literature’s deformities (part 3 of 3)

[Below is the final, 3rd part of an essay I wrote a while back, but revised recently.  I’m currently looking at the position and impact of the unusual body in contemporary poetry – this essay looks at the role of these bodies in fiction.]

Even within the Magic Realist novel, perhaps especially within it, we find the extraordinary body laden with meaning. As a counter to the typical Western association of illness, curse, error or problem, there is the unusual body as a site or catalyst for transformation. In Erri De Luca’s God’s Mountain, a coming-of-age story set in post-War Italy, a young boy befriends a Jewish refugee from the Holocaust. Rafaniello has a hump on his back which will reveal wings to carry him to Israel.

Rafaniello is so light you can pick him up. His bones must be hollow. There’s air in his jacket. I see the curve of his folded wings and pass my hand over him to cover them better. In Naples people call the hump a scartiello. They think that stroking it brings you good luck. People are always putting their hands on Rafaniello’s hump without asking permission. He lets them. “In my hometown they called me gorbun and no one would even brush against me. Here I like the familiarity that people have with my hump. I don’t think I’ve brought anyone good luck, but all those strokes have helped me. They’ve awakened my wings”.

A body that, in its particular time and place, appears strikingly unusual will have meanings attached to it. Arguably, this could be some kind of recurrent tendency of ours to attempt to resolve intense anxiety over the results of capricious nature or of human evil.

Gunter Grass’ central character in The Tin Drum is both a magnet for such significances and ultimately manages to elude them. On receiving a tin drum for his birthday, young German boy Oskar decides not to grow up, retaining the stature of a child throughout World War Two. The drum remains his cherished possession and means of communication, along with his piercing wordless shriek which can break glass at a distance. After the war, while burying the body of his presumed father, he suddenly decides to grow again; the growth is so quick that he is deformed. Later, he earns an income and fame as an artist’s model.

Professor Kuchen led me to a studio, lifted me up with his own hands on a revolving platform, and spun it about, not in order to make me dizzy, but to display Oskar’s proportions from all sides. Sixteen easels gathered around. The coal-breathing professor gave his disciples a short briefing: what he wanted was expression, always expression, pitch-black, desperate expression. I, Oskar, he maintained, was the shattered image of man, an accusation, a challenge, timeless yet expressing the madness of our century. In conclusion he thundered over the easels: “I don’t want you to sketch this cripple, this freak of nature, I want you to slaughter him, crucify him, to nail him to your paper with charcoal!”… These sons and daughters of the Muses, I said to myself, have recognised the Rasputin in you; but will they ever discover the Goethe who lies dormant in your soul, will they ever call him to life and put him on paper, not with expressive charcoal but with a sensitive and restrained pencil point? Neither the sixteen students, gifted as they may have been, nor Professor Kuchen, with his supposedly unique charcoal stroke, succeeded in turning out an acceptable portrait of Oskar. Still, I made good money and was treated with respect for six hours a day.

For readers, The Tin Drum is almost infinitely interpretable. Oskar’s child-size body is a rejection of the duplicity and cruelty of the adult world, and his sudden deformity is his body’s own reaction to taking on that world again. His body may be the physical expression of the inability of language to express the atrocity of the War. He could be symbolic of Germany’s guilt, or perhaps of Germany’s economy. Oskar’s body has by some been conceived as a Freudian reflex. Even as the Twentieth Century itself.

Perhaps it is all of these interpretations, or even none of them. Oskar tells the story from the bed of an insane asylum, flips between the first and third person, muddies the narrative waters in innumerable ways. Grass evokes a strange kind of alienated sympathy for Oskar in his readers, but he does not want us to have confidence in Oskar’s story, and certainly not in any larger historical or national Narrative. Like the drum and the shriek themselves, what The Tin Drum speaks is both devastatingly critical and irreducible to a particular ideology. Grass offers us the truth of the inconclusiveness of reality, its essential ambiguity. The extraordinary body is certainly still a spectacle, but it also has its own uncontainable meanings.

Exceptions unsettle. They mock our sense of certainty, our familiar and comforting associations. They provoke a rupture in the mundane. Deformity can be arresting, fascinating, confusing, awe-inspiring, even spiritual. All the same, with Medicine’s accelerating ability to alleviate or remove deformity altogether, the unusual body has become even more invisible, especially in the West. This adds another layer to the archetypal response – the sense that a body has slipped through the medical net, the unnerving possibility that Nature is still uncontrollable.

The body I inhabit, or perhaps I should say, the body that I am, is visually extraordinary, due to a condition known as Marfan Syndrome. I am six foot three, and weigh around sixty-five kilograms; I am slender, with long limbs. My spine curves dramatically from side-to-side and front-to-back; I would be perhaps six foot six if my spine were straight. In a way, my body has easily adjusted to this shape. But in another way, this is the shape of my body, and it is normal. I do not experience pain or physical difficulty, as some people have assumed. My body experiences its shape in much the same way as any body experiences its shape. Except, at times it seems little literary micro-ghosts hover over my shoulder.

I was born one hundred and forty years after Quasimodo, into an immensely different era, in terms of medicine, media and social structures. Yet I have been called by his name many times, mostly from the windows of passing cars, by men in their twenties. They are gone before I can conjure an appropriate retort; ensuring I remain, for them, a body. They are not interested in the speculations of a French paediatrician Antoine Marfan, whose intense and close observations of his patients in the late nineteenth century led him to describe the key visual features of the syndrome.

Interestingly, the most common parental response to the curiosity their children display, is an embarrassed injunction not to look. I suspect this looking-away, this leaving-be, is common in many cultures, but is acutely expressed in Australia. There is a profound caution about the way we relate to each other, which reflects our political history.

In celebrating the fair go, Australians portray themselves as fundamentally relaxed about the doings of others, as tolerant. The very need to paint such a picture, however, reflects less its veracity than a wish for projecting an image. The image is defensive. “We are patient in the judgement of others” means, really, “Do not judge us”… Such an ethic is self-protective and concealing, amounting to an agreement not to discuss one another’s sins. Extending the right to a fair go amounts to an injunction to each mind their own business.

Daniel Ross, “Violent Democracy”,  2004

Everyday public speech is the very opposite of deconstruction. It leaves things, efficiently, alone. This is not just about people’s right not to be questioned about their behaviour or inheritance, but also about their bodies and the meanings attached to them. Our culture has evolved a plethora of ways of describing the other. Yet we do not seem to have grasped a way of apprehending the world, a way of speaking together, that is able to adequately deal with variety – that is able to recognise the other within the self.

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