Stepping Out on Nothing

Gore Vidal once remarked that “politics is knowing who’s paying for your lunch” a sentiment I’ve valued for years though I now understand it’s also knowing who picked the lettuce. Nuance is hard to achieve when you’re young. In my late twenties and early thirties I was the exclusive product of academic English Departments which if you don’t know, are still to this day built from Victorian blueprints. Things are right or wrong; black or white; single issue analyses are derigeur even in the age of postmodernism and postcoloniality. Politics is knowing who’s grabbing the check and hating them for it. At thirty I hated everyone who voted for Reagan. I also hated K-Mart. As a blind person I hated most white men who were the deans and professors discriminating against me in graduate school. You must hate the people who oppress you and also resent everyone who looks like them, even the relatively innocent man or woman paying for your caesar salad.

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” (Cornel West)

There’s seldom love in the political. Try to find “love studies” in the English Departments. Like it or not we live in the era of oppression studies which has some merit but not enough to achieve West’s kind of justice which is a celebratory coalition. It is hard to celebrate if you’re enraged all the time. And it’s impossible if you’re convinced by single issue politics. Cornel West:

“The country is in deep trouble. We’ve forgotten that a rich life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it. We need the courage to question the powers that be, the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people, the courage to fight for social justice. In many instances we will be stepping out on nothing, and just hoping to land on something. But that’s the struggle. To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.”

I find the phrase “stepping out on nothing” to be particularly meaningful because as a blind person I cross streets with a guide dog and take a leap of faith dozens of times a day. My sighted companions talk at street corners about bowling and I’m concentrating on the life or death situation before me.

The English Department won’t teach you about serving others. I learned something about how to do it by leaving the academy for five years and working at one of the nation’s premier guide dog schools. Each month blind folks come to the school from around the nation to train with a guide dog. The students are straight out of the pages of “Leaves of Grass” for they’re trans-gendered and black, old and Asian, young and Latino, white and largely poor though not exclusively so, and being among hundreds of blind people I learned that no one experiences disability in the same way, that no one is a symbol, no one is without the need for understanding and friendship, that everyone is hoping to land on something. I learned you have to be impatient with evil and patient with people.

American universities scarcely know how to teach such a thing. In fact, at least in the humanities, students are taught to be impatient with evil but also to categorize people as representationally evil without nuance and reflection. The country is in deep trouble in no small measure because the expansive and spiritual practice of voluntary selflessness are out of fashion when all we’re doing is thinking like Gore Vidal. BTW Vidal ended up a bitter man.

Contrarianism in the Age of Cancel Culture

In his excellent book “Letters to a Young Contrarian” the late Christopher Hitchens wrote: 

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia, said Oscar Wilde, is not worth glancing at. A noble sentiment, and a good thrust at the Gradgrinds and utilitarians. Bear in mind, however, that Utopia itself was a tyranny and that much of the talk about the analgesic and conflict-free ideal is likewise more menacing than it may appear. These Ultimates and Absolutes are attempts at Perfection, which is—so to speak—a latently Absolutist idea. (You should scan Brian Victoria’s excellent book Zen at War, which, written as it is by a Buddhist priest, exposes the dire role played by Zen obedience and discipline in the formation of pre-war Japanese imperialism.)”

Excerpt From: Christopher Hitchens. “Letters to a Young Contrarian.” Apple Books.

If you want to cancel someone (a harrowing parlance) all you have to do is say he she or they is not up to the ideal of perfection. The Fascist or Stalinist doesn’t rest until the world is cleaned of imperfect people.

I’ve always been a problem because I trouble the public nerve of ableism—which for me means the industry of harming all marginalized people for the disabled are black, brown, Asian, Latino, white, old, queer, and owing to normative formations, (utilitarianism) wishes to eliminate all who are physically different.

Not liking what someone says is not sufficient reason to eliminate them though I may wish you’d shut up. I don’t believe in the language of cancel.

Nor do I believe academics should be fired for holding loathsome opinions. If the ideas are bad they’ll not stand the test of time. 

