, I’d gotten used to the idea of just turning up and sipping coffee while writing, then going for relaxing walks.  Not that I thought it would be like that here…  I think I was just so focussed on the content of my project – the personal and inter-cultural dimensions of “medical tourism” – I’d forgotten that travel always implicates the traveller.  You are no neutral observer.

A few examples.  I was on my way to an internet cafe when a man, about 60-ish, approached me, and started walking with me.  He said he worked at the airport and recognised me from when I arrived – he gestured to his lower lip to where my facial hair is, then stooped over to imitate my posture, smiling.  We chatted in broken English for a while, until he stopped, leaned towards me, and whispered “can you help me?”.  He had a bag from an eye hospital and a print-out of the costs of some procedure or prescription, running to the thousands of rupees.  I am not proud to say I gave him a tiny amount, then refused when he pleaded for more.  I still don’t know how to feel.  I can still hear him saying “I don’t ask anybody!”, then myself saying “but you’re asking me…”.  I still don’t know how I feel about how I responded, or even what exactly happened, or what problems this man has, if any.

Who is  responsible for the health of the Indian people?  What happens when someone’s social circle can’t help or support him (or her)?

Example two, a little less significant.  Just after this encounter, I popped into a little supermarket to buy a few supplies, and thought I may as well buy a few oranges as well.  Only after I got back to the hotel, did I notice the sticker on them – grown in Australia.  Does India actually need Australian oranges?  I don’t think so.  I don’t either.  But they’re here.

Anyway, here’s a few photos that somehow reflect my first impressions of Chennai – well, of Mylapore anyway, the suburb where I’m staying.  The traffic is a self-organising cacophony, the people are gentle and subtle and (for the most part) leave you to your own devices, it’s hot as hell (an overnight low of 25 is considered “pleasant”), and the locals love their little oases (the beach, parks, AC restaurants, the mall…).

view from outside my hotel window - 12-hr shoe stallelection booth under a fly-over, Chennai

 

 

 

 

 

the river is rising

A quick post from an air-conditioned internet cafe in Banglamphu, Bangkok, two metres away from a coffee machine (I wasn’t planning on finding one, I just must have a Melbournian magnet for them).  Bangkok and other parts of Thailand are facing the worst floods in decades.  The Chao Phraya River here is swollen and heavy – banks, jewellery stores, hotels and a few other businesses are quickly building little 1-2 foot high concrete barriers, or building barriers with sandbags at the storefront.  You step over them to get inside.  Unsurprisingly, no-one seems put out or panicked or angry about it.  It’s Thailand after all.

My hotel – Bhiman Inn – is a modest, reasonable small-ish mid-range joint about 10 mins walk from Khao San Rd.  Luckily.  That infamous strip is everything I’ve heard and worse.  Neo-colonial consumerist brothel.  Staff hold up signs that say they don’t ask for ID; every few steps someone is offering to sell you something (though they do tend to back off when you say no…); men of all ages and backgrounds walk around blankly arguing with their Thai “girlfriends”.  Fascinating to walk down, but I wouldn’t want to be there.

Bangkok is a mystery.  All cities are of course.  But this one feels experienced in presenting itself and hiding itself at the same time.  The typical pan-Asian concrete blocks and advertising hoardings, franchises, footpath traders, sizzling food-stalls, dogs and cats and motorcycles and more makeshift powerlines than you can imagine.  Pedestrian traffic-flow is smooth, polite and calm.  As are the roads.  And the parks are mysteriously meticulously clean.  There is a long history of cross-cultural engagement and tourism here; people of all backgrounds are here; Thais rarely bat an eyelid at outsiders, they just go about their lives.

I’ve visited a few temples, parks, the National Museum, bustling streets and back-streets, and missed a few things.  It’s only a 2-day stop really, so there’s not much I can see or understand in that time.  Today, I’ll try to find the Forensics Museum (!), and prepare for Chennai.  Speaking of medical tourism, an ad in the Bangkok Post (english-language) Classifieds offered breast enlargement, liposuction and other procedures, and said foreigners are charged the same as Thai people.  One of Bangkok’s local tourism magazines devote an entire column to medical travel.  How visible is it in India?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PS I found the Forensics Museum.  Truly fascinating on many levels – gruesome to the point of stomach churning, but haunting, mysterious and just plain odd.

