Saturday, December 17, 2011

Georges Couthon (1755-1794)

It was as a footnote in a book by Michel Foucault that I first encountered Georges Couthon, a leading light of the French revolution who had paraplegia. Since then, I have visited the Musee de Carnavalet in Paris several times to see Couthon’s wheelchair, a padded wooden contraption with a handwheel for propulsion, but despite dragging myself up several flights of stairs, it has never been on display. I still cannot work out whether Couthon was barbarous or benign, but the idea that a wheelchair user was at the core of the dramatic political events of the French revolution interests me hugely.

Georges Couthon was born in the Auvergne, son of a lawyer, grandson of a shopkeeper. He also trained as a lawyer, and practised as a barrister in Clermont-Ferrand, where he was noted for the gentleness of his manner and his amiable character as well as for his clear, precise and persuasive language. He gave free legal advice to the poor and supported charitable institutions. He also became a Free Mason.

Although Couthon had suffered from joint problems since his childhood, it was not until 1782 that he progressively lost the use of first one and then his other leg, despite attempting various treatments such as electrotherapy, a milk diet and sulphur baths, . Disability did not stop him marrying in 1787, and he had two children. But for the rest of his life he suffered considerable pain and experiecnced regular health crises which often forced him to stay in bed. His paralysis has never been satisfactorily diagnosed, but may have arisen from an infection of the spinal nerves, or even multiple sclerosis.

In 1791, Couthon became a deputy of the Legislative Assembly. In Paris, he joined the Jacobin club. In the Assembly, he was noted for his eloquence and his democratic ideals. For example, when the King came to the Assembly, Couthon proposed that he be called “King of the French” but neither “Sire” nor “Majesty”.

In 1792, Couthon was elected to the National Convention. At first, he did not take sides in the struggle between the Montagnards and the Girondins. He voted for the death of Louis XVI, and became an associate of Robespierre. When the Girondin faction fell from power, he asked that moderation be used against them in defeat. He then became a member of the Committee of Public Safety.

When in 1793 the city of Lyon rebelled against the new regime, the Committee of Public Safety passed a degree calling for Lyon to be destroyed, to set an example. Couthon was sent to take charge. However, he ensured that while the houses of the rich were pulled down, those of the poor were exempted. Nor was he keen to supervise the mass executions which were demanded. So he requested to be relieved of his commission, and a more brutal leader was sent to replace him. Predictable atrocities followed.

Couthon had returned to Paris, where he became President of the Convention for a few weeks, to be succeeded by the painter Jacques Louis David. From early 1794 he began to use a wheelchair, which had formerly belonged to the Countess of Artois at Versailles. Neither then nor earlier did his disability prevent him carrying out political activity, important missions for the government, and family life.

Couthon helped Robespierre and Saint-Just bring down Danton: it is said that before his execution Danton remarked “If I left my legs to Couthon the Committee of Public Safety might stagger on a bit longer”.

However, less to Couthon’s credit was the Law of 22 Prairial, which, in order to shorten the proceedings of the Revolutionary Tribunal, removed the right of legal defence for people accused of polical opposition to the Revolution,. Couthon argued that a crime against the people was worse than a crime against an individual person, and such “attacks on the existence of a free society” should be treated differently. As a result of this law, tens of thousands were executed during the Terror which followed.

Ironically, it was Couthon himself who was one of the first victims. When Robespierre threatened a new purge of the Convention, his enemies moved against him and his followers before they themselves could be executed. Georges Couthon could have left Paris on a mission to the Auvergne, but he wrote that he wanted either to die or triumph with Robespierre and liberty. During his arrest, he fell down the stairs, and injured his head. Sincere to the last, he said to his enemies: “I am accused of being a conspirator: I wish that you could read into the depths of my soul”.

On 10 Thermidor (28 July), Couthon was executed, along with Robespierre and Saint-Just. Couthon was taken to the scaffold first, but it took the executioners 15 agonising minutes to arrange his body under the guillotine. Never blood-thirsty or cruel like his co-defendents, in death as in life Georges Couthon achieved what my French disability colleagues call “the equality of the Guillotine”.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Edward Lear (1812-1888)

How pleasant to know Mr Lear!

