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Cognitive Disability and Textuality:
Autism and Fiction

2004 MLA Convention
Philadelphia, PA
27-30 December


Stuart Murray
University of Leeds


Bartleby, Preference, Pleasure and Autistic Presence

Do not cite without permission of the author.

'I would prefer not to'

Acomb Primary School, York, U.K., September 2004. My 6-year-old son Yann, in the middle of the various processes of having his Asperger's syndrome recognised, is playing - on his own - during the mid morning break. Alert to the fact that Yann's condition means that his difficulties are social (and not intellectual or physical), the school staff are doing a good job of checking on him during non-classroom hours. Noting that he is on his own, his class teacher goes over and takes him towards another boy, who is playing by himself with a football. She politely asks Yann if he might want to join in. His reply (and in relating the story the teacher remembered this because of the formality - common to Asperger's individuals - of the response) is: "I'd sooner not, thank you. I'm happy to play on my own." And off he goes - an everyday moment of neurobehavorial difference.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph in May 2004, historian Niall Ferguson conjectured that, in the words of the title of his piece, "America has Asperger's." "You may not yet have heard of Asperger's syndrome", Ferguson writes, "But you can be sure that someone will sooner or later offer it as an excuse for his own bad behaviour, for it is the height of hypochondriac fashion in New York." For Ferguson, the idea of what he terms a national "attention deficit" problem, an "ineptness" on the world stage, can be aligned with Asperger's as an explanation for a form of "dispiriting" national "bad behaviour" that sees the Bush regime lack the necessary strength to be suitably imperial in a context of international relations. He concludes: "a Bush re-election will look to the rest of the world like evidence that Asperger's syndrome is no longer a treatable condition in America, but has become the national norm." The idea of Asperger's syndrome, or autism more widely, being a "national norm", a sort of failure to be a member of (as he terms it) the diplomatic world's "huge party" who makes an impression, is an arresting one. Presumably Ferguson would approve of the ways in which Franklin Roosevelt was careful to hide his wheelchair during all public and media appearances towards the end of his life in the mid 1940s.

This mobilization of the idea of the autistic spectrum to describe a society and community in a metaphorical context or by way of analogy is, I would suggest, an event peculiar to our time. Autism, it seems, has a particular place in and appeal to the contemporary. For Ferguson, it talks to a failure of the American nation to be appropriately strong (he notes, but shadowing his musings is surely the idea of a post 9/11 reaction that stresses a sense of withdrawal and isolation - a lack, an absence, a condition of deferment. Though I lack the time to argue it fully here, my sense is that current preoccupations with autism, especially in America and the UK, and in both political and cultural spheres, are analogous to the fascination that practitioners of previous, twentieth-century narrative had with schizophrenia and mental health more widely. The notion of difference within impairment, of insight from a space of supposed damage, obviously has a long history. The claim (if that is the right word) that autism is the contemporary manifestation of such logic is by and large based on parallels with technology and computing (though there is a religious aspect to this as well). The idea that the condition is a product of a brain in which the hard disk is incorrectly formatted provides an entrance into an almost endless succession of metaphors and analogies with technology that allows for the production of a series of narratives surrounding autism that seem curiously contemporary. Many of the current narratives surrounding ASD have such a fascination with technology, and it is suitably ironic that Ferguson, who makes reference in his piece to "air strikes, invasions, bombs etc." as substitutes for the repetitive mannerisms of many ASD individuals, indicates this in a manner of which he undoubtedly has no real understanding.

