George Washington, the Onondaga Nation, and Robert Bly

Its Presidents Day or it was, I can’t remember. The television is trying to sell me a couch by raising a photo of George Washington above a love seat. Because I teach at Syracuse University which stands on land that belongs to the Onondaga Nation I wince. It was Washington who ordered the wholesale slaughter of Native Americans in the Finger Lakes. Our principle “founding father” was responsible for a vast human rights crime–what we would now call genocide. I do not make polemical pronouncements. This butchery is a matter of history. Washington called for a “scorched earth” policy which left no village standing and very few survivors. I live among their descendants. I know full well what was done to their ancestors. When I change the channel the TV is trying to sell me a car. Again there’s Washington. I hold my head.

I’ve been reading the newly published “Collected Poems” of Robert Bly. Here are some lines that come to mind:

“Hatred of Men With Black Hair”

“I hear voices praising Tshombe, and the Portuguese
In Angola, these are the men who skinned Little Crow!
We are all their sons, skulking
In back rooms, selling nails with trembling hands!

We distrust every person on earth with black hair;
We send teams to overthrow Chief Joseph’s government;
We train natives to kill Presidents with blowdarts;
We have men loosening the nails on Noah’s Ark.

The State Department floats in the heavy jellies near the bottom
Like exhausted crustaceans, like squids who are confused,
Sending out beams of black light to the open sea,
Fighting their fraternal feeling for the great landlords.

We have violet rays that light up the jungles at night, showing
The friendly populations; we are teaching the children of ritual
To overcome their longing for life, and we send
Sparks of black light that fit the holes in the generals’ eyes.

Underneath all the cement of the Pentagon
There is a drop of Indian blood preserved in snow:
Preserved from the trail of blood that once led away
From the stockade, over the snow, the trail now lost.

Excerpt From: Robert Bly. “Collected Poems.” Apple Books.

**

From Washington’s slaughter of the five nations to Trump’s wall…Bly’s poem still reverberates.

Now Washington is trying to sell me a set of home appliances.

The Planet That Would Have Me

It was Auden broke my heart then put it back together. Caruso followed with a love song from Naples. By the age of 8 I could read poems and listen alone to gramophone records. Blind I’d little street life though I pretended I belonged well enough in open air. Like most people who come from provinces I was happiest in my privacies, my attic with scratchy records and grey books. Though I could scarcely read that’s the world that would have me.

The ugliness of school was both a matter of being bullied for my disability and a curricular austerity. School never let me share what I was learning while alone. As a university professor these past thirty years I think of this. What do the students before me bring to the room? What can provinces teach us?

Provincial culture means the one we must create. Yeats couldn’t be Tennyson and though there were Irish poets before him, he had to be both cognizant of his inner life and the outward world. If he was going to be Irish-provincial he’d have to do it in a dual way. Its a matter of accomplishment that Yeats doesn’t quite fit anywhere. His planet doesn’t exist. Yet its apparent.

Is it a bit silly to invoke Yeats next to a kid with a large print book and a Victrola? I don’t think so. The inner life is Romanticism and strength of mind and each must find it in her or his way. You don’t have to be a poet to need your planet. More and more contemporary fiction and memoirs seek to find planets that will have us. Everyone hails from some version of my childhood attic.

I’m guilty of reductionism here. What I’m after is emergence not life alone with some arias. The planet that will have us is a made place and not granted. What is it made of? Yeats wrote:

By the help of an image
I call to my own opposite, summon all
That I have handled least, least looked upon.

The planet that will have you won’t look like you. Yeats knew and if we’re lucky we also learn it.

Yes when I go walking the world does not resemble my stride, my frame, nor, despite my yearnings for mysticism does the world answer my longings. The world simply is and not what I say of it.

On Critical Thinking, Disability, and the Academy

One of the ironies about the current state of academe is that universities propose to introduce students to what is called “critical thinking” as if most teaching faculty are available and capable to do this very work. I remember a biology professor wagging his finger in my face because, he said, biology students really don’t need to know how to write. That he was a well regarded professor made the moment doubly remarkable. “Don’t you want your students to be successful grant writers?” I asked. “You don’t need to take writing courses to do that!” he sniffed. Opposition to writing and the teaching of same is fundamentally a resistance to the teaching of nuance, scruple, irony, and pesky associative questions like “why is this problem interesting; confounding; worthwhile; perhaps even utopian?” Whatever we mean by the term critical thinking behind the term must lie a hope that students will bloom beyond being students. If this isn’t your hope as a member of the professoriate—which is to say a wish that your students will master their own curiosities no matter their chosen profession, then you’ve no business teaching. And there. I’ve said it. I believe far too many faculty are insufficiently inclined to engage with students as potential contrarians which is what we all should be after.

