- "Enough Defined":Disability, Ecopoetics, and Larry Eigner
In "Compensation," RalphWaldo Emerson writes: "The radical tragedy of nature seems to be the distinction of More and Less. How can Less not feel the pain; how not feel indignation or malevolence towards More?" (301). Emerson's More and Less can be seen as the poles in the structuralist binaries that normalize identity: male/female, straight/gay, white/black, rich/poor. To these related opposites, disability studies has added able-bodied/disabled—a binary, as Lennard J. Davis points out, that "is part of an ideology of containment and a politics of power and fear" (4). Davis argues that disability is the missing fourth category in the triad of race, class, and gender; and just as critical theory has destabilized the More and Less binaries in that triad, disability studies has forced us to see the able-bodied/disabled binary anew. Emerson's remedy for the "radical tragedy" of More and Less is the erasure of difference by compensation: "In the nature of the soul is the compensation for the inequalities of condition. . . . The heart and soul of all men being one, this bitterness of His and Mine ceases" (301). Disability studies, with its roots in poststructuralist theory, rejects such a solution. Instead of two oppositional states that can change position, or absorb one another in a dialectic, disability [End Page 152] occurs along a spectrum of embodiment, and therefore the adverbial phrase "more or less" is a better figure for a disability imaginary than Emerson's substantives More and Less. Embodiment means that many of us are more or less disabled, and it is just a matter of time in terms of the more.1
If ever a poet was in the position of Emerson's "Less," confronted with "the inequalities of condition" and profoundly affected by "the natural history of calamity" (301), it certainly might be Larry Eigner:
From a forceps injury at birth (August 7 '27) I have cerebral palsy, CP. The doctor, RichardWilliams, mother says, apologized for not measuring her right. If he had, she's said, I would have been delivered in the Caesarean way. The doctor told my folks they could sue him for malpractice, but considering the thing an accident or something they didn't, anyhow they let it go.(Areas 129)
Although the difference created by Eigner's disability was not absolute, it was a material condition that daily made him confront "the radical tragedy of nature" in a way that no compensation could resolve.2 As Rosemarie Garland Thomson points out, before the Americans with Disabilities Act, "disability [was] a loss to be compensated for, rather than difference to be accommodated" [End Page 153] (49). Accommodation requires us to determine what is enough on the spectrum of more or less. The solution to the radical tragedy of More and Less is not the absorption of the subaltern element of the binary into the dominant one, or the recognition of the Less in the More, which is the erasure of difference, but a determination of what is enough. But how do we ever know what is enough? Eigner's approach was to define enough by seeking a balance; in his work, he tropes the compensatory More and Less into an accommodational more or less.
In this way, then, Eigner makes Emersonian poetics responsive to disability, and in doing so, he provides a fresh encounter with terms such as fate, limit, and freedom. Recognizing this shift requires that we read for poetics rather than representation. Thomson reads Emersonian figures of disability in their representative rather than poetic or rhetorical aspects. She notes that the figure of the "invalid" appears in two of Emerson's essays, "Self-Reliance" and "Fate," and, she argues, the invalid becomes the Other that the "normate" self of liberal individualism defines itself against. In the terms of "Compensation," her critique is exactly right: "Emerson's atomized self demands an oppositional twin to secure its able-bodiedness" (44). But if we look to an Emersonian practice, poetics rather than representation, the possibility of moving past the binaries presents itself. Thomson identifies limitation, a key Emersonian idea, in his figures of...