Merleau-Ponty and the Melancholy Disability Breakfast…

Merleau-Ponty was much occupied by the phenomenon called “phantom limb”–it made him almost nuts. Do we retain a sense of the perfect body that haunts us? Is that perfect body a Platonic ideal? Does the body have any say in this? Is this a matter of the soul?

Reading him you want to say “sometimes a phantom limb is just a phantom limb. Have a phantom cigar my friend.”

Here’s Mzerleau-Ponty:

“Why can the memories recalled to the one-armed man cause the phantom arm to appear? The phantom arm is not a recollection, it is a quasi-present and the patient feels it now, folded over his chest, with no hint of its belonging to the past. Nor can we suppose that the image of an arm, wandering through consciousness, has joined itself to the stump: for then it would not be a ‘phantom’, but a renascent perception. The phantom arm must be that same arm, lacerated by shell splinters, its visible substance burned or rotted somewhere, which appears to haunt the present body without being absorbed into it. The imaginary arm is, then, like repressed experience, a former present which cannot decide to recede into the past.”

This is phenomenology as infantilization. Someday when I’m less tired I might tackle this. In the meantime I say as a disabled writer: us cripples don’t sit around fantasizing about wandering arms, not even in our subconscious. As for the idea of the former present which cannot decide to recede into the past let us suppose time is not concerned with volition, that what we say about it might be, but where the loss of limbs is concerned there’s no repression at all.

Non-disabled writers are such dears. They believe the body and its breakage is like losing lollipops. Bless their little hearts.

Up in the republic’s attic…

In the republic’s attic where Hawthorne’s ghost licks flecks of cheese from its fingers we remember the history of American exterminations and eugenics. From the Cherokee to Tuskegee, from Carrie Buck to hysterectomies under ICE America has built itself a monolith of human rights calamities.

During the first weeks of COVID isolation I took it upon myself to read two books about Nazi doctors. Both detail the hyper-cruelties of science gone wrong in the hands of psychotic men, but what was worse–for there’s always something worse when talking about Nazis, was the staggering indifference of all the other doctors. I’m guessing that when we get to the bottom of the ICE hysterectomies story we’ll find there was plenty of collegial shrugging going on.

“Experimenting on women? That’s his department. I only pull healthy teeth.”

In case you’re wondering, the two books were Robert J. Lifton’s “Nazi Doctors” and “Mengele: Unmasking the Angel of Death” by David Marwell.

I Did Not Plan to Write An Essay Today

1.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Walk the dog of course. Say hello to the maple tree I pretend is my friend. I know, Basho, nothing in nature is my pal. I should celebrate this.

Because I love Bach more than I can say I tend not to write about the matter.

Lines from Lars Gustafsson:

And so I’m alone with the screeching gulls
Who’re are no concern of mine…

Which of course means a man has memories…

Robert Frost said famously: “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.”

5.

Went out in a rowboat at night, blind though I am, and drifted under stars. How would I get back to my spot of shore? Trust lovesickness.

Pooh and PIglet in Heaven

In heaven Piglet and Pooh were still blind.
“I guess that afterlife recovery story was just nonsense,” said Pooh.
“Grope!” said Piglet.
Pooh stumbled into an angel. It was different than he’d supposed: stingray flat and without wings. He knew it was an angel without wings because it said so.
“Do not be afraid!” it said. “I am a two dimensional angel without wings.”
“Wow!” said Piglet.
“What happened to you?” asked Pooh.
“This ain’t Anglican afterlife,” said the Angel. “This is cartoon character Valhalla.”
“Wow!” said Piglet.
“Why are we still blind?” asked Pooh.
“The only one here who can see is Odin,” said the Angel, “and he’s got one eye so he has no depth perception.”
“Wow!” said Piglet.
“What happens now?” asked Pooh.
“We’re going to the ribbon factory,” the angel said, then added, “the blind do well there.”

Pooh and Piglet Inspire the Able-bodied…

“Its dark in the woods,” said Pooh.
“Yes,” said Piglet.
“Are you blind too?” Pooh asked.
“No, I lost my flashlight,” said Piglet.
“But it’s 11 AM,” said Pooh.
“How do you know?” asked Piglet.
“My stomach clock,” said Pooh.
“Oh, then I must be blind too,” said Piglet.
“It happens,” said Pooh, adding: “but we can lead completely successful lives as story book characters and prove that not being able to see is just like being left handed or getting your head stuck in a jar, no big deal.”
“You think?” said Piglet.
“Yes,” said Pooh for he’d used up all his words being a bear of little brain.
Piglet sat down in the road.
“If what you say is true then I’m going to take a nap right here,” said Piglet.
“OK,” said Pooh and he lay down too, secure in the knowledge he was wearing his “blind bear” tee shirt.
They fell asleep.
They didn’t hear Mr. Rat-rip on his first generation McCormick reaper.
At the inquest Rat-rip said, “If only they’d known their proper places, you know the asylums or poor houses or whatever.”

Thinking of Disability, Who Has the Eraser?

When precisely did the personal became political is a question, like the chicken and egg, though I know the answer to that one. As for the former it’s customary to say it happened as a concomitant dynamic of feminism and black liberation—the Combahee River Collective certainly made the idea famous. Trust me, I think it’s the only way to think about politics if you care about human rights. The personal means many things but most assuredly above all else it means “what’s happening to the roof over my head?” Or “why don’t I have a roof?” Both are variants on Gore Vidal’s comment: “Politics is knowing who’s paying for your lunch.” 

If you’ve a disability the personal is most decidedly political but let’s delve deeper. Here “the political” means not “of the polis” but being outside it and everyone whose disabled  understands this. 

