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Samuel Beardslee’s Formal Post on Jim Ferris’ “Poet of Cripples”

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we carry within, our hidden void,
a place for each to become full, whole,
room of our own, space to grow in ways
unimaginable to the straight
and the narrow, the small and similar,
the poor, normal ones who do not know
their poverty. (lines 6-12)

A common theme which has appeared in several pieces of Literature throughout this semester is the idea of a disabled character bringing about an epiphany for another main character.  The concept behind “the epiphany” implies that a certain ignorance is in place before an event occurs which illuminates the situation and matures that person’s thoughts on the subject in question.  This is important to distinguish in disability readings, as how this epiphany is handled determines what is ultimately said about the disabled character’s role.  Jim Ferris, in “Poet of Cripples”, focuses, among other things, on the ideal role of the disabled individual in life.  He also addresses another problem people have both in and out of fiction.  People wish to gain an understanding of the world around them, and this is exceedingly difficult due to the innumerable inconsistencies and paradoxes that one encounters.  When confronted with an abnormality, people react in different ways, however, these reactions are simply a process in which we “make sense” of the world around us.  Unfortunately, the definition of “abnormal” is becoming grayer with each passing year, which can lead to a treatment of disabled persons as something “other” and “unapproachable.”

One of the more difficult obstacles in the way of human understanding is understanding another human.  This is to say that sympathy and, much more so, empathy, while difficult to consistently utilize, are essential in making sense of humanity, not only in terms of society, but also to the metaphysical concepts of the state of being.  Finding connections and similarities between two people is daunting and sometimes risky, as finding these points of common understanding can lead others deeper into one’s own psyche than one is comfortable with.  This is “the hidden void” mentioned in Ferris’ poem, a place which we desperately wish to fill, and certainly try, but, more often than not, fail.   Filling this void seems to be impossible by oneself, so we turn to others to help fill it, however we do not know if the other is going to help fill the void or to expand its emptiness.  So we search for ways to gauge whether or not another with help or harm by finding points of similarity or complementarity.  This is difficult enough on a psychological level.  When someone is disabled, suddenly their outlook on life is different than the majority of the world, which makes them harder to connect with.  At least, this is the initial thought process regarding anyone who is “other.”

What Ferris is trying to convey in this poem is the lines of connection, of sympathy and empathy, that can be made between all people, whether they are “abnormal” or “normal”.  In fact, he points to those who are “normal”  and calls them ignorant, “the poor, normal ones who do not know/ their poverty.”  By calling attention to the fact that disabled persons, by virtue of seeing the world through a lens that far from what is considered “the norm”, are, in fact, more in tune with the answer of the great question of humanity than “normal” people.  However, Ferris does not say this as a slam against those who are not disabled.  On the contrary, he is calling everyone broken, hobbling, empty, and longing.  All disabled in their own way, trying to make sense of the world that seems to want to make sense but then throws a pink elephant into the room.  He is saying that, in our quest to reach our own epiphanies, the “other” lens may be what we are missing.  It is in this way that Ferris shows the ideal representation of a disabled person’s role in another’s life.  Showing that both characters in question are human, and therefore both searching, in their own way, for fulfillment, is the best way in which to portray any disabled person interacting with someone else.  Likewise, if all people are disabled, then it should be of utmost importance to ensure that the “other”, since it is a concept which isolates and degrades those grouped into it, does not get in the way of finding that understanding that which we all are looking for.

Written by Spyden

November 5th, 2010 at 1:08 am

Robert’s Formal Blog Post on William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” – April 8, 1928

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The gown fell gauntly from her shoulders, across her fallen breasts, then tightened upon her paunch and fell again, ballooning a little above the nether garments which she would remove layer by layer as the spring accomplished and the warm days, in color regal and moribund. She had been a big woman once but now her skeleton rose, draped loosely in unpadded skin that tightened again upon a paunch almost dropsical, as though muscle and tissue had been courage or fortitude which the days or the years had consumed until only the indomitable skeleton was left rising like a ruin or a landmark above the somnolent and impervious guts, and above that the collapsed face that gave the impression of the bones themselves being outside the flesh, lifted into the driving day with an expression at once fatalistic and of a child’s astonished disappointment, until she turned and entered the house again and closed the door.

