writing by the always-wrong 

Please read the whole of this beautiful post by Sara Hendren — and then I want to reflect on its conclusion:

I want a world full of disabled voices, people telling their stories in their own ways, with their own voices intact. But I also want a world of people to read about the collective stakes inherent in disability — and not just the rights issues that are being ignored, urgent as they are. I want people to see that spending time thinking about disability is an invitation to see the world differently, and to locate one’s own experiences differently. Not to erase the particularity of any one person’s very material experiences, but to help remedy the invisibility of disabled experience outside the inner circle of people who talk to one another, who know that these issues are important. And some audiences will need some interpretation, some cognitive-linguistic bridges to understand the import of disability — its wonder, its overlooked importance, and yes, even its lessons, if we may call them such. Lessons without moralizing, lessons without abstractions.

Sara has a history of thinking wisely and humanely about these matters, and in ways that grow organically out of her own humanity, her own path through the world. In that regard, I very strongly recommend — I don’t like to say insist, but … I exhort you all, let me put it that way, to watch this talk that Sara gave in 2015. And if you’re a young smart person trying to make you way in the world, trying to discern your calling, then yeah, I insist that you watch it. Absolutely.

Anyway, I want to respond to the conclusion of Sara’s post because I think it leads to some vital stuff. And I want to start by disagreeing with this: “Lessons without moralizing, lessons without abstractions” — disagreeing because I think that all lessons are both moralizing and abstracting. Moralizing because if you haven’t come to believe that some decisions are better than others, or some clearly worse than others, then you haven’t learned a lesson; and abstracting because if you don’t in some way and to some degree generalize from (abstract from) someone else’s story or experience, than you also haven’t learned a lesson. The real question, then, I think, is to learn how to be genuinely moral without being moralistic, that is to say, without dictating the terms on which a lesson must be learned; and how to abstract only to the degree necessary, and without losing awareness of the specific textures of another life. The goal, I think, to borrow a phrase from Henry James that the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has made much of, is to be “finely aware and richly responsible.”

But I also think part of being “richly responsible” is to be willing to take the chance of telling the story wrong, of drawing something other than the perfect lesson, of abstracting too much or too little according to some (abstract!) universal ideal. And that’s why I applaud this statement by Sara, which comes just before the passage that I’ve already quoted: “Lately I’m thinking that I can only write what I can write, knowing that it will be incomplete and partial in its rendering.” Exactly. Riffing on Emily Dickinson: Tell the truth that you can tell, even if you can’t help telling it slant.

But it takes courage to do this because there are always critical panthers tensed and ready to pounce. Sara quotes Tom Shakespeare’s dismissal of Oliver Sacks’s whole career of writing about his patients as a “high-brow freak show,” a charge that it is hard to see how Sacks could have avoided except by refraining from writing at all about his clinical encounters. What I want to say to Tom Shakespeare is this: Wave your wand and eliminate Sacks’s books from the world. Now, tell me: How is the world better?

“But,” the answer will come back, at least from some, “Sacks should have done things differently. He should have included this and excluded that,” etc. etc. But perhaps he couldn’t have. Perhaps he wrote the books he was capable of writing. This is a real and important possibility. (I speak with some authority here, as a person who has written a good many books, not one of which turned out to be precisely what I had imagined and wanted when I set out.)

I feel much the same about Alex Tizon’s much-maligned account of his family’s slave. He shouldn’t have presumed to tell anything about Lola’s story, people said; He should have denounced his parents more explicitly; he shouldn’t have … he should have … The story is so incomplete! Indeed it is. As are all stories. But it was moving and shocking and disturbing, and I suspect it cost Tizon a good deal to write it. I’m glad it’s in the world, whatever its errors, whatever its limitations of perspective.

In one of his most powerful poems, Auden writes,

Beloved, we are always in the wrong,
Handling so clumsily our stupid lives,
Suffering too little or too long,
Too careful even in our selfish loves …

We are always in the wrong. It’s the human condition. If people remembered it, remembered that it’s their condition too, they might be a little more forgiving of the limitations of others.

Though many don’t acknowledge their own always-in-the-wrongness, they know, they can’t help knowing, that if they speak from their fund of knowledge and experience, others will censure them in the way they have censured. (“By what measure ye mete….”) And so it becomes ever easier to take refuge in the tweet-sized dismissal of what others venture, and in the bogus rectitude of silence. That’s why Auden notes that we respond to our always-in-the-wrongness by becoming “too careful” — “Too careful even in our selfish loves.” But if you’re always wrong already, why not sin boldly? Why not risk greatly?

I hope Sara writes her book boldly, and without a qualm. I hope for many books written boldly and without qualms, even books I don’t end up liking. Let even a thousand weeds bloom. Haters gonna hate, and the pathologically scrupulous gonna scruple. Defy them.