In the context of the US, the disabled figure casts a particular shadow on the various manifestos, both individual and collective, of destiny and liberty. The tendency to conform, paradoxically inherent in ideas of individual liberty, noted by Tocqueville in 1835 - "all of the minds of the Americans were formed upon one model, so accurately do they follow the same route" - is threatened by the ways in which disability offers its characteristically double movement: a seemingly anomalous and deviant version of humanity that nevertheless focuses all too uncomfortably for many on the central issues of the human condition. As late as the early 1970s, some US states still had not repealed the so-called "ugly laws" that prohibited people with noticeable physical disabilities from visiting public spaces, and the American with Disabilities Act of 1990 is a very recent rethinking of the public sphere that tries to bring America's 40 million people with impairments into line with earlier laws passed concerning race, ethnicity and gender. Disability disturbs, and it disturbs the sense of self in US contexts in special ways.

In the contemporary era, attention to autism has developed exponentially over the last decade. In terms of neuroscience, key insights in the nature of the genetic character of the condition were made in the early 1990s. In cultural production, what one might term the breakthrough text was Barry Levinson's 1988 film Rain Man , which won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, best Original Screenplay and, of course, Best Actor for Dustin Hoffman. For many (I suspect myself included) this was the first occasion that autism was seen in an international public domain.

The terms established by the film offer a suitable guide to what we might term an orthodoxy in the representation of the autistic spectrum, and certainly influenced much that has followed. Firstly, the dominant genre for the discussion of the condition is melodrama, and the key mode that of sentimentality. The family context of Rain Man , the focus on inheritance and the reconstitution of the caring structure of the familial unit mark the film in this respect. Secondly, there is frequently the use of a medical or institutional context, usually to prove the credentials of the text, to note a certain fidelity in the detail of the depiction, and to explain the condition to the audience. Thirdly, by far the majority of texts represented autism or Asperger's do so by way of a process of refraction in which the seeming focus on the autist actually becomes a vehicle for the discussion of neurotypical concerns (so it is the way in which Raymond Babbit [Dustin Hoffman] humanizes his isolated, egocentric and emotionally inarticulate brother Charlie [Tom Cruise] that becomes key to the film). Lastly, almost without exception cultural texts focus on the supposed savant skills of the autist. Memory skills, especially in relation to mathematics or ritualistic details, are the most common form of this, but one might also cite detective abilities (solving murders etc.), voice mimicry and even the capacity to represent the divine and to vanquish the devil (such a plot features in the 2000 horror feature Bless the Child ). It is worth pointing out that by far the majority of autists are not savant - just under 50% in fact are non-verbal - and the percentage of those autists with any kind of savant ability is only slightly higher than in the general population. Possibly nowhere is the fascination with autism more in evidence than here.

So the contemporary sense of autistic presence occupies a number of differing spaces. In medical and educational narratives, the focus is often on impairment, lack and isolation, even as these fields often work to find or stress the idea of the autist as a productive agent. In the wider media, and especially in the production of cultural texts, autism occupies a traditional spectrum of otherness that ranges from fascination to fear. Ideas of the mysterious and the enigmatic abound, all evidence of a curiosity in a condition that is both a reminder of core human activities (to discuss autism is, at all times, to discuss the condition of being human) and also the manifestation of a radical difference, often represented in terms of a robotic or alien-like variation from the neurotypical norm.

Correspondingly, there is very little comment about autism and pleasure. Nearly all the stories that circulate about it are of difficulties, of screams and rage, of despair. It is a condition frequently referred to as tragic, a terrible and cruel absence of so much that makes being human the most familiar wonder we know. The idea that anything associated with this could in any way contain pleasure seems too perverse, too contradictory. Yet in many ways autism centres on an idea of pleasure. The pleasure of the straight line of toys, of the endlessly repeated video, of that bit of wallpaper - all these are common to anyone who knows anything about autism. And it is vital to stress that this pleasure should not necessarily be seen in terms of habit, a fixation that keeps the pain of the rest of the world at bay, a prop. Often it is pure and simple pleasure, something loved for itself.

