How Many Things are Required of a Person With a Disability to Be Beautiful?

Head of Bacchus-Dionysus



“What then,” writes Marsilio Ficino “is the beauty of the body?” He answers the question this way: “Activity, vivacity, and a certain grace shining in the body because of the infusion of its own idea.”

I have pondered these two sentences for over thirty years.

Ficino was a Platonist and accordingly he undermined his own perception that the body might imagine itself–that the body could be beautiful and unique by asserting that “the ears be in their proper place, the eyes in theirs, the nostrils in theirs, etc.” This is the old Platonic idealization of arrangement and proportion–an idea more Apollonian than Dionysian. One may say that Nietzsche had it right: Greek tragedy began with Dionysus as its only character, hence it was an art of disambiguation and deformity. Later the Greeks embraced the Olympian gods and began to worry about the proportions of noses and the straightness of limbs.

Accordingly I believe that people with disabilities must be beautiful in a Dionysian way though we can and should steal Ficino’s sentence about activity.

People with disabilities put their bodies back together not in idealized, Platonic shapes, but in Dionysian infusions of thrilling oddity. See! The broken god is putting himself back together. The god is full of activity, vivacity. He has a certain grace though his feet will be wrong. His feet will be not quite neighborly. His feet will represent a separate realm of physicality and not the eidolon of Appollonian perfection.

Activity, vivacity, broken feet, blind eyes, arms and legs seasoned by catastrophes. How beautiful is the body that understands its own idea! The Dionysian body. Blind though it is, it still opens the windows when the moon rises.

Crippled though it is, it still rolls its chair down to the beach to see the shiny rain between sea and sky. The body takes these things into itself. This is the wisdom of the body. That it understands its own vivacious and incomplete idea. That it has its own relations to the strangeness of nature’s most unpolished gestures. How wise the crippled body is! It is the oldest body! It has a long memory!

The crippled body rejoices and mourns without shame.

It says the soul and the body are not inside and out.

These ruined limbs say their living must be thorough.

The Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelof wrote: “Deep in me abides a freshness that no one can take from me, not even I myself…”

These ruined limbs say their living WAS thorough, perhaps more thorough than the occasions of a straightened man.

The art of the broken body day after day is the infusion of its own roads in winter or on windless summer days.





0 thoughts on “How Many Things are Required of a Person With a Disability to Be Beautiful?

  1. “What then,” writes Marsilio Ficino “is the beauty of the body? Activity, vivacity, and a certain grace shining in the body because of the infusion of its own idea.” SK, I can well understand how this phrase could endure within a person. It is the ending, “…because of the infusion of its own idea” that resonates. Is every person with a disability beautiful? Is every priest holy? (Child abuse survivors wish this were so!) Is every teacher wise? If these qualities are honestly pursued, they certainly are achievable, as you so aptly prove in the words that you share with others each day. Below is the obituary of the person that came to mind when I read the words of Marsilio Ficino. No one had to read her biography to appreciate her great and abiding beauty. All one had to do was to be in her presence for even the fewest moments. But her obituary helps others understand the journey that she took to become the person that she was.
    Frances May Mannino
    Born May 1, 1921 – Died April 11, 2010
    A Friend to Deaf-Blind for over 50 Years
    (From Scene, a publication of the Braille Institute, Spring 1984; and recollections of Frances, written by her brother)
    Frances was born May 1, 1921 in Reedley, California to Pete and Lillian (Nickel) Thiesen. Her mother called her “her little May basket”. Frances gave her life to Christ at the age of 13 and was baptized in the Kings River near Reedley, attending the South Reedley Mennonite Church (later the Dinuba Church). Following death of her father and the marriage of her mother to Ed Ranter in 1935, Frances moved to Wasco, California, and attended Wasco High School. At age fifteen and a half, on December 13, 1936, she became very seriously ill with meningitis. On December 15 she was taken to Kern General Hospital in Bakersfield. On the 17th she was taken to the contagious ward. She was unconscious for about three weeks. Frances became aware of being blind on Christmas Day when she could not see a poinsettia plant on the table stand. The severe fever had burned her optic nerve.
    Frances came home February 1937 and for months was very ill. She lived in a little room, in a house on Broadway and 11th Streets. Her doctor was Max Hendricks, who correctly diagnosed her as having meningitis.
    In November 1937, Frances left Wasco for the Berkeley School for the Blind, and attended until May 1941 with holiday vacations at home (The school was later acquired by the University of California, and relocated to Fremont). Her mother put a college application for Frances at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now known as Biola), where she started in the Fall of 1941, just before World War II began at Pearl Harbor. After graduation in May 1947, she worked with Dr. Lowman in the Biola Braille Library from 1944 until 1953.
    Frances first affiliation with Braille Institute was in 1951 when she volunteered as a Braille teacher. In September, 1956, she was hired as a home instructor. She has taught Braille reading and writing, arts and crafts, independent living skills, and has been a counselor, mentor, teacher, mother and – most of all -a friend to hundreds of blind and deaf-blind students in the past 27 years. In 1983 she retired at the age of 62.
    Frances was an active member of the Foothill Club of the blind in Glendale from 1951 to the present. She served as president and program chairman. An award for her service to the club was recently given Frances.
    She married her much-loved husband, Tony Mannino, on July 20, 1974. Tony had been associated with many blind associations, and served as President of the California Council of the Blind in Los Angeles. Frances and Tony were active, along with Jean Morris, with Twin Vision (The American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults). Tony and Frances lived in happiness for two years, until Tony died September 22, 1976.
    Frances, who is deaf in one ear and blind since the age of 15, has never let her handicaps get in the way of anything she wanted to do. She was the first blind person to graduate from the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, and after receiving her B.A. in Education she was a Braille transcriber for five years.
    Throughout her career, Frances was involved with many programs for the blind and deaf-blind. But the program closest to her heart was the deaf-blind program at Braille Institute, which she started in 1962. The program was started by Frances, “to dispel the loneliness and isolation of the deaf-blind.” There are now over 30 deaf-blind students who attend the monthly social meetings held at Braille Institute, as well as 15 who participate in arts and crafts, radio, woodshop and cooking classes.
    Frances leaves behind five sisters: Adeline Fast from Dallas, Oregon, Wilma Wiebe from Reedley, Lorene Nauman from San Diego, Lillian Kliewerfrom Cherry Valley, and Shirley Wilder from Reedley; and one brother, Marvin Ranter from Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Preceding her in death is a sister, Roberta Bentson from Buenos Aires, Argentina, and a brother Clay Ranter from Wasco, California. Frances always spoke fondly of her wonderful, close family.
    She also leaves close relatives from the Mannino family, and many wonderful nephews and nieces too numerous to name here, and likewise many very close friends and relatives.


