Blindness and Freakishness

Blindness and Freakishness

Susan Antebi

There are no freaks in Latin America or its literature, technically speaking, because the word “freak” itself is an English word, originating in the mid-sixteenth century, and initially meaning “a caprice, a whim, a vagary.” By the late eighteenth century it would also come to mean an abnormal thing, or monstrosity, but not until the late nineteenth century would meanings of the word “freak” include drug addict, homosexual, and enthusiast. All this from my “New Shorter Oxford.” On the other side of the desk sit two volumes of the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, which has nothing to say at all on the topic.

When we talk about freaks, or lo freak in Latin American literary texts, we might begin by noticing where the term itself appears in texts, inevitably in English, hence perhaps written in italics, but in any case as an untranslatable term, an outsider, one that the computer program is likely to underline in red. This is also what Margo Glantz notices about certain vulgarities that the thesaurus doesn’t recognize: “por eso cada vez que las escribo aparecen amenazadoras, enrojecidas, hinchadas.” [That is why every time I write them they appear threatening, reddened, swollen] (my translation). “Freak” might then make the reader blush, not only because of the shock value of the concept, and its frequent ties to sexual innuendo, but also because the word itself is out of place in the text. And perhaps these two forms of shock will turn out to be two sides of the same coin.

The question of freakishness and freaks in Latin American contexts is fraught from the beginning by its decontextualized and translated quality; it is an imposition, even when embraced. To study freakishness in Latin America, or just to pay attention to it, necessarily involves an awkward back-and-forth movement, between apologizing for radical decontextualization, and reclaiming the notion by distancing oneself from possible misunderstandings. The history of the freak, in the sense of abnormality, is inevitably tied to the history of the freak show, which in the United States evolved from the mid-nineteenth century, through the prominent figure of P.T. Barnum, and would retain its importance as lucrative entertainment genre through the first two decades of the twentieth century. Within this history, Latin America’s role overall is similar to that of Asia and Africa; these regions function as overarching sites of exotic otherness, which provide the U.S. freak show with many of its performers, such as “Chang and Eng,” the original “Siamese twins,” “Ape people” or “What is its,” and “Máximo and Bartola” billed as twins from the Yucatán, and as “Last of the Ancient Aztecs,” because of a congenital condition known as microcephaly which gave their heads an unusual shape and size. In these examples, the freak show functions as ethnographic spectacle, and betrays its intimate ties to ongoing colonialist practices.

When Latin American literary texts first take up the question of the freak in a literal sense, they do so within and against the strange context of U.S. freak show spectacles. José Martí, for example, apparently visited a Coney Island freak show in the late nineteenth century, as he makes a passing reference to this fact in his classic crónica, “Coney Island.” Despite the brevity of the actual reference, the broader opposition Martí constructs, between “us” and “them,” Latin American intellectuals, and U.S. masses, upholds his critique of the freak show. Like the intellectual, far from home and bewildered by the swarming crowd of Coney Island pleasure seekers, the freak on the platform in this text is alone: a “melancholy dwarf,” or in another instance, an “unfortunate man of color.” Freakishness, then, is an isolating condition, marked by colonialism, but it nonetheless confuses the position of the Latin American outsider here, since he finds he can identify neither with the masses at leisure, nor with the objectified body on display.

One can find other instances of Latin American commentary on the U.S. freak show phenomenon. In fact, several decades later, José Juan Tablada would also visit Coney Island, or at least write about it in some detail, with references to many well-known performers. In this case, rather than keeping his distance, Tablada seems so fascinated by the show, and by P.T. Barnum himself, that he practically takes on the role of promotor, shouting out the names of performers with an array of exclamation points. Curiously, in both of these cases of Latin American “freak” texts, the narrative sets up a triangular structure, juxtaposing the Latin American exile (Cuban or Mexican) with the U.S. masses at leisure, and with the so-called freaks themselves. The question remains, of course, when we observe this triangle, where do we actually locate the site of the freak within it? Does freakishness stem from corporeal or behavioral difference as such? Might we equate it with the notion of monstrosity, a term Martí and many others would use to characterize United States’ mass culture? Or does it instead have something to do with the condition of the outsider or exile?