Such pleasure is a process of preference, and the great literary text of preference is Herman Melville's story 'Bartleby the Scrivener', published in the November and December issues of Putnam's Monthly Magazine in 1853. Melville's story is acknowledged as one of the classic pieces of short fiction in the American canon, discussed and analysed from multiple critical viewpoints from the mid twentieth century onwards. The tale itself is narrated by a lawyer, a figure who describes himself as "an eminently safe man" (2165). With the expansion of his work, he takes on an extra copyist, to help with the production of legal documents. The copyist is Bartleby, a man with no known origins, but one who settles down well to his job. However, over time, Bartleby begins to withdraw from the workings of the office. He initially refuses to sit with the lawyer and go over documents, and subsequently refuses to do any copying at all. He then stops work altogether and refuses to leave the office. Faced with the embarrassment of this increasingly still and silent figure in his office (Bartleby comes to move less and less), especially in front of his peers, the lawyer actually moves office to "rid himself" of Bartleby. But Bartleby remains in the old office until he is forcibly removed, arrested as a vagrant, and taken to the Halls of Justice where he dies after refusing any food.

I want to claim that 'Bartleby the Scrivener' presents a radical narrative of autistic presence, and that it does so some 90 years before the condition began to be recognised within the terms of clinical medicine (at the time of the story's composition the attitude towards disability in the US was a process of exclusion and education, with the creation of numerous institutions which in fact served to harbour the poor as much as care for the impaired). There are two aspects to this claim. The first is that the representation of Bartleby is recognisably that of an autist, and that the text offers a clear account of autistic behaviour. The narrator's descriptions of Bartleby time and again echo the 'triad of impairments' (communication, imagination and socialisation) central to any outline of autism. The second element to the claim is what we might call the critical consequences that come with the admission of the fact of autistic presence, the manner in which Bartleby's subject position determines the various narratives that might interpret the story as a whole.

Firstly, the details of Bartleby's autism. At the very beginning of the story we are told: "Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from original sources" (2164). He is, as it were, a literal version of himself, and the text of his presence fails to extend beyond those points of contact he makes with the narrator: "What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him" (2164). The corporeality of his presence means that he is incapable of being discussed by analogy or metaphor - " he was always there " the narrator says (2174). As a scrivener, he is, of course, a copyist, a role supposedly devoid of any necessary imagination, but rather one rooted in mimicry. On his arrival at the narrator's office he is described as "a motionless young man" (2169). He possesses a "great stillness" and an "unalterableness of demeanour under all circumstances" (2174); he has an "austere reserve about him" (2176). In conversation, he does not make eye contact with the narrator (a frequent manifestation of autistic behavior), but rather "kept his glance fixed upon my bust of Cicero, which as I then sat, was directly behind me, some six inches above my head" (2177). His conversation is literal - when the narrator finds him still in the office after the firm have vacated the premises (Bartleby is sitting upon a landing banister), and asks him what he is doing there, he receives the reply: "Sitting upon the banister" (2185). Bartleby works "mechanically" (2169) and obsessively without a break, devoted to the detail of his copying. He has no appetite, no friends or family, cannot bear any change in his routine, and it seems possesses no social communication or interaction skills whatsoever. He seems "absolutely alone in the universe" (2179), an "intolerable incubus" (2183) who never leaves the office (even when the office leaves him), and both in the office and the Halls of Justice sits or stands passively facing a high wall. By the end of the story, in the yard of the Halls of Justice he is "strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up, and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones" (2188). Finally, in a fascinating example of a textual excess, and with a nod to the idea of the idiot-savant, the prison grub-man, Mr. Cutlets, introduces himself to Bartleby as "your sarvant, sir, your sarvant" (2188). Bartleby is a catalogue of autistic traits.

