A striking coincidence: while writing a funding proposal for a project on epilepsy in the Victorian imagination, this interview popped up on The Huffington Post. It’s a segment from The Today Show with Paul Karason, the “blue man” who’s been treating a skin condition with colloidal silver for over a decade. (The show seems to have a penchant for curious bodies—just yesterday they featured an young girl who’s been sneezing ten times a minute for the past two weeks.)
Anyway, I was particularly struck by Karason’s story because I’ve reading Wilkie Collins’ Poor Miss Finch, a highly original meditation on the intersections of disability and visibility. The novel’s “poor” woman is Lucilla, called so (not without irony on Collins’ part) because of her blindness. Lucilla’s fiancée Oscar suffers from epilepsy, and, true to the chemical dependencies of Collins’ plots, we find that his post-traumatic seizures are curbed with silver nitrate, a remedy that causes a dark-blue discoloration of the skin. Like the “cunning preparation” of phosphorus in Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, this treatment colors a merely unusual body with gothic effects. When Oscar’s fiancée regains her vision, the sight of him terrifies her.
Behind the narrative necessity of Oscar’s “black-blue complexion,” I suspect there’s a desire to render the condition of epilepsy visible by saturating (and implicitly racializing) Oscar so that the inside shows through. The novel is marked by a climate of suspicion concerning epilepsy—in particular over the possibilities of simulation. Can an afflicted body “pass” as healthy? Can healthy bodies perform affliction? These are questions that Oscar’s story raises, with the help of a twin brother who exchanges identities with him in order to retain Miss Finch’s affections.
In the Karason post, I was surprised to find how often commenters invoke race. From jokes about Karason claiming status as a “person of color,” to suggestions that his moment in the spotlight was just another instance of affirmative action, the least empathetic comments consistently collapse skin-color and race, as if uniformly resentful towards bodies that openly display their difference.