Hitchens again:

“If you want to stay in for the long haul, and lead a life that is free from illusions either propagated by you or embraced by you, then I suggest you learn to recognise and avoid the symptoms of the zealot and the person who knows that he is right. For the dissenter, the skeptical mentality is at least as important as any armor of principle.”

It’s hard to be a dissenter because you’ll not be much applauded. 

I’m a fan of Kwame Appiah’s book “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity—Creed, Country, Color, Class, Culture” which troubles the incorporation of singular cultural positions. Identity is built around insider vs. outsider negotiations or worse, willful erasures.

Identities matter to people. They offer spiritual and juridical power and create the basis for critical solidarity and progress. As Appiah points out, identity gives us reasons to do things. They also give others reasons to do things “to you” and all human rights activists know it.

Appiah writes:

“In sum, identities come, first, with labels and ideas about why and to whom they should be applied. Second, your identity shapes your thoughts about how you should behave; and, third, it affects the way other people treat you. Finally, all these dimensions of identity are contestable, always up for dispute: who’s in, what they’re like, how they should behave and be treated.”

Its the contestability of prefiguration I’m interested in. You shouldn’t subborn blackness or disability or gender to abstract, privileged philosophical thinking. But identity also creates hollow perfectionism as Hitchens knew.  I’ve seen blind people ridicule other blind people because they chose to walk with guide dogs as opposed to white canes. Cultural call out is aimed at canceling the contestable. It leads to public shaming and trolling. 

I’m also a big fan of the writer Roxanne Gay who writes about resisting the racialized and patriarchal oppression aimed at the diminishment of black women’s bodies.  No one should be able to diminish bodies. We defend our identities for excellent reasons. 

We have many things to do out there as Appiah says. Turning away from the humanitarian power of identity is not a good idea. Contesting the traps of identity rhetoric is important however. I have white privilege. I also can’t get into restaurants and taxi cabs because I have a service dog. I live in multiple identity traps. Appiah ends his book with a famous Latin quote:

“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.
I am human, I think nothing human alien to me.”

Turi, Turi, Turi

Turi, Turi, Turi

Caruso, the boy, eats a blood orange sorbet outside the café Risorgimento. They call this dessert the “frozen sunset” –a dish of scarlet juice and ice, misted with lemon. All morning he’s been singing love songs to the fiancée of a very rotund man from Caserta. “Only a boy can carry my heart,” says the fat man to his beloved. “Boys are still sweet as the baby Jesus!” Then he clapped his hands the way impresarios do: a fleshy sound of exaggeration. 

The girl seemed embarrassed. This was a street urchin, a boy in a dirty shirt. A child hired to sing love songs! This thing is a joke! But there on the via Carraciola in the din of carts and boats and street hustlers the boy sang Bellini’s Ma rendi pur contento his black eyes shining with joy and concentration so that passersby stood still. Two men, twin brothers from Rome stopped eating their sugared almonds. There in the heat of the day in that unforeseen place was a prodigy. What could surpass the unassuming purity of such a child’s voice?

The boy sings as if the edge of his heart is catching flame. 

The fat man from Caserta is delighted and bobs his head like a pheasant, struts, ruffles his feathers. His fiancée,

Elena  Bianchini-Cappelli tips her head in wonder, her features softening, a portrait reversing to a sketch. Her enormous hat with its absurd ribbons cannot hide the smile. 

Now the boy sings Bella Nice, che d’amore, his hands stretched out, palms up, without irony. Could anything be this sweet again? Vin santo and peaches? Cloves in the boiled sugar?

The boy and the hot Neapolitan day are working together, visioning ice, ice on the fat lip of a hungry lover. There are these oddities to Naples, street boys and libidinous passions and simple coins.  

Eye Rolling and Disability, a Brief Explanation

Do the blind have occult powers? I’m not sure generalizations about any group are worthwhile but as a blind man I can hear sighted people roll their eyes at me.

