Invisible Presence

Kenny Fries, the author of Body, Remember, a memoir of disability and Jewishness and all things human, offers up a short list of fiction and non-fiction that will provide interested readers an entree into the worlds of the disabled.

I say “worlds” because disabilities are so varied that each man or woman who deals with one deals with it sui generis, even if many other men and women share the same condition.

The worlds of the disabled have been so deeply hidden for so long that those involved in uncovering those worlds have, over the last three decades, spent a great deal of time quarreling–politely and impolitely–over the very language we ought to use to discuss what we find in those worlds.  For example, many object to the term “disabled”; others object to the word “cripple.”  Still others object to neither term.  Even today, the basic vocabulary pertaining to disability has not been worked out.

Nor have we come to terms with the consequences of writing about disability, especially the disability of others.  It is permissible for a man like Kenny Fries to write about his own life, if he wishes.  Objections have been raised, however, over books like Michael Berube’s Life as We Know It, a sensitive study of the life of his own disabled son, Jamie, which, despite the excellence of its prose and the nuance of its voice, seems to many readers to cross over a line into exploitation of its subject.  The late Oliver Sacks faced the same criticism many times over the case studies we find in Awakenings, Migraines, and Seeing Voices.

If writers are to do history at all, however–if some sense of the past and its hidden peoples are to be conveyed to those who know nothing about them–then “exploitation” in the sense of collecting information about and passing written judgments on people we’ve scarcely met is inevitable.  History is dotted here and there with studies of migrant laborers in various fields from all over the world, yet the authors of those studies have seldom been accused of exploitation.  On the contrary, they have been praised for throwing light on one of the many hidden corners of history.  If that praise is worthy, then so might be the work of those who write about the lives of the children they have raised, and the patients they have tried to help.  They often speak for those who cannot yet speak, believing that the day will come when their children and their patients will speak for themselves, and tell those same stories in their own words.  Perhaps by the time that day comes, we will have arrived at a common language to use in discussing what we know about all those who bear striking conditions of the body and the mind.

In any event, Fries’ list, although it is a start, is too short.  I would add to it works like Robert Garland’s The Eye of the Beholder: Deformity and Disability in the Graeco-Roman World, which shows us, by its examination of classical literature and statuary just how hidden and yet how present in the world the disabled have always been; Leslie Fiedler’s Freaks, a now-classic study of the piteously-different in nineteenth-century America, whether they were born here or imported from abroad; Katherine Butler Hathaway’s The Little Locksmith, a memoir of her life as a disabled woman in New England, about as far away from the circus shows of Fiedler as is possible to get; and Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, which is a brutally-honest account of one woman’s attempt to come to terms with her own beauty which had been damaged by cancer.

I would add these books, and recommend them to you, because they round out and fill in the picture Fries is trying to give you.  There are other books, of course; many others.  But start with these, and you will find the others in due course.

Why this post, on this day? you might ask.  My answer is, why not?  It happens to be the birthday of the author of Paradise Lost, arguably the finest extended poem in the English language.  I remind you, he was blind when he wrote it.  Everything in it came from what Milton could hear and remember and imagine.  I daresay you’re thinking to yourself, I knew that.  But on some level, you didn’t.  There’s a world of people out there you’ve never seen, living lives you’ve never dreamed of.  They’ve always been here, and they always will be.  These books will help you see them.



Helpful Words From A Grand Curmudgeon

The hard-bitten poet and novelist William Gass died the other day at the age of 93.  He was especially noted for In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, a path-breaking collection of stories from almost fifty years ago–and they’re still vital today.

Gass was a great, growling man, whose exterior belied his enormous love for language and sinewy prose.  Emily Temple has collected many of the pieces of advice he had given to writers over the years.  Every one of those pieces is made of gold.  In each one, he snaps and snarls, but it’s really only the sound a tiger makes when protecting a litter of cubs, and teaching them the joys of the hunt.


A Divine Top Ten

Neil Griffiths offers us a top ten list of novels about God, including the Gospels themselves, in Richmond Lattimore’s translation.  Griffiths explains he is in fact treating the Gospels as fiction, and he cites Jewish scripture generally for a precedent.  I would comment specifically on that decision by saying that the book of Job–wonderful, mysterious, and penetrating–is wholly fictive, so Griffiths has more of a basis to claim the Gospels as fiction than you might think.

The Last Temptation of Christ is, for my money, the best of the novels on this list.  It’s provocative and challenging.  Dostoevsky, on the other hand, is cold and depressing to me, and I have never quite been able to get inside his mind.  That is, of course, my loss, not necessarily yours.

