Where Paralytics Walk and the Blind See
Stories of Sickness and Disability at the Juncture of Worlds
- ISBN: 9780691233222
- Published By: Princeton University Press
- Published: June 2022
Mary Dunn begins Where Paralytics Walk and the Blind See: Stories of Sickness and Disability at the Juncture of Worlds, an exploration of the early modern approach towards disability and sickness in the Catholic colonies of Canada under the French regime, by weaving in her own personal encounters. Her daughter’s “genetic difference that contemporary American medical culture registers as disability” and her own experience with a cancer diagnosis demand narratives other than the current ones on offer in contemporary culture (2). Following Michael Berube’s claim that disability “demands a story” (1), she examines alternative accounts of the way in which disability and sickness were given meaning in the lives of Jesuit Missionaries, Hospitaller nuns, and the Catholic holy men and women who sprang-up among them.
“Embodied difference” is the term Dunn employs to capture both “sickness” and “disability” and to illuminate how these phenomena come to bear meaning in early modern Canada (5). The terms are interrelated: “some sickness is disabling, and some disabilities cause sickness” (6). It is precisely what the differently bodied signified at the juncture between the worlds of indigenous people of Canada, French rule, and Catholic mission that Dunn seeks to analyze: “Whatever else embodied difference meant to Catholic men and women both clerical and lay in early modern New France, its significance exceeded the limits of physical disorder alone” (21).
Dunn opens with a study of Jesuit Relations, a collection of serialized publications intended for “French readership eager for the latest on the progress of the Canadian mission” (10). Through a breathtakingly extensive study of this primary source material, Dunn identifies the way in which embodied difference, both disability and sickness, contributes to the progress on the mission. Embodied difference in the narratives becomes a site for salvation, the cure of both body and soul. This is important, as Dunn stresses, because “within the broader arc of the evangelical agenda, sickness and disability, illness and infirmity, recovery and even death were made to matter” (57). Both the body that was restored and the body that carried its embodied difference to the grave were places where the drama of God’s saving work could and, according to the Relations, did take place.
Dunn moves from her study of these Jesuit missions to the chronicle of the Hospitaller nuns of the Hôtel-Dieu in Quebec, the Histoire de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Quebec. The Histoire, Dunn explains, is “a carefully curated sort of history, a selective presentation of edifying moments that, taken together, work to draw the boundaries of Hospitaller identity” (10). Following on the heels of the Jesuit missions, the sisters arrived to provide care that was beyond the capabilities of the earlier missionaries. In so doing, “the cloister wall of the Hôtel-Dieu merely reversed the flow of traffic: it was not nuns who went out, but patients who went in” (75). Embodied difference works, likewise, as a two-way movement in the Histoire, “redounding to the sanctification of the self even as it stimulated the conversion of others” (88). The stories of the Hôtel depict it as a place of mutual beatification. Such a mutuality causes Dunn to reflect that “from where we stand (or sit) . . . it’s hard to conjure this other world in which patients and their practitioners share a single economy of caregiving, a type of caregiving that is “to the benefit of both parties” (88).
Moving from group stories—the stories of Jesuit fathers and Hospitaller sisters—to the particular lives of holy men and women, Dunn examines the Vie de la Vénérable Mère Catherine de Saint-Augustin (Florentin Lambert, 1671) and the Actes du très dévot Frère Didace Pelletier (Le Canada Francais IV, 1892). Catherine’s life, the subject of the Vie, “exposes how the problem of embodied difference both inaugurates the narrative and drives it forward” (95). Complementing the life of Catherine, the twenty-one stories that constitute the Actes, testifying to the intercessory position of Didace Pelletier, illustrate how embodied difference functions both “to summon and then to signify God’s presence through the medium of its own effacement” (121). As with the Vie, so it is with the Actes: it is not the erasure of embodied difference that is highlighted; instead, it is the restoration (as in the case of one suppliant) of "the social world from which her handicap excluded her” that grounds the narrative (131). Embodied difference becomes a site for God’s presence, becoming equally “problem and possibility” (149).
Dunn’s book is an excellent demonstration of what is possible when one marshals the skills of a historian of religion to “make room for the creative apperception of sickness and disability beyond the measure of the norm” (152). And as a historian of religion, Dunn certainly makes good on offering new ways of imagining embodied difference. However, if the text has any deficiencies, they are related to this precise method, which she insists is not one of ressourcement–of “harvest[ing] lessons from the past for use in the present” (8)—and at times this seems to foreclose more interesting and daring conclusions.
Because while one may share with her a lack of interest in reviving either the problematic conflation of bodily ailment and moral failure which marked certain Jesuit theologies of embodied difference or the relatively lower quality of care available in the early modern period, her text leaves the reader wondering what we can take with us from our reading into contemporary life. Is there nothing to harvest, for instance from the life of Charles Garnier who “alone would handle” the severest cases , the ones that were so loathsome that others would not address them, “with an eye that betokened only charity, though he often saw very clearly that the wounds were incurable” (42). Not only do such examples seem to offer some applicability for us moderns, but also, insofar as we are permitted to harvest from them, would go a long way in helping us imagine ways of flourishing and thriving nut in spite of but with sickness and disability” (163).
Mark Brians is the rector of All Saints Anglican in urban Honolulu.Mark BriansDate Of Review:March 22, 2023