Disability is an outsider’s game and therefore the personal and its associated politics are in sharp distinction to America’s myth of the self-directed man who pulls himself up by his bootstraps for solitude and grit are fictions in industrial societies and the personal understanding that politics made the disabled even lonelier after they built factories is essential to seeing how disability became a sub-class of the human. 

The personal: 80 per cent of the disabled are unemployed in the United States and since COVID-19 we’ve been dropping off the employment rolls in staggering numbers. 20 per cent of white disabled workers have lost their jobs; 40 per cent of disabled folks of color have lost their jobs. Since many of these positions were in the service sector it’s nearly one hundred per cent certain these lost jobs won’t be coming back. 

The political: no efforts are underway to make sure the disabled have access to health care; job training at the national level; adequate housing is nowhere being discussed in Washington. 

The personal: disability “is” people of color; indigenous people, queer people, Latinx folks, veterans, children, the elderly….we’re over 60 million in the US. Why is this personal? Because:

The political seeks to wipe us off the map. 

Politics is knowing who has the eraser. 

You can’t use the word “longing” in poetry anymore…

But leaves fall 

They whirl under street-lamps

“Death’s butterflies”

As my friend Jarkko

Called them—and

He’s gone now.

Try talking about life

Without clear desire

Also known

As tenderness—also

Called yearning

Aching, pining,

And for what?

The day held meaning,

We felt accomplished, 

We swept up the children’s hair.

More About Being Disabled in the Faculty Ranks….

There are many ways to fail at your chosen profession and lord knows if you’re a reader of fiction you’ve seen how this is inevitably a feature of narrative. Ahab chases whales but he’s not a leader; Vronsky; Charles Bovary; the novels of Dreiser; Fitzgerald; Faulkner; Edith Wharton; George Eliot–the list is necessarily long.

“Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor,” Truman Capote once said and why not? For every tragic tale there’s a comedy where things work out for the losers but let’s be honest: tragedy is the thing that sells. Comedy is simply desert. Boiled Billy Budd is always the main course.

Writers know better than Human Resources types that in America working is about the damp squib as the British like to put it. It’s the prospect of fizzle that keeps laborers in a nearly endless state of productive terror. The drama rests in ascertaining how long the victim can endure. The characters in Richard Russo’s excellent novels come to mind. Faced with a hundred collapsing structures–dying towns, rural drug abuse, prison pipelines, insufficient employment, broken marriages, shell shocked existentially ruined children, how long will the main character last?

As a disabled man who’s had his share of employment pain it’s this last question I find most interesting not because I think I know the answer but simply because the disabled who are lucky enough to have jobs in the United States must endure hostility from the structural dynamic that employs them. We call it ableism nowadays, signaling the overt and structural disdain for disability itself, a matter that functions like racism and all other bigotries–offering an “off stage” narrative that the cripple really shouldn’t have her job at all. And then: “let’s watch her fail.” And then: “let’s help her fail.”

In July of 2000 I took a job as a teacher of creative non-fiction writing in the graduate school at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. What I didn’t know was that my job offer came as a result of larger influences–the faculty of the overlord English department wanted me, for I was famous, and yes, I’d add to diversity awareness. The creative writing faculty with whom I’d be working didn’t want me at all. They were outvoted. Generally job applicants don’t know these things. I certainly didn’t.

Ah but what came next was the incitement premium as Freud calls it–the thing–the pendulum that sets the story going. A woman on the creative writing faculty spread the rumor that since I’d been “out of the academy” for five years (raising money for a major non-profit after a decade of distinguished teaching) that it would clearly prove to be the case I didn’t know how to teach. She still works there and she’s still a gossip. She’ll gossip about the love lives of her grad students; tell stories about other faculty, many of them as hopeless as any of Trump’s “alternative facts” but I digress.

She asked her “besty” grad student, her most obedient hench-woman to take my very first grad class in nonfiction. She essentially took the class as a spy.

Back to disability: if you’re blind you need technology to do your job. I didn’t get my talking laptop and scanner for about two weeks. I taught for two weeks by having students read aloud their work.

The grad student spy quit the class after one week for her mission was done. She reported to her doyen of discrimination that I didn’t know how to teach for I was asking the students to read aloud.

The narrative that I was insufficiently sophisticated, nuanced, skilled, and discerning was now official. Gossip Queen spread it like lice in a locker room.

The grad student in question has gone on to have a career as a writer and professor with a special focus on queerness. But she’s a rank and file ableist and therefore nothing more than a single issue politician. When tragedy is the dominant vehicle you need single issue politicians as part of the plot. Billy Budd is not possible without such characters.

Meantime it’s been twenty years and I’ve had a fairly good run of it. I left Ohio State for a senior post at the U of Iowa and now hold a professorship of some merit at Syracuse University. Compared to the 80 per cent of the disabled who remain unemployed I’ve been damned lucky.

But I still feel the unjust, sinful, predatory, moist fish of academic ableism. And as I look around me I see very very few disabled faculty in the ranks.

Several of my former students both at Ohio State and Iowa have gone on to have careers in the academy. I wonder how much they know about being disabled in the fog factory as Kenneth Rexroth called the University?

If you’re disabled make sure that the MFA program you attend isn’t crammed with fatuous, self-promoting, third rate stuffed shirts and blouses who think the only place for disability in writing lies in the veneration of cheap tragedy in some novel somewhere.

Soliloquy

Now he’s getting old he wants Bach. A balloon flies over the farm and he knows this is Bach anticipating the enlightenment. He pulls a blue corn flower. (Alright, alright, it’s me getting old.) I kick a clod of earth and talk to myself. Poor Bach. He had to dine with Frederick the Great who made fun of him. “How it is,” I think, bending to pick yet another blazing flower which one supposes is a thing that cannot be done in heaven.
“Come in Bach, over. Tell me of the galant flourishes as we leave this life? Over.”