Marfan lives

There’s nothing like waiting for the results of a funding application.  I’m in the habit now of expecting nothing.  Which makes it all the more celebratory when the letter actually says “yes”.  Thanks to Arts Victoria, I’ve begun a poetry project very close to my heart, figuratively and literally.

“Marfan lives” (ambiguity accidental originally but deliberate now) is a series of poems based on the lives of people with Marfan Syndrome, both historical and contemporary, well-known and everyday.  I’m thinking of the allegedly Marfan-affected, like Abraham Lincoln, Akhenaten, Paganini and Osama bin Laden (?!), but also of people such as Edith Sitwell, John Tavener, Jonathan Larson, Vincent Schiavelli, Robert Johnson and Joey Ramone.

Antoine Marfan

But I’m also currently seeking to interview regular people, from all backgrounds and histories.  Because this project is about diversity and variety, how a genetic condition can shape people’s lives, sometimes dramatically, other times in a very subtle way – how it may make life hard for some, but how it may even give some people exceptional abilities.  It is a condition I inherited from my father.  He died when I was 2; my particular manifestation isn’t of the heart but the bones, particularly the spine.  So, it’s not just academic or aesthetic for me.

I’m interested in the stories of anyone with Marfan Syndrome, especially first-hand, but also from family members and friends.  If that includes you or someone you know, please contact me through this blog.  Thanks!

literature’s deformities (part 4 of 3, or: oh, and another thing…)

What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?

Crystal Lil, “Geek Love”, Katherine Dunn

In Dunn’s audacious, grotesque and surprisingly moving 1989 novel, Lillian and Aloysius Binewski revive their flagging carnival by deliberately creating a family of freaks.  They experiment with various combinations of drugs, insecticides, and radioisotopes to induce deformities, endure the heartbreak of children born unviable or (shock, horror) normal, all to build a family of confident, talented and astounding children.

Oly, the narrator, is a bald, 3-foot-tall albino hunchback.  Iphy and Elly are Siamese twins.  Their firstborn Arturo has flippers rather than limbs, an awesome ego and a malevolent charisma.  Their youngest, Chick, appears to be “a norm”, but is anything but; his peculiar gift is an integral part of what propels the family into their outlandish fame and risks their demise.

So, while I thought that this series of little essays on deformity in literature was over, I knew as soon as I started Geek Love that I would need to write part 4, to respond to it in some way.  (Just a warning – there are some spoilers coming up…)

Dunn apparently was drawn to write this book out of two dilemmas – the rise of genetic engineering, and the persistent power of cults.  So, where else to centre the book but the family?  But the Binewskis are not a parody of the archetypal American family.  This is the archetypal Western family in-extremis – inverted as much as perverted.  The other side of the same coin.

Dunn’s talent as a writer is to portray these apparently extreme characters in their full humanity, while also showing the complexity and variety of their responses to freakishness, the peculiar power they have over “the normals”.  While the novel certainly stirs a whole caravan-load of provocative ideas, those ideas emerge out of the very genuine (albeit inconsistent) connections we forge with these characters.  There are moments, arguably entire scenes, where I sensed Dunn getting carried away with her own grotesquerie, where the writer’s own pleasure in acting as a kind of tour-guide through perversity overwhelms her compassion for her characters, and an underlying voyeurism creeps in.  In a way, though, with this premise, it was inevitable the dynamics of exploitation would come in, and the reader should feel implicated.

It’s to Dunn’s credit that she is able to depict extreme Otherness in the bodies of some deeply familiar and sympathetic characters.  This is a world away from Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo (see my post here), where the human is barely visible beneath the hump.  Geek Love extends freakishness out beyond the body into recognisable psychological territory, while also foregrounding its roots in the body and in social interaction.  For example, here’s a few of Oly’s astounding, off-hand insights (which this book is littered with).

