Sunday, March 11, 2012

Disabling Mobility: Thomas Coryate on Exile & Pride

“Sing it for the deaf. Sing it for the blind.
Sing about everyone that you left behind....
Sing it for the ones who want to get away: 

My Chemical Romance, Sing


In his book, Exile & Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation, Eli Clare writes about running. H e says that his running may come from a sense of running away as much as something he does for the love of running, and himself. Disability, class, and queerness become for him a source of exile and also a source of pride.

Now, my high-school mentor told me once that you run only when chased. As someone who enjoys running, I wasn’t sure I agreed. Then again, part of why I enjoyed running was that I wasn’t supposed to be able to do it. Diagnosed with a heart condition when I was seven-years old, I was given exemptions from gym class until college; exemptions that I never took. I enjoyed running, but I also greatly enjoyed it when my doctor told me years later that I shouldn’t have grown so big (tall or muscular) given my condition. Thinking on disability this week, I am not so sure that my mentor wasn’t right after all. All that I do, all the hard work, the drive to keep moving: what am I afraid would happen if I just stopped? What do I run from? What chases me?

Is there a point in which running from something becomes running for its own sake, or for mine.

Thomas Coryate left home in the early teens of the 17th century. First he traveled to Jerusalem and wrote a book about his travels. Soon after, around 1616, letters began to filter into England from Coryate saying that he decided to walk (almost wander) from the Holy City to India. At home and abroad Coryate is regarded as “odde.” He exhibits queer desires for Englishman, to see and touch foreign, even non-human bodies. Furthermore, he is a queer representative of English: he changes clothing and languages as he travels, eschewing more of England from him as he goes. Even his fellow Englishmen at home and abroad mostly regard him as a broken, deficient, even embarrassing, drifter. And yet Coryate works to gain their approval even as he tries to escape their disabling gaze, one that would keep him frozen at home. And yet he defies expectations, and even boasts having super-natural health, until he at last succumbs to disease while traveling and dies. Contradictions enumerate in Coryate’s story and we can only speculate what drove him to run so far from home. 

Why did Thomas Coryate walk from Jerusalem to India? What chased him? How did he feel when he got there?


Running from Anonymity

Clare tells us that running away from home, in his case a small rural town, can mean an escape into anonymity. We leave those who know us. But how well do they know us? Can leaving home, if it lets us shine somewhere else, allow those at home to see us in/with a new light?

While experiencing inexplicable queer bodily disorientations and joys, Coryate obsessively records his travels through letters and etchings of him atop foreign animals, which he then sends back to England. His running is not merely for or about himself, but the pride of the home to which he never returns. How much this self-recording of unexplainable experiences for the sake of others motivate Coryate? Did he write for those “like him”, potential super-crips, who felt the exile of being “odde” and desired then for the extraordinary?  Did he write for those who could not understand him in a desperate hope that he could be understood? Did he desire their approval? Could their approval ever make him forget feeling failure?

He writes that he expects to be so “woundrous that I believe you will doubt this bee the true hand writing of your Odceombiam Neighbor, Thomas Coryate.” Wondrous is a choice word, as it signifies that which is part familiar and part unknown. His name likewise marks something identifiable, but also queer, aslant, and inarticulate. Coryate uses this special attention afforded to him as a super-crip to attempt to become legible, notable, and to thus un-crip himself.

And yet, is this not an inherently failed venture, on some level? Jacques Lacan writes that we erupt into language because we lose the signifier which is the self. In other words, we think, speak, and write because are trying to articulate our own existence, which we fear we have lost. The closer we think we get to it, the faster we go, because not only do we desperately want that affirmation, we are terrified of it not being there once we arrive. And thus we intentionally err.

Instead of returning home from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, famous in a way, we set yet another goal, and another. It’s the self-defeating, self-differing erring which Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan identify as the womb which we can never go back to (it may not have ever existed, we fear) and which he ever want to enter.

Is this because our attempts to straighten ourselves are done with queer hands, as our climb up to become able is propped up on the disability that weighs us down? We run into the world of words because we continually fear that the silence in our hearts (my disabled heart) will finally catch up with us.


Running from Disability

Clare writes that no one told him to give up on climbing his mountain. Did anyone ever tell Coryate that he could come home? Did his mother ever write back to him to say that he would be a success if he did?

Perhaps, but that would be hard for them to tell them, as it would be hard to hear. The desire for the crip, the queer, the odde, to be the supercrip is strong. And Clare reminds us that impairments may be biological, but disability is social. It’s what happens when impairments that mark us are read as brokenness, often times to the extent that we are regarded on the whole as abject or incapable.

When Coryate does run into someone from home on his travels, he writes that they wished to speak with him on account of the book he has already written on his travels. They attend to him, because he is a super-crip. The next time he meets Englishmen, it is in the court of an Indian noble, and they wish to cover, silence, and correct him. They both attend to him because he is crip. They disable him even as they exceptionalize him.

Running away from disability, from the social forces which inscribe this identity onto the flesh are hard to escape. Getting away from the people that first diagnosed us may be a sort of liberation, and a sort of exile. Nonetheless, home is simultaneous that place behind us (the place of failure) and the place perpetually differed ahead of us (the site of success), and we may fear that we may never be liberated in either, so we keep walking; all the way to India, and beyond.


Running from Super-Crip

Clare tells us that he does not want to become a super-crip, although he wants to be "a success." The distinction may exist in how and for who we become "super." Becoming a super-crip may mean that we are exceptions to our socially inscribed disability and abjection, but in doing so, we enforce the rule. Our exceptionalism demonstrates how unable we/others are. Can we, when we are marked as queer or disabled, as the person not expected to succeed, perform outstanding accomplishments without being define or defining boundaries? Can we be proud of all that makes us who we are, without implying that there should be some level of shame to be overcome?

In a body and world which we code as perpetually antagonizing the crip with failure, it’s hard not to desire the extraordinary as signs of success. It is a desire of sincerity and of good will, but not always of innocence. By perpetually re-inscribing that failure on and around the crip body we transform impairments into disability. It is hard to resist that draw, just as it is hard not to re-inscribe sex and gender. Judith Butler tells us that sex is always already gender. Is impairment always already disability?

Coryate was proud to boast that he was an “Odde man from [the town of] Oddecome.” And yet he would remain for a long time until his death only “from” his home, not in it. As I flip through the pages of Exile and Pride by Eli Clare, reflect on my own life and those who have touched it, I contemplate the locating of home, our crip bodies, and the interplay of exile and pride. On one level, we fear our bodies as home, because home is the site of our failure, so we try to exile ourselves from it as we push towards the highest peak on the mountain. And yet home travels with us, perpetually exiling us further as it also marks on our skin the fruits of our failures and accomplishments; as our only possible site for pride?


Running from Home

Clare meditates on exile and liberation. Both are kinds of escapes, but when we are looking at home or the body (or the body as home) both may be considered "failed ventures" when we cannot possibly get away from ourselves. Home travels with us. However, we may regard exile and liberation kinds of relationships to the self: exile and alienation from the self, or else a liberation and empowering of the self. Could the exile and liberation be rather a change in how we approach and use our bodies than an escape from them?

Sara Ahmed, when writing on Queer Phenomenology, tells us that home is where “the body extends into space”. It is a relationship to the other bodies in the place. Queerness, she suggests, is “when that extension fails.” Thrown into the world, disoriented, we can sometimes find life-lines, roads or directions which can allow us to maintain a sense of home in the self and in the world. But queer lines are often not linear. They curve, slant, oscillate, even run like dotted lines with intermittent breaks. Like Clare tackling the hardest trails, needing to take frequent breaks, and turning away before the peak, Coryate too wanders away from home and goal.

If Coryate felt a sense of exile from England, even if it was a chosen exile, did he maintain a sense of home? He frequently writes about how his body feels as he travels. He gives rich description of kissing stones, hugging an elephant between his legs, exchanging air with foreigners, and even receiving physical abuse. The pictures he desire to have done of his body likewise show some sort of attachment to the body as home. Yet we should attend to the fact that Coryate constantly pushes his body beyond its comfort zones and changes it with new foods, clothes, airs, etc. The desire to run from home is for Coryate the desire to transform home/body and to give it new contexts. Ultimately these transformations lead him to a transition into death, an even which scatters home and the body into the foreign, but perhaps now more familiar, Indian landscape.


Running from Death

Clare ends his meditation sitting on the edge of a wall, his legs dangling down over the edge. Concluding on this image, might we rethink the premise of this book on "Exile and Pride." We have already distinguished exile as a kind of push, and liberation a kind of pull. Alienation a kind of fear and pride a kind of love. But cannot we use both? Is not running from death, even if its into a deadly situation, be in part the requirement for freedom? Do we not need to riot or fight, flee and escape, become alien, in order to enjoy the pride of liberation? Do we not need to run from something in order to run for our life?

I need to keep active to keep my heart strong. Clare needed to move away from home to escape abuse and harassment. Coryate needed to walk, perhaps, because a life in England was simply not livable to him. GK Chesterton writes that the difference between the suicide and the martyr (without, ironically for this post, taking in mental differences and impairments) is that the suicide  fears death and so either waits for the end to come or else gives himself over to danger. The martyr on the other-hand "drinks life like water, and drinks death like wine," by running into danger (for everywhere is danger) for the chance to escape into life.

Would Coryate have persisted longer if he stayed in England? Perhaps, perhaps not. But making a break for that which gave his life meaning; even if it was simply the act and joy of making a break for it. There may be nowhere we can run where we will not be marked by disability and queerness, but by actively engaging in the drama of transforming our lives by running for some (Eastern?) horizon, we participate in shaping our fate (although we may never escape it). The thing that chases us can be made into a running partner, helping us keep pace. The game may remain deathly serious, but by maintaining a sense of play, we may maintain a sense of independence from the beaten track and a slight indifference to our running-mate. That indifference, may in the end, be our only escape from the chase.


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