I hear this at least twenty times a day and sometimes the incidents number higher.

When sighted people roll their eyes it makes a sound like the world’s smallest theremin. It’s a squeaky Hollywood monster movie effect almost below the level of human hearing.

In a meeting with colleagues I say: “I need an accessible version of this handout,” and I hear a dozen teensy monster movies around the table. “The Thing” has risen in all those unseeable heads. The blind guy needs access. We don’t feel comfortable. Oooooweeeeeeeoooooo!

In monster movies it’s not the monster himself (herself) who starts the theremin music. It’s the scientist behind the creature.

I like to think of normatively constructed civic life, which is narrow and grudging about disability in public as the scientist behind the creature.

We can call the scientist the social construction of normalcy as we tend to do in the field of Disability Studies. But the invisible hand of normalcy is perverse, phobic, gloating, superior before its private mirror. The cliche we use most often when thinking of social normalcy is “thinking outside the box” and I’m here to tell you that the disabled are always outside the box. This is where all our thinking and working occurs.

The compulsive normals in their invisible lab coats don’t like inconvenience which means anything or anyone that alters their routines. Need a Braille menu? Theremin. Need an accessible website or application? Theremin. Need a functioning wheelchair lift into a university lecture hall. Theremin. Want audio description of a film being shown on your campus. Theremin. Ooooooweeeeeooooo! If you ask for these things you’re the monster. And worse, you’ve gotten loose. Quick! Hide the children!

There’s theremin music in the supermarket. The little child sees the blind person with a cane or dog and says: “Mommy, what’s that?” And mommy replies: “Shhhh! Don’t look!” Cue the scary music.

Meantime I hear the eye rolling everyday. Catch a cab? Squeeee… Boarding an airplane….
Entering the restaurant. Just walking on the ordinary street.

Checking into a hotel.
Attending a sporting event.
Once, when I was entering a major league baseball stadium with my guide dog, a rather drunken woman said loudly to her man, “why would a blind man go to a baseball game?”
Oooooooweeeee….

The disabled ruin the neat social order.

I almost never have a day without the music.

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 

Don't be Rich in the Darkling Cosmos, A New Year's Resolution

One of the Roman poet Martial’s verses goes this way (as translated by Garry Wills):

“This darkling world he claims, with rue,
Has run itself into a ditch.
And he can prove his thesis true:
In such a cosmos—he is rich.”

As 2019 concludes this surely is a darkling world. Certainly the thesis true is pessimistic. One’s reminded how cheap the pessimism is.

I’m reminded of Chesterton who pointed out that fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.

Fashionable pessimism is all the rage.

This is an old story.

Chesterton again: “the reformer is always right about what’s wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right…”

Reformers are better than pessimists because they believe in actions. But as Chesterton rightly points out, reformers can miss what’s good.

Harkening back to Martial I have the following New Year’s resolution: I will not be rich in the darkling cosmos of my own making.

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 

Lying on the Frozen Lawn in Syracuse

Open the door. Newspaper in the grass. Big headline about local basketball team. I decide to lie in the grass.

Don’t be sentimental.

Be sentimental.

When the frost hits my shoulder blades I get up, go into the house. Start a fire with the newspaper.

**

I like Paul. After the road to Damascus he understood folly. Christ risen is the most glorious and improbable thing. You can’t make good sense out of it. And that’s god.

(A thought while lying on the lawn….)

**

As for me….I’m folly too. And I make so many mistakes. But it’s the spiritual ones that matter. Poetry like god is improbable.

**

When I was an undergrad I found a couplet by one of my teachers, the poet James Crenner: “Life is like a game of chess /death is like two games of chess.”

I loved the wit of this and still do. For instance: If you checkmate death (a la Bergman) are you reborn or do you sit throughout all eternity waiting for another opponent? Does death always win? Does Jesus play chess? What about the effects of analogy, to borrow Wallace Stevens’ phrase, that is, since life and death are not like chess what do we gain or lose by saying so?

**

I really was lying on the lawn in the bright frost.

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