When the Victorians Read Dickens

When the Victorians read Dickens they read for plot and confirmation–they could see their world. When we read Dickens we still read for plot but less for confirmation as we think we are superior to his characters. This is a great mistake. Dickensian sins are fully our own though we’ve one extra: post-modern irony.

I’m thinking of pastiche as Frederic Jameson would say: irony that references itself. Most often it’s mediated consciousness draped with the status conferred by consumer fetishism. Dickens characters were vain or greedy but never so self absorbed they fell into anhedonia.

Most days I read like a Victorian who wants plot and confirmation but also a bit of compassion. I’m also an admirer of Cardinal Newman’s dictum: “We can believe what we choose. We are answerable for what we choose to believe.”

I’m old fashioned that way.

Of Newman I also like: “Nothing would be done at all if one waited until one could do it so well that no one could find fault with it.”


Dear Charles: you pushed your wife into the asylum when you were done with her. You rooted for the American Confederacy. You were silly. You thought Anton Mesmer was on to something.

Dear Kuusisto: and who are you? (Reader, does he get to answer? Does anyone get to answer?)

He tries: “I was half destroyed by war movies. They tried to brain wash me into thinking the good guys always won. I’d no idea that beneath Roy Rogers’ horse was the blood of indigenous people. Man was I tricked. And you can’t get your money back!”

OK. You’ve said who you aren’t but nothing more.

He tries: “I’m a human consciousness growth project lacking some essential vitamins.”

That’s better.

Of Succession and Christopher Lasch

I seldom write about pop culture. I’m a real snob. I think Verdi’s greatest opera is “Don Carlo” and not “La Traviata.” But sometimes I have to stagger out of my Cave of Making and wave a flaming broom.

I think “Succession” is the worst television program in history. The writing is sub-Cartesian—“I don’t think, therefore I don’t exist.” If you have any self respect you should listen to “Don Carlo.”

In fact HBO hasn’t made a good series since “Boardwalk Empire.”

Why should you care what I think? Because I’m a blind writer who has no patience for lousy writing and stage settings that are nothing more than visual porn—which is why I think everything Julian Fellows does is junk. If you don a blindfold and listen to “Downton Abby” you’ll know.

“Succession” is just an explosion in an adderall factory. So why is it so popular? Well for one thing it dramatizes a chief tenet of Christopher Lasch’s “Culture of Narcissism”—

“For all his inner suffering, the narcissist has many traits that make for success in bureaucratic institutions, which put premium on the manipulation of interpersonal relations, discourage the formation of deep personal attachments, and at the same time provide the narcissist with the approval he needs in order to validate his self-esteem.”

That’s the best summary of “Succession” you’ll find.

The Age of the Great Symphonies

A good poet said “the age of the great symphonies is over now” and he imagined the once played notes coming down as rain. It was a good line, written after the second world war. Despair can convince us of things that are wholly wrong. But what if we say “the age of the great symphonies is just beginning now”? What happens when we not only embrace the future but invite it into our souls? I heard all kinds of music this morning walking in my John Cage bird filled neighborhood. What happens now? What happens? This is more than a fanciful question. It’s a moral imperative in disguise.

What a Good Life

Deep in the night and half awake I hear apple branches sway in a light breeze. What a good life. I think of Shakespeare toasting his actors in the Anchor pub where I too have toasted others. What a good life. I get up early and walk in a gentle rain. Laugh. Think of Hegel. “Only one man ever understood me, and he didn’t understand me.” A good life. And how good my shoes feel. Hegel: “History is not the soil in which happiness grows. The periods of happiness in it are the blank pages of history.” These blank page sneakers. A good life. Water in a cup.

Rain in Spring

So I’ve now broken a cheap thing,
A plastic corkscrew—nothing to fret about—
But I’m sorry for it, like Paracelsus
Who apologized to lead.
The morning spreads out like a cloak.
My friend “M” has been dead one year.
I’m finding no book can amuse me.
I don’t like the telephone.

What is this? I want to cry
Like a child at the movies.
I don’t know my neighbors names.
I haven’t visited my parents graves
For a decade and like a boy
I wonder if they know.
They must, if god flows
Through the small things
Though I’m close to seventy
And suspect I’ve grown simple.
See my eyes welling up
At cracked plastic
As the windows darken.


Back in the day I put my face against the radio and it was warm. My eyes felt good there, pressed to the Bakelite cabinet. Tchaikovsky, “Swan Lake” and my aching face were relieved by tubes and magnets. Adults thought I had a small life, being a cripple, hugging the Philco. True life is a private business like dowsing for water. I had hot birds in my eyes.

Weather Picture

It wasn’t much. A scrap of paper. A dropped thing from the terrible world. The walls were oscillating the way they do when spring has arrived. Later in life he’d see how even the smallest items are an inheritance. But on the day he found the torn paper he was free and rather light as befitted a small boy who was legally blind and couldn’t read what he’d found yet he put it in his pocket. He was already in love with guesswork. And other things happened. In the woods fir trees swayed and cones rained down. A dog barked from a great distance. Those were good times. Everything was far away. It took no strength to be at rest. All around him light lay on the humid earth.

One of My Bodies is Gone

Robert Bly

Reading in Fall Rain

The fields are black once more.
The old restlessness is going.
I reach out with open arms
to pull in the black fields.

All morning rain has fallen
steadily on the roof.
I feel like a butterfly
joyful in its powerful cocoon.

I break off reading:
one of my bodies is gone!
It’s outdoors, walking
swiftly away in the rain!

I get up and look out.
Sure enough, I see
the rooster lifting his legs
high in the wet grass.


Let’s dare to say reading—whether blind reading, autistic, deaf, fully sighted, up river, in the hold of a ship—let’s say the act is synchronous as the poet Robert Bly suggests; and let’s say that synchronicity has to do with the leveraging of words, the Archimedean words, for each noun is an object in the mind and chances are excellent that the reader was not thinking of a pearl handled walking stick before he encounters it in a sentence; and so this is a violence like all the violences of the psyche; we are betrayed in mind; changed; affirmed; perhaps allowed a revery; maybe sickened; occasionally tickled—but we are not in our usual frames when, as Bly suggests, we “break off” reading for now our mind is not what we supposed and moreover our bodies are transformed, and in the case above, the poet sees that one of his bodies is gone. Think of this: we have several bodies. Poets know this. Painters. Dancers. Jazz trumpeters. Why don’t the behaviorists who preach about autism understand this? I’ll suggest they read the wrong stuff.

One of my bodies is gone! Then Bly sees a rooster lifting his legs. The private day is now a public one. Nature is the book and the body. No sensible poet presumes to speak for nature.
One of my bodies is gone! The poet has written these words: “ecstatic blue stone” and the body I began the day “in” (some stoical, foolishly small and practical Lutheran grandmother’s body which I’ve inherited) that body is now holding the blue stone my father brought home from Beirut some sixty years ago—the evil eye—which I carried in my pocket for years to ward off schoolyard bullies who made fun of my blindness. The blue of that stone way joyful and it had no reaction to its putative name. We read things not for what we imagine them to be, but really reading, reading deeply, reading with our antennae out, we know the forgotten treasure colors in things and yes, one of our bodies has walked away to become springy in the grass.
If you’re alert enough all reading is asynchronous, multi-phasic, transmogrifying and inviting as it brings us into the unassuming world.

One of my bodies is gone! Once, walking alone in Venice with my guide dog, I played a game, reading the rough doors of strange houses as if they were Braille books, reading the happenstance aleatoric script of rain and wind. One or two strangers thought I was lost and offered to help. I told them I was reading books. They ran away. In their world I was a blind, crazy foreigner. Inside, where “the meanings are” as Emily Dickinson would say, I was hopping in the garden of particulate bodies, ones we can no longer see, but which have never left.

This is not, as you might suppose, just a fanciful way of being. I cannot see your face. I’m freed from the causal and casual inherent in every social encounter. I assure you I’m not in the least sentimental. I’m no Tiresias imbued with prophecy; no Finnish wizard who talks easily to the dead. I just read. And then, you guessed it, one of my bodies is gone!

Wallace Stevens said famously “reality is a cliche from which we escape by metaphor.” I’d say this is true but Stevens is too proleptic—he imagines we can plan what the metaphor will do for us, or at least I take him that way. Escape is the wrong word. One of my bodies is gone! It left because I was reading and an agate perhaps a hundred years old found in a market in Lebanon took the morning time body away just as Bly says this happens.

One of my bodies is gone and there’s no normal reading. To believe so is to imagine reader reception is dis-embodied; cemented; too Latinate for the outdoors.

One of my bodies is gone! Which ones are left? Too many to count.

Here are the things I’m not saying. I do not believe in normative reading, hence, I don’t believe that yoga is a kind of schizophrenia—when one of my bodies is gone because I read about chasing tigers in red weather, then so be it, one of my bodies is gone and I’m the better for it. It will come home again though changed. All the multiple multi-form bodies are oceanic as is language itself.

I’m not saying as the great hermeneutical scholar of metaphor would say that you can find a rule or ruling class about the matter. You see, there’s a chicken walking away while hold your book in my hands.

One of my bodies is gone.

It rings like a bell in a far village.

The Fights Before Us…

And yet…the fights before us are promising to be both rewarding and very hard.

I am a writer who speaks about the importance of disability as a dynamic of power which means I believe cripples are at the center of life itself. Perhaps another way to say this is that life is imperfection regardless of whatever Richard Dawkins might say. (Dawkins understands DNA as a purity symbol rather than a concatenation of genetic mistakes.) (One may think of Dawkins and all social Darwinists this way.) (It is altogether splendid to see Jeremy Bentham taxidermed with his head down by his feet.)

Disability is life itself. Not an idea about life; not a held breath and a prayer; not a shrug or shudder. As the poet Marvin Bell once put it, life will blow you apart. I’m often in the position of urging the temporarily normal to admit that life is nefarious, thrilling, dark, urgent, and never without dynamism. All the sad metaphors employed against disability are failures of the intellect.

The random errors which produce “junk” DNA–the mutations in our genes, are in fact, wait for it, “random.” Richard Dawkins is weak in this area as he prefers the ghost in the machine that’s always looking to improve itself, an idea which no respectable paleo-geneticist believes.

Disability is neither good or evil. It’s a natural fact. And it makes for beauty just as anything will if it’s understood properly.

So forgive me for starting with a grayness but as I recently joked with a paralyzed friend, “I feel like a battered old fish with many dents in his flesh”—the context—that it’s not probable I’ll see the advances I’d hoped for us when the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted over a quarter century ago. I’m old enough to be feeling what academics call accidie, a weariness, and if I’m not defeated I’m suspicious. Shorthand: we haven’t gotten far enough, and daily the news is incontestable. The “fish conceit” is what can happen to believers and how not to become the fish is the story (mine and yours) since disability bias surrounds us. (Bias is a story with many chapters like Bocaccio and knowing it never renders comfort, though if you’re a bigot you may enjoy schadenfreude. I once had an “iffy” friend who practiced “vengeance fantasy”—as he said, doing it nearly as much as he masturbated, seeing his enemies staked out in the Colosseum with lions chewing at their entrails, etc. He’d rub his hands and imitate Charles Laughton: “how do you like your God now, Christian?”)

Bias is a variorum edition. My spotty pal really meant what he said—if he’d had his way he’d have fried you in oil. Everyone has his own grayness. Discrimination, personified, wants us to join the Centurions, at least inside, and its first sign is indifference. In my experience street theater is one way to resist it. Thirty years ago when I was a Fulbright Scholar in Helsinki, Finland I went one night to a gritty, working class bar where I was accosted by a wildly drunken laborer. Everyone was painfully drunk–that manly near death atavistic Viking berserk hallucination of everything, and I thought: “all these years, so many wounds, so few praises.” That was when a man I did not know turned to me and said: “You are a Jew!” “You’re right,” I said, since I was young and in love with poetry, “I am a Jew!” It was the first time I’d ever felt the pins of anti-Semitism, I, a Lutheran with a long beard. He reached for me then but missed and grabbed another man. “You are a Jew!” he shouted. “No, it is I,” I said, “I am the Jew!” But it was too late. They were on the floor and cursing, two men who had forgotten the oldest notion of them all: in Jewish history there are no coincidences.

As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “bias is a clunker” and though it must be taken seriously, if you’re one of its chapter headings having a shield of irony becomes essential. You’re a cripple. You don’t belong in here. Don’t belong on this website, on this campus, don’t belong in a customary place of business. For years I used to carry custom made stickers depicting the universal disability access symbol inside a red circle with a line through it. I’d paste them on the doors of inaccessible restaurants and academic buildings and the like. I really need to get more of them but I can’t remember where I they came from, and as I say, I’m in danger of weariness. Dear young Cripples, I’ve been fighting a long time. Thank God for ADAPT. And don’t stop fighting. But don’t stop laughing either. As the great disability writer and activist Neil Marcus says: “Disability is not a ‘brave struggle’ or ‘courage in the face of adversity’…Disability is an art. it’s an ingenious way to live.”

Once while I was teaching at The Ohio State University I was invited to a meeting with a dozen faculty and former astronaut and Senator John Glenn. We discussed the future of digital teaching. Afterwards I boarded a Columbus City bus only to face a woman who loudly asked if she “could pray for me”. She assumed blindness was a sad matter—or worse—a sign I needed spiritual rescue. My guide dog shook his collar. Suddenly I felt wickedly improvisational. I stood up, grabbed the overhead pedestrian bar, and announced loudly so every passenger could hear: “Certainly Madame you may pray for me, but only if I can pray for you, and in turn pray for all the sad souls on this bus—souls buttressed on all sides by tragedies and losses, by DNA and misadventures in capitalism, for we’re all sorrowing Madame, we’re all chaff blown by the cruel winds of post-modernism. Let us pray, now, together; let’s all hold hands!” She fled the bus at the next stop. Strangers applauded. Improvisation allows us to force the speed of associational changes, transforming the customs of disability life. Disability Studies scholar Petra Kuppers writes: If the relations between embodiment and meaning become unstable, the unknown can emerge not as site of negativity but as the launch pad for new explorations. By exciting curiosities, by destabilizing the visual as conventionalized primary access to knowledge, and by creating desires for new constellations of body practice, these disability performances can attempt to move beyond the known into the realm of bodies as generators of positive difference.

The polarizations, magnetic fields of crippledness are generators. It is not true that rebellion simply makes us old. We’re old when we give up.

And yet…the fights before us are promising to be both rewarding and very hard.

Dear young Cripple: I have the happenstance blues. They’re both accidental (aleatoric) and whatever is the opposite of accident, which, depending on your point of view might have something to do with the means of production, racial determinism from same, or all the other annotated bigotries of the culture club. As a disabled writer I know a good deal about the culture club. Now back to my happenstance blues…

I’m right here. I’m terribly inconvenient. Blind man at conference. Blind man in the lingerie shop. All built environments are structured and designed strategically to keep my kind out. My kind includes those people who direct their wheelchairs with breathing tubes, amble with crutches, speak with signs, type to speak, roll oxygen tanks, ask for large print menus or descriptive assistance. I’m here standing against the built geographical concentrations of capital development. I’m here. I’m the penny no one wants anymore. My placement is insufficiently circulatory in the public spaces of capital. Which came first, the blues or the architectural determinism that keeps me always an inconvenience?

Capital creates landscapes and determines how the gates will function. Of course there was a time before capital accumulation. It’s no coincidence the disabled were useful before capitalism. The blind were vessels of memory. The blind recited books. Disability is a strategic decision. Every disabled person either knows this or comes a cropper against the gates when they least expect it.

What interests me is how my happenstance-disability-blues are exacerbated by neoliberal capital accumulation. For accumulation one must thing of withholding money from the public good or dispossession, which is of course how neoliberal capital works. Here is geographer David Harvey in an interview, talking about just this:

Accumulation by dispossession is about dispossessing somebody of their assets or their rights. Traditionally there have been rights which have common property, and one of the ways in which you take these away is by privatizing them. We’ve seen moves in recent years to privatize water. Traditionally, everybody had had access to water, and [when] it gets privatized, you have to pay for it. We’ve seen the privatization of a lot of education by the defunding of the public sector, and so more and more people have to turn to the private sector. We’ve seen the same thing in health care.

What we’re talking about here is the taking away of universal rights, and the privatization of them, so it [becomes] your particular responsibility, rather than the responsibility of the state. One of the proposals which we now have is the privatization of Social Security. Social Security may not be that generous, but it’s universal and everybody has part of it. What we are now saying is, “That shouldn’t be; it should be privatized,” which, of course, means that people will then have to invest in their own pension funds, which means more money goes to Wall Street. So this is what I call privatization by dispossession in our particular circumstance.

At the neoliberal university and all its concomitant conferences, workshops, and “terms abroad” (just to name some features of higher ed where my own disability has been problematized) the provision of what we call “reasonable accommodations” under the Americans with Disabilities Act is often considered to be in opposition to accumulation. For instance: I was asked to teach a term abroad in Istanbul. When I pointed out that Istanbul isn’t a guide dog friendly city and that I’d have trouble with the traffic and requested a sighted guide accompany me there, I was told this was too expensive. Think about it! One additional human being to keep me from getting run over was too expensive! The “term abroad” was actually designed to accumulate capital, right down to the lint in each student’s and instructor’s pockets. I decided to avoid getting run over and didn’t go.

Privatized culture means everything, including your safety is your own responsibility. I’m in mind of this. I’m not fooled.

Yet I declare cripples are beautiful and we’re at the whirling heart of this life and never at the edges of the constellations.

That Mouse Has to Go…

As a cis-het white blind guy I’m not fooled. These efforts to legislate diversity out of the public square are nothing short of Hitler-ism.

When anti-trans legislation is passed I know what’s going on. It’s the old “compulsory normatively” complex with its enforced heterosexuality, able bodied-ness, whiteness, all of it suffocatingly narrow. The rest of us are not meant to breathe.
As a cis-het white blind guy I’m not fooled. These efforts to legislate diversity out of the public square are nothing short of Hitler-ism.

I was venting in this manner with an Uber driver, a black man, who said to me—that’s the way of America. It wasn’t that he was resigned to it, he just didn’t see a scale of worsened politics. And he was right of course. America has always been violent and ugly. We’ve always been “about” eliminating certain people. Or locking them up. I know. And you know if you dare to proclaim that you’re woke. White, heteronormative fascism wants to make the earth entirely clean of all who trouble it. This morning, early, I don’t know what to do with my head. I love diversity. Like hanging with people who don’t look like me. Who can tell me of their own strangeness and dreams. Woke-ness means believing in culture.

My friend Sanni Purhonen, a disabled poet in Finland writes poems in which she fantasizes about removing parts of herself. Like her I want to remove my head, like I’m a Ken Doll, and put that head in the freezer. I can always get it later when its fully numb. That’s the kind of head you’ll need in a Ron DeSanntis world. A small frosty plastic head.

If you’ve a disability you know or might know how Hitler rounded up the disabled and gassed them as a warmup to the holocaust. Yeah, we’re not there yet, but put your moistened finger in the air.

DeSantis and the GOP want everyone to have a tiny ice cooled Barbie or Ken head and it should be white and hetero. And that mouse has to go.