The Confessions of Arnold the Ableist

Chapter One

I gave a nickel to a cripple and then I walked away. “Nickel, cripple, nickel, cripple,” I thought. I gave nothing to the blind man I met in the next street. “Nothing, blind,” I thought, “these also go together.” Then I stepped in some dog shit. I knew it was disabled people who did this.

Chapter Two

I don’t mind if a cripple sits next to me on the bus—I’m sitting in their reserved space after all and I’m “Normal” but I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one. Their art is barbarous and you must admit, they smell.

Chapter Three

O rodomontade! It’s a crippley-wippley world! Look! Here comes one with some kind of breathing apparatus! I’d like to rip it right our of her mouth and take that smug look off her face! They all think they’re so “special!” Alright, yes, I admit, as a boy I used to hurt animals, but never the big ones.

Chapter Four

You wouldn’t know it, but I’m a university professor. I mean, what with my habits of dress you wouldn’t recognize me. I wear tight jeans and radical tee shirts. But it bugs the shit out of me when the namby pamby LD students and those sightless ones enroll in my classes. I get up on my fictive high horse (named “Trigger” of course) and ride wildly around the campus big top snarling at deans and admissions flunkies. I can’t decide whether the disabled or the deans are more pitiable!

Chapter Five

O dear. I broke my coccyx at a garden party when I attempted to sit on a folding chair and it collapsed beneath me. You can’t imagine the pain I’m in. I’ll tell you all about it for another gin fizz.

Please Mister, Stop Appropriating the Poor Cripples, Or, “The Blind Girl’s Sponge”

1.

A new novel appears; gets lots of praise; about a man who suffers a facial deformity and whatever passes for his inner life is destroyed. You guessed it: the author isn’t disabled. But he’s used a tried and true formula: deform a character and you can cover up your own literary deficiencies. Or nearly. Kafka understood this but his grotesqueries were about capitalism and not about individuals.

2.

In the airports, train stations, public byways, strangers approach and say unbidden things to me owing to my blindness. “I had a dog once,” they’ll say. Or: “I knew a blind girl once.” When I”m feeling charitable I think of their loneliness and let the intrusive moment go. When I’m more vituperative I’ll say anything to get out of the situation. “What dog?” I’ll say. Or: “I don’t like blind people.”

3.

You can only appropriate people you don’t understand. Notice I didn’t say, “insufficiently understand” because even maladroit and speculative thinking is better than incurious meddling. And that’s what ableist appropriation of disability is. Anthony Doerr has written a wholly fraudulent disabled character in his award winning novel “All the Light We Cannot See” (a title so stupid “that” alone should have killed it.) His charming blind girl can’t bathe herself though she’s something like fourteen. Her father (who is the author of course) has to help her. I think Doerr should have called the novel “The Blind Girl’s Sponge.”

4.

Now women writers do their own incurious meddling. There’s currently a very popular woman poet who writes of “grotesques” with enough whimsey to satisfy the ableist appetites of the creative writing academy. While I”m at it, let’s be clear that writers who hail from every kind of background write ableist junk. Feeling unimaginative? Just throw in a cripple or two. Two cripples will always be better than one. Beckett understood.

5.

“What’s the problem?” you say? “They’re just books.” You’re right. And Philip Larkin was right: “books are a load of crap.” And there’s more than one problem anyway. But Robinson Crusoe and Friday represent the unassailable comfort of appropriative culture. Novels are seldom progressivist. If you can get away with it, have three cripples in your coffee table book.

6.

In her new book “Believing in Shakespeare: Studies in Longing” Claire McEachern writes: “Even among person, plot, and place there exist differing expectations with respect to believability.” Her premise is that believing in characters is essentially a sacramental act. Read her book. It’s excellent. She writes:

“Persons are also found in nature as well as art; we can believe in each other, as well as in literary characters, the former suggesting the trust we confer on another ’ s purpose, the latter trust in an author ’ s conjuration. Sociobiology, anthropomorphism, and the sciences of empathy all suggest that humans are especially susceptible to each other; as philanthropic organizations know, a cause with a face is more difficult to shrug off than one without. 3 Prosopopoeia has long been the rhetorical figure employed to supernatural or political abstractions, endowing them with human-sized motive properties. Stories whose ultimate concern may be systemic or institutional identities or corporate fortunes (e.g., the fate of a nation, a race, or a culture) typically phrase their exempla in the unit of the individual. There is something particular about the person. Perhaps it is easier to believe in a literary person because less belief is required. People are people persons.”

7.

Prosopopoeia is just the thing, the ingredient you need if you want to turn real people into cartoons. Where disability is concerned Shakespeare was also a cultural appropriator. Caliban’s deformities come from Montaigne’s imagined ugly cannibals but no matter, you’ve got stock characters who will obediently and without controversy represent whatever imperial disdain you need to employ.

It has always been my contention that the first fully realized disabled character in Western literature is Melville’s Ahab. And though he’s not likable, he’s complex and understandable.

Which brings me back to my original point: the average ableist writer doesn’t need to know Ahab at all. He or she watches the cartoons.

A Perfectly Level Headed Note Now that I’m 64

I was born on this date 64 years ago. My twin brother died in the next room.
I was born prematurely by three months. I lost my vision in an incubator.
I’m aware that even today there are “bioethicists” who’d argue against my existence.
I know who they are. There are one or two at the university where I teach.
Sometimes I tell myself I know more than I used to. I know that not all Greek infants with disabilities were put out to die on mountains. I know that Oedipus means swollen foot and his story is a perfect disability dumpster fire. I know his story still haunts the blind. I know there are one or two at my university who believe the blind shouldn’t be on campus. Or the lame. Or the mute. They ruin a perfectly good agora. I know these things but care less about them since I know the arc of history bends toward disability justice. I really do believe that. I also know that universities hate hiring the disabled. I believe that will change. I have to believe these things. Tap your shoes together three times Dorothy. Sam Cooke: “A change is gonna come.” And maybe not today. On the other hand….

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 

Of Confirmation Bias and Disability

Confirmation bias is of course universal. The self, whatever it means, assembles a mosaic of preconceived views. Some are descended from the cradle; some from bad teachers. No matter what we say about it CB depends on a lack of comic irony, the inability to probe the limits of one’s customary ideas. I’ve several bad thoughts and they them come from unhappy engagements with a legion of hard hearted able bodied authority figures. Throughout my life from Kindergarten to today I’ve been told my disability is a problem.

So in a spirit of admission, my biggest confirmation bias is that I tend to think most if not all able bodied people are ableists and since I’ve been hurt over and over I anticipate the hurt. This means the open hand of my soul is often empty.

It gets worse. My disability bias absolves me of digging deep both inside myself and “out there” among strangers. I am hereby admitting I can be lazy.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had it with rank and file discrimination against the disabled and I’ll go to my grave decrying it. This isn’t an essay about going soft. This is about the difference between essentialism and soulful ambivalence.

Confirmation bias assures that I’ll go on thinking all white men are racists; all heavy set people are comedians; all able bodied people hate me.

Cultural theorists say, often with muscularity, that confirmation bias is sagacious.

But my grief and yours coincide.

I cannot grow without confronting my pain.

People are scared of disability. They believe without examination in compulsory normativity.

Most people despise their own liberty.

The central tenet of fascism is that all people outside “the party” are miscreants.

Freedom is, in all its beauty, a pursuit which means pain.

I will not participate in minimizing my pain or yours. Not will I adopt a cheap script.

The Blind Whale, Part One

I am inside the blind whale. I should say it isn’t Melville’s whale nor is it Jonah’s brute. The blind whale is made of all the dreams of sighted people occurring now and simultaneously. It is easier to say what the blind whale is not: it isn’t a prospect; it’s not a fortune; it’s not a standard nightmare. It isn’t of the left or of the right.

**

Now is the blind whale distinct from blindness itself? Yes. Genuine blindness is just a fish. A small one. A guppy. It swims in shallows. By distinction the blind whale cannot be seen. It’s a visual man’s phantasm. Or woman’s. Women are also screwed up by the blind whale.

**

Of course sighted people are terrified of blindness but this isn’t that. If the damned blind whale has significance beyond furnishing my roof it must be this: it’s composed of the oneiric afterthoughts of all visual humans. I do not mean repressed fears. Forget Freud and Jung. I mean the dropped car keys and lost buttons in dreams.

**

Petty detail is what the blind whale feasts on. The krill swims straight into the maw. What I mean is “sighted petty” —the blind spot in a rearview mirror.

**

I’m inside a non-fictive creature designed haphazardly by the small frights of the sighted. This is a problem.

**

When reading “Moby Dick” I’m always struck by what Melville doesn’t have to say. For instance he needn’t say that the intricate industrial-scientific butchery of a whale carcass is merely bloody psychoanalysis misunderstood. Nor does he have to say, “always remember what’s under the boat.”

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 Shoes of the Preparation of the Gospel of Peace

Once I dropped a spoon in the snow and when I couldn’t retrieve it I was tempted to view the matter as a comment on my life.

I imagined a balloon-like God who’d seen me groping in snow.

In general it helps to think of God as a Macy’s balloon.

In general one’s groping has no meaning.

Still, poking in shadows is central to blindness.

I search for my shoe in a strange hotel.

Perhaps a sighted person finds the shoe instantly.

I lie on the floor spreading my arms like a diver.

Shoe. No shoe. Shoe of the mind. Platonic.

Fingers scrabbling under the inauspicious bed.

Carl Jung said: The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases.

What of the lost shoe?

Are not all lost shoes equal?

To find a shoe in a foreign hotel.

Eyes evolved for only this…

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