2010 Calibre Prize (Winner): 'On Being Odd'

Odd to start by quoting P.G. Wodehouse: ‘She was a girl with a wonderful profile, but steeped to the gills in serious purpose.’ Bertie Wooster is complaining, in ‘Jeeves Takes Charge’1, about Honoria Glossop, who has forced upon him ‘Types of Ethical Theory’. ‘Odd’ because anyone steeped to the gills in serious purpose would not take Wodehouse as a literary starting point. Wodehouse confessed himself uninterested in politics and affairs of the nation, and people in general. He saw himself in Bertie and all the other fellows from the Drones Club, with the possible exception of Psmith, who was a dabbler in socialism. So the self-contrived scrapes of an indolent young English gentlemen and his valet’s ingenious rescues would probably not make it on the must-read list for people of serious purpose.

Although no longer a girl, I am a bit like Honoria. I have been, since early youth, steeped to the gills in serious purpose. My shelves are loaded with books on ethics, social and moral philosophy, and some on theology. I confess I am likely to lend books bearing suffering, pain or alienation in the title. It is the wonderful profile that gives me pause. Wodehouse probably pictured a woman with a shapely figure, long legs, fine skin, pretty face and excellent styling – hair and clothes. Not me. I claim a wonderful profile because my body is mutilated and odd, and I get around unconventionally. I inhabit what Rose-Marie Garland-Thomson calls ‘a stareable body’.2

Although over the years I have come to modify my internal, reflexive gaze to recognise my new body-self, I remember the first few times that I took this stareable body out in public – after I had made my own tentative explorations in front of a mirror. Wondering at my new form, shocked and interested, repelled and compelled to gaze again. It was like that. I did not go out; I took the body out. The internal body-frame no longer matched the one I saw. I had to learn how to look anew at myself. And those early encounters did not help. In the eyes of those I dared to meet (starers), I saw my own shock and titillation, the same desire to look away and the craving to focus and take apart and put together again. Even after almost thirty-five years, I still catch myself doing it.

Michel de Montaigne, in the sprawling rave ‘Of Cripples’,3 reveals that ‘the more does my own deformity astonish me, the less I understand myself’. He also tells us why, persuaded by the ancients, he has come to convince himself that ‘I have formerly made myself believe that I have had more pleasure in a woman by reason she was not straight, and accordingly reckoned that deformity amongst her graces’. He is convinced of the increased vitality of the genitalia when the limbs are deformed. I will return to this: but first, a more serious purpose.

‘Counting deformity as one of our graces is precisely the task. And the path to this is via wonderment and its concomitant: becoming wonderful.’

Counting deformity as one of our graces is precisely the task. And the path to this is via wonderment and its concomitant: becoming wonderful. Wonderment is often connected to beauty and grace, like Honoria’s profile, something to inspire rapture and awe, or, better, erotic, even carnal, contemplation. One stands on a precipice of attraction, desire and uplift – made more delightful because of its precariousness; you totter unprotected by repressive rationality. You are exposed to a life-altering encounter, one that might be the turning point in a loveless or cheerless life. Some people are better at it than others. Children, having yet to learn repressive rationality, and older people, having forsaken it as too tiresome, seem more open to the wonderful than are those of us filled with serious purpose. Perhaps they are concerned with the thing, not so much the reason why. Montaigne goes on:

I was just now ruminating, as I often do, what a free and roving thing human reason is. I ordinarily see that men, in things propounded to them, more willingly study to find out reasons than to ascertain truth: they slip over presuppositions, but are curious in examination of consequences; they leave the things, and fly to the causes.

Perhaps this too-soon flight to the causes deprives us of the lessons to be found on the precipice of wonderment.

Much has been said about staring in all its baroque forms – looking, gazing, ogling, eyeing off, goggle-eyedness, lasciviousness, gawking, gaping, watching. A fresh taxonomy will not help us here, but we can agree that, in extravagant looking and elaborate avoidance in the encounter with the mutilated as well as the gorgeous, we cross the threshold of the precipice of wonderment. This is Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the dual numinous forces of fear and fascination.4 Otto is describing our encounter with the Holy Other; I am talking about our encounter with a definitely unholy other – not the polar opposite of the divine (the demonic), but the unsightly, unfamiliar, odd other. So, no, I do not think that when I enter these baroque moments I embody divinity for my starer, but I am taking them, initially at least, to a place that most of the great psychoanalysts would agree we all want to avoid: a confrontation with the ghastly certainty that life is fragile, easily wrecked and fleeting. (Being a goddess is the other matter to which Montaigne alludes.)

A wonderful profile is particularly troublesome in certain places. Indeed, a companion once complained that he hated going out with me because in the stares I attracted he felt that his capacity to pass anonymously through the crowd was compromised. He didn’t like the attention. The symbolic interactionists make sense here when they argue that contexts construct our perceptions. My body is not overly stareable in a hospital – it is what people expect there. Hospitals are, after all, gathering places for the horrible and those approaching death. Casinos are not. A telltale sign of ‘this is a place where the wonderfully horrible do not belong’ is the presence of staircases. Perhaps ironically then, the stage for Encounter One is a lift foyer.

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A friend and I, both dressed up, had swanned off to a casino, not so much for gambling as for the lure of glamour, an uncommon pursuit for toilers in the sisterhood of purposefulness. We were young, not goddesses, but more than presentable and completely ill-prepared for the exaggerated, externalised verbal reaction of a group of young men disembarking from the lift we were about to enter. Their insults and faux vomiting, their staggering about in revulsion, their loud assurances to each other, placed me centre stage in a scene that embroiled my friend and other innocents in a drama about the drunken solipsism of young men searching for female sex partners. It was a moment of mutual horror, the frozen-in-time quality broken by my friend propelling me out of their sight. I shook for ages; it took the fun right out of the evening: the numinous fascinans lost in their sexism, and my shame. (I take comfort in the retributive fantasy that some sublime beauty rejected them before the night was out.)

Erving Goffman5 and his fellow symbolic interactionists use dramaturgy to help us work out what is going on here. In simplified form their theories are well known. Individuals marked for stigma must first possess spectacular differences and then attract adverse social reactions. Some targeted people manage to get away with it. Even though they belong to a stigmatised group because of their sexuality (for example), they may conceal their choices and pass as ‘normal’. Many of us who are physically impaired cannot. We are ‘out’ whether we choose to be or not. And so we have to learn ways of managing our attractiveness in the wonderment staring (and shaming) stakes. This process is called impression management. The early symbolic inter-actionists said that those of us with spoiled identities select various masks in this drama of managing our stigma. In short, they said we choose from ingratiation, intimidation and supplication. All these strategies advance our desire to get something out of the other: perhaps recognition and inclusion; a space to be ourselves; or a service. Drawing on social psychology, they also argue that the person with the wonderful profile also acts to protect herself from the pain of the internalised or introjected horror at the self.

Using this framework, the encounter in the casino had me moving away self-protectively and seeking reassurance from my ‘wise’ friend. She is considered wise because she is not marked by my stigma but is knowing and accepting of it. Most galling is the fact that I had employed an impression management strategy to enter that fun palace. I had attempted to ingratiate myself by dressing à la mode, by going with a normaland by paying my own way. For most patrons it worked, but no ploy could distract the boozy boyos from the image of oddness that so captured their attention. They stumbled off the precipice into horror.

I want, at times like that, to affirm Emily Post’s etiquette rules enjoining others not to stare but to turn away politely and to pass by on the other side. Yet Encounter Two reminds me that such politeness is really only another form of socially sanctioned abandonment; another pathway to shame.

Processions in cathedrals come with all manner of pomp and pomposity, of hierarchical huffing and episodes of episcopal self-elevation. The organ music and choir, the standing congregation, the space, the distance from door to stalls, the whish of gowns, the creak of seldom-worn leather shoes, the clutter of cross and thurible, all floating over the mundane mutterings of the processants. I, as chaplain, was the least among them and the last in line. When I arrived at the stalls no seats were left. While I clambered around (lots of stairs) trying to find a spot to settle before retreating to the pews, nobody moved or spoke or looked or yielded. Tactful inattention, smugness or abandonment? Next day I received a formal apology, which only slightly eased the sting of being out of place. (I resisted another retributive fantasy in which the clerics, stripped of their vestments, noted their naked ordinariness with a touch of disappointment.)

