I tend to read compulsively though not canonically. African folk tales, history of science, D. H. Lawrence, old white men, young Latinx women, Russian history, eco-theory, contemporary poets from China. And things happen, my soft shell crab of a mind is fed. I learn that Abraham Lincoln came home from Gettysburg with a case of the small pox, that he infected his black servant who died, that behind every story we thought we knew there’s another one having to do with disability and illness and injustice. Speaking of Lincoln and disability I’ve recently learned while reading David S. Reynold’s “Abraham Lincoln in His Time” that on the frontier in Lincoln’s boyhood violent fights often involved gouging out the eyeballs of one’s opponent and that victorious fighters used to flaunt the enucleated eyes of their victims. Lincoln did not participate. I knew that blinding thieves was an old juridical practice dating back to the Greeks, but I’d no idea blinding the guy in the other corner was a popular entertainment in Illinois.
Seeing such things Lincoln developed rectitude. That emergence made him the greatest of men. Not perfect. But moral.
I put the words disability, illness, and injustice together because in a society without moral leaders these wanton circumstances feed each other. But you know that. If you’re reading this blog you already know.
Compulsive reading…not long ago I re-read Robert Graves memoir “Goodbye to All That” in which he narrates how he turned his back on England after the debacle of the First World War. He hoped he could find a better garden much as contemporary Americans tweet about where they want to live now that the USA has seemingly devolved into a fascist stock yard. Anyway the following passage caught my attention–Graves and his wife Nancy are living in Islip, post-war, and everything is going to hell:
“The Herald spoiled our breakfast every morning. We read in it of unemployment all over the country due to the closing of munition factories; of ex-service men refused reinstatement in the jobs they had left when war broke out, of market-rigging, lockouts, and abortive strikes. I began to hear news, too, of the penury to which my mother’s relatives in Germany had been reduced, particularly the retired officials whose pensions, by the collapse of the mark, now amounted to only a few shillings a week. Nancy and I took all this to heart and called ourselves socialists.”
That this should strike one as familiar and smoothly contemporaneous speaks to the corruption and contagion we’re now forced to endure.
Reading Eric Alterman’s “Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie and Why Trump is Worse: one reads the following:
“Like Woodrow Wilson during the latter stages of his presidency, Roosevelt was not at all a well man during his final election campaign. But FDR proved so adept at hiding his infirmities that his personal physician, Dr. Ross McIntire, confided in his diary, “It made me doubt my accuracy as a diagnostician.” In December 1944, just a month after his final election victory, a new physician, Dr. Robert Duncan, conducted a thorough examination of the president and gave him only a few months to live. This prognosis was apparently due to a “hardening of the arteries of the brain at an advanced stage.” We can see at least one important result of his infirmity in the fact that, according to biographer Robert Dallek, “Roosevelt’s cardiologist ‘begged Eleanor time and again not to upset her husband’ with complaints about State Department appointments of anti-Communist conservatives.” 14 It so happens that these appointees were the very same people who slammed the door shut on refugees from Hitler’s Holocaust. The question of whether his health affected his performance at Yalta cannot be put entirely to rest. FDR could work for only a few hours at a time during his final months during his final months, and he was hardly at his best when he did. In retrospect, however, the problems that arose with the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the war did not result from Roosevelt’s having been hoodwinked at Yalta, much less from any nefarious attempts to undermine him by pro-Soviet members of the US delegation there, as so many have since charged. Rather, it was that in securing the best deal he could, Roosevelt apparently lacked the energy to tell anyone—for example, his vice president—about what he had agreed to and why he had done so.”
Again history is startlingly near. Illness, public relations repression of same, disability behind the curtain, a feckless medical establishment lining up to disguise FDR’s true circumstances, all combining to “lose the peace” as we might say.
Does Trump even now how ill he is? Do his apologists and crackpot doctors care? What are we losing on the world stage because of this pandemic driven denial, charade, canard, con-man cathexis?
Here’s another passage that caught me recently. This is from Edmund Wilson’s “To the Finland Station”:
“In 1891–92, the famine and the cholera epidemic that followed it brought the intellectuals into the field. Tolstóy at sixty-three set an example by turning in with all his family and working his head off for two years: he and his sons established hundreds of soup-kitchens, and he tried to get the people on their feet again by distributing seed and horses. Vladímir Ulyánov, however, according to one of his friends, was one of the only two political exiles in Samára who refused to do anything about the soup-kitchens, and he would not belong to the relief committee. Our only knowledge of his position at this time is derived from the indictment of a Populist opponent, who declares that Vladímir welcomed the famine as a factor in breaking down the peasantry and creating an industrial proletariat.”
Lenin is seen here rooting for starvation. Sound familiar? Trump was going to tear off his shirt and reveal his Superman costume while Americans are falling ill in record numbers and oh yes, many are starving. Of course for Trump he wants Industrial Proud Boys, not a proletariat. But his behavior is strikingly similar to the heartlessness of Vladímir Ulyánov.
I’m reading during a pandemic.
Here’s a passage from Leila Lalami’s “The Other Americans” which grabbed at my disabled child’s heart:
“Yet the sense of being different never completely went away. The fault lines usually appeared when I was asked what church I went to, or when my mother spoke to me in the school parking lot, or when the history teacher asked a random question about the Middle East and all eyes turned to me for an answer. It didn’t help that my parents weren’t getting along and that there was constant squabbling at home. Every time a door was slammed or a dish was smashed, I locked myself in my room and listened to music. I dreamed of growing up, going to college, escaping the desert. “Why do you always have your head in the clouds?” my mother would ask.”
Head in the clouds indeed.