Book Review: Autistic Disturbances (Julia Miele Rodas)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
When I was working on my doctoral dissertation, my advisor told me that the inside joke about work that was not particularly original was that it "filled a gap in the literature." Julia Miele Rodas' recent book Autistic Disturbances does not have to claim to fill a gap; it truly is playing with an original idea. While work by autistic writers is hardly mainstream, it is now available for those who look. There are also a growing number of scholarly works in which characters from classic literary work who previously just appeared eccentric or unique are now recast as being on the autism scale. What Rodas asserts in Autistic Disturbances claims, however, is that there is well-known literary work where the author is applauded for the use of language that in other contexts would be derided as autistic. Even for disabilities scholars, this is a unique position.
In a nutshell, Rodas' project in Autistic Disturbances is to compare the kinds of language and language expression associated with autism to selected literary texts that reveal some of those same uses of language. As the author's "Introduction" explains, she begins by culling words from autism-centered literature written over the past seven decades. She then distills these into six categories: silence, ricochet, apostrophe, ejaculation, discretion and invention. Ejaculation, for example, is described as "the tendency to blurt out, to speak in ways seen as uncontrolled, disconnected, inappropriate, fragmentary, indiscrete, and abrasive." Once these categories are set out and amplified in the second chapter, the remainder of the book concentrates on exploring the language of five specific texts: the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Warhol's The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, Charlotte Brontë's Villette, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Rodas points out the text selected are not unique and merely "gesture toward the many, many texts that might have been included."
Because poetry has long incorporated many of the characteristics of language attributed to autistic speakers such recursion, repetition, apostrophe, and even silence, what is particularly significant in Rodas' investigation is her look at prose because it tends to reflect what most readers consider "normal" or conventional standards of language expression. In this light, Brontë's, Shelley's and Defoe's work are particularly relevant since, although they were in themselves experimental and instrumental in helping to define what became classic novel form, they are also accepted as canonical. (The DSM and Andy Warhol, on the other hand, hardly fit that rubric.)
Prior to diving into the classic prose novels, Rodas takes the opportunity to let readers know what she is not looking for in those stories by explaining her omission of Melville's "Bartleby, the Scribener, " often cited in discussions of literature and autism, from consideration. "Bartleby" is an example of what Rodas calls "autism autopsy," the examination of literary characters in light of current DSM criteria. Whether or not the character Bartleby falls under those criteria, Melville's story itself does not. Melville's use of language and his approach to relating the story are quite controlled and fall well within conventional language and norms of story-telling. Little in Melville's language itself fit those traits described in Rodas' six categories. In examining Brontë's, Shelley's and Defoe's work it will be the author's language and structuring of the story that she is focused on and not the characters as autists, per se. In Rodas own words:
The literary studies that follow are intended to demonstrate a profound debt to autistic expression, an autistic manner of speaking, and an autism aesthetic that are elsewhere broadly disparaged as being non-communicative, without substance or value.
The studies of the three novels that follow the author's remarks dismissing Bartleby are too involved to be summarized here and a critique of them is well beyond the scope of this review. However, some sense of the work that Rodas does can be garned by a few specific examples of the autistic use of language that she uncovers in each.
Honing in on Villette's often-cited lack of narrative unity and the amorphous nature of its narrator, Rodas states: "…Villette may most immediately be read as an autistic text: the oblique, muffled quality of its narrative, it's staying quiet when narrative convention demands fully communicative and transparent disclosure." There are many instances in which the narrator seems to refuse to speak creating uncomfortable silences between the text and reader, in the same way that non-speaking autistics tend to create discomfort in social situations where speech is expected. Rodas points out, however, that in the case of the novel, this is a discomfort which is carefully constructed by Brontë. It is a creative move on the author's part that refuses convention.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, in contrast, seems to made of a number of rooms each with a different narrator who is not in communication with the others. In exploring Frankenstein, Rodas draws upon her category of apostrophe. In that context apostrophe is characterized by speaking out, apparently to no one in particular and at great length. As a literary device, apostrophe similarly is an address with an indefinite audience where no two way communication is expected or possible. In Rodas' reading, Frankenstein is one long apostrophe by Robert Walton. She also floats the notion that contemporary social media is apostrophic, serving as it does with both Frankenstein and many autistic people, as an expression of aloneness in which there is no necessary expectation of a response.
Robinson Crusoe, the last of the novels discussed is a text characterized by its emotional neutrality. This again is a trait often associated with autism. Defoe's novel is rife with list-making, another attribute of autists, and seems totally focused on things. There seems to be little concern for or interest in other human beings or even in anything personal to himself. Instead, he is focused on building walls. This wall-building is not merely in the actions of Crusoe, the character, but in the structure of the book itself, in which each part seems segmented from the others. One could, of course, argue that this structure merely reflects the nature of travel journals and diaries of the time, but it still points to a purposeful choice on the part of the Defoe, making him, like the other authors discussed, writers who consciously used some of the same language techniques that have come to mark autism.
If I have a bone to pick with Autistic Disturbances it is with Rodas' use of what she calls "Autistic Ejaculations," phrases drawn from various literary sources or autistic speech thrust more or less randomly into the body of her text. While I always applaud creativity in scholarly work, these simply feel inauthentic to me. As Rodas points out in her introduction, she is not on the spectrum herself. I'd wager my social security check on the assumption that when she first sat to write the text these interruptions were not part of the original and were only added later, they formed no integral part of her native expression as they might for an autist. As such, to me they feel "cute" at best and like slumming at worst. They detract from the truly insightful work she is doing in interpreting the language of the literature she is examining.
Autistic Disturbances is intended for a scholarly audience. Rodas has done an admirable job of gathering and braiding together previous commentary from the academic arena and the thoughts of writers on the autism spectrum. She is also able to locate and extract lines appropriate to her purpose from literary text with a surgeon's precision. In other words, she has done her work well. At the same time, like many other texts in disability studies, it leaves us with a problem. How are Rodas' findings to be conveyed to the mainstream reader? Autistic Disturbances is a book that is probably accessible to less than one percent of the reading population. It is undoubtedly useful as a launch pad for other scholars – and no doubt that is intended use – but what about the rest of us? The book's "Introduction" is promising in its accessibilty and the definitional second chapter does its job, but the chapters that actually do the literary analysis are likely to be opaque even to avid readers of those texts unless they are somehow involved in academia. The challenge now is how to get what the book has to offer down to ground level. If Rodas' volume creates "a gap in the literature," it is less a horizontal than a vertical one. Perhaps a translator will step to the plate. In the meantime, anyone seriously interested in disability studies should have a copy of Autistic Disturbances on their shelf. There is much in the to excite the interests of students of eighteenth and nineteenth century literature, as well. It covers previously foraged terrain in a new and interesting way.
Title: Autistic Disturbances