‘Taking the stareable body out in public never ceases to challenge and provoke me.’

These two vignettes are illustrative of multiple encounters in the thirty-five years of my oddness. Taking the stareable body out in public never ceases to challenge and provoke me. Just being out means dealing with wonderment. So if wonderment leads to a rejection based on horror or denial, how can I, following Montaigne, count deformity amongst my graces? Goffman and Co. would have me protectively and self-deceptively wearing a mask and hanging out with the wise. My colleagues in the disability movement would have me taking up a form of cripple in-your-faceness. This might be viewed as intimidation or as an effective disruptive strategy in the classic drama. And I confess I have enjoyed myself on many occasions by confronting others with the oddness.

Or, I could take up being a goddess.

John Steinbeck points the way when, in The Grapes of Wrath, he has the Joad boys telling the one-eyed mechanic to stop crying, to fill in the hole and get out there – just like the one-legged whore who is being paid more than her intact colleagues. It might be tacky, but, if you are interested, you only have to do a simple Internet search to enter the worlds of the devotees. It is a playground for the contemporary Montaigne – those people who, for reasons disputed by all players and the psychiatrists, are convinced of Montaigne’s conclusion that sex is better with a crippled woman. Though I am not going to explore the proclivities of others here, I must acknowledge that, for some, the arrangement seems to please all players. I have had completely benign and essentially uninteresting contacts with those who see in me a goddess of gorgeous deformity. This also takes the fun out of the evening. And I do not indulge in any fantasies!

At this point, it is tempting to condemn those with unreconstructed attitudes and lowbrows, but I want to stick with Montaigne’s suggestion that we should stay with the thing and not fly to the causes (or other elegant makings of meaning). Yet it seems I am running out of options here. All the identified responses to wonderment – revulsion, ignorance and worship – are too intense and do not match the emotions of the simple social encounters of the daily round. They do not offer a pathway to a quiet transformation.

So the daily challenge remains: when I take the body out in public, am I conscious, confident, proud, courageous and competent? Is there something authentic about this, or is it simply my latest mask? And when the day is done and the technology stacked against the wall, I must ask: can my mother look upon me with delight and not with sorrow? Can my children see me just as I should be? Can I dance naked in the bright, desiring gaze of my lover? Can I know myself as beautiful as well as strong? Can I gawk at myself with love and not with horror or sadness? Must I accept the moral enjoinder of Shirley in Charlotte Brontë’s novel of the same name?

You held out your palm for an egg and fate put into it a scorpion. Show no consternation. Close your fingers firmly upon the gift; let it sting through your palm. Never mind, in time, after your hand and arm have swelled and quivered long with torture, the squeezed scorpion will die and you will have learned a great lesson – how to endure without a sob.6

Nineteenth-century Brontë builds on a long philosophical tradition about the place of sorrow and social isolation. Am I condemned to live with the impaired happiness of Aristotle’s ugly man? Aristotle wrote at length on happiness, work that is receiving renewed attention from those who can see that justice is important to life satisfaction.7 If Montaigne sees the deformity as a grace, Brontë as a lesson in silent affliction, does Aristotle help us to see it as a good, as contributing to the proper equipment, as a virtue? Here, to these interlocutors at least, is another odd thing. Although I look unfortunate and continue with the loss, I enjoy all the external goods: good education, good job, good children, good lover, good house, good health, good friends, good community. This disjuncture in impressions simply serves to illustrate the point that wonderment seems to get in the way of seeing the full story of me. Yet it persists.

