- Bodies Of Modernism: Physical Disability In Transatlantic Modernist Literature by Maren Tova Linett
Maren Tova Linett's book argues that modernist writers use disabled bodies in two ways: to question normalcy and to "represent states of being it seeks to surpass," viewing disability as "something radically other" while also bringing "this otherness close" (3, 204). Drawing on disability-studies theory to inform her exploration of how modernist writers use disabled bodies as metaphors for writing and as emblems for experimentation and improvement, Linett ably draws a line through texts both canonical and less familiar to show how modernist writers including James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, and Tennessee Williams use disability to explore the meaning and challenges of modernist writing itself while also engaging with powerful political movements of the day, such as eugenics and fascism.
Linett's book provides a transatlantic view of modernist writing that could be useful in a course introducing modernism to students, but her disability focus on the movement also uncovers structures of modernism even for experienced scholars of the field. Joyce critics will be particularly interested in the book because she uses Joyce's works as "a sort of spine" to organize the text (15).
Linett discusses Gerty MacDowell's lameness in "Nausicaa" as related to questions of narration: not only is her limp revealed "at the dividing point of the two chapters, helping to deflate the excitement of the first half and thereby encourag[ing] the text's detumescence" (46), but it also helps readers parse whether Gerty, Bloom, or some heterodiegetic voice focalizes the opening narration of "Nausicaa." She argues that "the ostensible opposition between sexuality and disability is broken down by the various ways disability inheres within sexuality. We see the power of disability to bring about narrative climax" (53-54). Thus, her reading runs counter to the notion that Bloom [End Page 446] "thought something was wrong with her by the cut of her jib" (U 13.773-74), instead suggesting that Gerty's lameness is integral to her attractiveness.
After devoting separate chapters to blindness and deafness in other modernist writers' works, Linett focuses exclusively on Ulysses's blind stripling and Pat, the deaf waiter at the Ormond Hotel, in her fourth chapter, "Sensory Disability in Ulysses," noting that "Joyce's treatments of sensory disability are distinct in important ways from those of his contemporaries" (119). Whereas other modernist writers use blind characters to suggest modes of intimacy and deaf characters to suggest isolation, Joyce's blind stripling navigates Dublin alone, except for a moment when Bloom helps him across the street, and bald Pat, the bothered waiter, is in the center of the action in "Sirens," often locating himself in the door between the room where Bloom and Richie Goulding eat and the bar where Simon Dedalus and the other men sing. Linett argues that "Pat and the stripling signal the suspension of knowledge that Bloom is attempting or experiencing, marking a similarity rather than a disparity," a significant departure from the metaphorical ways disabled bodies appear in other writers' works (124). While Joyce uses commonplace notions of the meaning of sensory disabilities, he also makes his characters aware of these abuses, so that his "manipulations of sensory disabilities' relationships with knowledge … form part of his modernist project of questioning how bodies shape our interactions with our world" (141).
Linett's discussion of physical deformity and modernist writing in the Shem the Penman chapter of Finnegans Wake suggests that the book "celebrates its transformations and misshapes and … also universalizes disability as that which any everyman might have" (185). This section relates Joyce's activities within the chapter to his knowledge of Nazi discourses on art and eugenics, offering the Wake as an anti-Hitlerian tome through its discussions of disability, noting that "Shem's status as defective, degenerate writer links him to the artists lambasted by Nazi art critics from Schultze-Naumburg to Hitler" (189). Since Joyce wrote Shem as a version...