Bartleby's key action in the story is, of course, to assert his preference. When first asked to come into the narrator's office to help examine a document, "in a singularly, mild firm voice" he replies simply: "I would prefer not to" (2170). It is a phrase he repeats, with slight changes, some 23 times throughout the story overall, his final act of preference being to decline an offer of food at the Halls of Justice (2188) after which he seemingly wastes away. Bartleby's statement is an irruptive force. At different times, the narrator's response to it is to be "stunned" (2170), "turned into a pillar of salt" (2170), "ignominiously repulsed" (2173), "mortified" (2177), and "thunderstruck" (2181). In trying to deal with Bartleby's presence, the lawyer moves through a range of emotions, from pity and sympathy to revulsion and rage. He convinces himself that the problem of Bartleby is one of solitude, "His poverty is great; but his solitude, how horrible!" (2175), or that "his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach" (2176), or that "he had now become a millstone to me, not only useless as a necklace, but afflictive to bear" (2179).

However, as I intimated earlier, the textual evidence is only half of the reason we might think of this story as a radical narrative of autistic presence. For the second half of my claim, it is the potential explanatory narratives that are offered as possible accounts of Bartleby that suggest the story's ultimate sense of a negotiation between neurotypical and autistic worldviews. In her study of representations of physical disabilities in American culture and literature, Extraordinary Bodies , Rosemarie Garland Thompson coins the term "normate" to refer to what she terms "the veiled subject position of cultural self, the figure outlined by the array of deviant others whose marked bodies shore up the normate's boundaries." This idea of the "constructed identity" of the normal, formed through an interaction with the impaired (Thompson stresses the physically marked body, but her ideas can be used in terms of the subtle visible/non-visible presence of cognitive impairment) highlights the lack of security in any assertion of a neurotypical norm. Thompson goes on to note: "If one attempts to define the normate person by peeling away all marked traits within the social order at this historical moment, what emerges is a very narrowly defined profile that describes only a minority of actual people." In thinking about Melville's story, we can consider the narrator's various reactions to Bartleby's actual presence in the office as ways in which he tries (and fails) to establish a form of the normate that will fix the meaning of the scrivener. In a broader context however, we can see that the multiple interpretive critical narratives that discuss the story offer any number of potentially persuasive and cogently argued, but nevertheless normate , accounts of the story's meaning.

  The genius of the story is what is done with the various spaces, physical and textual, that the presence of Bartleby opens up. As Melville scholars have noted for decades, and as Robert S. Levine comments in his introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville , his best fiction assumes "a metacritical role of guiding and challenging readers' responses to his works by foregrounding issues of interpretation." In overt narrative terms, 'Bartleby' the story leaves the space of autism undisclosed and open, and invites interpretations that might make sense of it. So, there is a narrative of legal codification (working in a law office on issues of legal tenancy, amongst others, Bartleby is arrested and taken to prison for vagrancy), one of economic codification (Bartleby is bad for business because he cannot be removed from the premises) that also offers a wider critique of capitalism (the subtitle of the story is "A Story of Wall Street", and reflects the walled street that Bartleby gazes upon), one of religious codification (the narrator notes that possibly "Bartleby was billeted upon me for some mysterious purpose of an all-wise Providence" [2182]), one of humanitarian concern ("Poor fellow, poor fellow! Thought I, he don't mean any thing; and besides, he has seen hard times, and ought to be indulged" [2182]), and finally in the appendix, a narrative of philosophical speculation ("Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!" [2189]).

Criticism of Melville's story has obviously followed these various routes. For Wyn Kelly in the 1996 study Melville's City , 'Bartleby' "seems a straightforward account of the class struggle", in which the key interpretive category is the complex nature of housing laws that the story presents, and the ways in which Bartleby's claim to possession unsettles the subject position of the lawyer/narrator. For Cindy Weinstein, Bartleby's preference is a point about labor, both that in the law office and the labour of writing itself, and reception. Bartleby's refusal to work asserts his right to keep the "originality that cannot be copied", and the author's complex narrative strategies "reflect at once Melville's decision not to capitulate to his critics and to find for himself a narrative position which protects him from personal violation."

