Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

"What He Found Not Monsters, He Made So": The I-Word and the Bathos of Exclusion

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

"What He Found Not Monsters, He Made So": The I-Word and the Bathos of Exclusion

Article excerpt

Using the concept of bathos, the essay interrogates a late 2004 installment of Rall, a left-leaning cartoon strip that for political reasons reinscribes the alterity of people with learning disabilities. The trope Rall uses of ascribing mental defect to political opponents is examined and traced back to the Restoration. Contrasting the writings of the royalist Thomas Willis and the Whig John Locke with regard to their analyses of mental disability, the essay argues that political developments in the late-seventeenth century necessitated the formation of a category of not-quite human entities designated by the word idiots.

What is at stake when a speaker pronounces a lofty and complacent sentiment but in articulating the thought inadvertently destabilizes its meaning? Addressing this phenomenon is Alexander Pope in his 1728 "Peri Bathous: or the Art of Sinking in Poetry." Ventriloquizing through Martinus Scriblerus, the text's ostensible author, Pope "relentlessly exploit[s] the follies of minor writers," in particular the 'low' writers of Grub Street, by offering what "is both a satire on literary mediocrity, and an analysis of what makes bad poetry bad" (Kramer 80). While the mock treatise provides many illustrations of 'profound' writing, it pillories the examples by only supplying instance after instance of a grandly rising thought that punctures itself. Sarcasm constitutes its modus operandi, exemplified at one point when Scriblerus praises a particular author's "peculiarity" of "invention": "The author's pencil, like the wand of Circe, turns all into monsters at a stroke. A great genius takes things in the lump, without stopping at minute considerations [. . .]. With a boldness peculiar to these daring geniuses, what he found not monsters, he made so" (208). Pope strongly suggests that wherever in literature monsters are produced, bathos cannot be far off.

Today, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines bathos as a "Ludicrous descent from the elevated to the commonplace in writing or speech." Of interest here is what happens when a twenty-first century political cartoonist and a seventeenth-century Whig philosopher categorize a group of people as 'idiots' (the I-word), 'retards,' 'changelings,' or 'naturals.' This study will begin by inspecting an item published in the Washington Post, an installment of the cartoon strip Rall that, in order to register its political message, unapologetically reinscribes the alterity of people with learning disabilities. The essay next will consider what assumptions were necessary to be in place for the strip's rhetorical gesture to become intelligible. The final sections of the study will explore when and why these stereotypes coalesced by returning to the late seventeenth century, the period when the notion that "the cognitive ability of our minds [a]s a defining quality of our species" was just becoming dominant (Martensen 144). John Locke's definition of the idiot as an entity incapable of reason in effect excludes this figure from membership in the human species. Relevant for contextualizing his definition is one that the OED offers for another word, monster: "a mythical creature which is part animal and part human"-relevant because, as Pope intimates, wherever monsters are being produced, bathos cannot be far off. Locke's commitments were as much political as philosophical, and if bathos enters into his writing, it does so when, for the purpose of serving a Whig agenda, it is establishing the alterity of people with intellectual disabilities. In sum, the trope Rall and Locke share opens an investigational portal for exploring the cultural history of mental disability. This essay will argue that political developments necessitated the formation of a category of 'mythical' (non-existent) quasi-human entities that today is designated by the I-word.

A segment of Rall was published a few years ago in a number of major American newspapers including the Washington Post, a student with a learning disability appears in each of the four frames. …

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