I am interested in the transforming potential of these encounters, not only for my own sense of dignity but also for that of others. This is the point of being steeped to the gills in serious purpose. If we only focus on the etiquette of encounters between those of us with wonderful profiles and those who find themselves in a state of wonderment, we miss identifying opportunities to reduce shame, to increase life-honouring social connections and to help us all transform our relationships with our own bodies. In saying this I am mindful of Montaigne’s caution as he reflects further on cripples:

‘I am interested in the transforming potential of these encounters, not only for my own sense of dignity but also for that of others’
Great abuses in the world are begotten, or, to speak more boldly, all the abuses of the world are begotten, by our being taught to be afraid of professing our ignorance, and that we are bound to accept all things we are not able to refute: we speak of all things by precepts and decisions.

This makes the task even harder. If I take Montaigne’s caution to heart, I must try, for as long as possible anyway, to put aside the precepts that come so readily in these discussions. Precepts I have already mentioned: etiquette, dramaturgy, pride (or anger), tearless resignation and erotic appeal. I cannot make this encounter work unless I confess that I do not know at the outset from where the mutual meaning might emerge.

In 1980, for four months, I worked as a student social worker in a legal agency for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. On my first day I met Monny. All my contact with her happened in my office, on the street, in the watch-house, the jail or the psychiatric ward of a large hospital. Monny never came to my house, had a meal with me, drove in my car or went shopping with me. I introduced her to only a couple of my friends. Encounter Three occurred in this context.

Monny was born in the late 1950s, in north Queensland. She died in Brisbane in 1983. When I met Monny, her life was the antithesis of all that I thought was decent. As a member of Australia’s indigenous nation, the travesty of life offered her was even more disturbing. And she knew why. She urgently, plaintively, proudly, desperately, defiantly – almost like a mantra – cried out, ‘Why are we fucking black?’

To many, the cause of Monny’s pain was her consumption of massive quantities of alcohol, her reluctance to settle, her provocative dancing, her swearing, her love of popular music and bright clothes, her anger, her violence, her self-destructiveness, her rowdiness, her contempt for the police, her non-compliance with white doctors, lawyers and social workers, her childhood, her lack of moral strength. She was a person to pity, to recoil from; whose death under the wheels of a truck was a release, a timely end to a life going nowhere, the most effective conclusion to so much suffering. But Monny knew her pain came from being homeless in her own land.

As a social worker, you are kitted out with some slick person skills that should take you into the world of any person in poverty and despair. You help the person change, but only if they want to. You set life goals, assist people to re-channel their anger and to acquire life skills and self-esteem. Having honed your skills, you move on to other fellow citizens. You assess, refer, problem solve, advocate, counsel, report and terminate – ever professional, non-judgemental, confidential, empathetic, self-determining – staying distanced, non-collusive, never personally involved.

That is where I got into strife. I liked this feisty woman and was repelled by the chaos of her life. The remnant of my Anglican schoolgirl persona could never quite wrap itself around the horribleness of it all. It was worse: I knew I had nothing to offer.

It was a bitter lesson that one who had lost all was urged to rely on one who had gained much and still ended up empty-handed. I just did not know what to do. All my training demanded that I act to effect change, but I had neither the ideas nor the skills nor the emotional strength to do any of it. In the end, all I did was hang around with Monny when I could, charmed by her humour and her pathos, appalled that a life could be lived this way. Honestly, I think our professional contact gained her nothing. If the purpose was to change Monny, it didn’t work.

One very hot afternoon, Monny turned up at the office, ill, drunk and agitated. Had she remained on the streets, she would have been picked up by the police and put in the watch-house. So we began to walk two long city blocks to the drying-out centre. Every time a police car drove by – and there were many, for we were near the police headquarters – Monny abused them loud and long. Fearing retribution, I tried to calm and quieten her. But she was fuelled for a fight and wanted to make an impact.

A crowd waiting for the peak hour buses watched the rowdy duet advancing. Many people permitted themselves to stare. Monny stopped and inspected the group. Their curiosity was not lost on her. I could only stand there, waiting for the abuse and rebuke from a clean-living, racist crowd.

‘How dare you fucking stare at this woman just because she is like that? She is a good woman and I know her.’ Monny addressed them in a practised, provocative voice,arms raised importunately.

