- "Jostled by Difference":Ralph James Savarese Responds to Len Gutkin
That two literary scholars, at roughly the same moment, would each pursue in Melville's work a passing allusion to Caspar Hauser seems uncanny. And yet, my interest in this figure was, as Marxists like to say, overdetermined. As the adoptive father of a nonspeaking young man with autism—by some accounts, the first ever to be admitted to a highly selective college—and as someone who has published much about this neurological condition, I knew that a number of prominent researchers considered Hauser to be autistic. I had not read Feuerbach's narrative when I began pondering Melville's three allusions to this famous wild child (in Pierre, The Confidence Man, and Billy Budd); when I did read the narrative, I was flabbergasted. Beyond the similarities between my son's early life in foster care, where he was so terribly deprived and abused, and Hauser's in that underground room, what struck me was the account of heightened, yet completely unacculturated, sensation. What struck me, at least at first, was the analogy to Romanian orphans under Ceauşescu.
Yet these are not the only "autistics" who have traveled a great cognitive distance and to whom we might attach the term "neurocosmopolites." The last fifteen years have witnessed the belated emergence into language of a number of classical autistics who were thought to be retarded but who were in fact so besieged by sensory input that they evinced, in the words of Feuerbach, "an almost brutish dullness, which either leaves external objects entirely unnoticed, or stares at them without thought, and suffers them to pass without being affected by them." New sensory integration therapies and new techniques for teaching literacy (including some pioneered by my wife, Emily Thornton Savarese) have had a decisive impact in ushering these children into sociality. As my own memoir, Reasonable People (Other Press 2007), demonstrates, this journey is typically marked by many of the cognitive idiosyncrasies that Feuerbach identified in Hauser: trouble with abstraction (and thus categorization), atypical language, a reluctance to individuate, and a stubborn animism (or the belief that natural objects, such as trees and stones, are consciously alive).
Like my son and other so-called "low-functioning" autistics, Hauser need not be pitied, however. He need not be thought of as tragically stuck between pure sensory knowing and conceptual abstraction but, rather, as reflecting a [End Page 37] distinctive mix of autistic and neurotypical processing proclivities. A mix, I should say, that in "high-functioning" autistics has clearly proven advantageous. Temple Grandin's "thinking in pictures," for instance, revolutionized the cattle industry: her keenly felt understanding of how cattle see precipitated an image in her mind of rounded, as opposed to rectilinear, chutes, which she believed would calm the animals' anxiety on the way to slaughter. Sensory-based problem solving made all the difference, she contends. At this point in our culture's growing awareness of neurodiversity, it has become something of a cliché to attribute extraordinary professional accomplishment, in certain arenas, to a mild form of autism. Witness Bill Gates or Albert Einstein.
My own recent work in disability studies has been devoted to developing neurocosmopolitan potential in classical autistics—particularly in the domain of poetry—and here Len Gutkin's essay usefully connects the figure of Isabel, as wild child, with the artist. Unpacking the scene in which she strums the "strange song of herself," Gutkin notes the guitar's role as "murmuring" interlocutor, and he suggests that murmuring "is speech at its lowest level, tending toward mere undifferentiated sound." Quoting the work of Elizabeth Duquette, who argues that Isabel's song, in its "phonic . . . emphasis," "rejects interpretation," Gutkin writes, "The foregrounding of language's materiality reflects the pre-conceptual materiality of the phenomenal world itself, the apprehension of which constitutes, in Duquette's de Manian formulation, the experience of the 'sublime.'"
According to de Man, "What 'poets do' is see the materiality of the world, unfiltered by the faculties Kant details through the many pages of his critical philosophy." In other words, they behave, at least to an extent, like wild children who have not learned...