- Organic Hesitancies:Stuttering and Sexuality in Melville, Kesey, and Mishima
Ejaculation is at once a physiological and a linguistic concept. Impotence and speech-blocks, premature emission and stuttering, involuntary ejaculation and the word-river of dreams are phenomena whose interrelations seem to lead back to the central knot of our humanity.—George Steiner, After Babel
Nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaning—that meaning being invariably a moralistic one.—Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor
Current etiologies of stuttering generally allow that a combination of different factors—psychogenic, neurogenic, audiogenic, and hereditary—accounts for the full complexity of this speech-fluency disorder. Literary narratives about men who stutter, on the other hand, tend to adhere much more simplistically to one of two popular psychogenic accounts of the "personality type" of the stutterer. Either the stutterer is portrayed as cripplingly timid, in which case a childlike or feminized form of weakness is thought to prevent him from mastering his own tongue, or he is portrayed as overwhelmingly nervous, twitchy more than weak, his intermittent speech the result of a kind of short-circuiting of the language faculty brought on by his neurotic temperament. This form of folk etiology obeys a logic not unlike the one elucidated by Susan Sontag in her essay Illness as Metaphor. As Sontag has shown, a host of metaphorical associations (and subsequently [End Page 200] moralistic judgments) are often projected onto different illnesses. So too in the popular understanding of stuttering as a pathology, what Sontag calls "punitive or sentimental fantasies" are enacted through which the stutter is assigned a meaning as a cultural phenomenon. 1
In Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Yukio Mishima's Kinkaku-ji [The Temple of the Golden Pavilion], one finds strong evidence of this same tendency to metaphorize the stutter in two interrelated ways. These texts use the stutter as an emblem of everyday language's constant susceptibility to communicative breakdown and at the same time "diagnose" stuttering metaphorically as the symptom of some character flaw such as excessive nervousness or weakness. The stories of Billy Budd, Billy Bibbit, and Mizoguchi, however, also exhibit another slightly different folk etiology of stuttering as well. Kesey's mental patient and Mishima's Buddhist monk (and presumably Melville's foretopman as well) are all virgins at the outset of their stories, and their sexual inexperience as well as their stuttered speech are troped together as interrelated forms of blockage. By contrast, the standard of fluent speech against which their stutters are measured is troped as the unblocked flow of words. While the linking of speech and sexuality has a history too long and complex to detail here, for this article, it suffices to point to the conceptual connection reflected in the etymology of the verb "to ejaculate," the senses of which include both the production of seminal fluid and the spontaneous or emphatic production of words. What distinguishes these three portraits of the stuttering male is the causal directness with which the associations between sexual ejaculation and fluent speech and between sexual repression and stuttering are made.
"One Thing Amiss"
If there is an archetype for characters like Billy Bibbit and Mizoguchi, it is undoubtedly Melville's foretopman Billy Budd, since Melville's novella provides a virtually exhaustive catalogue of stereotypical associations commonly made about men who stutter. Billy Budd is at once infantilized and feminized, and though a fully developed man, he is said to look younger than he actually is, "owing to a lingering adolescent expression in the as yet smooth face all but feminine in its purity." 2 Fulfilling the sexually ambiguous role of the "Handsome Sailor," Billy is said to embody both a masculine ideal, making him an object of envy for the other men on board, and a refined beauty, which simultaneously marks him as a feminized object [End Page 201] of homoerotic desire. In seeming contrast to his idealized status as the handsome sailor, Billy's "straightforward simplicity" (51) also makes him in the eyes of Melville's narrator, "little more than a sort of upright barbarian such perhaps as Adam presumably...