I was recently rereading Carlos Monsiváis’s Aires de familia, and was struck by the author’s description of poverty and popular culture, as represented in Latin American realist novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As Monsiváis notes, el Pueblo is “sólo una alegoría, la zona de arquetipos y abstracciones.” [only an allegory, the zone of archetypes and abstractions] (my translation). The trouble with the masses here is their anonymity, their emblematic quality. Like the monstrous masses at Coney Island, they are an overwhelming swarm, and seem to offer little specificity for the reader to grasp. Or perhaps more precisely, what these collective suffering characters offer—in a work such as Federico Gamboa’s Santa, for example—is the quality of hovering between blurry allegory and shocking specificity. It is here, I would suggest, that the question of freakishness emerges, as an approach to handling what the text cannot quite contain. In the case of Martí’s “Coney Island,” the chronicler himself becomes strangely removed and exquisitely different, when faced with the horror of U.S. capitalist mass culture. We see New York through his eyes, but of course, we never see his body. It is in part this incommensurability between disembodied (and foreign) oratory, and horrifying, anonymous materiality, that allows freakishness to emerge in the text.

When Monsiváis reads Gamboa, he selects a passage teeming with human life: “chirriar de fritos, desmayado olor de frutas, ecos de canciones, fragmentos de discursos, arpegios de guitarras, lloro de criaturas, vagar de carcajadas…” Here too, the mass of humanity is vast, ungraspable, anonymous; one might also argue that—as in Martí—the horror of the masses is inseparable from the rise of industrial capitalism that forms the backdrop to the novel. Yet curiously in the case of Santa, and especially in the above-cited fragment, another kind of specificity emerges from the narrative. Readers will remember that much of the tangible detail to which we have access in the novel is in fact transmitted to us through the voice and thoughts of a character who certainly is poor, and who suffers as do the anonymous masses, and as does Santa herself, but more significantly, who is blind. The scene evokes a fragmentary quality; the reader is likely to be frustrated in trying to “visualize” its totality. The description of chaotic and dispersed sounds and smells does not so much suggest the perspective of a blind person, as it does that of a sighted person who attempts to imagine blindness by suddenly closing his eyes. In Monsiváis’s reading, it is the anonymous and allegorical quality of the masses in such narrative that constitutes a particular version of el Pueblo at this juncture in literary cultural history. Yet beyond the terrible and blurry mass, what we can “see” here are odd and particular details, the vivid evocation of urban life as an olefactory and aural snapshot. The freakishness of the text is not constituted by the blind character, nor by the grotesquely suffering bodies of the masses, or of Santa herself, but rather by the uncomfortable juxtaposition of non-visual details with an aesthetics of sightedness.

By reading the freak in terms of its out-of-place quality, and as rooted in the awkward juxtapositions that are the hallmark of colonialist freak show history, we are able to in turn link the concept of freakishness to that of disability. By disability, I mean both differences rooted in the physical body—such as blindness in opposition to sightedness—but also the lack of some people’s access to resources, due to social prejudice, economic inequality, and a range of other factors. Disability, like the notion of the freak I have described here, emerges in surprising, unexpected textual moments. It is out of place by definition, but not simply by virtue of conjuring up a “different” body, but rather because it cannot be entirely located in the body, nor in the social, textual constructs surrounding a given body. In writing this, I wonder here too, if “disability” will suddenly appear underlined in red, like one of Margo Glantz’s so-called malas palabras. This is the awkward semantic shift where the freak might begin to acquire its political efficacy.

– Susan Antebi is the author of Carnal Inscriptions: Spanish American Narratives of Corporeal Difference (it´ll be released on May 2009).

Posted: April 16, 2012 at 7:10 pm

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