  2. I don’t know if heaving stones at the pink bits on Queen Victoria’s map of the world will help you to re-align our notions of beauty, SK (referring to “Disabilities: Forms of a Fair Kind Among Us”, your 10:40 pm response). I think the problem is deeper than Victoria or even the Greeks. I attended a lovely hippie college for my undergraduate studies; they entreated, “Western art history? Nah, just take any old art history class that you want. Take it somewhere close to home, so you don’t have to knock yourself out commuting.” I still have the principle text from my Los Angeles City College course “Art in Small Scale Societies” by Richard L. Anderson. In the 60s, Robert Farris Thompson studied Yoruba aesthetic values by taking his collection of Yoruba art to different villages in West Africa, and asking residents for their opinions about the works. After cataloging comments, he concluded, “Yoruba art style reflects fundamental cultural values. For the Yoruba, beauty is a concrete embodiment of goodness; and goodness, for its part, involves two specific dimensions of moral and ethical thought. On the one hand, people are good who live in harmony with the traditions of the past and who have the requisite “cool” temperament to live peacefully with others. But good people also have energy — both in their vitality to be productive members of their families and communities, and in the potential fertility that produces and nurtures another generation of good Yoruba people. Harmony and energy are potentially contradictory goals in that an excess of one could overwhelm the other. So a carved Yoruba statuette, with its feet symmetrically and firmly planted on the ground but with its strong and well-proportioned legs flexed at the knee as if to leap into the air, not only embodies Yourba stylistic conventions but aslo conveys a complex moral message to the view must strive to be both “cool” and vital at the same time.” Notions of beauty are learned cultural values to be sure, and cultural values are constantly evolving and changing in all societies. The ones that persist and are most prevalent are typically the ones that support a society that is strong enough to prevail over another society with differing values.
    In a society where products are mass produced by fewer and fewer people, and populations begin to overwhelm vital resources, symbols of fecundity seem to be progressively less and less valued, and so become less “beautiful” and prevalent. Certainly modern visual art reflects this — the voluptuous nudes of yore have had to step aside for the photos of Diane Arbus that explore the depth & breadth of human experience. Your optimism of a new age where individuals define their own existences is heartening, SK. However, my feeling is that people as a whole continue to really like having babies, and will do whatever it takes to sustain the lifestyle that supports this. Strip away the veneer, and even among “average” people, life still seems excrutiatingly competitive. You and I both hear this group on a daily basis, gathering steam in an effort to re-assert the symbols of fecundity. Time will tell whose notion of beauty prevails.


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