If you’re disabled like me and you also happen to love literature you’ll likely have had a moment–a defining one–when you realized that able bodied writers love disabilities as plot devices. A device, in literary terms, can be a matter of tone, imagery, allegory, but metaphorizing people is one of the biggest. Deformed characters are invariably used to suggest villainy. Think of Bond movies: Dr. No with his deformed hand. The man wanted to destroy the world because he had to wear a glove.
The best book on this subject is “Narrative Prosthesis: “Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse” by David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder. Disability is a human fact. It’s also an effective symbolic attribution, a way to develop a plot and simultaneously divorce true disablement from the effects of art. Blindness stands for unknowing, rage, psychic powers, dependency–all of which are unrelated to blindness as a lived experience. No novel has more provenance in this area that Jose Saramago’s “Blindness” which tells the dystopian story of a blinded world. The blind world has been hit with a pandemic. A virus. Sinister nature has afflicted humanity with “petit Mal” that little death which sightlessness always conveys to able bodied readers. Score one for Saramago: he rein scribed the public’s worst fears about blindness and managed to simultaneously give a modest and untroubling condition a dark metaphoric meaning. Blindness is an irrational force from the cosmos.
That I hate the book is hardly surprising. What’s worse though is the silly and nearly endless adoption of the novel as drama, on stage or in film. Able bodied or sighted producers and writers can’t see what a trivial and damaging story it really is. One imagines how a book that suggests a virus turns everyone in the world into some other identity category might be received. It would be laughed at. Not so with blindness.
Why? Because blindness is so thoroughly steeped in metaphor it’s the easiest device at hand when you haven’t got much of a plot to begin with.