It was impossible not to be reminded this September of the twentieth anniversary of 9-11, such a dreadful but necessary commemoration. And yet little has been said about a much more obscure but inspiring anniversary this year — the thirtieth anniversary of the “Second Russian Revolution” when Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev triumphed over the old-line communists in August of 1991.
As the author of the most famous novel about the French Revolution, Charles Dickens would no doubt have been fascinated by this revolution too. And I'm convinced that had he seen the pictures of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin defeating the coup (which aimed to banish them and restore communism), Dickens would have immediately noted a coincidence that our news media ignored at the time: both men were disfigured. Gorbachev had a prominent port-wine stain birthmark on his head, and Yeltsin's left hand was mangled in a childhood accident with a hand grenade. Here were two blemished leaders.
We would not call them “handicapped” today, although they both were actually labeled that in the 1990's. The term is now out of fashion, as it should be, due to its negative connotation of "limited." Even the word "disabled" is offensive today to many language-sensitive souls; its use will cause them to protest and raise Cain — rather appropriately, since it was Cain who first dis-Abeled the world (boo...).
Dickens would have especially appreciated the fact that these Russian leaders’ physical imperfections did not stop them from succeeding, even on world history’s largest stage. I cannot think of another author who has created more endearing and inspiring disfigured characters. From the pathetic Smike in Nicholas Nickleby with his multiple palsies to Esther Summerson in Bleak House with her smallpox and resulting blindness to Jenny Wren in Our Mutual Friend, the dolls' misshapen little dressmaker. And, of course, Tiny Tim. Dickens was always asserting the inherent radiant beauty within those who appear grotesque to the world at large.
He obviously knew that physical frailties often produce the compensating virtue of an inner strength needed to overcome them. But, sadly, he must also have realized that even when one seems to triumph over such adversity, the effort will take a high toll on the individual's personality. Both Gorbachev and Yeltsin, for instance, were reputed to be very difficult characters, which partially accounted for their subsequent sudden falls from power, and Dickens' own life is a prime example of this phenomenon.
The humiliating poverty Dickens experienced as a child (an unseen but insidious disability) did lead to his steely determination to succeed at all costs and to his enormous sympathy for all who suffer. But it also bequeathed to his personality a ruthlessness and a wildly anxious insecurity within him that often made him impossible to live with, as his belittled wife Catherine and his ten (!) troubled children were to learn. With his terrific talent came terrible tension and turmoil.
The ancient Greeks understood this psychological truth, as demonstrated in their myth of Philoctetes (pronounced “Phil-lock-TEE- tees”, in case you’re going to drop his name during cocktail-party conversation this weekend). It tells of a soldier during the Trojan War who possessed a magic bow that could defeat all enemies. Unfortunately, Philoctetes also possessed a wound on his foot so disgusting that nobody could stand to be around him. The Greeks, in desperate need of his weapon, tried to figure out some way that they could trick Philoctetes into giving them the magic bow without having to accept him as bowman in the bargain. They failed. They could only obtain the divine magic if they welcomed its odious mortal source as well.
Some scholars have seen this myth as revealing the profound truth that awesome personal talent is often accompanied by awful personal traits. The Wonder and the Wound are inextricably linked. Whether it be world leaders like Gorbachev and Yeltsin, great authors like Charles Dickens, or extraordinary individuals within our own families, we must sooner or later recognize this reality about them: in order to enjoy the pure blessing of the dazzling presents they bring, we must often accept the decidedly mixed blessing of the difficult presence that they drag along with them.