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Review by Hannah Thompson, Royal Holloway, University of London, Email: Hannah.Thompson@rhul.ac.uk

Keywords: Irish Modernism, literature, ability, myths

This work is a careful and intellectually astute reading of works by four Irish Modernists: James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, George Egerton, and Elizabeth Bowen. Each chapter uses Colangelo’s concept of ‘the myth of the diaphanous abled body’ to show how literary works construct and question the impossible ideal of ability in both their content and their form. Colangelo develops his central concept from the theories of leading Disability Studies scholars including Garland-Thomson, Siebers, Davis, Kafer and McRuer. This work is an excellent illustration of how a new generation of thinkers are showing the relevance of Disability Studies for apparently unrelated fields. 

For Colangelo, Disability Studies provides models and processes of reading that can and should inform literary studies, whether the texts discussed contain disabled characters or not.  Colangelo’s book is published in the influential and highly respected Corporealities series and whilst Disability Studies is central to its argument, so are insights from a range of thinkers who are less frequently referenced in Disability Studies scholarship. These thinkers included Deleuze, Derrida, Heidegger, Levinas and Merleau-Ponty. Indeed, the book is less about disability than about the intellectually, culturally, and socially constructed category of ability; a category that produces abled bodies whose transparency lets them exist without the prejudice or marginalisation experienced by ‘disabled’ bodies. The use of ‘abled’ rather than ‘able’ or ‘non-disabled’ is particularly important because it emphasises that ability is not the opposite of ‘disability’ but a constructed category that is at once impossible and invisible, yet also pervasive and dangerous. 

Colangelo’s readings of apparently non-disabled characters alongside the more easily recognisable disabled ones show how all bodies are in fact simultaneously ‘abled’ and ‘disabled’ because both terms exist on an ever-shifting continuum. The chapter on Beckett goes even further by suggesting that both ‘ability’ and ‘disability’ become meaningless in a universe where characters are dependent on, and defined by, their expression of the pain they feel. The work on Egerton is an excellent analysis of how a related mythic ideal, self-sufficiency, and its opposite, ‘conspicuous assistance’, perpetuate the wrong-headed prizing of independence above dependency. Colangelo’s reading of Joyce’s Ulysses is particularly effective in its disruption of the myth of the transparent – because non-disabled – subject position. Through careful and sensitive analysis of well-chosen passages, Colangelo shows how the novel subverts readily expectations of transparent narration. For Colangelo, our tendency to associate the abled subject position with a kind of neutral, and universal, objectivity is disrupted by Joyce’s characters’ – and therefore readers’ – experiences of subjectivity. Chapters 3 and 4 move away from what we might call traditional disabled bodies to discuss other kinds of selfhood that rely on myths of transparency – gender in George Egerton and race and nation in Elizabeth Bowen. This move beyond the subject of disability shows how Colangelo’s Disability-Studies informed arguments are in fact relevant to a much broader set of concerns. It is for these reasons that the book will appeal to literary scholars who do not see themselves working on disability or who are as yet unfamiliar with the conceptual framework of Disability Studies.  

This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated.

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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