How many department meetings have I attended over the years? Lordy. And scarcely a discussion about students or what we hope they’ll gain. Worse perhaps is the cynical shorthand of “outcomes assessment” that’s been adopted for inclusion on syllabi and which now occupies senior administrators from the accreditation complex—themselves former faculty who’ve little experience teaching critical thinking. In this way the contemporary academy is like the singsong monkey that chases its tail around the flagpole. There’s a lot of talk about critical thinking and little actually happening. Instead there is essentialism about any number of topics. Here’s a popular one: Capitalism is the source of all suffering. I think one should say it’s the source of many problems. But critical thinking demands probing the assertion: was there ever a civilization without some kind of capitalism? Are there capitalist countries where the people are happy? These questions are not popular in essentialist teaching circles. Essentialism requires agreement, a prescriptive shared narrative. I know disabled students who think all able bodied citizens are their enemies and that able bodied people believe in compulsory able-bodiedness.

Remember “The Combahee River Collective Statement” of 1977?

“This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”

As Mark Lilla puts it in his book “Once and Future Liberal” the left, following Reagan’s election failed to unite and instead augured into separate coverts of bitterness:

“Instead, they lost themselves in the thickets of identity politics and developed a resentful, disuniting rhetoric of difference to match it. ”

**

Three weeks ago I watched the televised memorial for President George H.W. Bush. I found the occasion moving. Bush 41 signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law in 1990 and that moment still stands for me and many others as a watershed in American politics as it was perhaps the last time the left and right worked assiduously to promote the well being of millions upon millions of citizens. The law was fiercely opposed then and still is now. That Bush signed it says a good deal about his willingness to resist calls from the Chamber of Commerce to let the disabled continue living without rights as they’d always done.

When I posted on social media my appreciation for Bush’s role in promoting the ADA I was besieged by Facebookers and Twitterers informing me Bush was a moral coward, a bigot, a war criminal, a homophobe, a liar, a groper—all to edify me. Having said he’d done something good I must be obtuse or utterly ignorant about his life in its entirety. This is the sloppiness of identity politics—its execrable cheapness of thought, adopted formally at the Combahee conference and now a laziness disguised as moral advantage. If critical thinking is to be taught let’s ask what it might actually mean.

I’ll venture it may require a willingness to give up first response finger wagging—the “gotcha” which is now everywhere on both the right and left. Someone who teaches disability studies told me on Facebook (in response to my observation that much about racism I find hard to absorb having grown up in a very liberal environment) I “must be” racist as I’m white. Her proof? I’m soaked in white privilege. Gotcha works this way. It substitutes paradigms within an argument. Example: “You believe you’ve a personal identity which is moral and possesses Enlightenment values of nuance and rationality but actually you’ve no personal identity since postmodern culture assures this. Therefore you can’t be immune to racism, if say, you’ve gotten a bank loan at any time during your life.”

If you’ve white privilege you’re a de facto racist. The essentialism behind the argument—the confirmation bias—is that this has been entirely decided by people who recognize oppression better than I do.

Forget that I grew up blind; have lived on food stamps and unemployment and have spent time living in Section 8 housing. Dispose of the fact I’ve been discriminated against in education and employment over and over during my “career”—that fancy term for what the Buddhists call the “meat wheel.”

That I’ve been harmed owing to disability doesn’t change the fact that I have advantages over others. If you believe this than you also have to imagine that human beings are just flies in amber, mere products of ancient entrapments with no hope of escape.

**

Why is this “gotcha” so attractive?

Fundamentalism is easier than scruple.

Amos Oz died this week. I’ve been reading his book “Dear Zealots” with considerable interest. He is at pains to understand how fanaticism works and why it’s the illness of our time. He writes:

“Fanaticism is not reserved for al-Qaeda and ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Hamas and Hezbollah, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites, white supremacists and Islamophobes and the Ku Klux Klan, Israel’s “hilltop thugs” in the settlements, and others who would shed blood in the name of their faith. These fanatics are familiar to us all. We see them every day on our television screens, shouting, waving angry fists at the camera, hoarsely yelling slogans into the microphone. They are the visible fanatics. A few years ago, my daughter Galia Oz directed a documentary film that probed the roots of fanaticism and its manifestations in the Jewish underground.

But there are far less prominent and less visible forms of fanaticism around us, and perhaps inside us, too. Even in the daily lives of normative societies and people we know well, there are sometimes revelations, albeit not necessarily violent ones, of fanaticism. One might encounter, for example, fanatic opponents of smoking who act as if anyone who dares light a cigarette near them should be burned alive. Or fanatic vegetarians and vegans who sometimes sound ready to devour people who eat meat. A few of my friends in the peace movement denounce me furiously, simply because I hold a different view of the best way to achieve peace between Israel and Palestine.

