Friday, January 31, 2003

Myths and images from a strange mind. Nearly 100 percent of what I know about the literary critic Leslie Fiedler comes from reading the obituaries in today's New York Times and Boston Globe. I love the detail that he once attended a Bob Dylan concert with O.J. Simpson -- surely a better choice than, say, attending an O.J. film festival with Mr. Z.

Last year, while doing research for my book on dwarfism, I came across Fiedler's Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self (1978). I wasn't able to do much with it. As Jacqueline Ann Clipsham, an artist and political activist who's also a dwarf, has written, Freaks is "a horrendous book, not about people with disabilities but unwittingly about the author's own narcissism and prejudicial fears."

This morning, in looking over the notes I'd taken on Freaks, I came across one passage I thought was worth sharing. Mind you, I'm not endorsing it. But it is a pretty good example of an unusual mind at work. Fielder is writing about the transition of the dwarf community from a gaggle of Freaks (his word, and his capitalization) to an organized interest group, from jesters, sideshow performers, and even gods to agitators for normality and equal rights. He continues:

Looking back over their five thousand years of recorded history, it seems to me that the Dwarfs are, in a real sense, the Jews of the Freaks: the most favored, the most successful, the most conspicuous and articulate; but by the same token, the most feared and reviled, not only in gossip and the popular press, but in enduring works of art, the Great Books and Great Paintings of the West. They have been, in short, a "Chosen People," which is to say, a people with no choice at all; but they have begun, like the children of Israel, to choose at least to choose. How appropriate, then, that they, who began their escape from oppression via the back doors of the great courts of Europe and have prospered in show business in America, take the lead now in organizing for mutual defense, consciousness-raising, and social action.

If, like some Jews, some of them long to disappear into the "normal" world around them, even this seems to me finally fitting and proper.

Odd stuff. To me, at least, this sort of thing sounds thought-provoking, but means little or nothing when you hold it up to scrutiny.

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