A small child looked into my face and wanted to stop but his mother dragged him on.  Sometimes when I felt the eyes crawling on me from all sides, I got scared thinking someone was looking who wasn’t just curious.  I knew it was my imagination and I got used to it, learned to shunt it away.  But sometimes I held onto it quietly, that feeling that someone behind or beside me in the crowd – some guy leaning on the target booth with a rifle, or some cranky sweating father spending too much on ride tickets to keep his kids away from him – anybody could be looking at me in the sidelong way that norms use to look at freaks, but thinking of me twitching and biting at the dirt while my guts spilled out of the big escape hatch he’d cut for them… a feeling like that is special.  Sometimes you hold onto it quietly for a while.

She talks.  People talk easily to me.  They think that a bald albino hunchback dwarf can’t hide anything.  My worst is all out in the open.  It makes it necessary for people to tell you about themselves.  They begin out of simple courtesy.  Just being visible is my biggest confession, so they try to set me at ease by revealing our equality, by dragging out their own less-apparent deformities.  That’s how it starts.  But I am like a stranger on the bus and they get hooked on having a listener.  They go too far because I am one listener who is in no position to judge or find fault.  They stretch out their dampest secrets because a creature like me has no virtues or morals.  If I am “good” (and they assume that I am), it’s obviously for lack of opportunity to be otherwise.  And I listen.  I listen eagerly, warmly, because I care.  They tell me everything eventually…

It seems to me that one of the key ideas that the novel explores is Normality – which is not merely an idea, but an imposing reality, a system of experiences which must be responded to in some way.  Each person in the novel has some intense relationship with normality, each embraces and rebels in their own way.  And it is also clear that the Binewski children, having been bequeathed their peculiar bodies, which ensure they can “earn a living”, are restricted to the intensely isolated world of the carnival.  They know how to spruik and seduce, but they seem entirely ignorant of geography, history and politics – and this isolation shapes their response to normality as much, if not more, than their bodies.

Arturo is arrogantly disdainful of “the norms” – a chance encounter with a heartbroken obese woman during one of his performances begins his career as a cult leader of sorts.  Paranoia and cynicism haunt his position of power.  The twins (while less complete as characters), in their desire for parenthood, in their awareness of their sexual allure, and in their perennial arguments, wrestle with how to exploit the normal world – also revealing how much they are a part of it.  In a mysterious section of the book, Oly has a brief romance, and realises she cannot join the normal world – too much of her identity is tied up with the family, with Arturo.

While most of the novel is told in the past, there is a series of interwoven chapters set in the present, where we meet Miss Lick.  She is a wealthy heiress whose secret project is to “transform” young women – to pay them to be mutilated or deformed, to have the beauty that would “hold them back” surgically or violently removed.  Oly, knowing that her daughter Miranda is next in line to be “transformed”, cultivates an intimacy with Miss Lick, while planning to kill her.  It is in the interactions between them where the novel’s pathos and ethical complexities are tragically and painfully heightened.

And it’s precisely this intensity of engagement, in the midst of its outlandish tide of events, that makes Geek Love‘s overall relationship to “normality” so complex and intriguing.   Early in the book, it’s said “Freaks are not made, they’re born”.  As it progresses, an ambivalence builds, the suggestion that freakishness is also about power dynamics, enlarged by isolation and a desire to exploit others.   The novel ends with Oly revealing to Miranda the truth of her belonging to the family.  While the genetic and familial bond is undeniable, exactly how Miranda responds to this truth is left open – it exists beyond the novel, outside of fiction. 

Geek Love revels in the fact that there are many kinds of freakishness, and birth is only a starting-point.

“medical tourism” from the inside…

In October this year, I’m travelling to India to find out what “medical tourism” is all about. You may now have visions of me in surgical robes, nervously waiting to be anaesthetised, but no, this isn’t a kind of “method acting” in poetry.

