- Disability, Representation and the Body in Irish Writing, 1800-1922
In this compelling publication, Mark Mossman, with reference to an eclectic assortment of texts and cultural moments, reads nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century discourses [End Page 728] on Ireland and Irishness through the lens of disability studies. Among the items Mossman examines are lesser-known writings, such as letters that John Keats wrote to his brother during a trip to Ireland, and well-known literary works, including Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) and James Joyce's Dubliners (1914). The book also contains Mossman's previously published essay on Sydney Owenson's The Wild Irish Girl (1806). Though disability studies has, since the mid-1990s, become an increasingly important field within American and European literary scholarship, Mossman's book is the first systematic application of such an approach to Ireland. Upon reading the opening chapter, in which Mossman draws attention to the overlapping concerns of disability studies and Irish studies, it seems surprising that Irish studies scholars have failed heretofore to engage with this body of work. That chapter also offers a critique, albeit a very courteous one, of Irish studies critics whose writings demonstrate an awareness of the significance and ramifications of the instituted norm but who continue to unthinkingly use negative metaphors and stereotypes of bodily difference to define Ireland and Ireland's past.
The importance of literary criticism to the interdisciplinary field of disability studies was signaled by Lennard J. Davis in his edited collection, The Disability Studies Reader (1997). In the opening essay of this landmark publication, Davis points out that "there really is a rare novel that does not have some characters with disabilities—characters who are lame, tubercular, dying of AIDS, chronically ill, depressed, mentally ill, and so on." Usually consigned to the margins of the text, such characters function, according to Davis, to establish the typicality of the non-disabled central character and thus to enforce a "hegemony of normalcy" (The Disability Studies Reader [Routledge, 1997], 12).
Mossman, whose writings are informed by poststructuralism, is less interested in the literary representation of disabled individuals than with theorizing disability as a disruptive oppositional space that challenges the modern processes of normalization. Indeed, two of the texts referred to by Mossman, Jonathan Swift's "A Lady's Dressing Room" (1732) and Oscar Wilde's cello-shaped coat, contain no explicit reference to disability. Mossman invokes Swift's poem and the infamous episode in which Wilde dressed as a musical instrument for his "London debut" to outline the key terms and concepts of the disability studies framework he is employing and to demonstrate the relevance of this framework to Ireland (14). Wilde's "fabulous" costume (21), for example, is "severe," as in "severe disability," in that it "disrupts and refuses" existing norms. Disability studies overlaps here with queer studies to produce an Oscar Wilde who, in nearly every aspect of his life, is "trouble" (22). Drawing on Declan Kiberd's reading of Wilde in Inventing Ireland (1995), Mossman refers to Wilde's Englishness and Irishness as "playful constructions of . . . identity" designed to destabilize the binary opposition of England and Ireland (19)—an opposition that Mossman equates with the binaries of the normal and the abnormal, and of the abled and the disabled.
Ireland, in Mossman's analysis, is also "trouble." Reminding us that "in the nineteenth century, and in the discursive formations of British imperialism, the body is the index of the nation" (56), Mossman points to the commonplace nineteenth-century portrayal of Ireland as a disabled body. In order to function as a negative evaluation of Ireland, this metaphor relied upon a negative view of disability itself. The more recent Irish studies critics who accept and recycle this metaphor with all of its original connotations are, in Mossman's view, equally reliant upon a negative attitude toward disability and the disabled body. Mossman retains the metaphor but applies a disability studies [End Page 729] sensibility to it. Ireland is "perfectly disabled" (10), while "Irishness...