Certainly, not everyone who raises a voice for or against something is suspected of fanaticism, and not everyone who angrily protests an injustice becomes a fanatic by virtue of that protest and anger. Not every person with strong opinions is guilty of fanatic tendencies. Not even when such views or emotions are expressed very loudly. It is not the volume of your voice that defines you as a fanatic, but rather, primarily, your tolerance—or lack thereof—for your opponents’ voices.

Indeed, a hidden—or not so hidden—kernel of fanaticism often lies beneath various disclosures of uncompromising dogmatism, of imperviousness and even hostility toward positions you deem unacceptable. Righteousness entrenched and buttressed within itself, righteousness with no windows or doors, is probably the hallmark of this disease, as are positions that arise from the turbid wellsprings of loathing and contempt, which erase all other emotions there is nothing wrong with loathing in and of itself: in Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky and Brecht, Chaim Nachman Bialik and Y. H. Brenner and Hanoch Levin, we find a stinging component of loathing. A blazing component—but not an exclusive one. In the works of these great writers, loathing is accompanied by other feelings, too—by understanding, compassion, longing, humor, and a measure of sympathy.)”

**

If the American university hopes to embrace critical thinking it must examine righteousness entrenched. In literary writing courses we talk of comic or dramatic irony—those moments when a literary writer asks “what do my characters or my narrator know “now” that they did not know even just a few moments ago? In a dramatic stage play comic irony is when the audience knows more than the figures on stage. All of Shakespeare’s comedies depend on this device.

If the American university hopes to embrace critical thinking it must offer courses that show students how to work across divides. My suggestion is to look at the history of the Americans with Disabilities Act—it has a long back story, driven by veterans wounded in foreign wars, pushed by political activism—cripples crawling up the Capitol’s steps; grassroots politics of the best and worst kind; and perhaps most remarkable of all its demonstration that intellectual and dogmatic buttresses can come down just as architectural barriers can.

If the American university wants to embrace critical thinking it should look at the peacemakers.

Amos Oz again:

“There are varying degrees of evil in the world. The distinction between levels of evil is perhaps the primary moral responsibility incumbent upon each of us. Every child knows that cruelty is bad and contemptible, while its opposite, compassion, is commendable. That is an easy and simple moral distinction. The more essential and far more difficult distinction is the one between different shades of gray, between degrees of evil. Aggressive environmental activists, for example, or the furious opponents of globalization, may sometimes emerge as violent fanatics. But the evil they cause is immeasurably smaller than that caused by a fanatic who commits a large-scale terrorist attack. Nor are the crimes of the terrorist fanatic comparable to those of fanatics who commit ethnic cleansing or genocide.
Those who are unwilling or unable to rank evil may thereby become the servants of evil. Those who make no distinction between such disparate phenomena as apartheid, colonialism, ISIS, Zionism, political incorrectness, the gas chambers, sexism, the 1 percent’s wealth, and air pollution serve evil with their very refusal to grade it.

Fanatics tend to live in a black-and-white world, with a simplistic view of good against evil. The fanatic is in fact a person who can only count to one. Yet at the same time, and without any contradiction, the fanatic almost always basks in some sort of bittersweet sentimentalism, composed of a mixture of fury and self-pity.”

“The urge to follow the crowd and the passion to belong to the majority are fertile ground for fanatics, as are the various cults of personality, idolization of religious and political leaders, and the adulation of entertainment and sports celebrities.

Of course there is a great distance between blindly worshiping bloodthirsty tyrants, being swept up by murderous ideologies or aggressive, hateful chauvinism, and the inane adoration of celebrities. Still, there is perhaps a common thread: the worshiper yields his own selfhood. He longs to merge—to the point of self-deprecation—with the throng of other admirers and unite with the experiences and accomplishments of the object of worship. In both cases, the elated admirer is subjugated by a sophisticated system of propaganda and brainwashing, a system that intentionally addresses the childish element in people’s souls, the element that so longs to merge, to crawl back into a warm womb, to once again be a tiny cell inside a huge body, a strong and protective body—the nation, the church, the movement, the party, the team fans, the groupies—to belong, to squeeze in with a crowd under the broad wings of a great father, an admired hero, a dreamy beauty, a sparkling celebrity, in whose hands the worshipers deposit their hopes and dreams, and even their right to think and judge and take positions.

