Disability and the Clown Next Door



In the old days when everyone was crippled or lived with at least one cripple–in the days before “normalcy” became a hopeless expectation for the good people—well as I say back in those days a clown was just another neighbor. The faces all around were, as the poet Kenneth Rexroth once observed “starved and looted” and life was short. A hundred years ago the average life span in the United States was a smidgen over forty. It was a time of deformities—manifold disfigurements on a grand scale. Diphtheria, small pox, wens, cancers, industrial accidents, birth defects, war injuries, polio, arthritis, a fall from a horse, all these and perhaps thousands more meant that physical differences were legion. One is reminded of the remark by the American journalist Sidney Harris who said: “When I hear somebody sigh, “Life is hard,” I am always tempted to ask, “Compared to what?” The sheer physicality of life has always been a memento mori for the harder thing which is death itself. In this way all disabilities are metaphorical and metonymic representations of dying. No wonder a scary, overdressed Christian woman on a bus in Columbus, Ohio offered (belligerently) to pray for me. (She wasn’t trying to cure me, she was praying for my immortal soul.)

Enter the clown who is a saint if ever thee was one. The clown is Frederic Nietzsche’s front man. “One must never have spared oneself, one must have acquired hardness as a habit to be cheerful and in good spirits in the midst of nothing but hard truths.”

A clown exemplifies his deformities. He dances them up into an inflated, curious, exophthalmic, whirling, farting, giggling parlor trick. Let’s see your dead man try and do this. A true clown smiles to himself before smiling at others. His paint box and the box of patent medicines are one and the same.




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