Asialink (along with the Australia Council for the Arts and the Australia-India Council) have been generous enough to grant me a 3-month literature residency, based at the University of Madras. This is an opportunity to draw together into poetry two themes that have long fascinated me – the human body and how we experience it, and India – the interplay of ancient tradition and globalised entrepreneurialism, as well as its vigorous energy and sheer complexity.

My plan is to write portrait poems of people who are in some way involved in what is commonly called “medical tourism” – the travel of patients outside their home country to access medical treatment. This treatment ranges from cardiac surgery to dental work, orthopedic surgery to reproductive technology, gender reassignment surgery. They travel for many reasons – personal, legal, technological and/or financial (to obtain treatment that is too expensive at home). There’s a huge and growing amount of literature on the broad social impact of this very complex phenomenon, but very little in terms of personal stories.

I’m interested in talking with doctors, nurses, cleaners, and other ancillary staff, but also with patients and their families – both Indian and non-Indian. I’m also interested in talking with people who may have had experiences with the medical systems of other countries – Thailand, Malaysia, South Africa, for example.  How do two cultures interact around one human body? What are the emotions, contingencies, complications, victories, insights and relationships that are brought up?

If you or someone you know is planning to travel to India any time between October 2011 and January 2012, please contact me through this blog. Any comments on my project, suggestions for reading or other contacts are also very welcome.

poetry is an utterance of (the) body

Poetry is an utterance of the body.  Not the best utterance – which is pre-linguistic and made of salt water – but the best a body can do given it has language.  It is language in thrall to the corporeal, to the pump and procession of the blood, the briefly rising spirit of the lung, the nerves’ fretwork, strictures of the bone.  Poetry is matter that can string itself between the pulse of a life and the silence of its death…  Those who reject form in poetry, reject form in body.  What they do is alien to what’s human…  Take the iambic pentameter for an example.  Its regularity shadows the poem: something must shadow the poem, and that something must in some way make the sound of the body at rest, so that the body in thought, at play, when it is heard can be believed…  The arrogance of obscurity is medieval, is of the cloister.  Obscurity cannot be poetry because the body is not obscure.  It may be interesting, it may be exciting, but only until we need oxygen.

Glyn Maxwell, from “Strong Words” (ed. WN Herbert & Matthew Hollis)

When I read this, my own body made a little joyful shudder of recognition.  Yes, poetry is an utterance of the body, and that is how it travels from one person to another, across the gulf of difference and experience – through its biological affinity.  Then, one word stood out, awkward and almost arrogant – “the”.  Is there such a thing as “the” body?

Arguably, there is a human body.  But what of variation?  Male, female, intersex?  The disabled and the TABs (temporarily able-bodied)?  Does poetry travel seamlessly across all of these distances in the same way?  Or, to look at the question from another angle, are there as many poetics as there are bodies?  Is there such a thing as “women’s poetry”?  “crip poetry”?  And I don’t just mean in terms of content, subject-matter – I mean, in terms of rhythm, flow, metre, the way the words appear on the page and in the air.

Recently, as a result of Pi O urging me to check out the poetry of Larry Eigner (by the way, this video of Larry reading poetry is great), I came upon a fantastically provocative and sensitive essay by Michael Davidson – “Missing Larry: the Poetics of Disability in Larry Eigner”.  Davidson explores why it may be that Eigner’s cerebral palsy is so rarely mentioned in critical discussions of his work – why that “blind spot”.   But he also reminds us that this omission isn’t just a biographical issue, but a poetic issue.  Eigner’s use of space on the page, his compression and brevity, his use of indentation and double-columns, the meticulous intensity of his poems – this is the way he chose to write, but it is also inevitably influenced by his physical condition.  He only had effective control over his right index finger, his body leaning on the (manual) typewriter, eyes close to the page, each word painstakingly pushed onto the page, each tap of the space-bar an effort.

