Disabilities and the grotesque
As we see the disabled around us, we often have the same petty thoughts. We may feel pity and think things along the lines of ‘oh you poor thing.’ We may consider ourselves lucky and we may even distinguish them as our other because of it; thinking, ‘thank god I’m not them’. In a paper regarding a feminine view of disability, Susan Wendell elaborates on how our internal views might marginalize the disabled,
For example, if someone tells me she is in pain, she reminds me of the existence of pain, the imperfection and fragility of the body, the possibility of my own pain, the inevitability of it. The less willing I am to accept all these, the less I want to know about her pain … I may tell myself that she could have avoided it, in order to go on believing that I can avoid it. I want to believe I am not like her; I cling to the differences. Gradually, I make her “other” because I don’t want to confront my real body, which I fear and cannot accept.
The disabled entice us to look at issues within us that we would rather not see so we create this binary of self and Other; distancing ourselves from the disabled, so that we may keep our eyes closed. This act of ‘othering’ the disabled overlooks them in a severe fashion. As with any group or individual treated in this manner, their individuality is betrayed by our assumptions and they are subsequently, broken off from the whole of society.
While literature commonly reverses the roles or populations of victims and abusers, The Country of the Blind is distinguished because the ‘disabled’ society functions flawlessly, if not better than ‘abled’ society. While we might usually be quick to push the disabled out of our realm of ‘self’ because they lack a function that we have, it is increasingly difficult to do so when that function is no longer necessary for them. Of course we might imagine an actual valley of blind villagers as quite chaotic and in need of the assistance from us gifted sighted beings. Nonetheless, when we view the systematic and simple day to day life in the land of the blind, we cannot immediately relegate them, as we might ordinarily do. Wells takes this idea, that our normal assumptions are invalid, and uses it to make us question our own perception and presumptions of the groups that we marginalize.
In fact, the villagers in The Country of the Blind are descendants of a maligned group who fled “from the lust and tyranny of an evil Spanish ruler” (536). Subsequent generations of the villagers began to lose their sight and, “for fourteen generations these people had been blind and cut off from all the seeing world; the names for all the things of sight had faded and changed; the story of the outer world was faded and changed to a child’s story” (549). In our society though, “Bodily difference has for centuries determined social structures by defining certain bodies as the norm, and defining those which fall outside the norm as ‘Other’” (Clapton). Wells is careful to show us that the disabled villagers were very capable of building their functioning society in the absence of the generalizations and denouncements from a non-disabled majority. We could never actually measure exactly how much we have hindered these groups by not accepting ourselves and thus dismissing them. However, in Wells’ portrayal, it is vast.
Wells’ odd land full of people with “eyelids closed and sunken, as though the very balls beneath had shrunk away” (545), is grotesque in nature because it mixes deformities that we view as uncommon with an entire population. When we look at the prosperous village of the blind however, it becomes more difficult to distinguish them from ourselves; as their deformity becomes the norm, their ‘otherness’ fades, and we must reevaluate our notion of self. Cultures that have not been inhibited by our judgments and preconceived notions of normal society, become more like us. They are no longer just blind wanderers in need of assistance as we might think of our society’s vision impaired, but high functioning individuals with much more affinity to us than we initially recognize. The Country of the Blind is careful to portray the society as similar to a sighted society in more aspects than not, and this begs us to question how we view and treat the disabled in our society. This uneasiness (partly from guilt, partly from self-consciousness) we experience is internalized and systematically used by the author to pry our eyes open to the ways in which we marginalize our own disabled.