What the Imagination is For: Reflections on Boyhood Cruelty

I make jokes like most people. When I was young I made some cruel jokes as I was bullied for my disability and I looked for children more vulnerable than I was in order to humiliate them and gain a modicum of status. Status is a fragile thing when you’re twelve years old. Having it or not depends on the temporary love of brutish schoolmates and in my case gaining this required art. I remain ashamed of the story I’m about to tell. I make no excuses. If being a blind kid in public school was rough, if I was pushed down stairs, if my glasses were stolen, if I was targeted with nicknames, well so what? I was clever and desperate.

I picked out a kid who sat next to me in math class. His name was Norman and that was bad enough. But he was also gangly, awkward, ill at ease in his skin–just like me. Talk about Carl Jung’s “shadow”–I saw in him everything I hated about myself. He wore maladjusted spectacles and had uncombable hair. There was really nothing wrong with him. It didn’t matter. I could see he was defenseless. He stammered slightly. He was shy. He became my target.

What did I do, you ask? I made him legendary. I drew cartoons depicting him as an ostrich boy with a bird’s body, a periscope neck and a wide grinning face and I named this creature “Normanure.” I even made fun of his stammer with a cartoon bubble that said “Duh!” Though I could scarcely see I could draw serviceably and quickly. I plastered Normanure all over the school. This ugly episode lasted about a week before a school official caught me sticking a cartoon on a bulletin board. But here’s what I recall most vividly. Before being apprehended for assholery Norman himself accosted me and rather than punching me out he asked the most basic and fair question anyone can ask his tormentor: “Why are you doing this?”

I couldn’t answer him. I slunk away. I had no language to describe the starved mice eating my nervous system or my shame at being blind or my terror when thinking about how I might live. I was dehumanizing a perfectly good person.

That was fifty years ago. I remain sorry to this day. And the terrible ugliness of online trolling; the name calling spurred on by the current putative president; the sorrows of people with disabilities who are still largely unemployed and unappreciated–these are never far from my thoughts. And no, I can’t expiate my miniature “Lord of the Flies” moment with a blog post. Nor can I tell you that nowadays I’m an exemplary man. But I do believe in emotional candor and ethics of care. I’m alarmed by all the big bodied twelve year olds I see in the public square. But I’m alarmed also by the knowledge that my insecurities can produce cruelty. It is altogether proper to know what the imagination is really for.

On Being the Only Cripple at the Arts Colony

Over a number of years I’ve had the fortune to be housed and fed at places that are devoted to promoting the arts and one should acknowledge fortune is a neutral word for anything that occurs is a matter of luck for good or ill. I’m not the bite the hand that feeds me type. My work has been assisted greatly by residencies at arts colonies both well known and up and coming places. This past summer I spent four and a half weeks at The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, a beautiful and legendary place for artists of all kinds. It was my fourth visit to the colony and I will never say a bad thing about the work of MacDowell or its extraordinary-staff.


But something happened to me while I was housed at MacDowell that’s left me pondering what it means to be a disabled artist. Frankly I felt more and more alone. I was the blind guy with the lovely dog. The important conversations were about diversity and while these dinner dialogues were good, I found whenever I suggested the disabled are intersectional figures where issues of identity and human rights are concerned I was treated as a quaint and colorful tinker who makes quirky shoes.

Now being lonesome at an arts colony is an interesting thing. After all you’re not there to be a gadfly and getting your work done in a quiet and nurturing space is what the whole thing is about. I got work done. I wrote in my woodland cabin. I took thoughtful walks with my dog.

I felt like a curiosity rather than a figure of acceptance. I was the only disabled artist there. I’m often the only disabled person in a whole variety of settings. Why was this summer at MacDowell different?

The casual ableism of the other artists was part of the problem. Blindness and deafness and intellectual disability turned up frequently as pejorative terms in casual conversations. I lost my temper one evening explaining to a young writer that the “r” word isn’t acceptable when talking about people with intellectual disabilities.

What was different is my age. I’m too old for ableist nonsense and too tired to care that I’m the outlier.

But wouldn’t it be nice of the best arts colonies actually had disability months? Frankly I could use dome creative and progressive conversation about embodiment and imagination.

And yes, a few ripping good laughs.

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.

Claiming Identity and the Disability Rain Check

I claim my disability identity. I’m proud to be disabled. Out of my way you! I’ll whack you with my cane! (I’ve done so, poking dopey dudes with my stick.) What else? I claimed my difference but I’m still damaged goods on the customary street; in the ordinary shop; the classroom; airport…

My “claim” is like a rain check. I went to the ball game but the game didn’t happen. Pride at being disabled is critically important to my self esteem. But the game, that inclusive, engaging, pastime—the American pastime—it doesn’t get played. I have a ticket. That’s all.

The ADA is my ticket. It is a beautiful ticket. I carry it with me like the letter from the eye doctor when I was in graduate school—the one that said I needed extra time for reading. Some people read that letter and understood it. Others were dismissive. Sherman Paul, a once upon a time famous professor of avant garde poetry at the University of Iowa told me I shouldn’t be in his class if I took longer to read.

I claim my disability identity. There’s always a Sherman Paul just waiting to tell me to screw myself. I wave my ADA ticket. But the ballgame doesn’t happen.

