Disability History Lecture VIII – Piet Devos

The recumbent speaks: The disabled subject and literary creation (1900-1950)

Dr. Piet Devos

The lecture will take place on Wednesday 28 October 2015 from 16 until 18 pm in room 00.41 of the VHI-building (Vandenheuvelinstituut) in the Dekenstraat n°2 (Leuven, Belgium).

In a 1926 essay, Virginia Woolf argued that the ‘recumbent’ ill body should no longer be neglected in literature. According to Woolf, the articulation of illness would not only lead to the innovation of the traditional literary genres, it would also increase the collective awareness of the body’s vulnerability in a modern society obsessed with efficiency. While drawing on Woolf’s text as well as several other examples, I will discuss the emergence of the disabled subject in Modernist literature from the period 1900-1950. Just like Woolf, most authors to be analyzed – e.g. Joe Bousquet, Jacques Lusseyran and Pablo Palacio – were themselves all too familiar with sensory disabilities or chronic diseases. First of all I would like to suggest that, while writing from a disabled perspective, these authors opened up unexpected aesthetic horizons. That is due to the fact, as a (autobiographical) narrator or main character, the disabled subject required his/her own singular style and metaphorical structures as to articulate his/her ‘abnormal’ way of perceiving and being-in-the-world. Read from the viewpoint of the ‘normal’ common sense, such an aesthetics of disability was unsettling, sometimes even shocking, because it did not attempt to tell the story of overcoming and normalization. It rather uncovered the body in the perplexing diversity of its sensory practices and ‘messy’ tangibility. Secondly, I will also consider to what extent this aesthetics of the disabled subject actually fit in the larger context of the artistic experiments characteristic of Modernism. Some of the aforementioned authors had clear connections with the leading avant-garde groups of the day. But their writings should also be understood as a self-affirming act of disabled people as to resist their social marginalization, presenting themselves at once as creative individuals and as critical commentators of modern life. Their texts often raised unpleasant ethical questions, by attacking for example the wide-spread belief in the human control of the natural processes of life and death. More in general, my presentation will hopefully help to save a few exceptional writers with disabilities from oblivion, as well as to uncover the crucial role these writers played in the cultural emancipation of the disabled subject.

Piet Devos (Kortrijk, 1983) has a PhD in Modern Romance Literature from the University of Groningen. He himself went blind at the age of five, an experience which triggered his interest in sensory perception. In his PhD thesis, El cuerpo elocuente (Almenara Press, 2015), Piet developed a cultural-historical method for analyzing literary texts through the lens of contemporaneous sensory practices and discourses. From November 2015 on, he will be conducting research for his project on the Modernist aesthetics of disability, while in residence as a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Sensory Studies of Concordia University in Montreal. Piet also works as a translator, particularly of French and Latin American avant-garde texts.