Often times, we fill other people’s silence with the noise of our own imagination. In Carson McCuller’s novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, a mute named Mr. Singer is a mirror and a map for several lonely hearts. A handful of town misfits see the mute as a sort of christ-like figure; he becomes whatever they want him to be. Throughout the story, the mute’s callers project their imaginations onto his body. I’m not sure this is what McCuller’s was getting at, but I was persistently struck by the question: How and when does projecting onto bodies that can’t speak for themselves become a problem?
Tightly wound characters, like Dr. Copeland and Jake Blout, are combing through deeply rooted ideologies, turning to Mr. Singer for understanding. But the mute does not understand in the uncanny way they believe him to. Instead, he listens to flatter his own loneliness. If given the choice, the mute would trade these heavy conversations for another minute with his slow-on-the-uptake friend, Antonapoulos, another mute. It is because these misfits do not really know Mr. Singer that they cannot fathom why he would take his own life. They don’t see that when his friend died, Mr. Singer lost his music. For me, it was heartbreaking to see someone imagined to be all-knowing die having been tragically misunderstood.
Though the tie is loose, the imagination of Mr. Singer reminds me of some themes buried in the Barnard physical education archives. In particular, this idea of projecting onto bodies that are unable to speak for themselves. During the 1940s (the year McCullers published her novel), Barnard had a four-year physical education requirement, including mandatory posture exams. For many years, Barnard would distribute a comprehensive survey to the first-years, and then average the results into what they referred to as “The Mythological Freshman” or “Miss 19..” Part of the introduction to Barnard’s Miss 1945 reads,
What makes people stand out above the herd? What do you notice first? 1. Posture—the way you sit and stand and walk reflects your health, character, personality—courage and confidence.
The college assumed posture predicted a student’s potential for success. Staff labeled these posture photos as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ without consideration for how students saw their own bodies. Student bodies—and personalities as a consequence—were cornered and shaped by inflexible measures. On another level, the nature of these archives has the institution defining the Barnard woman without space for her—or their—response.
As I move forward with my readings, I’d like to continue exploring the following questions…
- To what extent does a person’s body define their potential (if at all)?
- What happens when an institution silences a person’s ability to define and/or care for themselves?
- It’s worth noting that Mr. Singer (who was born deaf) stopped speaking in school because of the “blank expressions” on people’s faces when he tried to communicate vocally. Are there other characters in texts on the syllabus who made critical choices regarding their identity expression because they were shamed for their disability in educational spaces?