It is probably Melville's complex engagement with an Emersonian tradition that works best in looking for a contemporary philosophy through which to read the story, and for all of Melville's well-documented antipathies to Emerson's thinking, there is no doubt that it is productive to read 'Bartleby' within the terms of a conversation with, and indeed a possible revision of, Emerson's ideas. In texts such as the 1841 essay 'Self-Reliance' and the later Solitude and Society , Emerson outlined the ways in which society conspires to frustrate the subject's attempt to express his individuality. In 'Self-Reliance' he notes: "Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company in which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each share-holder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion." In relation to a consideration of 'Bartleby', Emerson's account of the selfhood necessary for individual fulfilment bears an uncanny resemblance to the subject position the scrivener comes to occupy:

There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, or worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.

As a model for agency, such sentiments as these outline a potential subject position for neurobehavioural difference as much as the possibly more obvious neurotypical context, but in thinking about Melville's engagement, and indeed contestation, with Emerson the majority of critics invoke the paradigm of a specific concept of individual liberalism. For many, then, the story becomes either an account of subjectivity framed by a detailed nineteenth-century American context, or an outline of what Linda Constanza Cahir calls "Melville's prototypic Mysterious Stranger". Cahir goes on to note: "For Melville, the mystery of Bartleby - the mystery of the essential nature of a particular person - is an eternal, implacable ambiguity, and our existential alienation from one another is a reality whose cause we can never fully apprehend or overturn." Here, in the grandest traditions of classic literature, the key explanatory category is a universal humanism.

The Emersonian dimension to the story is entirely logical and appropriate, but in keeping with Melville's critique of what he took to be Emerson's over optimistic philosophy, it is possible to turn the idea of 'Bartleby' as a radical narrative of autistic presence back on to Emerson, and to see in Emerson's own language a description of the objectification and discrimination of the impaired by the social majority. When, in 'Self-Reliance', Emerson observes "for non-conformity the world whips you with its displeasure. And therefore a man must know how to estimate a sour face. The bystanders look askance on him in the public street or in the friend's parlor" , the language is exactly that which parallels the prejudiced gaze experienced on a daily basis by those with disabilities. It would surely be fascinating to conduct a wider examination of the mid nineteenth-century American emphasis on individual liberty from such a perspective, or to look at Ahab in Moby Dick and the differently marked bodies of Roger Chillingworth and Hester Prynne in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter with such ideas in mind. Furthermore, it is worth remembering that Bartleby's autistic presence works to provide an alternative to all the various neurotypical explanatory narratives, and the fact of the story's presentation of autistic presence works to turn ideas of Melvillean interpretation back on themselves, as all the various possible explanations of Bartleby's actions becomes contextualized as accounts based in neurotypicality when seen in the light of autistic logic. It is not so much that these explanatory narratives are red herrings, but rather their varying uses are themselves contained by what I would suggest is the overriding force of the story's central hermeneutic location (as opposed to its narrative location) within the parameters of autistic presence. The majority of disabled characters in literary texts - Ahab in Moby Dick , Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol , Barnaby in Barnaby Rudge (also an autistic character) - become "overdetermined from without" (to use Frantz Fanon's phrase). Bartleby's impairment remains, at a crucial level, unavailable to both the lawyer and the reader. He is incorrectly read in the story itself, and a challenge to the reading process in terms of its reception.

The narrator's conjecture, in the story's last paragraph, about the despair Bartleby "must" encounter in the Dead Letter Office is perhaps the last great narrative-critical act of the narrative, where the narrator (now not having the physical presence of Bartleby to hand) creates a meaning that allows for the philosophical speculation at the end:

Yet here I hardly know whether I should divulge one little item of rumor, which came to my ear a few months after the scrivener's decease. Upon what basis it rested, I could never ascertain; and hence, how true it is I cannot now tell. But inasmuch as this vague report has not been without a certain strange suggestive interest to me, however said, it may prove the same with some others; and so I will briefly mention it. The report was this: that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office in Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it that that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames?... Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity! (2189)

So, despite the continual presence of Bartleby, his corporeality, habits, language, in the narrator's office, it becomes far easier for him to settle upon a "rumor", a "vague report", of Bartleby having worked at the Dead Letter Office, and to construct from this an overarching narrative of appropriate humanitarian concern that allows the lawyer to close his version of Bartleby's story. But the story itself, of course, travels further than its narrator.

