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‘Dysfluencies: On Speech Disorders in Modern Literature’ by Chris Eagle

Dr Claire Tupling | 29.08.2017

Review by Dr Claire Tupling.

‘Dysfluencies: On Speech Disorders in Modern Literature’ by Chris Eagle In Dysfluencies Chris Eagle takes the reader through a critical study of speech disorders in literary fiction. Opening with a discussion on the ‘neurolinguistic turn’ (i.e. when language started to be seen as based in the biology of areas of the brain), Eagle considers that understandings of the origins of ‘loss of speech’ are reflected in and can be traced through literary fiction. Whilst Dysfluencies is not concerned wholly with stammering, much of the material Eagle draws upon are portrayals of characters who stammer.

Starting with an overview of the general characteristics of literary fiction which feature a character with a speech disability, Eagle presents the following observation: “Virtually without exception in modern literature, speech pathologies are ‘diagnosed’ metaphorically as the symptom of some character flaw such as excessive nervousness or weakness, or treated as a symbol for the general tendency of language toward communicative breakdown, ambiguity, polysemy, misunderstanding, etc” (p.11)

Eagle highlights differences in the way in which stammering is portrayed in males and females.

This is not to argue that there is no variation in any portrayal. For example, Eagle highlights differences in the way in which stammering is portrayed in males and females. In males, it is typical to use stammering to convey moral weakness and sexual inexperience, whereas in women (e.g in Roth’s American Pastoral) the stammering conveys a social repression, and the character’s refusal to meet accepted gender norms. Nevertheless, conventions are apparent throughout the texts considered.

Eagle identifies three phases where portrayals of stammering characters reflected the dominant understandings of speech disorders of the time. These phases are: Neurological (1860’s-1920’s), Psychological (1920’s-1980’s) and back to the Neurological from the 1990’s onwards. Within these time frames there are chapters devoted to the relationship between stammering and shell shock in WWI writing, the supposed link between stammering and repressed sexuality in the writings of Herbert Melville and Ken Kesey, and ‘Stuttering, violence and the politics of voice’ where he considers works by Robert Graves and Philip Roth. Finally, he considers tourettic speech.

The existence of stammering in a character serves a purpose, indicating something about the personality of that individual

What Eagle’s discussion reveals, probably unsurprisingly, is that stammering is rarely used as an incidental. Therefore, the existence of stammering or another speech disorder in a character serves a purpose, indicating something about the personality of that individual. Eagle appears not to be overly concerned about the ethics of this, rather he is concerned with understanding what authors are trying to achieve by making their characters stammer. Additionally, he discusses how the inclusion of stammering and other disorders of speech are used to suggest a fragility of language. Here, Eagle is somewhat critical of Deleuze’s influential essay He Stuttered (1997)*, accusing Deleuze of using stammering as a “glorifying act of metaphor with no bearing on the lived experiences of actual stutterers” (p.160). In other words, Deleuze’s assertion that language ‘stutters’ may convey a sense of the breakdown of language (generally, not for particular individuals), but it says very little about the realities of stammering in those who stammer.

Dysfluencies isn’t simply an annotated bibliography of all the stammering characters featured in literary fiction, it makes an important contribution to understandings of the ways in which literature has sought to understand and represent disordered speech.

‘Dysfluencies: On Speech Disorders in Modern Literature’ by Chris Eagle is published by Bloomsbury, 2014.

Footnote:
*Deleuze, G. (1997) ‘He Stuttered’ in Essays Critical and Clinical. translated by Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.