Who has written such volumes of stuff!

Some think him ill-tempered and queer

But a few think him pleasant enough.

As a child, it was Edward Lear’s limericks and nonsense rhymes which first entertained me. The Owl and the Pussycat remains one of my favourite poems. As an adult, I was more attracted to the delicate watercolours which he painted on his journeys through Italy and Greece, such as the example hanging in my grandfather’s sitting room. But it was only on taking down from my father’s bookshelf Vivien Noakes’ biography The Life of a Wanderer that I discovered that Lear had epilepsy.

Lear was born on 12 May 1812 in Holloway, then on the outskirts of London. He was the twentieth of twenty one children. Most of his siblings died in childhood, and Lear always had delicate health – not just epilepsy but also poor eyesight and respiratory problems.

His stockbroker father became bankrupt when Lear was five, shortly after he had his first seizure and Edward was brought up by his eldest sister, Ann, who tutored him at home and encouraged his artistic talent. By the age of 16, Lear was supporting the household by his sketches and illustrations for anatomical and natural history books. He gained an aristocratic patron, Edward Stanley (later Earl of Derby) who commissioned him to draw the animals at his Knowsley estate. Through Stanley, Lear met other upper class clients for his paintings. At one point, he gave drawing lessons to Queen Victoria, although he got in trouble for failing to follow court etiquette.

In 1937, poor health forced Lear to move to Rome, where funding and introductions from the Earl helped him establish himself as a landscape painter. It was during his ten years in the city that he became known as a nonsense poet, although he had first produced poems and humorous drawings for the children at Knowsley. In 1846 he published his limericks and drawings in A Book of Nonsense. Lear’s verse is usually about eccentrics and outsiders: for any child brought up with strict Victorian morality, the transgressiveness of these poems must have been very refreshing.

Charming and gregarious, Lear had many important male friendships, including with peers such as Lord Carlingford, Lord Northbrook (who took him to India and Ceylon in 1873 and 1874), as well as with Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He fell passionately in love with another young man, Franklin Lushington, with whom he toured Greece. However, he never achieved romantic fulfillment with either a man or a woman. He came close to proposing to an old friend, Augusta Bethell, who might have agreed to marry him, except that her sister discouraged Lear.

Although Lear signed up at the Royal Academy for professional training in 1850, within a few years he had returned to the Mediterranean, and from 1855 decided to make his home on the Continent: as Lushington was stationed on Corfu, he started off there, but continually travelled throughout the Mediterranean and Near East. His nonsense poems often involve journeys – another of my favourites being the Jumblies:

Far and few, far and few,

Are the lands where the Jumblies live;

Their heads are green, and the hands are blue

And they went to sea in a sieve.

In all he published four books of nonsense and six travel books, as well as books of natural history illustrations, one on parrots and the other on owls.

Epilepsy, which he called “The Demon” and later “The Morbids”, was a source of shame to Edward Lear. He kept his epilepsy secret, apparently saying once “It is wonderful that these fits have never been discovered”. He usually experienced an aura before having a seizure, which helped him withdraw to lie down in another room, and thus keep his attacks hidden. In later life, his siezures became more severe, although less frequent, always recorded in his diaries with an X and a score from one to ten to mark their severity.

A great writer of letters (up to 20 a day) and diaries (40 volumes), to the end of his life Lear remained solitary, accompanied by the loyal Greek manservant who accompanied him for three decades, and his cat Foss. Severe bronchitis in 1886 led to a worsening of his heart condition: his cat died the same year. Edward Lear finally died alone except for a servant on 29 January 1888.

Like the Dong with the Luminous Nose, Lear seems to have had a melancholy life: unlucky in love, plagued by poor health, and far from his country and his friends. Consequently, his poems are often poignant and full of wish fulfillment. He turned his pain into immortal images of joyful tenderness, which have become consoling for generations of children, and adults.

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,

Which they ate with a runcible spoon;

And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,

They danced by the light of the moon.

Further reading

Vivien Noakes, Edward Lear: the life of a wanderer

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Seneb (c2520 BCE)

When I came to Cairo for the first time, after the Pyramids and the Sphinx my priority was to visit the Archaeological Museum. The greatest attraction for me was neither the mummy collection nor even the gold headdress of Tutankhamun, but rather the prospect of seeing for myself the 4,500 year old statue of a dwarf, Seneb, one of the first in human history to be known by name.