I long for something greater than my identity vs. yours. I want a collective push for human rights. What a Marxist nostalgia I have!

Identity claim check in hand I wait for the other identity groups to say I belong.

As I get older I realize I won’t live to see the progressive coalition I imagined.

But the day I claimed my identity was a beautiful one. The wine was good. The music was loud. The weather was very fine.

At least I was on the street.

Disability by Any Other Name

I’ve been disabled all my life and I hate the term. Beneath it, like Poe’s tell tale heart, is the pulse of loss. The “d” word is Karl Marx’s term: a 19th century mark for injured workers. It originally meant the lack of utility or earning power owing to a broken body. I prefer to be called a citizen.

That I’m a blind citizen should matter not at all. Did you know that blindness is nothing more than being born left handed? Disability is a false name which pulses underneath us and continues to cause human beings with diverse bodies terrible harm.

Of course there are cutesy efforts to fix the d word like putting the “dis” in parentheses to emphasize ability. This has always seemed to me like putting antlers on a cat. Diversions are seldom more than gestures and unless you’re using sign language gestures don’t mean much. Most if not all disabled will agree we’ve had enough of gestures.

The d word can’t describe me or the hundreds of d people I know. My band is made up of practical men, women, and children who have imaginations, wisdoms, loves, sorrows, tastes, and ambitions. For them the d is a horse collar—outdated, heavy. No one needs a horse collar anymore. Blind I’m disabled by the idea I’ve nothing to give. Disabled I’m doubly blind—not seeing becomes figurative worthlessness.

Citizen is better. I’d like my value to be understood as a matter of the hive. And yes, “value” is another tell tale heart. Value for whom? What does value mean? Why should the tax payer pay for a kid with Down syndrome to go to school?

Hitler called the disabled “useless eaters” to suggest the state shouldn’t support the unproductive. The presumption of competence, that the disabled have potential can’t co-exist in a purely industrial and essentialized vision of human bodies. It’s a terrifying vision. The d word is outworn, dangerous, and like the horse collar above, unsuited to a century when work itself is being reexamined.

I believe the future of work will involve more and more autonomous systems—robotics, driverless cars, supply chains that are fully automated. What will work mean for humans? It’s possible that deconstructing the d word will be important for everyone. Or it already is.

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 

The Blind Eyes are Lonely Hunters: My Life in Higher Education

1.

They come late. They had some way to travel. The blind eyes enter a room. Sighted colleagues have read all the reports before them. And the man with the blind eyes sits down. Accessible materials are not provided. The others call him “professor” though it means little. He’s without info like a cat without whiskers; like a ghost without living people to haunt; a ballplayer without a glove. Now in his early sixties he comprehends how improbable his professional life really is. He’s not meant to be here. He’s been told so all his days.

Nevertheless…

He reads everything he needs to. Since the committee never gives him the materials in advance he must read the agenda and the report while everyone else has already digested them. In this way he is sub-literate and it proves their point, their implicit bias for atopic literacy is questionable. Reading differently, slowly, after the fact, from the margins, why that isn’t reading at all.

2.

That he’s lonely in the academy is unquestionable. Because he studied poetry in his youth he knows a good deal about loneliness and understands its spiritual and secular effects. He loves Jesus for his brave solitudes and his sacrificial acceptance of pain. That Christ never abandoned empathy, never unclenched the burning rose of love, he keeps in mind always.
But he’s lonely as a lost shoe, like a fish still respiring in ice. He’s a bird flying underground.
You see, he did study poetry. Analogies are his anodyne. He’s lonely as the rains arriving on time.

3.

Poetry, the writing of it, the study of it, was for him a reasonable accommodation. If he couldn’t read forty books in a semester he could read three poems well. He knew the smell of rotting pears and why it broke Goethe’s heart. He understood why Byzantine louts secretly hated their libraries. He saw in the Codex Sinaiticus proof of the inalienable wisdom that we’re small. We are very very small.

Human beings are questions asked of another question. Yeats: “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

As his eyes will never grow sharper he will open to magics.

More Yeats:

“Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”

4.

So poetry was my first educational accommodation. And a beautiful irony it is, for poetry is not reasonable at all.

Tone ex nihilo.

I’m familiar with all those songs that start from nothing.

5.

I am a senior faculty member with a distinguished professorship at Syracuse University. I’m also conditional in the agora. Just two weeks ago a man who I assume was a professor, for he had the angular characteristic gestures of privileged catastrophe, came unbidden into my personal space (such a lovely modernist, cosmopolitan conceit, personal space) and told me that by not picking up my guide dog’s feces I was “antisocial”—which is of course confirmation bias at best, and unsympathetic gibbering at worst—but either way, it was snowing hard, I had no idea where a trash can might be, and who in their right mind picks on a blind person?

I’m contingent on my campus. Alright. Alright. I know all about the first handwritten manuscript in a Slavic tongue. Old Finn Vainamoinen is my secret friend. I know how to enter and leave the guts of dead shamans and steal their secrets.

6.

There’s a tremendous freedom to the imagination. Though I’m often not welcome in academic environs (insisting on accessible web pages; inclusive software; descriptive videos; braille signage ((of which Syracuse has very little))) demanding my dignity; I know all about the cuneiform implications of sharp edged shadows and all their ironic and skeptical intelligences.
Around me everything is alive.

All my poetic currencies stay at the right rate.

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