– April 8, 1928

“I aint gwine let him,” Dilsey says. “Don’t you worry, honey.” She held to my arm. Then the belt came out and I jerked loose and flung her away. She stumbled into the table. She was so old she couldn’t do any more than move hardly. But that’s all right: we need somebody in the kitchen to eat up the grub the young ones can’t tote off. She came hobbling between us, trying to hold me again. “Hit me, den,” she says, “ef nothin else but hittin somebody won’t do you. Hit me,” she says.  “You think I won’t?” I says. “I don’t put no devilment beyond you,” she says. Then I heard Mother on the stairs. I might have known she wasn’t going to keep out of it. I let go. She stumbled back against the wall, holding her kimono shut.  “All right,” I says. “We’ll just put this off a while. But don’t think you can run it over me. I’m not an old woman, nor an old half dead nigger, either. You dam little slut,” I says.

-April 6, 1928

Dilsey, matriarch of the Gibson family and caretaker of the Compson family, provides an interesting opportunity to analyze age, race, and disability in The Sound and the Fury. In the work’s final section, April 8, 1928, we read Dilsey’s perspective of the Compson family’s final disintegration. Unlike the previous three sections, though, Dilsey does not narrate directly to us in first person. The section is in third person; this indirect focus on Dilsey accomplishes several things. For one, it disempowers her; the previous three narrators were white and were given the opportunity to narrate, even though the first, Benjy, was mentally disabled. Dilsey is black, old, poor, and a woman; these three things combine to create a pseudo-disability for her. This indirect narration also creates a mystique around Dilsey. As a black woman and servant, her opinions have little social value; however, Dilsey’s opinions are somewhat prophetic, at least to readers.

Working for the Compsons, caring for Benjy, putting up with Caroline’s hypochondriacally inspired “spells,” and keeping up the Compson home have all taken their toll on Dilsey. She “had been a big woman once” but time has consumed her muscles, which were also her “courage and fortitude.” Here is an interesting association between physical strength and inner fortitude. The Compson family’s problems have devoured both Dilsey’s physical and inner power. Faulkner is implying here that the strength of a person’s character is related to their physical strength.

Jason, in the previous April 6 section, dismisses Dilsey as an “old half dead nigger” who “couldn’t do any more than move hardly.” To Jason and most of the family, Dilsey is simply a tool, a prosthetic device used to oil their squeaky wheels (Benjy, Caroline, and Miss Quentin), to soothe Benjy’s tantrums, and maintain the shrinking house’s beauty and power. Already disempowered, maybe even disabled, by her race and gender, Dilsey’s increasing age and decreasing physical strength are further disempowering her. For Dilsey, now “only the indomitable skeleton was left rising like a ruin or a landmark above the somnolent and impervious guts.”

These guts, however, do give Dilsey some power. This power is primarily literary and not literal; instead of influencing the other characters, Dilsey influences us, the readers, with her opinions. As an “other” many times over – in race, gender, class, age, etc. – Dilsey is somewhat odd. In the opening of the April 8 section, Faulkner describes her wearing “nether garments which she would remove layer by layer as the spring accomplished and the warm days, in color regal and moribund.”  Because she is such a unique other, when Dilsey speaks up, we find prophetic power in her words. For example, when Jason threatens Quentin with a whipping, Dilsey intervenes. Though Quentin has done wrong, Jason’s punishment is entirely out of line. Dilsey, powerless and feeble and disempowered as she is, comes to Quentin’s defense and tries to stop Jason. She tells Jason to hit her instead. Jason says, “You think I won’t?” Dilsey replies, “I don’t put no devilment beyond you.” Here is a good example of how Faulkner’s uses Dilsey’s disempowered status as a multiple “other” as a prophetic literary device. Dilsey condemns Jason’s character early on in this section; upon further reading, we find that Dilsey’s statement if quite justified.

Dilsey is used by the Compson family and Faulkner as a prosthetic crutch. The Compsons use her physical strength to care for their disabled family members, their crumbling power, and their shrinking estate. They give Dilsey little credit, especially when her disempowered status as a black woman is furthered by her increasing age and frailty. Faulkner capitalizes on this, too. Dilsey is an “other” in many different categories many times over; her numerous “other” labels almost outnumber her numerous undergarments. These multiple categories of “otherness,” combined with Dilsey’s appearance, give Dilsey’s words, at least, a little power.

Written by Robert

October 20th, 2010 at 12:40 pm