Egypt, described as “the land where all children are reared” was one of the better place in the ancient world to have a disability, particularly in contrast to Greece and Rome, where disabled children were often exposed on hillsides to die. Amenemope (2000 BCE) promulgated early anti-discrimination legislation: "Mock not the blind nor deride the dwarf nor block the cripple's path: don't tease a man made ill by a god, nor make outcry when he blunders".

Dwarfs in particular had high status. Cabinets in the Archaeological Museum are stuffed with hundreds of amulets of the god Bes, seemingly achondroplasic (restricted growth) in appearance and often wearing a lion-skin cape. Bes defended against snakes, was patron and protector of pregnant women and of children, and although not formally worshipped was often invoked in rituals and displayed around the home. I also saw the granite sarcophagus of Djehe, who danced at the Serapeum at the day of the burial of Apis, the sacred bull: he is depicted in profile, naked and with his head shaved, and with the unmistakeable physique of someone with achondroplasia.

Seneb, whose name means “healthy” likely came from an upper class family, and had a successful career as a civil servant. This is known from inscriptions in his tomb in Giza, which list his many official titles and roles – including “overseer of weaving” and “overseer of dwarfs” as well as “beloved of the king”. He also served in the funerary cults of the kings Khufu and Djedefre, the Pyramid builders. Seneb was married to Senites, who was a priestess and was of average size: they had a son and two daughters, none of whom seems to have had the condition. Seneb owned thousands of cattle, as well as two pet dogs. Images reveal that furniture was adapted to suit him, such as low stools and also show him on his boat on the Nile.

The painted limestone statue in the Archeological Museum was found in a stone box in the tomb. It pictures Seneb and his wife seated side by side. He is cross-legged in the pose of a scribe, wearing a loin cloth, with his arms held in front of his chest. His wife has her right arm around her husband’s shoulders, and her other hand holds his left arm. She wears a long straight dress and a wig, although you can see her natural hairline underneath. Seneb’s short legs allows a space for smaller images of two of the children to be fitted in front and underneath him. Although there are other statues in the museum of couples, and of mothers and children, this is the only family group on display. Senites has a faint smile on her face, which indicates, I’d like to think, that she was happy to be married to such a man. It is a simple but beautiful statue, and testament to one of the more positive stories in the history of disability, a story of acceptance and integration.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Helen Keller (1880-1968)

"The public must learn that the blind man is neither genius nor a freak nor an idiot. He has a mind that can be educated, a hand which can be trained, ambitions which it is right for him to strive to realise, and it is the duty of the public to help him make the best of himself so that he can win light through work."

For a long time, I avoided learning more about Helen Keller, one of the most famous disabled people of all time, deterred by the over-sentimentalized depictions of her, and in particular the influence of her first teacher, Anne Sullivan, such as in the film The Miracle Worker. However, I was wrong, because Keller was a truly remarkable human being, and far more interesting than she at first appears.

Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Her father and other relatives had served in the Civil War (curiously, one of her Swiss ancestors was the first teacher of Deaf people in Zurich). As a toddler, she fell seriously ill, possibly with meningitis: although she survived, she was left blind and deaf. As a child, she was very difficult, with ferocious temper tantrums and a habit of eating with her hands. She did have about 60 basic signs so she could communicate some needs.

Her mother had read about deafblind education in Charles Dickens' American Notes, and sought out help. It was Alexander Graham Bell (inventor of the telephone and passionate about deaf education) who put the family in touch with the Perkins Institution in Massachusetts. They recommended a 20 year old former pupil, Anne Sullivan, who herself was nearly blind, an interesting aspect of the story which I had not known.

Sullivan arrived in March 1887, and began trying to teach Keller to use finger spelling, as well as to behave in a more acceptable way. As Helen later wrote:

"We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honey-suckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me."

After the breakthrough, Helen had an insatiable demand for the names of everything, and rapidly expanded her vocabulary and ability to communicate. Eventually, she could understand what other people said by feeling their lips with her fingers, as well as using Braille. However, she never achieved her ambition of speaking clearly.