The increasing infantilization of masses of people everywhere in the world is no coincidence: there are those who stand to gain from it and those who ride its coattails, whether from a thirst for power or a thirst for wealth. Advertisers and those who fund them desperately want us to go back to being spoiled little children, because spoiled little children are the easiest consumers to seduce.”

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Reading Bleak House at Christmas

I wasn’t cut out for holidays. Drunk parents. Too much catastrophe from kitchen to parlor. By the time I was in high school I saw the advantage to reading stout novels and claimed it was for school—later for college. Unless they are fleetingly sentimental drunks don’t care if you’ve disappeared.

I read Tom Jones while my parents drank scotch and burned a turkey. Vanity Fair as they fought over my father’s decision to un-retire. The Egoist I read while my mother wrapped old kitchen implements in newspaper—she thought melted plastic spatulas would be excellent for re-gifting. A “delicious” irony as my sister and I often rescued Christmas pasts by undertaking emergency house cleaning and cooking. I found 19th century novels were best. Tolstoy was right about all unhappy families. Melville and Dickens weren’t wrong either. Human beings thrown together by economies or architectures or marriages or patrimonies—all sink together while fashioning narratives designed to hold others in thrall to ugly misapprehensions. Ah, the novel! My holiday lifeboat these many years.

Some years I’m devoted to re-reading as is the case with Bleak House. The joys in doing so are almost unlimited:

“The universe makes rather an indifferent parent, I’m afraid.”

“But injustice breeds injustice; the fighting with shadows and being defeated by them necessitates the setting up of substances to combat.”

“Everything that Mr Smallweed’s grandfather ever put away in his mind was a grub at first, and is a grub at last. In all his life he has never bred a single butterfly.”

“There is something indefinably keen and wan about her anatomy, and she has a watchful way of looking out of the corners of her eyes without turning her head which could be pleasantly dispensed with, especially when she is in ill humor and near knives.”

“Mr. Guppy suspects everybody….of entertaining… Sinister designs upon him….he in the most ingenious manner takes infinite pains to counterplot, where there is no plot; and plays the deepest games of chess without any adversary.”

“He [Old Mr. Turveydrop] was a fat old gentleman with a false complexion, false teeth, false whiskers, and a wig. He had a fur collar, and he had a padded breast to his coat, which only wanted a star or a broad blue ribbon to be complete. He was pinched in, and swelled out, and got up, and strapped down, as much as he could possibly bear.”

“Lady Dedlock is always the same exhausted deity, surrounded by worshippers, and terribly liable to be bored to death, even while presiding at her own shrine.”

The delights of “Bleak House” are inexhaustible.

I’ll Be Dipped Redux

Well I’ll be dipped! (White privilege of course, for being dipped means soaked in oil usually as punishment for running away when you were a black slave…sometimes poor whites were also dipped in oil but only to serve as examples to the poorer people.) Anyway, I’ll be dipped cuz believe it or not, someone wrote to say I’m too angry on this blog. What was her tipping point? I said Karl Ove Knausgaard, Anthony Doerr, and Jose Saramago were phony writers who use disablement or ennui to suggest they are more interesting than they really are.

Pfffffft! You’d think I’d said the Statue of Liberty wears a Victoria’s Secret thong stitched from a Russian flag. (She does.)

We’re living in an era of great literature and also a moment of terrible creative writing. Its not polite to say so and few are brave enough to even hint at the hornswoggling of taste. (Taste is automatically denigrated because it is “privilege” to have it and you bet taste makers have always been top dogs and by jinkies they’re university educated and generally white. (Think Rudyard Kipling.)

Taste rises from grass roots as much as the top. James Baldwin didn’t get invited to The MacDowell Colony in 1958 because the folks at Yale understood him. In America there’ve always been sharp readers in the underbrush.

I digress….

For all the sharp readers in the tall grass there are middle brow forces at work—in overdrive.

By this I mean middle brow which actually tends to low brow. Today’s literary reviews are essentially fifth grade book reports—even in the New Yorker. Its enough these days to say what happens in a novel or nonfiction treatment. Maybe toward the conclusion the ersatz reviewer will say: “I do with we’d heard more from Hitler’s chauffeur…”

So today’s mainstream creative writing is mostly TV pap and the reviewing industry is largely dead.

There are superb novels being written in our midst but you’ll seldom hear of them unless you read the Times Literary Supplement.

Meanwhile we’re forced to read in the NY Times about Knausgaard who’s contentless, talentless naval gazing is passed off as literature.

Min Jin Lee is a terrific novelist.

I don’t say she’s ignored.

