“Staring at the Other” and “Unsettled Inhabitations”

I’m almost a Doctor. Of Philosophy, of course. Specifically, since doctorates are always severely specific, a doctor of poetry and bodily otherness. In the process of getting there, I’ve had two essays published.

The first was “Unsettled Inhabitations: Bodily Difference in Poetry”. This is a chapter in “Inhabitation: Creative Writing with Critical Theory”, edited by Dominique Hecq and Julian Novitz. My chapter was first delivered as a paper at the 20th annual conference of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs in 2015, and it scrutinises major modern and contemporary essays on poetry by poets – T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Charles Olson and Adrienne Rich – and finds that the body is often ignored or downplayed, yet always affirms itself through difference. I then propose a kind of “Disability Poetics”, adapted from writing by Tobin Siebers and by Mitchell & Snyder, and do a close (bodily) reading of a few of my own poems from “Music our bodies can’t hold”.

inhabitation cover

Second, the Canadian academic journal Critical Disability Discourses has published “Staring at the Other: Seeing Defects in Recent Australian Poems”. This is an expanded version of the third chapter of my PhD exegesis, “Disabling Poetics: Bodily Otherness and the Saying of Poetry”. The essay looks at poems by Cate Kennedy, Hazel Smith, Kit Kavanagh-Ryan, and Peter Boyle, all of which focus on encounters with disabled or physically-other people. I take an approach inspired by Emmanuel Levinas to suggest that the Other, to varying degrees in each poem, stares back.

What will happen to the other chapters of my PhD, and the poetry manuscript that was also part of the thesis, I’m not yet sure. Hopefully publication in some form, at some time. But right now is a time for recovery, recuperation, letting time do its work.

strangers and the responsibilities of being strange

Most of us in the West feel increasingly isolated from each other, monads with our heads craned towards our smart-phones, or wandering the aisles half-conscious. The proliferation of both social media and cafes is part of the same dynamic – we long for human contact, yet we’re nervous about stepping outside our comfortable circle.

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Talking to strangers is unsettling, in both senses – a little frightening and potentially liberating. That goes for all of us, but for those of us who are visibly different, whose bodies are obviously non-conformist, the approach of a stranger carries some peculiarly acute dilemmas.

I want to mention just two examples, and dwell for a moment in the gulf between them.

Late last year, at the local organic grocery, my partner and I were placing the last few items in our basket. Pumpkin, kipflers, silverbeet, most likely. It’s a narrow shop; you have to breathe in or walk sideways to pass people in the aisles. As we were leaving, a woman approached me with a vague smile on her face, her posture leaning slightly towards me. “Hello..”

I used to run a cafe, and I’m visibly memorable, so I assumed she recognised me; I smiled and said hi in return. She asked me how I was going, suggesting things must be pretty difficult. She told me she had a friend who specialised in alternative treatment, and that her own back pain was greatly relieved by visiting her. Oh, ok. She didn’t know me. It was going to be one of those “unsolicited charity conversations”.

I was in a reasonably optimistic mood and felt ok about being open with her. People rarely talk about embodiment, so perhaps this was a chance to share my own version of being human, and move pleasantly onwards. I told her I have Marfan Syndrome, which for me has meant an unusual shape, but actually no pain, luckily and gladly, and smiling while I said how ironic it is.

“Oh, you must have pain”, she said.

“Um, no, not really, no more than anyone, probably less, actually”.

This went back and forth for a while. I kept telling her my experience. She kept insisting she could help me with the problem I didn’t have.

Eventually the pointlessness of it ate away at my resolve. I was polite, direct, with perhaps just a hint of impatience. “I’m sorry, I really have to go, I’m really fine, OK?”.

She was stunned, almost mortified. “Ughh, I was only trying to be helpful!”. I’m reminded that my body seems to raise all sorts of questions that “demand” answers, and that fundamentalism is not limited to religion.

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Fast-forward to just a few weeks ago. I’m in the middle of a busy period, wrestling with a thesis and other obligations, rushing into the local supermarket to pick up a few essentials. I only notice my own low-level stress when the little girl in the pink princess outfit cuts me off, running obliviously through the aisles – “Daddy! Look at me!” – and I’m instantly irritated. I try to avoid them, head down another aisle. Of course, being tired, I become indecisive and end up staring at a wall of condiments, unsure.

Suddenly, there’s “Dad” at my side. “Uh… hi…”, he says, casually but nervously, “my daughter was just asking me about your back, and I told her it’s better to ask than to stare, so I’m sorry to bother you, but is it ok if I ask you?”.

At these moments, a certain texture of solidity in my body comes up against a fluid world. I’m face to face with my own reluctance to engage, but underneath there is a way of being that accepts, even relishes, interconnection and the blurring of boundaries. Decision time, in a split second.

I tell them both, as simply as I can – yes, this is my spine, it’s just more curved than straight, and I’m healthy. Everyone has different shaped bodies. The little princess smiles, shyly looks down at her feet, then around the store. She’s obviously happy to meet someone unusual, but just as obviously awkward and a bit bored now.

Dad tells me they’ve asked other people before, and apparently she likes to hug people goodbye. Sure, why not? So, a hug and a brief chat later, we go our separate ways. Through the aisles and towards the checkout, with a slight crack in normality.

For a long time, though I wouldn’t have said it this way, I deeply resented my body and the kind of attention it attracted (and continues to attract). I wanted to be invisible, to move through the world with the anonymity I imagined everyone else had. Peoples’ eyes were like the rays of a harsh summer sun, the intensity magnified through the glass of my own discomfort. They burnt and hurt.

And nothing on earth consumes a man more quickly than the passion of resentment.

Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Ecce Homo’

I have come gradually, fitfully, with some reluctance, to a realisation that this is the life and the body I have. Autonomy and self-determination is a mythical horizon. The love and support that I have been given over the years is evidence of that – without it, I would still be rushing back to the shadows, wishing for the impossible. In the face of the current neoliberal economy and consumerist culture, in spite of my own self-doubt and fragility, I want to build the connections that nourish myself and others. I want this life.

So, I think that being strange carries a kind of responsibility. There is no prescription, but I would suggest two guiding principles – openness to the unpredictability of the encounter, and respect for the particular embodied subjectivity of the other person. These principles go both ways of course.

For those of you who are strange and are often approached by strangers, I can’t tell you how to respond, though. We all have to find our own way of dealing with this “responsibility”, whether it be a repertoir of answers or a reserve of attitude that we draw on. Each body is unique, and each person makes their way through difference with their own temperament and aspirations. After all, we are more than what makes others stare at us.

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For some other thoughtful and useful perspectives, try Carly Findlay’s blog post, Carly’s guest blogger Bailey, and Haley Morris-Cafiero’s provocative photography project.

Feel free to suggest other links or your own suggestions or insights – I’d love to see them.

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.

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.