Soon, Helen Keller became nationally famous, meeting the President of the United States at the White House, and in 1900, enrolling at Radcliffe College, where she became the first deafblind person to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in June 1904. From then on, she and Anne Sullivan toured the country – and later the world – earning a living by giving lectures. Keller’s speech remained limited, so her words had to be relayed by Sullivan. When the market for lectures dwindled, the pair of them performed the water pump breakthrough moment in vaudeville shows, earning up to $2000 per week. She was an active fundraiser for the American Foundation for the Blind.

Whereas her first books, The Story of My Life (1903) and The World I Live In (1908) revolved around her disability, her third, Out of the Dark (1913), discussed politics. Since 1909 she had been a member of the Socialist Party, influenced by Sullivan’s husband John Macy. It is often forgotten that Helen Keller was an advocate of workers’ rights, women’s suffrage, peace, birth control and other radical causes. In 1912, she joined the Industrial Workers of the World (The Wobblies). In 1920, she helped found the American Civil Liberties Union. Journalists who had once praised her courage and intelligence now criticised her for her political views. The editor of the Brooklyn Eagle wrote that her “mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development”.

Keller retorted:

“At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him.”

She demanded that the newspaper “fight fair”:

“Let it attack my ideas and oppose the aims and arguments of Socialism. It is not fair fighting or good argument to remind me and others that I cannot see or hear. I can read. I can read all the socialist books I have time for in English, German and French. If the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle should read some of them, he might be a wiser man and make a better newspaper.”

Helen Keller’s friends included Alexander Graham Bell, Charlie Chaplin and Mark Twain. After nearly fifty years as teacher, governess and companion Anne Sullivan died in 1936. Her successor as Helen’s interpreter and assistant was Polly Thomson. Together, Keller and Thomson toured the world, raising money for the American Foundation for the Overseas Blind.

A film about Keller, The Unconquered, won the Academy Award as best full length documentary. In 1962, a feature film was made of The Miracle Worker, originally a Broadway show, winning Oscars for the actresses playing Keller and Sullivan. In 1964, President Johnson awarded Helen Keller the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Four years later, Keller died in her sleep: her funeral was held at the National Cathedral in Washington. One of the first global disabled figures, her name is universally associated with disability: she is the epitome of the ever-fascinating "triumph over tragedy" trope. Even films like Children of a Lesser God and Sanjay Bhansali's Black, which never mention Keller, echo her personality. A pioneering example of what disabled people can achieve, Helen Keller has become a legend.


Royal National Institute for Blind People page on Helen Keller

Newsreel of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

Friday, October 7, 2011

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

"As an experience, madness is terrific I can assure you, and not to be sniffed at; and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about. It shoots out of one everything shaped, final, not in mere driblets as sanity does."

I never thought I would like Virginia Woolf: I thought of her novels as modernist and difficult, and probably depressing, and kept as far away from them as I did from those of her near contemporary, DH Lawrence. It was cinema which made me realise my error: first the Jane Campion film of Orlando, and then Stephen Daldry’s film of Michael Cunningham’s book The Hours, for which her novel Mrs Dalloway provides the structure and in which Woolf herself is a key character.

While the first book is a fabulously entertaining conceit, the second takes you inside the characters’ thought processes, just as cinema sometimes does with an interior monologue: while a party is being planned by the title character, Septimus a shell-shocked war veteran has suicidal thoughts as he walks the streets of London. Later I read To The Lighthouse, in which even less actually happens, but there is a powerful sense of time passing, of the way that thoughts come and go, together with insights into family relationships, and an underlying theme exploring the nature of artistic creation.

The central characters in that novel were based on Woolf’s own parents, Leslie Stephen and Julia Jackson, the former a scholar and editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, the latter a noted beauty and niece of the pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Although there was obviously great joy in Virginia’s childhood – such as the family holidays in St Ives, Cornwall, on which To The Lighthouse is based - Woolf’s early life was marked by trauma and loss. She described the death of her mother, when she was thirteen, as "the greatest disaster that could happen". Virginia was then sexually abused by her step-brother George. While she was a teenager, her much loved step-sister Stella died of peritonitis; finally, her brother Thoby died in his late twenties.

