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From Impairment to Empowerment: A Re-Assessment of Libuše Moníková’s Representation of Disability in Pavane für eine verstorbene Infantin

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 March 2023

Eleoma Joshua
Affiliation:
University of Edinburgh
Michael Schillmeier
Affiliation:
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
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Summary

SEISMIC SHIFTS ARE happening in the world of disability theory: no longer is this the province of a select band of activists-turned-social theorists. Rather, licensed by the gathering momentum of a cultural model of disability, scholars throughout the humanities are subjecting canonical texts to re-examination through a “disability” lens. They find that literature is populated with characters who struggle with impairments; they find, too, that the academic reader has consistently understood the representation of disabled existence metaphorically: disability, it has been assumed, functions largely as a trope which supports the other thematic concerns of any text.

Libuše Moníková's exploration of wheelchair-bound existence in Pavane für eine verstorbene Infantin is no exception. Published in 1983, Pavane is Moníková's second novel. Like most of her other work, it has been read either as an act of mourning for her Czech homeland or as a protest against society's inscriptions of femininity. Until now, the wheelchair and the associated representation of disability within Pavane have been treated as metaphors for the protagonist's sense of alienation. This essay resists normative reading strategies that take disability as merely a literary resource and strip the representation of lived materiality. Instead, Pavane should be read as a vibrant, phenomenological representation of disabled existence. My claim is based on an understanding of the entire text as a transliteration of Velázquez's celebrated painting Las Meninas (1656), which features a disabled woman in the foreground. Crucially, on Moníková's insistence, the first edition of Pavane took as its frontispiece the full version of the painting. In subsequent paperback editions, a cropped version was used to which pen and ink lines had been added, thus creating a personalized version of the painting to reflect the novel's thematization of authenticity and authorship, and of space and boundaries.

Born in Prague in 1945, Libuše Moníková moved to West Germany in 1971. She taught at the universities of Kassel and Bremen while simultaneously developing a writing career, eventually settling down in Berlin as a freelance writer. Profoundly affected by the political climate of her beloved Czechoslovakia, both Moníková's academic essays and her fictional writing continued to engage with the Czech national consciousness, as well as treating her own sense of identity.

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Edinburgh German Yearbook 4
Disability in German Literature, Film, and Theater
, pp. 197 - 214
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2010

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