Performative writing, critical writing relying on descriptive utterance to challenge an assumed social reality, is the native language of writing on disability because it is inherently the language of reframing and rearranging. In order to express a rupture in both physicality and mind set it is essential to draw from academic writing that lives somewhere between inquiry and incantation.
My writing here draws from the work of Peggy Phalen and Virginia Woolf and Anne Sexton’s responses the fairytales of the brothers Grimm as examples of writing that enacts a body restructured and thus reclassified. My intention is to examine how these writers use performative language to reshuffle assumptions of the work that writing can do in staking claim to narratives of illness and disability.
I was struck by how both writing on illness and disability and definitions of performative writing assert an absence. In staking claim to a pothole in paving interpretation from body to page, interrogating understanding via accessibility as the destination to strive for, both genre and form enact the language of bodies on which a normative assumption of a desire for wholeness or wellness are often projected in text. I often use the classic example of Mary and Colin in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, two sickly children with rotten temperaments.
Virginia Woolf, in her meditation On Being Ill decries the lack of a canon dedicated to pain:
Finally, to hinder the description of illness in literature, there is the poverty of language. English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache. It has all grown one way. The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe the pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. There is nothing readymade for him. He is forced to coin words himself, and taking pain in one hand and a lump of pure sound in the other (as perhaps the people of Bable did in the beginning) to so crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out. Probably it will be something laughable. For who of English birth can take liberties with language?
Peggy Phalen, in her essay “To Suffer a Sea Change”, describing the pain she experienced from her open-angle glaucoma, feels abandoned by language- still, it’s the only tool that she has to describe her condition:
Words walk to the threshold but will not enter the rooms of the body where pain runs wild. Deserted by words, pain lacks temporal sequence and spatial order: it makes a sound that syntax cannot carry.
Here is a case where by decrying a lack of language Woolf and Phalen are simultaneously calling the answer into being by engaging with the void.
This is a story that relies on numbers, precise measurements of the body’s timing. It moves historically, chronologically: it is a narrative recast in different tenses of the progression of the erosion of my eyes, It assumes that words are physical, and that the lessons of the body’s pain come home in part through the abandonment of words.
Here the body isn’t what’s troubling but the language we have for exceptions outside of the typical body.
Enter performative writing, although it has already entered. That’s ok, performative writing is constantly tripping on itself, tripping itself up:
Della Pollock, introducing her essay “Performative Writing” invokes a dizzying void:
Contemporary discourses of history, culture, and identity seem still to be spinning in ‘textuality’ feeling the loss of reference as a loss of bearings, feeling suddenly uneasily lifted from ready categories of meaning into an Oz-like world not of meaningless exactly but of duplicity, doubleness, and simulation. Words don’t stick. They are ‘Janus-faced,’ ‘fickle,’, indifferent to discourses of truth and meaning.
Performative writing collapses the space between scholar and artist, between writer and reader, by enforcing engagement on a parallel plane it erases the comfortable space not only between minds but also between bodies. It is always just out of reach, work that enacts its own failures, it is inevitably the language of the body doubled over itself in attempting to document difference and sameness at once. This is not an easy intimacy, it is engaging and at the same time confrontational. The body of this text evoking the corporeal is ripe, it almost has an odor.
Pollock: “In the metonymic display of its own materiality, writing underscores the difference between print-based phenomena and the corporeal, affective, processual temporalities in which they operate, thus actually featuring what they aren’t.”
Erosion, decay, and atrophy are words of the body. Rupture, erasure are words of critical studies. We rely on the same failure of vocabulary to find if not hope in loss, then that the two are limbs on the same chimeric body, that in (both working against and within boundaries of the temporal world) the body of text is sadly, joyfully as inescapable as the physical body.
Pollock wraps up her essay by quoting Dick Hebdige “call it lack, it if you must, our only hope for survival- call it love”. Performative writing conflates the lack and the love. It is the language of absence as a whole, an entirety.
The Brothers Grimm Fairytale the Maiden Without Hands is a story of sutures and mutations. It’s a long convoluted story about a woman who is forced by the devil to chop off her hands because they are too pure. The maiden then meets a king who marries her and makes her hands out of silver. The woman gives birth to a son, but the devil convinces the king that the newborn prince is a changeling. The story goes on and the woman’s hands grow back but let’s suspend ourselves before the silver hands for a moment, before the inevitable happily ever after.
In her collection Transformations, a retelling of seventeen Grimm’s Brothers Fairytales, the poet Anne Sexton opens her poem “The Maiden Without Hands”
Is it possible
That he marries a cripple
Out of admiration?
A desire to own the maiming
So that none of us butchers
Will come to him with the crowbars
Or slim precise tweezers?
Performative writing is the wound that heals by confessing that, in stark contrast to a fairy tale or a nursery rhyme, the familiar forms that we use to comfort children, not everything can be put back together again. Strategies for organizing arguments and narratives are containers we use as writers to protect against the messy and wild. They exist to clarify and streamline, which is what I’m attempting to do here. I edit out of a desire to “own the maiming.” Performative writing, in contrast, is a form that creates a unique opportunity for the reader and writer to connect via the almost visceral reaction we have to encountering disorientation on the page that enacts how all humans feel being placed in a body that doesn’t do always do as we wish.