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“Too Much of a Cripple”: Ahab, Dire Bodies, and the Language of Prosthesis in Moby-Dick DAVID MITCHELL Northern Michigan University A hub’s Dire Body ittle critical attention has been focused on the relationship between Ahabs “monomaniacal”personality and his dismemberment by Moby LDick.’ My emphasis here is not upon the parallel drawn between monomania and dismemberment-there is a substantial critical tradition on this relationship alone-but rather the peculiar and unnatural insistence in the narrative that these two facets of Ahab’s identity are absolutely and inexorably linked. The fact that Ahab’s “monomaniac mind” is said to be forged out of “thedirect issue of a former woe” (namely,what the novel refers to as his “dismasting ”) runs counter to the novel’s overarching strategy of demonstrating the ultimate indeterminacy of meaning.2 Here, I want to examine why Ahabs crippling accident and subsequent prosthetic alteration bequeath to him a singular motivation and static identity that resist Ishmael’s fluid interpretational practices. Ahabs prosthesis proves inflexible with respect to the linguistic ambiguity that destabilizes the truth-telling systems of human knowledge addressed in the novel. Melville’suse of disability is neither unique nor a radical departure from nineteenth-century artistic practices of contorting the disabled bodies of its literary creations. Asrecent work by disability studies scholars such as Diane Price-Herndl, Maria Frawley, Cindy LaCom, and Rosemarie Garland Thomson has demonstrated , writers of the Victorian period (especiallywomen writers) relied heavily upon disabled characters in their artistic representations of femininity,sexuality , nationality, and race.3 Melville’sAhab belongs within this tradition of a 1 For a further discussion of criticism’s neglect of representations of disability in literature, see Introduction, The Body and Physical Difference: Discourses of Disability, ed. David T. Mitchell and Sharon t.Snyder (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997). * Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or The Whale., ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newherry Library, 1988), pp. 463-4. Subsequent citations appear parenthetically in the text. 3 L n Invalid Women: Figuring Feminine lllness in American Fiction and Culture, 1840-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993),Diane Price Herndl demonstrates that the hedridden feminine figure exposed ideological patriarchal associations ahout female fragility and passivity Maria Frawley argues that Harriet Martineau’s Lqe in the Sickroom demonstrates the Victorian ~~ L EV I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 5 D A V I D M I T C H E L L newly evolvingliterary aesthetic that I term “direbodies.” For nineteenth-century writers, the disabled body became an important means of artistic characterization , for it allowed authors to privilege something amiss or “tragically flawed”in the very biology of an embodied character. While disability had historically provided an outward sign of divine disfavor or monstrous inhumanity , the nineteenth-century shifted the emphasis to a more earth-bound principle of moral decrepitude and individual malfunction. The literary disablement of fictional bodies represented a tactile device for quickly individuating a character within a complex social network of relations. “Ticks” of character abounded, and nineteenth-century writers-especially novelists-populated their fictional landscapes with “tragic” characters who embodied a range of physical and cognitive anomalies. The burgeoning of medicalized vocabularies and taxonomies of the body provided an impetus for the evolution of this pathological aesthetic, and nineteenth-century medicine and art mutually reinforced disabled bodies as sources of cultural fascination and leering contemplation . Such disciplinary predilections on the part of medicine and art essentially preyed upon historical phantasms associated with disability by parading physical anomalies as spectacles of exotic interest. Although, each approached disability with distinctively differing objectives: medicine began to solidify its professional authority by designating the institutional need to manage bodies labeled as “discordant,”while art foregrounded imperiled bodies as a means of purposefully upsetting the staid morality of its upper and middle class readerships . Physical differenceswere dissected, picked apart, and marveled at with a vulturish ferocity Yet, the irony of this pervasive circulation was that people with disabilities...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 5-22
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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