Disability and the Compass

Cover of Planet of the Blind....man and dog....

In her posthumously published novel “This Real Night” Rebecca West describes the simmering injustices of childhood which she allows are inflicted in the service of a social lie. The narrator portrays herself and her fictional sisters as coming of age, therefore arriving at a place of indeterminate but welcome freedom:

“We were as happy as escaped prisoners, for we had all hated being children. A pretence already existed in those days, and has grown stronger every year since then, that children do not belong to the same species as adults and have different kinds of perception and intelligence, which enable them to live a separate and satisfying life. This seemed to me then, and seems to me now, great nonsense. A child is an adult temporarily enduring conditions which exclude the possibility of happiness. When one is quite little one labours under just such physical and mental disabilities as might be inflicted by some dreadful accident or disease; but while the maimed and paralysed are pitied because they cannot walk and have to be carried about and cannot explain their needs or think clearly, nobody is sorry for babies, though they are always crying aloud their frustration and hurt pride. It is true that every year betters one’s position and gives one more command over oneself, but that only leads to a trap. One has to live in the adult world at a disadvantage, as member of a subject race who has to admit that there is some reason for his subjection. For grown-ups do know more than children, that cannot be denied; but that is not due to any real superiority, they simply know the lie of the land better, for no other reason than that they have lived longer. It is as if a number of people were set down in a desert, and some had compasses and some had not; and those who had compasses treated those who had not as their inferiors, scolding and mocking them with no regard for the injustice of the conditions, and at the same time guiding them, often kindly, to safety. I still believe childhood to be a horrible state of disequilibrium, and I think we four girls were not foolish in feeling a vast relief because we had reached the edge of the desert.”

I’m alert to the ableism in the passage but also interested by its unsentimental analogies. If childhood is its own disabling circumstance it’s because small bodied happiness is unattainable in a world designed by the larger bodies. Notice West’s elegant insertion of compass in the service of withheld compassion. Nothing more perfectly describes disability struggle than the picture of compass-compassion denied. The first is an accommodation, the second is moral philosophy much as Hobbes saw it. That is, compassion is a social choice. Compass, compassion, contract.

Today’s cripples do not admit there is some reason for their subjection but unlike West’s young women we’ve not reached the edge of the desert.

**

I’ve been watching “Breaking Bad” like millions of others and though I’ve been “drawn in” I haven’t been captivated–a distinction reflecting disability and cultural theory as opposed to more ecumenical views regarding embodiment and agency. The latter are, to quote Susan Sontag, matters of lying, as in lying about cancer and then lying about our social circles: “patients are lied to, not just because the disease is (or is thought to be) a death sentence, but because it is felt to be obscene–in the original meaning of that word: ill-omened, abominable, repugnant to the senses.”

From the outset it would be wrong to characterize “Breaking Bad” as simply a cancer narrative but it is nearly so since Walter White’s diagnosis is the incitement premium (as Freud would call it) the idea at the top which gets all that art and anxiety going. Walter is ill and though physicians don’t lie to him, he absorbs all the ill-omened, abominable, and repugnant pathos of his diagnosis. Dark history now and then will grant a man permission to behave as badly as he wishes to. Walter becomes an agent in the original sense of the word: someone or something who produces an effect. He’s cancer-man; unbridled; unhouseled–he eschews salvation; he’s vengeful. He understands class distinctions and the cultural impediments to achieving freedom. He’s a contemporary middle class American, one who is falling from the wheel of fortune; he’s every man in the age of the affordable health care act and shrinking jobs; he’s the pure product of Paul Fussell’s status complex–Fussell who said famously, “Americans are the only people in the world known to me whose status anxiety prompts them to advertise their college and university affiliations in the rear window of their automobiles.” Walter is an embittered status hound. He’s terminally ill. He’s going to produce effects. With his slacker ex-student Jessie Pinkman he’s going to “cook” and make money, beat the clock, provide for his family before the big “C” gets him.

It’s hard to like cancer. But aside from the whack-a-mole portentousness of Walter’s diagnosis, the narrative incitement of “Breaking Bad” has everything to do with dark agency: accordingly the show depends on unabashed ableism. By this I don’t mean simple “discrimination in favor of able bodied people” but what David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder call “narrative prosthesis”–disability as a vehicle employed to reinforce normalcy. Narrative prosthesis deflects the abnormal body by dramatizing its unseemliness and presuming its incompatibility with our better natures. This is “Breaking Bad” in a nutshell.

What makes narrative prosthesis palatable? The answer (as Dickens well knew) is the Tiny Tim effect–the cripple must stand for something larger or more urgent “right now” in culture. You might not ordinarily think of Walter White and Tiny Tim in the same room, and if you were inclined to think of Tiny Tim at all in the context of “Breaking Bad” you would most likely imagine Walter’s son Walter Junior who is portrayed as having mild cerebral palsy. This is a clever prosthetic red herring, a ruse on crutches, for Walter is Tiny Tim in the purest sense: he reflects cultural ideas about illness. Why? Because his diagnosis is inseparable from his latent capacity for dishonesty and cruelty–a matter the show labors to prove throughout its first season as we see him despise friends and former business partners and family members who wish to help him. He’s Ahab with cancer and no health plan and a chemistry degree. He’s a figure for our times: smart, ironic, bitter, a little crazy, shrewd, vengeful, oddly nostalgic for his nuclear family, entirely creepy. But while the show strives to make these qualities digestible its larger Aristotelian template is a simple reduction of ableist ideas about serious illness. Everyone will be made ill by Walter. Everyone is rendered a cripple by Walter from his brother in law the DEA agent to his wife to Jessie Pinkman. And this is the oldest and most repulsive idea about cancer of them all. Cancer as metaphor. Intoxicating. Everyone alive with vices. Even the environment has cancer. The houses. When ableism really works its best magic the city is cancer. As Sontag says: “Before the city was understood as, literally, a cancer causing (carcinogenic) environment, the city was seen as itself a cancer–a place of abnormal, unnatural growth, and extravagant, devouring, armored passions.”

There is one other dichotomy of cancer as metaphor that “Breaking Bad” exemplifies to the hilt. Because cancer functions metaphorically as a reification of capitalism, Walter engages in two kinds of symbolic behavior: before his diagnosis he stands for early capitalism with its sagacity, accounting, and thrift. After his diagnosis he is the embodiment of post-industrial capitalism–expansionist, excessive, speculative, or as Sontag would say he represents “an economy that depends on the irrational indulgence of desire”).

“Breaking Bad” positions cancer as loathsome and fatal and morally contagious. In this way it subverts healthy bodies and disabled ones.
**

Back to the desert, which one hopes to escape, the location of Walter White’s brief hour upon the stage, the nursery of all helplessness where brute adults still own the compasses. That is of course the discovery. Ask any disabled high school student if it’s easy to transition to college and receive appropriate accommodations when in fact the nature of the work you’ll be expected to perform has changed. Ask them if the compass is easy to get when you’ve left childhood only to arrive in a larger barren place.

So the takeaway from West’s novel is that normal teens can expect to leave the desert of childhood disadvantage and enter the garden of compasses and compassions. As a cripple the haunting thing is knowing how few accommodations my people will have when youth has ended. Yes, and how the desert expands.

Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

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