Ruth Bienstock Anolik, Demons of the Body and Mind: Essays on Disability in Gothic Literature

Posted by Laura Kremmel on May 29, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , ,

Anolik, Ruth Bienstock, ed. Demons of the Body and Mind: Essays on Disability in Gothic Literature. McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010. ISBN: 978-0-7864-3322-3

Reviewed by Laura Kremmel, Lehigh University

At the core of the Gothic, through all its manifestations, lies the monster: the ghost, the demon, the freak, the creature, the outcast, the Other. The monster is often classified as inhuman or on the edge of humanity. Yet, of course, the genre complicates this idea of the monster, engaging with what it is, what it means, and what to do with it.  Often, the monster turns out to be closer to ourselves than these classifications would imply. In Demons of the Body and Mind: Essays on Disability in Gothic Literature, Ruth Bienstock Anolik takes these ideas of the monstrous and aligns them with another system of classification: that of disability. This collection of short essays is a fascinating read for both scholars of the Gothic and those interested in disability studies. It opens up connections between monstrosity and physical and mental disorders that speak to anxieties about health, the self, and morality in terms of human whole-ness. In her introduction, Anolik discusses the structure of disability as built upon diagnosis of the body: what is defined, what can be defined, and, most unsettlingly, what cannot be defined. The disability rights movement, she explains, works to look at ability and disability in terms of a spectrum with blurred edges, rather than the definitive categorization that often imprisons disabled individuals.  In this sense, both the diagnosis of disability and the themes of the Gothic trouble the bounds of human difference and the anxieties about the (un)knowability of the human body, making both the difference and the failed system that defines it sources of fear.

The collection is divided into two sections. The first deals predominantly with visual disability and deviations from the normal human body as spectacle. The second part discusses invisible disabilities such as madness, infection, and pathologies that threaten the outer body of self and other. Though diagnoses of disability and treatment of it by those in health are usually seen as negative, many of the essays in this collection actually argue for the power and positive outcomes of slipping beyond the boundary of the norm.

Unsurprisingly, the collection starts with an essay on Frankenstein. Paul Marchbanks presents a thought-provoking discussion of aesthetics and judgment and the possibility of a disabled community that blurs expectations of the norm in Frankenstein and The Last Man. Rather than remaining outside it, disability can reconfigure societal norms and expectations. A second essay on Frankenstein looks at Victor and his creature as double deteriorating bodies of the masturbator. Christine M. Chrockett’s essay claims that Victor’s self-satisfying actions manifest the creature, and both characters bear the price. Two more essays connect actions with physical, mental, and moral health through masturbation and sexual appetite. Elizabeth Hale associates the body of the scholar with the body of the masturbator through a shared physical decay and monstrosity in “The Dangerous Mr. Casaubon: Gothic Husband and Gothic Monster in Middlemarch”. In all of these cases, it is the choice of lifestyle that creates the monster from the inside, out. In “The case of the Malnourished Vampyre: The Perils of Passion in John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Coxcomb,” Carolyn D. Williams looks at the shifting response to physical difference in the Eighteenth Century and the use of the deformed body to act as a warning to others for nonnormative behavior, particularly sexual behavior.

Disability as an indication of inner deterioration comes up in many of these essays in different ways. In an essay that surveys several Wilkie Collins sensation novels, Tamara S. Wagner discusses the misconceptions of characters whose deformities make them appear harmless or friendly. While most of the essays at least address this question in terms of a character’s goodness or inner monstrosity, several also look at it in terms of class. Cynthia Hall’s essay on George Lippard points out the contradictory messages of his novels. On one hand, the wealthy are depicted as pleasing in appearance but ugly within; on the other, the poor are deformed on the outside but also moral monstrous. Only the middle classes escape with a positive interior. Anxieties about social outcasts come up again in Tara Surry’s discussion of the negative impression of the city on the bodies of the lower classes in Virginia Woolf. Ruth Bienstock Anolik’s own essay, “Invasion and Contagion: The Spectacle of the Diseased Indian in Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’” presents similarities between the disease and deformity of the plague in Poe’s story and smallpox for the Native Americans. Through projecting fears of Otherness onto these marginalized groups, the institutional norm reveals its own anxieties about itself becoming Other.

Several of the essays combine discussions of disability with issues of gender. Both Melissa Wehler’s essay on dramatist Joanna Baillie and Carla T. Kungl’s essay on Mary Elizabeth Braddon suggest that the state of madness instills women with power by allowing them to overstep the boundaries of the conventional, gendered norm. Disease causes them to stray from their gender’s behaviors, but it is also considered a product of those behaviors. Maria Purves analyzes the distinct difference between disability in men and disability in women in the short stories of Daphne du Maurier, in which monstrous women use their disabilities to hide cunning and supernaturally keen senses. Catherine Delyfer also looks at the interactions between men and women in “Lucas Malet’s Subversive Late-Gothic: Humanizing the Monster in The History of Sir Richard Calmady”. She focuses on the “new woman” as the real monster in her emasculation of men, particularly disabled men. Finally, the female body itself is presented as monstrous in Andrew Scahill’s fascinating essay, “Deviled Eggs: Teratogenesis and the Gynecological Gothic in the Cinema of Monstrous Birth,” particularly in a state of pregnancy. By looking at Sixties and Seventies horror films, he produces a catalog of demonic babies and analyzes the state of the mother and child’s bodies as deformed in their attachment. In this case, the bodily threat of monstrosity literally lives within the body.

As the collection continually reiterates the importance of definitions and diagnoses, several of the essays discuss the systems behind such categorization. Simon J. White’s essay on Thomas Hardy’s “The Withered Arm” discusses the influence of science versus the supernatural on the body. The strict structure of science and medicine creates a strong potential for monstrosity, and White locates fear in the spaces where the supernatural proves the failure of rational thought. Two additional essays focus on this categorization and rationality at work in asylums. Lisa M. Hermsen’s “Knights of the Seal: Mad Doctors and Maniacs in A.J.H. Duganne’s Romance of Reform” provides an overview of asylums in America and describes them as “a decrepit and diseased Gothic structure, peopled with dangerously inhuman madmen and endangered innocents” (162). The last essay in the collection, Martyn Colebrook on The Wasp Factory, brings the collection full circle with a discussion of space, Otherness, doubles, and diagnosis as creating reality. Labeling someone as mad makes him so. However, “the mad Other,” he says, “may actually be the self” (225).

Overall, this collection provides thought-provoking and innovative analyses of both well-read and lesser-known Gothic texts. Anolik’s use of a Gothic lens to view the treatment of “un-whole” bodies and minds and, vice versa, the use of disability studies to view monstrosity in the Gothic, adds a rich new look at both subjects. I think it does important work for disability studies in terms how the disabled are treated, talked about, and portrayed through literature and how that translates to how we understand deformed bodies and minds in our present culture. It also gives a compelling and somewhat unsettling reading of how fear itself creates labels and diagnoses of bodies that we are afraid are too similar to our own.

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