Whereas Thoby had attended Cambridge University, Woolf and her sister Veronica, who was later to achieve distinction as a painter, were educated at home, as was customary for girls. As well as the agonies of learning feminine skills such as music, Virginia read avidly, drew, collected butterflies, wrote stories and produced a regular family newspaper. Although she attended courses in the Ladies Department of King’s College London, Woolf’s sense of injustice over being excluded from a proper university education was to fuel her feminism, and result in hugely influential non-fiction books such as A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas.

The friends whom Thoby brought home from Cambridge – such as Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf – would form the nucleus of the famous Bloomsbury group. This unconventional social network of upper middle class intellectuals was influenced by the philosopher G.E.Moore, who stated "one's prime objects in life were love, the creation and enjoyment of aesthetic experience and the pursuit of knowledge"'. While people like Maynard Keynes and Leonard Woolf were active in public life, most of the group were more interested in culture than politics. They reacted against stuffy Victorian values, promoting the pursuit of enjoyment and becoming entangled in complicated romantic relationships. While Clive Bell married Vanessa in 1906, Leonard eventually persuaded Virginia to marry him in 1912, on his return from colonial service in Hambantota, Ceylon (a district where my grandfather was to live a few decades later).

Woolf had begun her career as a professional writer by reviewing for The Times Literary Supplement in 1900 ; she published The Voyage Out, her first novel, in 1905. Although her innovative writing style was very well received, she was extremely sensitive to criticism, and found the process of completing and publishing each of her books work emotionally draining.

Mental illness had affected several members of the Stephens family in earlier generations, and was to haunt Virginia Woolf throughout her life: it seems most likely that she had a form of manic depression. She had her first nervous breakdown when she was 13, after her mother died, and another after the death of her father in 1904. Her symptoms included insomnia, eating disorders, mania and despair, yet she lacked insight into her condition and resisted treatment. At various periods she required constant care and spent time in nursing homes, In 1913 she attempted suicide by overdose, and was only saved by Geoffrey Keynes, then a medical student living on the top floor of their Bloomsbury home, who pumped her stomach.

Although some critics have seen him as the cause of her difficulties, Woolf received very loyal and patient support from her husband Leonard, who thought that the only solution to her vulnerability was to seclude her from the excitement of London society. He also believed that it would be ill-advised for her to have children. Although he may have been right, this was a great source of sadness to her. Together, and partly as a form of occupational therapy, they founded Hogarth Press, with both of them setting type and printing themselves, before later handing most of the work over to assistants and later professional printers.

So far, so interesting. With her passionate friendships with women – including an affair with Vita Sackville-West – and her beautiful novels, and her mental frailty, Virginia Woolf appears a sympathetic person. Her nephew Quentin records how she was particularly popular with children. Yet Woolf’s novels have been criticised for being snobbish and limited in their focus. She also had some nasty attitudes, which in her defence were perhaps typical of her class and time. For example, she described her then fiancĂ© as a "penniless Jew" and wrote anti-semitic things about his family. In her novels too, the epithet "Jew" is used perjoratively. However, when Hitler came to prominence, Woolf was actively anti-fascist, and fear of the outcome of the war was a factor in her final depression.

People with disabilities are also referred to negatively in her fiction. In her diary for 1915, Virginia Woolf described a walk on which she met "a long line of imbeciles". She wrote that "everyone in that long line was a miserable ineffective shuffling idiotic creature, with no forehead or no chin & and an imbecile grin, or a wild, suspicious stare. It was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed." The critic Donald Child argues that A Room of One's Own, Three Guineas and Mrs Dalloway are all suffused by eugenics, which he speculates Woolf might have imbibed from the prominant London doctors she consulted, several of whom were undoubted eugenicists. However, I think this is an exaggeration.

Representations such as The Hours portray Woolf as a tragic and romantic figure. It is impossible not to be moved by the suicide note which she left for Leonard, before walking into the River Ouse with a heavy stone in the pocket of her coat on the morning of March 28 1941, "a bright, clear, cold day".

Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier 'til this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.