I do say we’re awash in awful writing and we’re told to spoon it up.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

On the Probable Death of Empathy

Empathy is an engrossing word. While it means the capacity to understand and share the feelings of others, its Greek origin suggests entering into the emotions of others. The Greeks thought empatheia was sacred. In dramatic terms its absence was viewed as a tragic flaw. With the advent of literacy (“book learnin’” as Huck Finn called it) empathy was reckoned as the ability to imagine what someone feels, a difference, as the Greeks didn’t fully believe in imagination in these terms instead viewing it as a divine prerogative only available to the best minds.

In the modern world (which for argument’s sake starts with Shakespeare) empathy as imagination has been a responsibility of sorts. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Whitman, George Eliot, Grace Paley, Eudora Welty—a long list—each of these writers shouldered a duty to bring forward the buzz and confusion in the minds of outsiders. Beginning with the Elizabethans literary writing is understood as an obligation to reach beyond the self.

With the altogether exciting rise of singular voices in literary publishing, those who speak from singularities—disability, blackness, Native American experience, LGBTQ lives, Asian-American experiences, regionalisms of all kinds—literary empathy is often recast as “cultural appropriation.” It is asserted that no one “not of your neighborhood” should ever ever imagine your life for you. There’ve been many brouhahas recently about writers who are believed to be transgressors, who willfully seized the interiority of human beings not of their own neighborhoods.

As one who hails from a historically marginalized position I believe this febrile, literary neighborhood watch is both understandable and fatal.

I’m a blind poet and I loathe Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel All the Light We Cannot See. Doerr presents a blind teenager, a girl, as helpless to the point of needing to be bathed by her father. Since Doerr makes her blindness vaguely interesting, allowing some flashes from her point of view many non-disabled readers flipped for the book.

From a disability POV Doerr extends damaging stereotypes—her inability to bathe, her half- prophetic intelligence—are junk. Many in the disability community have cited the book for “cultural appropriation” a position I fully grasp. Doerr uses blindness as a literary device to advance his plot, Within the field of Disability Studies this is called “narrative prosthesis.”

Does the novel really do damage to the blind? Who knows. The blind are 70% unemployed in the United States. We’re imagined as quasi-helpless, burdensome. Doerr plays into this. He does present her as having an inner life. Big whoop! I’m citing him for a failure of empathy. He cannot steal my culture.

This is the crux of the matter: talented writers can enter effectively into the lives of others, even people who aren’t situated precisely next door. For my money one of the most effective portrayals of disability in all of literature was written by Toni Morrison. In her novel Sula she puts readers inside the head of Shadrack, a World War I veteran suffers from PTSD and has been released prematurely from a veterans hospital. He can’t order his mind or control his hands. He’s seen brains flying in the air. She writes at first of his experience in the ward:

“When Shadrack opened his eyes he was propped up in a small bed. Before him on a tray was a large tin plate divided into three triangles. In one triangle was rice, in another meat, and in the third stewed tomatoes. A small round depression held a cup of whitish liquid. Shadrack stared at the soft colors that filled these triangles: the lumpy whiteness of rice, the quivering blood tomatoes, the grayish-brown meat. All their repugnance was contained in the neat balance of the triangles—a balance that soothed him, transferred some of its equilibrium to him. Thus reassured that the white, the red and the brown would stay where they were—would not explode or burst forth from their restricted zones—he suddenly felt hungry and looked around for his hands. His glance was cautious at first, for he had to be very careful—anything could be anywhere. Then he noticed two lumps beneath the beige blanket on either side of his hips. With extreme care he lifted one arm and was relieved to find his hand attached to his wrist. He tried the other and found it also. Slowly he directed one hand toward the cup and, just as he was about to spread his fingers, they began to grow in higgledy-piggledy fashion like Jack’s beanstalk all over the tray and the bed. With a shriek he closed his eyes and thrust his huge growing hands under the covers. Once out of sight they seemed to shrink back to their normal size. But the yell had brought a male nurse.

“Private? We’re not going to have any trouble today, are we? Are we, Private?””

Later, out in the world, alone, without assistance, we see him on a country road:

“Once on the road, he headed west. The long stay in the hospital had left him weak—too weak to walk steadily on the gravel shoulders of the road. He shuffled, grew dizzy, stopped for breath, started again, stumbling and sweating but refusing to wipe his temples, still afraid to look at his hands. Passengers in dark, square cars shuttered their eyes at what they took to be a drunken man.

The sun was already directly over his head when he came to a town. A few blocks of shaded streets and he was already at its heart—a pretty, quietly regulated downtown.