Then, in the silence that followed, we continued into the sun, towards the respite of a few alcohol-free hours. It was on that street, almost where the Speech of Commendation was delivered to the commuters, that Monny died. That woman never knew how my devotion to her grew from that time on. I who promised much and delivered little was spoken for by her, the discarded woman, who with the intuition of one accustomed to rebuke knew how to defend with fire and, yes, dignity.

By contrast, Michel de Montaigne was of noble birth, educated in Latin and Greek under the direction of a humanist father, generally of good health (‘entire’, as he puts it) and widely recognised by the leaders of sixteenth-century France. This recognition included being awarded the Collar of the Order of St Michael, the highest order for French nobility. He seems an unlikely interlocutor for someone like me. In his day I would not have survived. But let’s imagine for a moment that I did live then with the same deformity I now possess. Aristotle would have seen in me the unhappy person, deprived of all external goods to ensure my happiness and possibly virtueless as I sought a way to get through the day.

At best, Montaigne would have seen in me a tantalising partner; at worst, someone worthy of condescension and pity. Our fates could not have been more divergent. A crippled woman would never have dared to speak of these serious matters with a powerful, intact man (sex is clearly another matter altogether). Yet Montaigne endured the losses of his closest friend and five of his six daughters. At thirty-eight, he withdrew from public life to write his essays. Seeking only the stimulus and consolations of his many books, he struggled with the sure knowledge that he was sad, that he knew little and that what he knew was of uncertain value, quipping at one point that, ‘Not being able to govern events, I govern myself’. It is with this sentiment that Montaigne finally persuades me of the clearest and best path.

‘I who promised much and delivered little was spoken for by her, the discarded woman, who with the intuition of one accustomed to rebuke knew how to defend with fire and, yes, dignity’

Being of wonderful profile is oddly potent. I do not pass anonymously. In places like the university where I work, many people claim to know me even though they have not met me. They know me because they have seen me and, flying to causes and meaning, have worked out things about me. It is a perversely powerful position to hold, like wearing the Collar of St Michael. I wear the collar of obvious deformity. Perhaps I too cannot govern the smallest of events and, believing that I can only govern myself, I am tempted to retreat to my family, my home and my books. The real challenge is to take the power and use it well for serious purpose. In these ways I can satisfy my quest for public and private authenticity.

In this I must face the impression that the more I explore deformity – others’ and my own – the less I understand myself. Years of being stared at have taught me that the moment of uncertainty – of grasping for civil straws that fail us, of trying to remember what our grandmother told us to do when faced with unsettling things – is not a moment for self-abnegation or for vengeful fantasy. It is at best an opportunity for kindness. When I gawk at my oddness in a shop window or the mirror, I need to be kind, for I face my own oddness and fragility. When I see that same gawking in a stranger, I need to be kind, because they too face fragility and loss. This is not a moment of distance, but of groping for understanding, of solidarity and of unity. Surely this is what it means to be wonderful. Surely this is a description of mutual wonderment.

Montaigne’s voice reminds me from the roots of Renaissance humanism (curiously so contemporary) to perceive that, in wonderment, even though it seems that my oddness drives the reactions of unwise strangers, I do not have access to their experience, their dreams or their fears. I cannot sum up this person as they would sum me up. It is the same folly for me to think that I understand the starer’s losses as it is for them to assume that they can discern what is important to know about me. The interaction of wonderment is not clarifying: it is opaque, and the more we gaze, the more opaque it becomes. These moments of swinging on the edge of the precipice of wonderment, of enquiry, of openness, of trying to face the thing and not fly to meaning, are not crystal moments. They are moments when our sureness is lost, illumination is dimmed, our fix on reality darkened, and mystery reasserted.

Mutual wonderment relies on suspending my own repressive rationality and entering the social intensity of a staring moment, of recognising in my starer a person of wonderful profile. I can govern my own reactions, stay with the gaze, not look away in shame, but also seek a mutual recognition – poignant and potent. I no longer attempt to understand the motivation of my starer, but to share in the discomfort and delight of a fractured anonymity, where in peculiar ways we become fleetingly naked to each other, stripped of some aspects of Emily Post’s civil pretences; where we jointly confront Montaigne’s truth of the thing – in this case, the fragility of our biological selves. And here, because of my long association with the idea, I can offer a degree of reassurance.

