Bodies and British Romanticism
(Minnesota)When I was ten, Donald Lamar and I went over to the Fair over on the south side and as we were walking by the "Freak Show" which wasn't yet open there was a man sitting on a stool and as we passed him he sat up and swallowed his nose, somehow got his lower lip up and all the way over his proboscis. And then he wiggled his chin at us. The Fat Lady didn't do anything but keep on reading the "National Enquirer," and Col. Tom Thumb lay under a small wooden table, asleep.
Those were the days when it was OK to gawk at strange-looking people, perhaps laugh at them but mostly to wonder what it was like to be born with no arms or to weigh 700 pounds or to be eight feet (or three feet) tall or have tattoos from neck to toe or no toes (nor legs) at all.
In England in the early 19th Century people came in droves to pay to see Daniel Lambert. He weighed in at over 50 stone (700 pounds), and Youngquist calls him a "mountain of a man." "Here's a man so big that he makes money for doing nothing at all." He invited people into his home and for three shillings, would just sit, "offering his body to amazed glances . . . Having so much property in his own person, Lambert didn't labor to require more."
The "proper body" is one of the twenty or so themes of Monstrosities. The thesis is that the body is the one thing that we supposedly own when we are born, ours to possess (vide John Locke) to use to acquire other capital possessions. But there is yet another body: the "proper body." It is the one that is imposed on us by custom, society, the medical profession, political leaders, the upper class. There are also the ones that can be excluded from this custom and "the social contract;" namely, women's bodies, slaves, blacks, orientals, the deformed, diseased, or addicted.
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Youngquist turns Monstrosities into a strange hotchpotch of Locke, Foucault, Byron, Mary Wollstonecraft, Nietzsche, Blake, Kant, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Frankenstein, and several obscure physicians who pioneered the study of physiology in the late 18th Century. It can be all quite confusing, especially when one tries to wade through such tropes as,
De Quincey practices self consciousness - - - as an eater and artist of opium. His Confessions comes out of him as the material effect of dietary distress, not as the ruminations of an ashamed voluptuary. De Quincey's alternative to subjectivity amounts simply, terminally, to the care of his bodied self. That is the extent of the opium eater's morality: a dietetic hygiene that affirms life as a matter, not of transcendence or even of health, but of daily maintenance.
You sort of get the idea of it as you are swept along by the words, but then again, sometimes the train runs off the track and ends up down there in the canyon lying on its side, belching steam and smoke, the wheels vainly spinning.
On the other hand, when Youngquist is running in the clear, his imagination and his leaps of ideas are breathtaking. For instance, Thomas Malthus, the first to write about what we now call "the population bomb," opined that the "body incarnates a fatal tension between eating and intercourse, arithmetic and geometry." Or that "war is a wound machine." Or that Thomas De Quincey, with his Confessions of an English Opium Eater, made hunger his theme, as surely as Knut Hamsen:
This gnawing hunger bespeaks neither simple physical privation nor existential malaise but a mode of agency that evaluates life by incorporation. It is in this sense that De Quincey will later declare that "not the opium-eater, but the opium, is the true hero of the tale . . . Opium affirms life materially, corporally, and hence has a "marvelous agency." Opium eating does not so much satisfy hunger as revalue it, put it to work.
By contrast, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge treated his addiction to opium as a moral dilemma, creating "the psychodrama of remorse, recovery and relapse." His very public denunciation of his weakness against "this detested poison," his determination to submit himself to the care of a physician to kick the habit, made him, according to Younquist, "the first celebrity to enter rehab."
Then there is the matter of George Gordon, Lord Byron, and his famous clubfoot - - - which may not have been that at all (some doctors later opined that it was "mild spastic paraplegia or spina bifida.") Youngquist describes Byron's specially designed boots, says that they demonstrated that prosthesis "opens a body to otherness:"
Perhaps the poet of the satanic school practiced not a demonic but a prosthetic art. Perhaps his scandalous reputation arises as much from physical as from psychological tribulation . . . perhaps Byron's surgical boots materially occasion transgression, one that challenges the sameness that the proper body promotes.
Thus his physical deformity induced what the people of his time would see as a political deformity. To bring home his point, Youngquist indulges in heavy (and often wonderful) punning: "Birth got Byron off on the wrong foot." Byron required "fake boots to maintain his social standing." He stepped "toward another way of living, a way that involved otherness." "But that conclusion might be a misstep."
Whatever the case, that boot alters Byron's stance toward others, or better yet, others it altogether, forcing him to step beyond the norm of the proper body, making prosthesis a part of bodily life."
Making it through Monstrosities is a walk on the wild side. Sometimes we are so irritated at the author's Foucaultisms that we want to just hang it up. Other times, the writing, the insights give a hit on the head, that magic "wow" moment that you and I look for in the world of facts. On Coleridge as ex-junkie: "The turn away from bad habits and toward the proper body fulfills itself in Coleridge's advocacy of religion as the institutional means of producing it."
State religion reproduces and regulates the health of the proper body in liberal society. Religion truly is the opiate of the masses.
On Frankenstein's viewing the "wretch, the filthy demon to whom I had given life:"
Life does not in and of itself confer humanity on a human organism. That distinction comes through its ability to participate in civil society.
And the long-standing low-level situs given to women in society:
If women are excluded from the social contract it is partly on the basis of bodily deviance from a masculine standard, an assumption whose authority runs back to Aristotle. Liberal political theory presumes a standard that renders all such deviant flesh innocuous.
If you are going to do Monstrosities, be prepared to devote a few weeks to it. And you have to remember - - - it's all over the place, at the same time being of a whole. Youngquist sees, perhaps too clearly, how society makes eunuchs of those who deviate physically from the norm. It is no accident that one of the few institutions he praises is the Bartholomew Fair which ran in England for almost 700 years.
It featured freaks - - - "The Beautiful Spotted Negro Boy," "A Foundling Cripple," and other "monsters, prodigies, and curiosities." The author views it as a place where "monstrosities could be valued for their singularity, their positive otherness to the proper body." It conferred "positive value on such bodies."
Bartholomew Fair performs, so to speak, the cultural possibility of monstrosities.--- L. W. Milam