If you’re a little put off, as I was, by Griffiths selling his new novel without stating definitively whether God is even in the book, you could substitute Nick Toches’ novel, Under Tiberius, and feel much better about things.  It’s an imaginative, thoughtful working out of the idea Albert Schweitzer had years ago that Jesus comes slowly, painfully, and reluctantly to the idea of being the Messiah–and not without first engaging in some serious deception, toward the public, and then toward himself.


Oh, To Be Young Again

Now here’s an interesting idea, well developed:  a bunch of British writers are asked, “What book (or books) would you like to have given to your younger self?”  The answers are fascinating, and you just might find a book worth reading among their many replies.

For myself, I cannot think of too many books I wish I’d read as a younger reader.  Like Philip Hensher, I think the books we need come along pretty much when we need them; and, like William Boyd, I was an undiscriminating reader (always have been).  Regular readers of Books Here And There know I grew up reading the Hardy Boys mysteries and the Clair Bee sports books, but I also read Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Jane Eyre, and Richard Wright’s Native Son at a very early age.  I wish, perhaps, to have read Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved earlier than I did because its prose is so lovely, but that is all.

No, I wish to be young again for far different reasons.  First, my ass, the thing I couldn’t find with either hand in my college years, deserves to be kicked, and I’m just the guy to get that job done.  Second, there are so many books I need to read:  big ones,  by Caro and Runciman and Schama; hard ones by Penrose and Stiglitz, mysterious ones by Ide and Ishiguro and Ward; thoughtful ones by Kolbert and James and Coates; peaceful ones by Robinson, Lewis, and Maslow; wise ones by Yutang and Kushner.

There are books on Milton and Shakespeare and the seventeenth-century poets I need to re-read, in part to convince myself that I still know what I think I know.

I wish to be young again, not because I think I can find love at last (hell, I can’t even find my socks), but because I am desperate to put the pieces of this world together in my own mind, and I am foolish enough to think it can be done.  We cannot go on the way we are going in this country, that’s for sure–tribalized, Balkanized, hating the very existence of the other fellow.  The only solutions to our problems are education and communication.  I know–I know–the mass of us do not hate each other.  We get along; we’re courteous to each other in the line at the bank or at  the grocery store; we help someone who stumbles on the sidewalk.  We are better than we pretend to be.

Those who hate have a vested interest in perpetuating their grievances.  Those grievances cannot be ignored–they’re real–but none of them will be removed by contributing to the current climate of hatred, fear, and distrust.  There are too many other far more important things to do, and too many worthwhile goals to reach for.  I wish to be young again because the world that was coming to be when I was young was a world that was worth living in, just like this one.  I want to try to find the words to bring that world into being.  Perhaps, in the end, pressed by time, I’ll be able to find only a few of the words.  If so, that’s all right.  I’ll leave it to you to find the rest.


Clemens and Churchill

I don’t think I ever knew this, but Samuel Clemens and Winston Churchill share the same birthday, and it is today–Clemens in 1835, and Churchill in 1874.  The second odd sense that one gets is in comparing their birthdates:  not that far apart, but seemingly worlds apart along the line of civilization’s advancement.

The third odd thing is that both were American, although Churchill was only so on his mother’s side.

The fourth odd thing is that, though history will justly remember Churchill as Britain’s Prime Minister during World War II, he was, like Clemens, primarily a writer.  He wrote every day of his life, whether he was in office or out of it.  His History of the English-Speaking Peoples was begun, for instance, in the 1930s, when he was out of politics, and not completed until he was in his eighties and well past the horrors of the war.  We do not read Churchill’s History or his personal account of the Second World War for objectivity; he makes no claim that either of these multi-volume accounts are objective.  Indeed, whole tracts of the Empire’s history and America’s are left uncovered in the former work, and he declines to discuss many fascinating details of the conduct of the war in the latter work.  We read them because Churchill had a grasp of rhetoric and oratory.  He had that grasp because his teachers at Harrow had the good sense to flunk him a year when he was a schoolboy.  Although the delay was surely upsetting to him at the time, Churchill understood the helpfulness of it.  “I got in my bones the essence of the English sentence, which was a good thing,” he later said.  Those English sentences, in Churchill’s mouth, helped save the world as we know it.

Clemens’s books are all wonderful, all filled with a sense of time and place, but if I had to pick one of his works that is particularly American, I wouldn’t pick either  Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer.  I’d pick Life on the Mississippi, his moving homage to all the territory linked by that vast, lovely river.  Clemens was always concerned with the deepest, most profound issues, even when he seemed to be writing only about a boy, his friends, and that river.  His largest concerns–and the smallness of humanity itself in relation to them–comes through most clearly in Life on the Mississippi, without the vexations Clemens knew we would have over the subjects and the necessary language of his other books.