The Adelaide Central Market on Saturday morning is fertile ground for moments of mutual staring. In our civvy attire we are equal, stripped of the sartorial pretensions of the workday week. Recently, head down, weaving my way through a mobile crowd in search of my favourite pork bun, I found myself captivated by the ugliest, most painful-looking feet I had ever had the misfortune to observe. I thought, ‘Thank God I don’t have to get around on those’. As I picked my way through the crowd, these toes, black, gnarled and disfigured, came closer and closer until they stopped dead in front of me. I looked up into the eyes of a woman perhaps twenty-five years my senior. She said, ‘I am sorry this happened to you, but I think you are beautiful’. I looked into her eyes for a long time and said nothing other than ‘thank you’.

Have I been caught up in encounters tinged with mysterium tremendum et fascinans? In a simple everyday sort of way, I think so. The yuck-factor is palpable, yet the fascination is quietly comforting. Transforming moments? Yes, again. I have rediscovered that in stigma lies survival, that in ugliness lies beauty, that a woman with gross, gangrenous feet is kind and that I need not feel bad about the way that she recognised in me a fellow who shares the anguish of being not normal.

Is it translatable to those without obvious or spectacular oddness? I am not sure, but this I can assert: those without obvious deformity do not lack the pain that seems to accompany all. That suffering is apparent if you take the time to look into the eyes of the other or to feel their breath upon your cheek. If nothing else, Montaigne’s losses tell us that. I am prepared to risk the rejection of the gang of lads, reminded that goddesses do not wait in lift foyers and that they too will be knocked back. I am prepared to risk the turning aside of prattling prelates afraid of their own irrelevance. I am prepared to stand exposed in front of a curious crowd. I am willing to be considered virtuous or to be taken for a sex goddess, if this means that I open myself to moments when I can return the gaze of a stranger with enquiry and kindness.

To Garland-Thomson I want to say, ‘Thanks for making me think about the power in a stareable body’; to Goffman and Co., ‘I have discovered the troubling beauty of mutual wonderment. I have forsaken being a staree. I have become a respondent starer’; to Montaigne and Brontë: ‘Thanks for showing it as an alternative, but withdrawal (with or without a scorpion) is not a lasting option for me’; to Aristotle: ‘Happiness is born in connection to others, not just in beauty’; to Homer: ‘I agree that, though in my mutilation, much was taken, so much more remains and even more has been given’; and, finally, to P.G. Wodehouse: ‘Thanks for sending up a serious purpose. I need that most of all.’

Perhaps this is why Bertie couldn’t contemplate a life with Honoria: her gaze was too direct for a man dedicated to minor dramas on an illusory (though amusing) stage. Perhaps Goffman and Co. would conclude that I have simply found another script by which to live. Perhaps this is what Aristotle saw as a virtue in the service of happiness? Or perhaps this is what Montaigne meant when he said that there is more pleasure to be found in a woman whose body is not straight.

She does not look away.

Endnotes

1 P.G. Wodehouse, ‘Jeeves Takes Charge’, Saturday Evening Post, 1916.

2 Rose-Marie Garland-Thomson, Staring: How We Look, OUP, 2009.

3 Michel de Montaigne, ‘Of Cripples’, trans. Charles Cotton, 1877. Online at http://www.aber.ac.uk/~jmcwww/Montaigne/essay105.html.

4 Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John W. Harvey, OUP, 1958.

5 Erving Goffman, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, Penguin, 1959.

6 Charlotte Brontë, Shirley, W.S. Williams, 1849.

7 Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethic, Book 1, Section 8, trans. W.D. Ross.

Lorna Hallahan – who prefers poetry, music and sharing meals to the staircase, treadmill or playing field – is a social worker and theologian working as an academic in the School of Social and Policy Studies at Flinders University. She is a contributor to national and state disability policy debates who also writes and speaks regularly on ethics in human and health services.

Published in May 2010 no. 321