- Bodies of Modernism: Physical Disability in Transatlantic Modernist Literature by Maren Tova Linett
What are the stakes of literary encounters with physical difference? Michael Davidson notes that “[A] poetics—as much as a politics—of disability is important: because it theorizes the ways that poetry defamiliarizes not only language but the body normalized within language.”1
Literary disability studies discovers meanings that accrue to disabled bodies and how these meanings inflect the trajectory of a narrative and catalyze artistic praxis, foregrounding discursive norms of embodiment as well as departures from them. Disability studies pairs particularly well [End Page 212] with modernism thanks to a shared commitment to articulating as inherently worthy of analysis how individuals experience themselves and others in the world. In exploring the role of disabilities in shaping modernism, Linett complicates an ethics of recognition. As formulated by Hegel, the modern subject is constituted through an intrinsic duality of consciousness: the idealization of an independent and autonomous self and, simultaneously, the awareness that this self is contingent upon experience among others. This inherent duality cannot be reconciled and results in asymmetrical recognition and subordination. The misrecognition of disabled subjects is foundational to understanding both poetics and politics. Linett writes: “I view ableism not exclusively as the disparagement or dehumanization of disabled people, but also as the conviction that disabled people are radically other, that their disabilities, whether congenital or acquired, change them in ways that create a gulf between ‘them’ and able-bodied ‘us’” (7).
Bodies of Modernism is a wide-ranging, capacious, and meticulously researched study spanning 1890 to 1940, exploring modernist prose by more than a dozen writers: Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, H. G. Wells, D. H. Lawrence, Elizabeth Bowen, Henry Green, Olive Moore, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, J. M. Synge, Florence L. Barclay, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce. Unsurprisingly, several of these writers lived with disabilities, yet the book’s primary interest lies in the textual bodies embedded within modernist culture and texts, or “how literary depictions of disabled characters help shape cultural ideas (however inaccurate) about how impairments influence subjectivities” (3). Linett’s astute readings rely upon the juxtaposition of a wide array of texts and a continual effort to lay bare both the eugenic and counternormative forces at work in a text. In several instances, Linett’s analyses draw upon the evolution of manuscript versions. The result is a rather prodigious contribution to modernist and disability studies.
While modernist writers were exploring the role of the body in shaping ways of knowing and experiencing the world, eugenic science and its popularization resulted in pervasive discrimination against people with disabilities. In “These Pushful Days,” Douglas Baynton takes stock of its impact: sign language was prohibited in classrooms at schools for the deaf, and deaf people were expected to learn to speak. City ordinances targeting people with visible disabilities proscribed begging; infants with disabilities were commonly euthanized; children and adults with disabilities were sterilized, segregated, and isolated (Linett, 13). These practices arose as a result of the homogenization of time and timing: those who were unable to keep up were viewed as a drag on scientific, social, and evolutionary progress. Yet alongside what was arguably a hypervisibility of people with disabilities as constructed through eugenic discourse emerged a salient reevaluation of vision as the sine qua non of perception and knowledge. Technologies such as cinema, the telescope, and x-ray, as well as Freudian psychoanalysis, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and Bergson’s formulation of la durée contributed to distrust of ocularcentric epistemologies. Bodies of Modernism explores a cultural matrix in which physical capacities were interpreted in order to discredit a person’s humanity and to foreground modernist experimentation and praxis. As Linett demonstrates, these cultural registers often operate simultaneously in modernist texts.
A valuation of perspective and subjectivity facilitated the inward turn of modernism and rendered obsolete the reflexive, universalizing pathos of Victorian depictions of disability. In their place, modernist texts staged individual responses to disabled characters who posit disability “not...