Exhausted, his feet clotted with pain, he sat down at the curbside to take off his shoes. He closed his eyes to avoid seeing his hands and fumbled with the laces of the heavy high-topped shoes. The nurse had tied them into a double knot, the way one does for children, and Shadrack, long unaccustomed to the manipulation of intricate things, could not get them loose. Uncoordinated, his fingernails tore away at the knots. He fought a rising hysteria that was not merely anxiety to free his aching feet; his very life depended on the release of the knots. Suddenly without raising his eyelids, he began to cry. Twenty-two years old, weak, hot, frightened, not daring to acknowledge the fact that he didn’t even know who or what he was…with no past, no language, no tribe, no source, no address book, no comb, no pencil, no clock, no pocket handkerchief, no rug, no bed, no can opener, no faded postcard, no soap, no key, no tobacco pouch, no soiled underwear and nothing nothing nothing to do…he was sure of one thing only: the unchecked monstrosity of his hands. He cried soundlessly at the curbside of a small Midwestern town wondering where the window was, and the river, and the soft voices just outside the door…

Through his tears he saw the fingers joining the laces, tentatively at first, then rapidly. The four fingers of each hand fused into the fabric, knotted themselves and zigzagged in and out of the tiny eyeholes.

By the time the police drove up, Shadrack was suffering from a blinding headache, which was not abated by the comfort he felt when the policemen pulled his hands away from what he thought was a permanent entanglement with his shoelaces. They took him to jail, booked him for vagrancy and intoxication, and locked him in a cell. Lying on a cot, Shadrack could only stare helplessly at the wall, so paralyzing was the pain in his head. He lay in this agony for a long while and then realized he was staring at the painted-over letters of a command to fuck himself. He studied the phrase as the pain in his head subsided.”

Morrison’s portrayal of Shadrack is pure empathy and is a demonstration of literary writing at its finest. I won’t quibble about a non-disabled writer entering into the thoughts and torments of a wounded veteran. I can’t. The disabled need all the allies they can get. When a novelist as talented as Morrison turns her attention to a man with shell shock, who has no language for his experience, who cannot control his hands, then she is employing art in the service of a greater appreciation of tragedy and difference for every reader. This is empathy at its best. Its stunning.

I don’t believe in cultural appropriation. I think non disabled writers can write brilliantly about disability experience. They need to do their homework—talk to real blind people, true cripples, what have you.

The term cultural appropriation must never detract writers from the brilliant art of literary empathy.

I don’t want to live in the age when empathy died.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Book Reflection: Autistic Disturbances by Julia Rodas

By Ralph James Savarese

It’s a rare day when someone publishes a book in the subfield that only you and a few other scholars work in. The University of Michigan Press has just released Julia Rodas’s Autistic Disturbances: Theorizing Autism Poetics from the DSM to Robinson Crusoe (with a fine preface by Melanie Yergeau). It’s an important book that makes significant contributions to the study of autistic language in the humanities and, in particular, literature. For one thing, it adds to the project of critique that is at the core of critical autism studies, aggressively countering the impulse to pathologize neurological difference. It does so by ingeniously revealing the extent to which literature, a prized form of cultural expression, relies heavily on linguistic features that, in another context—namely, medicine and science—are marshalled to demonstrate impairment in autism. As Rodas writes in the introduction, “This book recognizes echoes, tones, patterns and confluences between autistic language, which is typically devalued…, and language used in culturally valued literary texts.” “Pointing to the existence of an autistic expressive fingerprint,” she seeks to give autistic utterances, like a pair of scuffed shoes, a new contextual shine.

Rodas begins by presenting the writings of Elaine C. These writings, one of “the earliest published expressions of a professionally recognized autist,” appear in Leo Kanner’s landmark 1943 study, whose title, “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact,” Rodas redeploys to great effect.
“Dinosaurs don’t cry”; “Crayfish, sharks, fish and rocks”; “Crayfish and forks
live in children’s tummies”; “Butterflies live in children’s stomachs, and in
their panties, too”; “Fish have sharp teeth and bite little children”; “There is
war in the sky”; “Rocks and crags, I will kill” …; “Gargoyles bite children and
drink oil”; “I will crush old angle worms, he bites children” …; “Gargoyles have
milk bags”; “Needle head. Pink wee-wee. Has a yellow leg. Cutting the dead
deer. Poison deer. “Poor Elaine. No tadpoles in the house. Men broke deer’s
leg” …; “Tigers and cats”; “Seals and salamanders”; “Bears and foxes.”
This young woman’s language not only disturbs but also “challenges ordinary communicative expectations,” Rodas claims. “It repeats and ricochets, suggesting a potential listener beyond the clinical recorder.” Elaine’s words are “striking and forceful and beautifully, queerly concentrated…, a profound achievement of repetition, order and chaos.” In short, they are much more like a modernist (or postmodernist) poem than ostensibly pointless, solipsistic babble.