What we write is shaped by our embodiment.  Not determined, but certainly shaped.  And this isn’t just about those bodies that are more visibly and obviously “disabled”.  Think about this –

What would it mean to think of Charles Olson’s “breath” line as coming from someone with chronic emphysema exacerbated by heavy smoking? Robert Creeley’s lines in “The Immoral Proposition,” “to look at it is more / than it was,” mean something very particular when we know that their author has only one eye (125). To what extent are Elizabeth Bishop’s numerous references to suffocation and claustrophobia in her poems an outgrowth of a life with severe asthma? Was William Carlos Williams’s development of the triadic stepped foot in his later career a dimension of his prosody or a typographical response to speech disorders resulting from a series of strokes?

Michael Davidson

These are big questions.  I’m just starting to think them through…  You, in your body, may be way ahead of me…

literature’s deformities (part 3 of 3)

[Below is the final, 3rd part of an essay I wrote a while back, but revised recently.  I’m currently looking at the position and impact of the unusual body in contemporary poetry – this essay looks at the role of these bodies in fiction.]

Even within the Magic Realist novel, perhaps especially within it, we find the extraordinary body laden with meaning. As a counter to the typical Western association of illness, curse, error or problem, there is the unusual body as a site or catalyst for transformation. In Erri De Luca’s God’s Mountain, a coming-of-age story set in post-War Italy, a young boy befriends a Jewish refugee from the Holocaust. Rafaniello has a hump on his back which will reveal wings to carry him to Israel.

Rafaniello is so light you can pick him up. His bones must be hollow. There’s air in his jacket. I see the curve of his folded wings and pass my hand over him to cover them better. In Naples people call the hump a scartiello. They think that stroking it brings you good luck. People are always putting their hands on Rafaniello’s hump without asking permission. He lets them. “In my hometown they called me gorbun and no one would even brush against me. Here I like the familiarity that people have with my hump. I don’t think I’ve brought anyone good luck, but all those strokes have helped me. They’ve awakened my wings”.

A body that, in its particular time and place, appears strikingly unusual will have meanings attached to it. Arguably, this could be some kind of recurrent tendency of ours to attempt to resolve intense anxiety over the results of capricious nature or of human evil.

Gunter Grass’ central character in The Tin Drum is both a magnet for such significances and ultimately manages to elude them. On receiving a tin drum for his birthday, young German boy Oskar decides not to grow up, retaining the stature of a child throughout World War Two. The drum remains his cherished possession and means of communication, along with his piercing wordless shriek which can break glass at a distance. After the war, while burying the body of his presumed father, he suddenly decides to grow again; the growth is so quick that he is deformed. Later, he earns an income and fame as an artist’s model.

Professor Kuchen led me to a studio, lifted me up with his own hands on a revolving platform, and spun it about, not in order to make me dizzy, but to display Oskar’s proportions from all sides. Sixteen easels gathered around. The coal-breathing professor gave his disciples a short briefing: what he wanted was expression, always expression, pitch-black, desperate expression. I, Oskar, he maintained, was the shattered image of man, an accusation, a challenge, timeless yet expressing the madness of our century. In conclusion he thundered over the easels: “I don’t want you to sketch this cripple, this freak of nature, I want you to slaughter him, crucify him, to nail him to your paper with charcoal!”… These sons and daughters of the Muses, I said to myself, have recognised the Rasputin in you; but will they ever discover the Goethe who lies dormant in your soul, will they ever call him to life and put him on paper, not with expressive charcoal but with a sensitive and restrained pencil point? Neither the sixteen students, gifted as they may have been, nor Professor Kuchen, with his supposedly unique charcoal stroke, succeeded in turning out an acceptable portrait of Oskar. Still, I made good money and was treated with respect for six hours a day.

For readers, The Tin Drum is almost infinitely interpretable. Oskar’s child-size body is a rejection of the duplicity and cruelty of the adult world, and his sudden deformity is his body’s own reaction to taking on that world again. His body may be the physical expression of the inability of language to express the atrocity of the War. He could be symbolic of Germany’s guilt, or perhaps of Germany’s economy. Oskar’s body has by some been conceived as a Freudian reflex. Even as the Twentieth Century itself.

Perhaps it is all of these interpretations, or even none of them. Oskar tells the story from the bed of an insane asylum, flips between the first and third person, muddies the narrative waters in innumerable ways. Grass evokes a strange kind of alienated sympathy for Oskar in his readers, but he does not want us to have confidence in Oskar’s story, and certainly not in any larger historical or national Narrative. Like the drum and the shriek themselves, what The Tin Drum speaks is both devastatingly critical and irreducible to a particular ideology. Grass offers us the truth of the inconclusiveness of reality, its essential ambiguity. The extraordinary body is certainly still a spectacle, but it also has its own uncontainable meanings.

Exceptions unsettle. They mock our sense of certainty, our familiar and comforting associations. They provoke a rupture in the mundane. Deformity can be arresting, fascinating, confusing, awe-inspiring, even spiritual. All the same, with Medicine’s accelerating ability to alleviate or remove deformity altogether, the unusual body has become even more invisible, especially in the West. This adds another layer to the archetypal response – the sense that a body has slipped through the medical net, the unnerving possibility that Nature is still uncontrollable.

The body I inhabit, or perhaps I should say, the body that I am, is visually extraordinary, due to a condition known as Marfan Syndrome. I am six foot three, and weigh around sixty-five kilograms; I am slender, with long limbs. My spine curves dramatically from side-to-side and front-to-back; I would be perhaps six foot six if my spine were straight. In a way, my body has easily adjusted to this shape. But in another way, this is the shape of my body, and it is normal. I do not experience pain or physical difficulty, as some people have assumed. My body experiences its shape in much the same way as any body experiences its shape. Except, at times it seems little literary micro-ghosts hover over my shoulder.

I was born one hundred and forty years after Quasimodo, into an immensely different era, in terms of medicine, media and social structures. Yet I have been called by his name many times, mostly from the windows of passing cars, by men in their twenties. They are gone before I can conjure an appropriate retort; ensuring I remain, for them, a body. They are not interested in the speculations of a French paediatrician Antoine Marfan, whose intense and close observations of his patients in the late nineteenth century led him to describe the key visual features of the syndrome.

Interestingly, the most common parental response to the curiosity their children display, is an embarrassed injunction not to look. I suspect this looking-away, this leaving-be, is common in many cultures, but is acutely expressed in Australia. There is a profound caution about the way we relate to each other, which reflects our political history.

In celebrating the fair go, Australians portray themselves as fundamentally relaxed about the doings of others, as tolerant. The very need to paint such a picture, however, reflects less its veracity than a wish for projecting an image. The image is defensive. “We are patient in the judgement of others” means, really, “Do not judge us”… Such an ethic is self-protective and concealing, amounting to an agreement not to discuss one another’s sins. Extending the right to a fair go amounts to an injunction to each mind their own business.

Daniel Ross, “Violent Democracy”,  2004

Everyday public speech is the very opposite of deconstruction. It leaves things, efficiently, alone. This is not just about people’s right not to be questioned about their behaviour or inheritance, but also about their bodies and the meanings attached to them. Our culture has evolved a plethora of ways of describing the other. Yet we do not seem to have grasped a way of apprehending the world, a way of speaking together, that is able to adequately deal with variety – that is able to recognise the other within the self.

literature’s deformities (part 2 of 3)

[Below is part 2 of an essay I wrote a while back, but revised recently.  I’m currently looking at the position and impact of the unusual body in contemporary poetry – this essay looks at the role of these bodies in fiction.]

Shakespeare was Freud before Freudianism, a psychologist of powerful poetic suggestion before it settled historically into a definitive diagnostic shape. In Richard III, Richard, jealous and ambitious, intensely sensitive to his deformity, plots through flattery and murder to take the throne of England.

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,

Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;

I, that am rudely stamped, and want love’s majesty

To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;

I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,

Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature;

Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time

Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,

And that so lamely and unfashionable

That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,

Have no delight to pass away the time,

Unless to spy my shadow in the sun

And descant on my own deformity:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,

To entertain these fair well-spoken days,

I am determined to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

The snowball-like trajectory of tragedy ensures we cannot (like Richard himself) see any other possibility. The exact fuel for Richard’s machinations is left unclear. The ugliness of his body could be a catalyst for his political and moral degeneracy, or a convenient excuse for it. At the very least, the play portrays physical deformity as psychological intensification. Richard is shut out from what he sees as his entitlement, grows increasingly resentful and determines to assert himself, to challenge the place assigned to him by nature.

Regardless of the measure of propaganda that influenced the transition of the historical story to the theatrical script, there is a familiar association hunching over Shakespeare’s version of Richard – the shadow of gendered power. Julio C Avalos Jr reminds us that the common conception of women at the time was that they were half-made men. Richard sees himself not just as unattractive in appearance, but as insufficiently male.  Violence and usurpation present themselves to him as the sufficient proof of manhood. Tragic indeed.

 

literature’s deformities (part 1 of 3)

[Below is an essay I wrote a while back, but revised recently.  I’m currently looking at the position and impact of the unusual body in contemporary poetry – this essay looks at the role of these bodies in fiction.]

It is almost a truism to say that each body is unique – medically, biologically, psychologically. Not only that, but each body is unique in each moment, continually in a state of flux and vulnerable to threat – healthy one moment, deformed or worse in the next. And yet, for almost all characters in literature, the particularities of their bodies are insignificant. Their embodiment is either unmentioned, or most often secondary to the narrative, or subsumed within the common human body, a device for identification.

Deformity, on the other hand, always seems symbolic in some way. If the body of a character is unusual, it determines that character’s entire identity, trajectory and destiny. It is as if, for the author and the reader, deformity is a provocation towards fate. I am interested in how these portraits of extraordinary bodies shape (or, it could be said, mis-shape) how we see other people, even how we see ourselves. This essay hopes to direct an unflinching gaze upon that looking.


Did Victor Hugo fully know what his vision would contain? Hugo would say yes, but what would Quasimodo have said? He could, of course, only speak Hugo’s words, could only make the movements prescribed for him. And Hugo’s Quasimodo isn’t exactly articulate. He is brutish, a lump of flesh, as if an excess of physicality must inevitably swamp the intellect.

If the epic story The Hunchback of Notre Dame could be reduced to a few sentences, it would be because of its melodrama. Quasimodo, born severely deformed, is abandoned at the steps of Notre Dame and taken in by the archdeacon Frollo, who is infatuated with the beautiful young gypsy woman Esmerelda and has her beau Phoebus stabbed. Esmerelda is charged with attempted murder. Quasimodo abducts her and takes her back to the cathedral, which is then assailed by the mob. Esmerelda dies in the commotion. Quasimodo realises Frollo, his proto-adopted-father, was behind the whole scenario, and kills him. In deep grief, he then entombs himself with the body of Esmerelda – a tragic resolution, certainly, but also oddly fitting for a central character who, essentially, is imprisoned in his embodiment, whose body offers only questions, especially to those who cannot identify with him.

Consider Hugo’s sketch, and the struggle to explain Quasimodo.

His whole person was a grimace. His large head, bristling with red hair – between his shoulders an enormous hump, to which he had a corresponding projection in front – a framework of thighs and legs, so strangely gone astray that they touched only at the knees, and when viewed in front, looked like two sickles joined together by the handles – sprawling feet – monstrous hands – and yet, with all that deformity, a certain awe-inspiring vigour, agility and courage – strange exception to the everlasting rule which prescribes that strength, like beauty, shall result from harmony… One would have said a giant had been broken and awkwardly mended.

The portrait, in its avalanche of hyperbole and its convoluted grammar, is as deformed as the character. Hugo’s Quasimodo literally embodies a mistake, and the tragedy that results. He is an engine room for the building up of archetypal associations. He is immensely strong and correspondingly simple in his intellect. He is unpredictable, a reflection of the capricious nature which created him. The crowd certainly don’t understand him. He is deaf; the world does not quite reach him. What moves him is the female of the story; yet she is unattainable. Esmerelda continually struggles to see the human in him, trying to imagine how this giant’s puzzle pieces could be more humanly rearranged, while knowing they never will be. He is intensely alone. In his gentle monstrousness, he is able to be manipulated; his surrogate father Frollo leads him astray. He is not the mob, nor is he the reader. He approaches but never quite reaches the full status of a subject.

Quasimodo is both practically celibate and literally promiscuous – the voice of Hugo reverberates through many bodies, gives birth to many children. Visualise the many assistants to mad scientists – hunched over, shuffling obediently to their masters’ next tasks, muttering a vague sense of resentment, yet perennially faithful. Think even of the titular anti-heroes of low culture teen flick Revenge of the Nerds – genetically made other, socially disadvantaged (in a reversal of Quasimodo’s physical/mental imbalance); the clumsy, inarticulate virgins who the audience secretly place in sexual positions, wondering how those bodies would “do it”.

But the strongest family resemblance to Hugo’s child can be seen in the freak show, that institution that Rosemary Garland Thomson called “the apotheosis of museums” that arose in the mid nineteenth century and continued well into the twentieth (and arguably survives in other forms now). “Siamese” twins, little people, giants, tattooed people, half men-half women, sword swallowers, those with extra or no limbs, fat people, African “primitives”, and many others selected according to the anxieties and fascinations of the era performed theatrically, thereby providing both immense entertainment and reassurance of the security of the audience’s physical, racial, sexual and cultural status. The stage is the boundary. The audience become the norm(al) purely and simply by being outside of the spotlight.

Quasimodo defines both the isolated deformed body and the form of the mob.

[part 2 & 3 will appear in later posts…]

Staring: How We Look

An eye-snagging stare of intense attention opens a social relationship between two people.  The kind of visual scrutiny leveled by a stare is both impersonal and intimate…  Staring affords a spontaneous moment of interpersonal connection, however brief, during which two people have the opportunity to regard and be known to one another.  So while social rules script staring, individual improvisation can take the staring encounter in fruitful directions.

– Rosemarie Garland Thomson, “Staring: How We Look”

It may appear almost common-sense in its analysis, but this book went against my grain.  Thomson is a engaging, erudite and humane writer, and she has written a non-fiction page-turner, but often I found it hard to read.  Why?  Was it because I disagreed with her?  No.  It was because I didn’t want to.  Staring: How We Look forced me to admit I had lived a lot  of my life focussing on only half of the dynamics of staring.

Staring: How We Look

Thomson’s premise is this – there are two sides to staring – not only the starer and staree, but the two competing impulses – the irresistable physical impulse that drags our attention onto an unfamiliar sight, and the cultural injunction, with all its immense strength, to grant each other “civil inattention”.  When staring happens, starer and staree make meaning together.

Of course, there are different kinds of stares – blank stares, staring as dominance behaviour, the intense “baroque staring” prompted by scenes of death or decay, affectionate curious staring, confused bewilderment staring, sexual predatory staring, and many more.  It’s complex terrain, but Thomson navigates it with intelligence and compassion – she never flinches from our conflicting, very human instincts for violence and for intimacy, for “othering” and for love.

She also emphasises that that meaning-making is never determined in advance but depends on the goodwill of the starer and the staree, the process they engage in, their ability to shift the interaction from staring at an extraordinary aspect of someone’s appearance towards an attention that recognises that person’s broader self.  Not that their difference disappears (that happens when people look away); in fact, it finds its proper place.

Staring: How We Look reminds me that the circumstance of staring holds great ethical responsibilities and opportunities.  Deep inside me, I do not want it to be inevitable – to find myself as staree or starer can be uncomfortable, even upsetting – but that’s precisely the point.  Our sense of what and who is normal or beautiful, or what lives fit into the recognisably human, can too easily become rigid and narrow.  We need surprises.  We need unusual sights to jolt us out of ourselves.

 

"Shayla" by Doug Auld, oil on canvas

Thomson uses the term “visual activists” to describe those people who have stareable bodies who make it their business not only to be seen, but to take charge of that encounter.  They are the people who broaden our humanity, who move us towards the hard work of attentiveness, of mutual recognition.

It’s hard work.  I’m rarely in the mood for it.  But it can be worth it.