Anyone who thinks that manic depression or other mental illnesses are a myth, or who blame the medical profession and modern pharmaceuticals for creating all the difficulties of people with psychosis, should read Quentin Bell’s biography of his aunt. While clear-eyed about Virginia’s faults, such as her arrogance and her habit of emotional manipulation, Bell’s portrait is very positive. When I was at Kings, I remember meeting Dadie Rylands, one of the last surviving members of the Bloomsbury Group, who was another fan. In a letter to her he wrote “The style makes me hold my breath – everything conjured up in a crystal: shining, clear and a little remote”. From this distance, I find it impossible not to remain ambivalent about Woolf as a person, although I have come to love her novels for their poetic vision and sparkling prose.

Further reading

Quentin Bell. Virginia Woolf : a biography, Pimlico 1996.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Al-Ma'arri (973-1057)

In February 2013, as chaos raged through Syria, a small group of men from the Al Nusra front, the local Al Qaida affiliate, gathered in the town of Maari, near Aleppo.  They were there to settle scores with the most distinguished sons of that town, one of the most famous poet of the whole Muslim world, Abu 'L'Ala Ahmad ibn 'Abdallah al-Ma'arri, known simply as Al Ma’arri, was both one of the greatest of Arab poets and a rare example of a Medieval rationalist.  His poetry has relevance to struggles in Syria and beyond.

You've had your way a long, long time,

You kings and tyrants,

And still you work injustice hour by hour.

What ails you that do not tread a path of glory?

A man may take the field, although he love the bower.

But some hope a divine leader with prophetic voice

Will rise amid the gazing silent ranks.

An idle thought! There's none to lead but reason,

To point the morning and the evening ways.
Until I started writing about disabled people in history, I’d never heard of Al Ma’arri.  A Persian colleague pointed me towards him, explaining how prominent he was in the Islamic world.   Yet because Al Ma’arri is so obscure in ours, it took some detective work to piece together his story.
He was born to a prominent family in Ma'arra, near Aleppo in 973, during the Abbasid Caliphate.  One of his forebears had been the town’s first Islamic judge, and others had been poets.  At the age of four, Al Ma’arri contracted smallpox and was left blind.   He said of himself: “when I was four years old, there was a decree of fate about me, that I could not distinguish a full-grown camel from a tender young camel newly born.”  However, he was to make up for his lack of sight by having an extraordinarily powerful memory.
Beginning his career as a poet at the age of 11, Al Ma’aari travelled around the region, to Aleppo, to Antioch, in modern day Turkey, and then to Baghdad, receiving a religious, linguistic and literary education through learning the poetic tradition. He may also visited the Christian monastery of Dayr-al-Farus on his way to Tripoli, where he was exposed to Hellenic philosophy.   Maybe it was the Hellenic emphasis on skepticism and rational argument that awakened doubts in his own mind.
His first collection of poems was called The Tinder Spark.  In 1004, his father, who had been his first teacher, died, and a few years later he travelled to Baghdad, to consult the libraries there.   At the time, Baghdad would have been thronged with Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Sufis, and also rationalists.  Although welcomed in the literary salons of Baghdad, he only stayed in that city for about eighteen months.  It’s not clear whether he left because he ran out of money, or because of literary arguments, or homesickness.  He may even have been expelled for asking too many critical questions.
Returning home, he was heartbroken to find that his mother had already died.  In reaction, Al Ma'arri announced his intention of becoming an ascetic, and of avoiding other people.  But like many aspiring hermits,  Al Ma’arri’s growing reputation brought many students and admirers to hear him lecture.  I wonder whether he was frustrated by all the attention, or glad of his popularity? 
He certainly had something to communicate, because he went on to create another innovative and radical collection of verse, the Luzumiyyat.  This title,  translated as “Unnecessary necessities”, apparently referred both to his attitude to living, and to the obscure vocabulary and complex structure of his poetry.  What appeals to me about his poems is not just the originality of his ideas, but also the directness of his language.   It feels like a modern thinker is speaking to you, not a contemporary of William the Conqueror.     Yet unlike for example Jalludin Rumi, the 13th century Persian who is apparently the best selling poet in America, there seems to be no fresh modern translation of Al Ma’arri available in the West.   Instead we have to rely on Reynolds Alleyne Nicholson, whose Studies in Islamic Poetry was written during the First World War and reissued in 1967. 
I do not know how Al Maa’rri coped with his blindness in his daily life.    He composed his writings entirely in his head, and dictated it to others.  He also conducted an extensive correspondence.  We think that he never married.  But he was held in high esteem by his community, and I imagine his needs were met.  After all, he was in his eighty-fifth year when he died, which would have been extremely old for the eleventh century.   We known from a Persian poet who visited Al Ma’arri when he was in his seventies that he was “the chief man in the town, very rich, revered by the inhabitants and surrounded by more than two hundred students who came from all parts to attend his lectures on literature and poetry.”
 None of this explains the actions of those men from the Al Nusra Front, who made a beeline for his statue near Aleppo and beheaded it.   What had he done, that Islamists would take belated revenge against him?  Given recent terrorist outrages, vandalism to a mere statue is minor news.  But the fact that Al-Maari was seen as an important target for Islamists nearly a thousand years after his death says something about this writer’s significance.

Al Ma'arri  was controversial in his own time, and is regarded as a heretic today, because he was one of the rare examples of religious skepticism in the Islamic world.   For example, he rejected the idea that Islam had a monopoly on truth. He thought it was  simply a matter of geographical accident what faith people adopted and in any case, to quote the man himself:
They all err—Moslems, Jews,
Christians, and Zoroastrians:
Humanity follows two world-wide sects:
One, man intelligent without religion,
The second, religious without intellect.
Those men are rushing towards decomposition,
All religions are equally strayed.
If one asks me, what is my doctrine,
It is clear:
Am I not, like others,
An imbecile?
To me, he often feels like a wittier and more self-effacing version of Richard Dawkins.  Although Al Ma’ari did not believe in divine revelation, he was probably a deist rather than an actual atheist.   In other words, he may have accepted the existence of God, but did not believe that God intervened in the world.  Certainly for Al Ma'arri, reason alone should guide human beings.   In particular, he was critical of the self-interested and often corrupt edifice of religion, which he thought was a human-devised activity:
O fools, awake! The rites you sacred hold
Are but a cheat contrived by men of old,
Who lusted after wealth and gained their lust
And died in baseness—and their law is dust.
For example, he rejected the orthodox Muslim duty to make the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, which he even described as a pagan journey. Nor did he believe in an afterlife:
Death's debt is then and there
Paid down by dying men;
But it is a promise bare
That they shall rise again.
When you hear a poem like this one, you can understand why an Islamist would reach for the Sharia law concerning heresy.   It’s a wonder to me that the beheading didn’t happen to Al Ma’ari, and that he had a statue in Syria in the first place:
The Prophets, too, among us come to teach,
Are one with those who from the pulpit preach;
They pray, and slay, and pass away, and yet
Our ills are as the pebbles on the beach.
Islam does not have a monopoly on truth:
For Al Ma'arri, there was either no ultimate meaning to life, or at the very least it was unknowable:
Two fates still hold us fast,
A future and a past;
Two vessels' vast embrace
Surrounds us—time and space.
And when we ask what end
Our maker did intend,
Some answering voice is heard
That utters no plain word.
His work promotes a pessimism about human life and death, which I find very appealing and modern:
When I would string the pearls of my desire,
Alas, life's too short thread denies them room.
Huge volumes cannot yet contain entire
Man's hope; his life is but a summary of doom.
For him, life was ephemeral.  Because of the low opinion he held about life, Al Ma’ari felt it better not to have children, so as to spare them the pains of existence.  He wanted the epitaph on his grave to read “This wrong was by my father done to me, but never by me to anyone”.   It was for this reason that he never married.  He also opposed all violence and killing, becoming a vegan and avoiding the use of animal skins in clothing and footwear, and urging that no living creature should be harmed, as in his poem "I No Longer Steal from Nature":
Do not unjustly eat fish the water has given up,

And do not desire as food the flesh of slaughtered animals,

Or the white milk of mothers who intended its pure draught

for their young, not noble ladies.

And do not grieve the unsuspecting birds by taking eggs;

for injustice is the worst of crimes.

And spare the honey which the bees get industriously

from the flowers of fragrant plants;

For they did not store it that it might belong to others,

Nor did they gather it for bounty and gifts.

I washed my hands of all this; and wish that I

Perceived my way before my hair went gray!
He seems to have been equally radical in his political thinking.  For example, in another of his poems, a number of talking animals, including a donkey, a camel, a horse and a fox pass judgement on the Fatimid rulers of Aleppo.
His third great work was Risalat-al-Ghufran, or the Epistle of Forgiveness, comparable to Dante’s Divine Comedy, which it may have influenced.  In this poem, the hero visits the Gardens of Paradise, where he meets heathen poets who have found forgiveness – again, violating Islamic doctrine.  The work remains controversial, even today: in 2007, the Algerian Ministry of Religious Affairs banned it from the International Book Fair in Algiers.

We may have the idea that atheism was invented during the Enlightenment, but Al Ma'arri is not the only religious sceptic in the Islamic world.  The more famous Persian poet Omar Khayyam wrote in the twelfth century “Deaf to religion, this is my credo”.    Unlike other heretics of the Islamic world such as Al-Hallaj and Ibn Muquaffa, Al Ma'arri avoided being killed for his free thinking beliefs. He was charged with heresy although never prosecuted.  There is a spiritual quest in his work, a strand of monotheism, and perhaps this piety allowed him to appear more orthodox than he was.   He was also held in great esteem by his neighbours and fellow citizens, which probably helped.  As an example of the irony with which he approaches conventional subjects, there’s another poem where he depict himself arguing with the Angel of Death about the origin of certain Arabic words, in order to postphone the moment of his own mortality by another hour.

Being blind at that time was a different thing to today.  For most of human history, disability was not a matter of identity.  Only comparatively recently were people with different forms of illness and impairment considered as one category.   To talk of “disabled people” or “people with disabilities” is a modern development, and the term disability itself only came into usage in the twentieth century.  On the other hand, in historical eras when smallpox, polio, measles and other diseases were rife, illness and impairment would have been very common.  Although many disabled people died prematurely, it is likely that prevalence of disability was much higher. 

Historically, blindness was always seen as much of blessing as a curse.   One recurring narrative suggests that blind people had deeper insight by way of compensation.  Homer after all was blind, as well as  the prophetic Tiresias of Greek mythodology.  A number of historical figures are known to have been blind. For example, the revered C14th Italian composer Francesco Landini and his French contemporary, the blind knight Jean l’Aveugle (d. 1346), who was represented as noble and heroic.  In C15th England, the poets John Gower (d. 1408) and John Audelay (died c. 1426) both wrote about their blindness.

In medieval Islam, blind people were not ostracized or seen as less than perfect.   This positive attitude stems from the Koran and the Hadith, where disability is seen as part of the human condition.  In one tradition, the Prophet Muhammed is preaching in Mecca, when a blind follower comes to ask about interpreting the Koran, and the Prophet turns away.  Muhammed is then rebuked, because everyone who comes full of eagerness and in awe of God should be included.  The Prophet’s companion Abdullah Ibn Umm Maktum was blind, but was nevertheless responsible for the call to prayer, was put in charge of Medina when the  Prophet was away, and finally died on the battlefield holding the Muslim standard.

Al Ma’ari’s poem, The Body is Your Vase, expresses some of this approach to disability:

The body, which gives you during life a form,
Is but your vase: be not deceived, my soul!
Cheap is the bowl for storing honey in,
But precious for the contents of the bowl.

Al Ma’arri lived at a time and in a culture where blind people were not necessarily excluded.  He came from an elite family, and he won fame due to his originality and intelligence.    In the words of his translator, Reynolds Nicholson, he was equally opposed to injustice, hypocrisy and superstition.  I find it striking that such an Arab free thinker was writing half a millennium before Voltaire.  The reason that many of Al Ma’ari’s works are lost to us is that the Crusaders wreaked devastation that the Crusades wreaked across Syria in the following centuries.  This, too, is a timely thought.    I look forward to the day when Christians, Muslims and free thinkers can read Al Ma’arri in peace and he is once again revered in his Syrian birthplace.