I’ve been reading Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott. It’s my bathroom book these days, because it has entertaining sections that are an appropriate length for the amount of time I’m in the bathroom (at least some of the time – but enough of that!). Toward the end, in the chapter called “Giving” (on page 206) she writes:
“…. My priest friend… describes himself as a cheerful pessimist, and this attitude is enough to rescue him from the bleakness that would otherwise have him psychically curled up in the fetal position.
Now, come to think of it, this autism is a great position for one of your characters to end up in near the climax [supposing that you are writing fiction], because this killing of this deadness is a great theme.”
Naturally, that passage made me stop – you don’t get that many writers talking about the thematic significance of autism, for literature and life, after all. But Lamott is just saying what seems obvious to me – that autism and its various permutations (like Asperger’s Syndrome, for instance) perform some kind of cultural work – giving a shape (or a diagnosis!) to an aspect of human identity that seems to have become more prominent in recent years. Twenty-five years ago, no-one would ever have described autism as a “deadness” whose “killing” was a great theme of fiction. Not that the killing of deadness wasn’t a theme in literature, because of course it was then, and has been for some years. It’s a standard concern of plenty of modernist literature going back to the early part of the twentieth century – predating autism, certainly (Kanner’s, at any rate – maybe not Bleuler’s first use of the term, in 1911). But that autism should have become a common metaphor for the withdrawal into a psychic fetal curl is pretty new. Of course, this is exactly what it does in Rain Man, the 1989 film that marked autism’s burst into the public’s imagination.
I’m intrigued by this set of associations. Autism has become a resonant cultural metaphor, I think because we have taken to seeing it as representing a kind of alienation or remoteness that many people feel to some degree (although not to the extreme of autism). Of course, whether autistic people really feel a “deadness” is another question entirely… but that’s the metaphor they’ve been asked to embody.