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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

I Believe Part II

Earlier today I lauded Stephen Kuusisto's "Disabilities: Forms of a Fair Kind Among Us". He followed up this remarkable post today, June 30, with "How Many Things Are Required of a Person With a Disability to Be Beautiful?" Kuusisto began his post with a quote from Marsilio Ficino, a Platonist with whom I am not too familiar with. However, I understand why Kuusisto was drawn to the following quote: "What then is the beauty of the body? Activity, vivacity, and a certain grace shining in the body because of the infusion of its own ideas". Kuusisto thinks we people with a disability should steal this line and that we are beautiful in a Dionysian way. I am no expert on the dichotomy between Apollonan and Dianysian as discussed by Nietzsche but I do know a good bit about the history of anthropology. One of the most famous American anthropologists, Ruth Benedict, was interested in Nietzsche's work and helped develop a specialization called culture and personality--a field I have never liked. Benedict studied the Zuni culture and found "the basic contrast between the Pueblos and the other cultures of North America is the contrast that is named and described by Nietzsche in his studies of Greek tragedy". I am not so sure such a sweeping generalization can be supported by the ethnographic facts. Nor can I accept Kuusisto's generalization that people with disability are Dionysian. Sure we people with a disability have adapted, put our bodies back together in a way that is not idealized. This does not mean we accept our current form--think Chris Reeve and all those that peddle a cure for spinal cord injury. I have no doubt though that all people with a disability can relate to Dionysian experiences as we must control our rage and fury over the manner in which we are disrespected and stigmatized. Controlling these emotions turns us toward the Apollonian and controlled we must be. By controlled I mean we must channel our rage in a positive form. For me, and strongly suspect for kuusisto, that rage takes the form of writing about disability rights.

The dichotomy between Apollonian and Dionysian is thought provoking yet fails to measure up to my need for empirical evidence. I am afterall a social scientist and not a poet and do not have the luxury of making assumptions about societies or the personalities of people. This is in part why Ruth Benedict's work fell out of favor in anthropology but left a lasting impression and legacy. Her efforts to find patterns in culture to borrow the title of her most famous book was evocative. Perhaps Kuusisto is onto something here--if we people with a disability are Dionysian we surely are complex creatures and thus cannot be reduced to ableist stereotypes. We remain unique individuals with our respective quirks despite our similarities. If we are unique, and I think we are, we cannot be characterized as Apollonian or Dianysian.


Becs said...

One of the most beautiful photographs I have ever seen was in the New York Times. It was the naked back of a man in his chair. He was a racer and everything about the photo was breathtaking.

The Dionysian ideal of beauty seems to me to mean a healing together of those pieces, so perfectly joined together that it's as if the wound never existed.

That isn't perfect beauty to me.

william Peace said...

I have seen photos of the sort you describe. Dionysian indeed! The photo I like best of my son and I was taken when he was about 2 years old. We are both on a long path, our backs to the camera. Our body language is such that we are both leaning toward one another as we are moving. Oh how i miss those days when he was a little kid!

Becs said...

A little empty-nest wistfulness in your tone. I haven't experienced it, but I understand. Friends who have kids seem to relish every moments with them. Even the less pleasant aspects are overlooked.

william Peace said...

Becs, I am wistful about the days my son was little--it was the best time of my life. But I look forward to the empty nest--I will not miss living with a teenager one iota.