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Autistry in Twentieth Century Literature

ENGL 761.301
instructor(s):
Tuesday 3-6:00

 This course aims to provide a literary history and a sociopolitical analysis of an emergent literary tradition, that of the autistic narrative, to examine how it has taken its place alongside cognate traditions representing recently enfranchised minorities, and to chart the signature formal, stylistic and thematic features of this new oeuvre. To this end, it will look to trace or build a genealogy and an anatomy of what we might call the autistic canon of literary practice: how has autistic subjectivity been depicted in fictional and non-fictional narratives over the past century and how has autistic subjectivity in turn shaped the narrative methods whereby such depiction has occurred?

 In the pre-diagnostic era, before the concurrent studies of Leo Kanner and Habs Asperger, autistics appeared in literature as the object, or indeed the abject, of representation, and under other names, such as “idiot.” They were, accordingly, treated as lacking in basic intelligence. Even so, the predominantly male autist functioned within these modernist narratives as figures not just of innocence—a province often condescendingly awarded the mentally or developmentally challenged—but of a peculiar brand of integrity as well. The self-directedness and social detachment implicit in the term autism registered in these narratives as either a darkened variant or a subtle critique of the liberal ideal of sovereign subjectivity (self-contained, self-mobilizing, self-made), but in either event the vehicle of a certain moral authority. We will be reading several novels of this pre-diagnostic era, including Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Barnes’ Nightwood, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Bowen’s Eva Trout, and Beckett’s Murphy. All feature arguably autistic character, with recognizably autistic symptomologies, and stylistic modes of representation consistent with the distinctively, if retrospectively, autistic sensibilities represented therein.

With the gradual rise in the profile of autism or autistic spectrum disorder or condition (ASD/ASC) and the sudden explosion in the incidence of diagnosed cases, the literary representation of the syndrome underwent a tectonic shift: the autist went from being a character in someone else’s story to the protagonist of his own to the narrator of his particular experience of the world. The autist came, in short, to discover and to take ownership of his/her (literary) voice. This formal achievement was not only crucial to the development of a properly autistic narrative tradition, it helped to determine the manner in which that tradition evolved from its pre-historical ancestors. What we might call “the subjective turn” allowed some version of the moral authority that had been attached to the figure or figuration of the autist at an earlier point to be reappropriated to the narratorial perspective of the autist, the vantage from which s/he projects a world or tells a tale. In the process, autistic discourse came to bespeak not a cognitive disability so much as a mode of cognitive difference, less a diminished than an alternative species of being-in-the-world. We will be tracking this development through the intermediate genre of the caregiver’s tale (Park’s Exiting Nirvana, Osteen’s One of Us, Wilson’s Reports from the Autism Front; Susskind’s Life Animated) to several major instances of auti-biography (Grandin’s Emergence; Williams’ Nobody Nowhere; Nazeer’s Send in the Idiots; Mukhopady’s How Can I Talk when my Lips Don’t Move; Ginsberg’s Episodes; O’Neill’s Through the Eyes of Aliens) and finally to several contemporary autistic novels (Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Moon’s The Speed of Dark, Sabina’s Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World, Picoult’s House Rules, Dick’s Martian Time Slip, Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Silver’s The God of War)