The fact that Bartleby dies does not necessarily suggest that autistic presence cannot be contained in the world, and can only waste away. Certainly this is a valid reading of the story's conclusion. But this is, at all times, a radical narrative. Set against the narrative of exclusion, in which the impaired are denied a place in an evolving codified and capitalistic society is the clear fact that this is a story about agency and will. Is it surely no coincidence that, in a casual aside describing his "leisure intervals" the lawyer informs the reader that he has been reading Jonathan Edwards' 1754 Freedom of the Will and Joseph Priestly's 1777 Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity , both texts which argue that the will is not free (2182). The narrator, so wrong about so many things in the story, is here reading the wrong texts about will and agency. Bartleby turns his back on the world, a world that clearly does not accord with his preferences, but he does so in terms he has dictated, his life and death a marker of a self-declared presence. I think that - for myself, though not being too particular - I prefer this reading of the conclusion.

The contemporary fascination with autistic spectrum disorders takes many forms. Even as neuroscientific research continues the kinds of investigations that deepen the understanding of the autistic mind, pseudo-medical foundations prey on middle-class parental guilt and offer intensive seminars, with appropriately high costs, that promote the language of the cure. Meanwhile, cultural representations increasingly outline ideas of otherness that stress ideas of cognitive or behavioral difference. The Spider-Man and X-Men films, so successful in recent years, operate precisely in these terms. In X-Men 2 (2003), "good" mutants (represented in terms of tolerance and inclusion) save non-disabled, non-impaired, humanity from "bad" mutants (seen to be seduced by the power presented by their radical difference) in a narrative move that, as is usual in most contemporary representations of disability, ultimately wrestles the meaning of the text to a place within the logic of the non-disabled community. In the specific national context of the US, where a Republican political majority seeks on a regular basis to withdraw funding and benefit support from those with physical and cognitive impairments, such a conclusion should only be read with bitter irony. I would like to suggest that Bartleby in fact belongs with the "bad" mutants. In his radical otherness, in the key assertion of his will - the continual stress of his preference - he articulates a subject position that refuses to let itself be drawn within a neurotypical account of the events of his life. As such, he becomes a marker of a clear autistic presence - in and of itself, and on its own terms, another way of being human.

Niall Ferguson, 'America has got Asperger's Syndrome', . Accessed 08/07/04.

Quoted in Rosemarie Garland Thompson, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), p. 43.

Other key post Rain Man features that have autism as a central narrative strand are House of Cards (1993), Silent Fall (1994), Mercury Rising (1998), and Punch-Drunk Love (2002).

All references here are to Nina Baym et al. (eds.) The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1 , 3 rd ed., (New York and London: Norton, 1989). Subsequent references are in parentheses in the text.

Thompson, p. 8.

Robert S. Levein, 'Introduction', The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville , ed. Levine (Cambridge: CUP, 1998), p. 3.

Wyn Kelly, Melville Cities: Literary and Urban Form in Nineteenth-Century New York (Cambridge: CUP, 1996), pp. 201-2.

Cindy Weinstein, 'Melville, Labor, and the Discourses of Reception', Cambridge Companion , p. 215 and p. 216.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 'Self-Reliance', The Norton Anthology of American Literature , 3 rd ed., p. 958.

Emerson, 'Self-Reliance', p. 956.

Linda Constanza Cahir, Solitude and Society in the Works of Herman Melville and Edith Wharton (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999), p. 58 and p. 60.

Emerson, 'Self-Reliance', p. 960.

Thompson, p. 10





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