And yet, the focus of Rodas’s book isn’t such utterances themselves. As she says explicitly, “My project asks not about autistic authorship, but about autistic text, and it imagines autistic voice as a widespread and influential aesthetic, with distinctive patterns of expression…running through an array of texts, sometimes broadly visible and in other instances as a fine thread.” Rodas wisely avoids the rather common, and perversely diagnostic, gesture of finding autistic characters in literature or of sniffing out autistic proclivities in authors. Instead, she fixes her attention on the way that literature behaves, the way that it eschews strictly utilitarian forms of communication in favor of something more indirect, formally resonant, and mischievous. The effect of her argument is less to undermine a sense of autistic identity (either neurological or cultural)—she’s not saying that anyone can be autistic—than to establish a correspondence between distinctive orientations to language. And so, we’re treated to marvelously inventive and subtle readings of Andy Warhol’s The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to Be and Back Again, Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and poems by Raymond Carver, David Antin, and Georges Perec. Even the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is found to be autistic, what with its commitment to—nay, its perseverative obsession with—listing and systematizing.

The significance of this move—showing that nearly every purported defect in autistic language use finds its corrective match in literature—cannot be overstated. For more than a decade, I have been arguing in my own work that literature, especially poetry, constitutes a kind of linguistic haven, a place of neurocosmopolitan hospitality, and I have devoted myself to teaching creative writing to aspiring autistic writers.1 Yet even more important than such training is the book’s implicit recognition that autistics bring the literary to everyday linguistic encounters. I will never forget my autistic son, DJ, typing one afternoon on his text-to-voice synthesizer, “Why don’t you all [meaning, nonautistics] use language creatively when you’re doing simple things?” He meant, for example, asking for a glass of water or reporting on the day’s events. He found most neurotypical language flat and boring, without any sensuous appeal. (Literature for neurotypicals is like a zoo—the literary kept largely in its effete cage.) If DJ wanted a glass of water when he was young, he was apt to say something like, “Thirst floats in the tiny aquarium” or “Tongue tongue tongue needs a bath.”

Imagine if medical professionals were compelled to read Rodas’s Autistic Disturbances, if training in literary study could improve patient-doctor encounters, to say nothing of parent-child or teacher-student encounters. Listen to how Rita Charon explains the value of “narrative medicine”:
What narrative medicine offers…is a disciplined and deep set of conceptual
frameworks—mostly from literary studies, and especially from narratology—
that give us theoretical means to understand why acts of doctoring are not
unlike acts of reading, interpreting and writing and how such things as reading
fiction and writing ordinary narrative prose about our patients help to make
us better doctors. By examining medical practices in the light of robust
narrative theories, we begin to be able to make new sense of the genres of
medicine, the telling situations that obtain, say, at attending rounds, the ethics
that bind the teller to the listener in the office, and of the events of illness
themselves.
Charon presumes a (largely) neurotypical patient, but we don’t have to, and her focus is narrative. We might speak of poetic medicine and imagine similar reforms. As Dora Raymaker and Christina Nicolaidis have demonstrated repeatedly, access to adequate healthcare continues to be a significant problem for autistics. Appropriately trained, a doctor might know how to receive a remark such as Elaine C.’s “Butterflies live in children’s stomachs, and in their panties, too.” Is the girl referring to anxiety, which is a huge challenge in autism? Or maybe to puberty and the changes it brings? She does refer, after all, to “pink wee-wee.” What if the doctor’s opening gambit were something like:
Thou spark of life that wavest wings of gold,
Thou songless wanderer mid the songful birds,
With Nature’s secrets in thy tints unrolled
Through gorgeous cipher, past the reach of words,
Yet dear to every child
In glad pursuit beguiled,
Living his unspoiled days mid flowers and flocks and herds!2

Or even better, this poem by the above poet’s now infinitely more famous and reclusive correspondent:

A Bird, came down the Walk – 
He did not know I saw –
He bit an Angle Worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw, 
 
And then, he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass –
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass –
 
He glanced with rapid eyes,
That hurried all abroad –
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought,
He stirred his Velvet Head. – 
 
Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers, 
And rowed him softer Home –
 
Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,
Leap, plashless as they swim.3 

Autistic Disturbances is a splendid book, but I would be remiss if I didn’t quibble with something. (That, after all, is what academics do!) Rodas is far too defensive about her decision to focus on classic literary works instead of autistic memoirs. Anxiety about identity politics, about appropriating autism, finding it everywhere but in the published works of autistic authors, compels her to mount a number of less than credible justifications for her decision. At one point, she claims, “So much autism memoir presents a strangely nonautistic vibe.” She sweeps aside a long and varied list of autistic life writers with arguments about market expectations (“the requirements of publishing”) and a push toward normalcy (“rhetorical colonization”). “Geared as the genre is to audiences that are overwhelmingly neurotypical and vetted by publishers with an interest in commercial sales, autistic autobiography,” Rodas argues, “typically adopts surprisingly commonplace rhetoric and language, effectively translating autistic experience and identity into largely conventional terms.”

I would strenuously object to this sweeping generalization, even as I concede the impact of these very real pressures. The work of Tito Mukhopadhyay, Dawn Prince, Donna Williams, Larry Bissonnette, and Ido Kedar, to name just a few autistic writers, is more than sufficiently autistic to shoulder the search for literary autism. Prince and Williams, two authors whom Rodas explicitly dismisses, may not line up perfectly with the rhetorical features that she emphasizes, but they evince others—others that I would foreground, such as a wild lyricism and a deeply synesthetic understanding of distinction and relation. Moreover, both Prince and Williams, after finding initial commercial success with their first books, went on to write subsequent books that were published by smaller, independent presses. These books are quite quirky and literary.

One real danger in claiming that autistic memoir isn’t autistic enough is that it leaves no room for autistic development, for complete immersion in the world. According to this framework, either you’re Elaine C. or Richard M., linguistic spectacles deprived of an education and accorded no life opportunities (let alone civil rights), or you’re Raymond Carver or Daniel DeFoe, recognized artists. The cost of what I call a neurocosmopolitan or (hyrbrid) identity can’t be the loss of “autistic voice” or, worse, a devastating, socially imposed “aloneness.” We’re all acculturated. Nonautistic poets lose the elastic language of childhood and then, as adults, recover some portion of it in their work. Better to imagine, for those autistics who seek to be writers, the possibility of capitalizing on a potential literary advantage. Otherwise, we’re practicing a romantic and uncritical primitivism.

And anyway, I’m not convinced that autistics entirely lose their linguistic difference when they’re included in life and publishing. Once, in the midst of an interview with Tito Mukhopadhyay, I spoke of his fondness for the trope of personification, and he forcefully interrupted me, typing, “It shall be called pan-psychism by me!” He rejected the easy domestication of his vital engagement with non-human entities. It wasn’t a conceit, or, rather, his conceits were so much more than mere conceits. When I looked more closely at his work, I realized that I had reduced what I read to what was familiar to me. Said another way, Mukhopadhyay was simply using the tools at hand, the way someone fluent in a second language might use them: with great skill but also with a difference.

One final quibble. Rodas’s chosen texts—she says that she could have picked other ones—have the unfortunate effect of reinforcing the idea that autism is a “white” disorder. She analyzes no works by writers of color. An ungenerous reading of Autistic Disturbances might claim that a universal “autistic voice” is speaking here—universal, as in a privileged white voice that includes everyone while elevating itself and effacing all difference. Yet that critique would be unfair, or at least incomplete. Rodas hasn’t worked out the implications of a transhistorical autistic “fingerprint.” Does neurology trump culture and all other identity positions? Does it trump unique literary traditions? She’s generalizing about autism, and she’s generalizing about literature: each marks a linguistic departure from the norm, and each seems to reflect the other. The next step, in this tremendously illuminating project, is to introduce the concept of intersectionality. How might autism interact with the myriad other pressures and influences to which it is subjected? And how might we welcome that interaction?

1See “What Some Autistics Can Teach Us about Poetry: A Neurocosmopolitan Approach,” https://www.academia.edu/6347978/What_Some_Autistics_Can_Teach_Us_about_Poetry_A_Neurocosmopolitan_Approach?auto=download; see “I Object: Autism, Empathy, and the Trope of Personification,”
https://www.academia.edu/6428705/I_Object_Autism_Empathy_and_the_Trope_of_Personification; see “The Critic as Neurocosmopolite: What Cognitive Approaches to Literature Can Learn from Disability Studies,” https://www.academia.edu/7788443/_The_Critic_as_Neurocosmopolite_Or_What_Cognitive_Approaches_to_Literature_Can_Learn_from_Disability_Studies_Lisa_Zunshine_in_Conversation_with_Ralph_James_Savarese_Narrative_2014_.

2“Ode to a Butterfly,” Thomas Wentworth Higginson

3”A Bird, Came Down the Walk,” Emily Dickinson

Ralph James Savarese
Grinnell College

Ralph James Savarese is the author of Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption and the coeditor of three collections, including the first on the concept of neurodiversity. In October, Duke University Press will publish his new book, See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor.