Sunday, March 27, 2011

A bibliographic infection to pass on

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg at Journeys With Autism has done it again. She’s passed on another one of those internet memes. To me. Thank you again Rachel.

The rules for this meme:
1. Take a picture of the books you are reading currently and add them to your post.
2. Describe the books and if you are enjoying them
3. For every book you are reading, you have to tag one person.
4. Leave the person a comment letting them know you tagged them.

Well, number one I might pass up. I’m not up with all that technical jiggery-pokery and uploading of data. Here goes for number 2:

I‘m an incurable botherer of librarians and booksellers, and many books pass over my desk each month. Sadly, this is not the same thing as having the time or the opportunity to read books. I recently bought a cheap copy of Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s new book Inside WikiLeaks, and I left it in the bedroom of one of our politically-minded offspring, at number 15 Credibility Street, but I’m not sure that any of us have had a spare moment to read a word of the thing. Yesterday I was wading through Robert Manne’s essay about Julian Assange in The Monthly, which is apparently endorsed by Assange, while waiting in a GPs waiting room, always a great opportunity to catch up on some uninterrupted reading for extended periods. The other day I found an uncorrected proof edition of the Australian political chick lit novel Campaign Ruby by Jessica Rudd, in a Good Sammy’s store. I doubt that I’ll be bothered to wade through this again to see if differs from the proper edition. I came perilously close to developing diabetes 2 while ploughing through it the first time, with the book’s many references to cheap confectionary and wines on top of some generous helpings of sickly-sweet sentiment. I’m just not that much of a sweet-tooth. I did notice that the copyright date is different in the different editions of this book, which became famous for appearing to anticipate real-life momentous political events in Australia last year. The copyright notice in the uncorrected proof says “Jessica Rudd 2010”, while the copyright date is left vague in the final edition. 2010 was a year to remember, or forget, or learn from, for Jessica’s Dad. I have managed to find the time to take a decent look at a couple of books recently, but I’ve not read either in full. This is one of them:

Cappello, Mary Swallow: foreign bodies, their ingestion, inspiration, and the curious doctor who extracted them. The New Press, 2011.

This is an interesting new book that details the life of Dr Chevalier Jackson (1865-1958), “pioneering laryngologist”, “father of endoscopy” and a saver of many lives. The doctor has the enviable honour of having a collection named after him at the world-famous Mutter Museum of medical curiosities. This makes sense as the collection is foreign bodies that the doctor retrieved from the bodies of his patients and kept. Dr Jackson’s contributions to society are important and varied. His campaigning for proper labelling of poisonous and caustic substances led to Congress passing an act that saved countless people, including children, from death or horrible injuries. Dr Jackson was also responsible for the replacement of white clothing with green garb in operating rooms because green caused less troublesome glare. It takes an autistic, doesn’t it? This book is based in part on the autobiography of the doctor.

My main interest in this book is that the central figure appears to have been on the autistic spectrum. As a boy he was the subject of some serious, life-threatening bullying from other boys. At one time he was bound and blindfolded and dropped into a coal pit where he lost consciousness in the darkness. Fortunately for humanity, he was discovered by a dog and eventually saved. As an adult and the author of an autobiography, one of the issues that caused some conflict between Dr Jackson and his editor was Jackson’s persistence in referring to himself in the third person, and eccentric use of personal pronouns that could be seen as a sign of autism. Probably the most striking evidence suggestive of autism in this book are the descriptions of Jackson’s personality. Cappello found a revealing quote about Jackson in a professional periodical “He was a teetotaller, attended no social functions if he could possibly avoid them, was considered “cold” even by many of his admirers, and conceded that he had no friends in the usual meaning of the word”. The doctor wasn’t a completely cold fish; he did marry and had a son.

I would recommend this book but not without some reservations. I do not enjoy books that blur the distinction between literature and non-fiction. There are a number of reasons why the literary style of this book bothered me. I like my facts served plain and hard, but it is difficult to know where speculation meets fact in the many passages of imaginative prose about personal matters in this book. I understand that many people find this writing style interesting and evocative, so my opinion isn’t condemnation. The author’s literary style also seems to have psychoanalytic theory as a premise, and I despise the ideas of Freud and related evidence-free theories with a passion. I make no apologies for my opinion that Freud and his pseudoscientific colleagues distracted students of the human mind from the proper scientific study of psychology for so long and with such influence that it is nothing short of a tragedy for all mankind. What would we know now about the human mind and the human brain if so many decades of research and clinical practice in psychology and psychiatry hadn’t been wasted in the dead-end alleyway of psychoanalytic pseudoscience? Despite my enmities, I am happy to set aside these objections to recommend this book, subject to personal literary taste, as a fascinating story well worth telling. This book can easily be read “against the grain” as a biography of another heroic autistic high achiever.

Wikipedia contributors (accessed 2011) Chevalier Jackson. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Another book that I’ve had a good look at recently is this one: Weber, Nicholas Fox (2009) The Bauhaus group: six masters of modernism. Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

I’ve enjoyed this book because I always enjoy reading about odd ducks such as the Bauhaus artists Wassily Kandinskii (Kandinsky) and Paul Klee. This book includes chapters about each of these neurologically eccentric friends. Kandinskii was most definitely a synaesthete. He wrote about his synaesthesia and saw colours all over the place where conventionally-wired minds apparently see no colours at all. I’m not sure exactly why some synaesthesia researchers have doubted Kandinskii’s synaesthesia in the past, but I guess they might have assumed that he made such a fuss of synaesthesia because he was more of a pretentious wannabe than the genuine article. The problem with this line of logic is that genuine synaesthetes can be just as pretentious as the best of them. Kandinskii was also possibly neuro-atypical in another way – a couple of writers including an Asperger syndrome researcher have identified Kandinskii as possibly on the autistic spectrum.

I found Weber’s book interesting because it also detailed the strange creative mind and personality of Paul Klee, and the friendship between Kandinskii and Klee. I believe the eccentricities of Klee described in this book are an indication that both friends were on the spectrum, and I also found evidence of an unusual type of synaesthesia in Klee. On page 152 Klee’s creativity in amateur cookery is detailed, along with one little line that told much about the way Klee’s mind worked “Klee was as enchanted by cooking ingredients as he was by tubes of paint, and he sometimes invested fruits or vegetables with human feelings, just as he did with lines or colors.” Klee is quoted: “The cucumber was lying there happily too.” This type of personal observation is very typical of the sorts of things that synaesthetes report (to other synaesthetes, who understand these things), and it is a type of personification synaesthesia. Personification synesthesia is more commonly described scientifically in the personification of numbers and letters of the alphabet (graphemes), the technical term being ordinal linguistic personification (OLP). I would like to propose that Klee’s mental quirk be named “Gastronomic Personification”. I’m reminded of those funny little painted metal sculptures of hamburgers with eyes that decorate the tops of bollards surrounding the driveways of drive-throughs surrounding McDonalds restaurants. Happy cucumbers! Happy hamburgers! So happy to be eaten! All is right in the world!

Klee wasn’t by any means the only famous creative thinker who saw personalities in odd places. As I recently discovered while viewing a travelling exhibition of some famous European paintings, the artist Mondrian ascribed genders to the spatial dimensions of vertical and horizontal, clearly a type of personification, and I believe the fact that a number of Mondrian’s paintings evoke sound synaesthesia (his Boogie Woogie paintings and Ocean 5) suggests that synaesthesia in a number of manifestations is a thing that Piet Mondrian had a natural understanding of. A while ago I discovered evidence that suggests that the legendary creative 1940s Hollywood movie producer Val Lewton experienced OLP, on page 55 of an old book about Lewton, The reality of terror by Joel E. Siegel “Later, in the sequence where Irena teaches the child arithmetic, she uses the courtly, enchanting number-stories that Lewton had invented to educate his own children. One was a tall princess; two, a prince who kneels before her on one knee, and so forth.” This is clearly a description of ordinal linguistic personification (OLP). I added to this the mass of evidence that can be found in Siegel’s important book, and also in the larger and more recent book about Lewton Fearing the dark by Edmund G. Bansak, that Lewton was an odd duck from his boyhood through to the premature ending of his life, in a pattern that is seen in the lives of creative autistic people, and then I concluded that Lewton had a mind that was at least as unusual as my own. I had always thought that the themes of many of Lewton’s unforgettable movies are about people who are innately apart from the mass of humanity. This explains my fascination with his films.

Siegel’s book about Lewton:

Bansak’s book about Lewton:

Lewton, Kandinskii and Klee appear to be three fascinating examples of creative minds that were powered by a syndrome that is both synaesthesia and autism. I don’t understand why there isn’t more research studying the relationship between autism and synaesthesia. As you would expect, this type of mind is often badly misunderstood by a society that loves to label different as insane. In the book The Bauhaus group Weber gave an account of the labelling of Klee as a "degenerate" and a "schizophrenic”. Why did the Nazis call Klee a degenerate? It could have been something to do with pictures like the one on page 158. The label “schizophrenic” was the subject of a thesis by a medical student who had studied at the Bauhaus. Even though his academic adviser disagreed with the non-clinical diagnosis of Klee, the student got his doctorate and went on to become a shrink. As far as I can tell from the evidence in this book, Klee never displayed the types of problems that would justify a clinical diagnosis of schizophrenia as it is defined today. Val Lewton has also been the subject of crazy labelling, one book reviewer describing Lewton as having had a “schizoid personality”, the type of label that appears to be given when someone wants to suggest schizophrenia in the absence of any hard evidence to support such a suggestion. There is much evidence that the late British rock star Syd Barrett was also an autistic synaesthete, and like Klee, he was given an amateur diagnosis of schizophrenia that had no professional credibility. Creative people have been routinely and publicly misunderstood in some very worrying ways. How much longer will we have to wait till science gives us a basic outline of an understanding of human mental diversity? We have already been waiting too long.

Now I have to pass this meme onto one person for each book read. Here are my choices:

Michelle Dawson at The Autism Crisis

Zygmunt at Kingdom of Introversion

No comments: