Adam Feinstein has many interests. He has published what it is already considered the definitive biography of Pablo Neruda. He is also a translator, a writer, a hispanist and a film critic specialised in Latin American cinema. In addition, he has a personal and acute interest in autism and his latest book on the subject includes an exploration and an invitation of thinking of autism in a different light when it comes to employment
Not long ago you made a presentation at King’s College London about Borges depicting two types of autism in his 1944 story Funes the Memorious. Could you explain what those two types of autism are and how they are presented in Borges famous short story?
My presentation at King’s actually followed on from a talk I gave together with Borges’ widow, María Kodama, at a big congress in the Chaco region of Argentina a couple of years ago (there were more than five thousand people in the audience). Borges wrote his remarkable short story, Funes el memorioso, in 1942 and it was published in Ficciones two years later, in 1944. The story is an exploration of the world of memory, as well as insomnia, one in which a young Uruguayan, Ireneo Funes, has the ability to perceive and remember everything down to the tiniest detail while the narrator, Borges, seemingly has the ability to remember very little! My hypothesis is that Borges may have been unwittingly describing two forms of autism, or rather two cognitive styles which are very recognisable in autism.
So what are the two types of autistic thinking which I propose Borges may be depicting in Funes el memorioso? They appear in the two stages of the story: before and after Funes falls off his horse. When we (or rather Borges, the narrator), first meets Funes, he witnesses a brief verbal exchange between his cousin Bernardo, and Funes, in which Bernardo asks him the time. Funes, without consulting his watch, replies: «It’s four minutes to eight, young Bernardo Juan Francisco.»
Now, I have witnessed this ability to know the time without looking at a clock in a number of autistic individuals, especially among the so-called autistic savants. Not only that, the precision of his reply – that ‘Young Bernardo Juan Francisco’ – is very reminiscent of the rather stilted language used by many people with autism, especially those with Asperger’s syndrome. Three years later, Borges returns to Fray Bentos in Uruguay and learns that Funes has been paralysed as a result of a fall from a horse. After this accident, Borges writes, Funes’ ‘perception and his memory were infallible.’ In other words, his mental acuity is compensating for his physical disability. Indeed, Funes can now remember every leaf of every tree of every mountain.
This specific memory for very fine details of objects is one of the defining features of a key neuropsychological theory of autism introduced in the 1980s, the so-called weak central coherence theory (or, to give it a more positive slant, ‘local-processing bias’). Basically, this means that many people with autism do not see the woods for the trees. They are often very good at detecting details in a picture, rather than the overall painting or drawing. They can be very proficient when asked to perform the embedded triangle test – spotting triangles concealed in a drawing. Sometimes, they see shapes which are inappropriate for the overall context. More specifically, Borges states that, for Funes, ‘every image and perception is individual.’ This difficulty in generalising is something that the world’s most famous woman with autism, Temple Grandin, has described in great detail about her own issues. I have spent quite a bit of time with Grandin and have observed her ‘cognitive style’ for myself; Just as Temple cannot conceive of a generic cat, so it bothers Funes that the same animal, a dog, seen in different contexts, should be called by the same generic name.
Funes’s acute memory as compensation for other problems matches what we know from many recent studies of memory in autism. In 2015, for example, it was proposed that a single brain system can compensate for numerous and diverse deficits in autism and related neurodevelopmental disorders. We know that autism has an unusual effect on memory: It disrupts the recall of everyday events but often goes with an enhanced ability to hold on to facts. Many people with autism can master enormous amounts of detail about a chosen interest, be it the London transport system or the lives of US Presidents.
One particular region of the brain, the hippocampus, governs so-called declarative memory, the conscious recall of facts and events. People with autism struggle with one aspect of declarative memory – autobiographical events. On the other hand, they are good at, and may even excel at, retaining names, dates and definitions, and other facts. Although the hippocampus is often said to ‘store’ memories, it doesn’t function like a filing cabinet. Instead, it’s more like an orchestra conductor, touching off patterns of activity elsewhere in the brain – in areas needed for processing sensory stimuli, emotions and so on – which result in the experience of a memory. With this in mind, I’d like to draw attention to Borges’s descriptions of Funes’s sensory issues associated with his memories. These memories were not simple ones, Borges writes. «Each visual image is linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations.» So, for example when Funes recalls the image of a dog he had seen the previous day, he would simultaneously remember the feeling of hunger or pain of a headache that he experienced at precisely the same moment of the original perception. We know, from the writings of some highly articulate people with autism – like Temple Grandin, in the US, Gunilla Gerland in Sweden, the late Donna Williams in Australia – that these associations between a memory and a physical sensation are very common in autism, and very powerful.
Observing my own autistic son, Johnny, over the years, I am often convinced – although he is non-verbal, having lost all his language at around three – that his association with an unpleasant memory and its related physical sensation can cause him distress. His fear of certain cloud formations, for example, may be just one instance of this. It could be that it is the changeability of clouds which upsets Johnny – the same changeability, incidentally, which makes clouds so fascinating for artists like the contemporary German painter, Gerhard Richter. (Interestingly, Borges writes that Funes «perceived every grape that had been pressed into the wine and all the stalks and tendrils of its vineyard. He knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky on the morning of April 30, 1882.»). So my son, Johnny, could be recalling an unpleasant sensory experience on a particular day many years in the past.
Johnny’s memory is stunning. I remember, when he was living at home, taking him on a bus and his suddenly becoming agitated as we passed a boarded up building. I couldn’t work out what was distressing him, until I suddenly realised that the building used to be a little grocery shop where we would buy him sweets. But we had not been past that shop for five years, at least. I had forgotten all about the shop myself. The point is that Johnny, like Funes, was motivated by an obsession. As Borges writes of Funes: «The most trivial of his memories was more detailed, more vivid, than our own perception of a physical pleasure or a physical torment.»
While we are on the issue of memory in Funes el memorioso, another researcher, Jorge Martín, of the University of Buenos Aires, believes that a key influence on Borges in writing the story was the French philosopher, Henri Bergson. We know that Borges was a great admirer of Bergson – he said so on many occasions and confirmed it in an interview with the American critic, Richard Burgin. In a 2005 paper, Martín wrote that Borges had read Bergson’s 1896 book, Matière et Mémoire, in which Bergson recognises two very different types of memory: pure memory and habitual memory. The first type, writes Bergson, accumulates every experience every lived and recalls it in detail – a kind of memory we usually refer today as episodic memory. While the second type consists of a set of bodily habits intended to summon up our memories in order to illuminate a particular action. – we would now refer to this as procedural memory. For Bergson, most of us do not remember every single object we have seen, because this would be a futile luxury in terms of deciding on a particular action.
Towards the end of Funes el memorioso, Borges also refers to John Locke’s postulation and condemnation of an impossible language in which each individual thing – every stone, every bird, every branch – would have its own name
In Funes’s case, however, he does not successfully amalgamate these two types of memory, as most of us tend to do. And in the end, the implication is that the cost of recalling everything is too great: Funes dies young. In fact, many autism researchers, including Professor Simon Baron-Cohen at the University of Cambridge, believe that most of us have isolated traits of autism. And in saying this, he is, to a certain extent, echoing Henri Bergson’s view that there is potentially an ‘Ireneo Funes’ in all of us, although it rarely manifests itself in such an extreme form.
Incidentally, Borges also describes Funes as «shying away from people». Social interaction is, of course, a problem for many autistic individuals. They often tend to prefer objects to people, because objects tend to be more predictable – unless they’re clouds, of course! Funes is also a gifted linguist – he effortlessly learned English, French, Portuguese and Latin. There are many examples of people on the autism spectrum –especially those with Asperger’s syndrome – who are remarkably proficient in learning languages. The most extraordinary case of linguistic brilliance I have come across is that of Daniel Tammet, the mathematician with Asperger’s who has learned π to 25,000 places. Significantly (in view of what I mentioned earlier about sensory issues in Funes el memorioso), Daniel has synaesthesia, a condition in which the senses are combined. One of his books is called Born on a Blue Day, because he was born on a Wednesday, which he sees as blue. Daniel learned Icelandic, a fiendishly difficult language, sufficiently well in a single week to be able to be interviewed live on Icelandic television.
Towards the end of Funes el memorioso, Borges also refers to John Locke’s postulation and condemnation of an impossible language in which each individual thing – every stone, every bird, every branch – would have its own name. Although Funes himself eventually discarded such a concept as too general, I was powerfully reminded of the kind of language my son Johnny was using before he lost all his speech. He was using only nouns, to name objects we showed him, rather than to communicate socially or for joint attention, but his vocabulary was vast and language came early, before it did in his two elder sisters, Lara and Katriona. Was Johnny trying to catalogue objects in some way – in a manner which Borges describes as «a certain halting grandeur» in Funes? Or was Johnny, rather, merely labelling objects?
The most extraordinary case of linguistic brilliance I have come across is that of Daniel Tammet, the mathematician with Asperger’s who cannot only recite π to 25,000 places but learned the fiendishly difficult icelandic in a week
The important point to emphasise, returning to my overall hypothesis, is that I fully acknowledge that Borges had not read Leo Kanner’s seminal 1943 paper on early infantile autism when he wrote Funes el memorioso. I asked María Kodama in Argentina whether Borges had ever mentioned the word autism to her and she could not recall any such reference. But that is not my concern. My hypothesis is that Borges could have come into contact with a person (or a number of people) with autistic behaviour and was describing this behaviour in his story, even though he had not the slightest notion that this behaviour would very soon acquire a formal label, a diagnosis, a clinical description. We do know that Borges was fascinated by the brain, or how the mind worked. Quian Quiroga, a neuroscientist at the University of Leicester, has pointed out that Borges’s private library contained books not only by the US philosopher, William James, but also Gustav Spiller, a Hungarian sociologist who became naturalised British and who wrote about his own inability to remember any details of anything – just as Borges describes his own absent-mindedness in Funes el Memorioso.
I should add that one of the people in the audience for my King’s College talk was a woman with autism. She confirmed to me afterwards that she recognised much of Funes’ behaviour in Borges’ story as resembling her own.
Can you think of other writers, novels and/or literary creations that could be used to expand this very original idea?
We now know that autism is a neurodevelopmental condition and has probably always existed in the human race. I have long been fascinated with the possibility that the condition may have been depicted in literary centuries before Hans Asperger began to use the term in the early-1930s and then Leo Kanner in 1943. (One of my key discoveries while writing my book on the history of autism, first published in English in 2010 and then in Spanish in 2016, was that Asperger was actually the true pioneer in the field, chronologically speaking at least) In 2016, I presented another hypothesis of mine (also, by coincidence, at King’s College London) that Miguel de Cervantes’ brilliant novella, El licenciado vidriera (which I have translated, under the title Dr Glasscase) – the peculiar tale of the man who believes he is made of glass – may be depicting some of the features of what we would now recognise as autistic behaviour (although autism was officially recognised only four centuries later). The story, published in 1613, just three years before Cervantes died, is one of my favourite of his Novelas Ejemplares (Exemplary Novels). The protagonist, named Tomás Rodaja, concedes he is no good whatsoever at small talk or false flattery (most autistic people find both ‘phatic’ conversation and lying difficult) and, when asked about his health, answers in a very matter-of-fact way also reminiscent of people on the autism spectrum.
What is clear is that Cervantes, writing 500 years ago, took an interest in, and held a compassionate view of, human differences – just as Borges did in the twentieth century.
In broader terms, in the story as a whole, Rodaja has problems with social interaction – one of the key features of autism but rare in Cervantes’ characters, who generally connect with one another with ease. Moreover, his sensory abnormalities are self-evident (as they are in many people on the autism spectrum). At the same time, however, Rodaja is extremely able, intellectually. This would place him on the so-called ‘higher-functioning’ end of the autism spectrum or in the category of Asperger’s syndrome (except that the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual, DSM-5, removed Asperger’s as a separate classification and subsumed it under ‘autism spectrum conditions’ in 2013).
What is clear is that Cervantes, writing 500 years ago, took an interest in, and held a compassionate view of, human differences – just as Borges did in the twentieth century. Furthermore, he appeared to recognise that a person could be intellectually able yet suffer from emotional and other troubles. This is an enlightened view and one which is still overlooked today by those who wrongly describe Asperger’s syndrome as ‘mild’ autism. Finally, unlike Bruno Bettelheim – who erroneously, scandalously and damagingly blamed the parents for their child’s autism and misleadingly referred to people with the condition as ‘empty fortresses’ in the 1960s – Cervantes realised that there was a lot going on inside the minds of individuals with unusual mental conditions and that these thoughts and fears were not fortress-like at all, but contributed to considerable fragilities, as well as great gifts. In fact, at times, Rodaja’s behaviour very much resembles that of the gardener Chance, in Jerzy Kosinski’s 1971 novella, Being There, who has likewise been interpreted by some as autistic.
My latest hypothesis (I’m full of them!), which I am currently writing about for a British newspaper, is that William Wordsworth might have written one of the very first poems describing an autistic boy, namely his very moving 1798 poem, The Idiot Boy. (By pure coincidence, the boy in the poem is called Johnny, as is my own autistic son!)
Would you accept then that if we extrapolate a little bit your presentation at King’s, we could conclude that literature and great literary characters seem to be representations of misunderstood mental conditions? And if that is the case, what might be the link between authors and their creations? In other words: how close was Stevenson to understanding cases of bipolarity when he wrote Jekyll and Hyde or did Edgar Allan Poe have any valid insightfulness into paranoid or manic depressive behaviour?
This is a very intriguing issue. To pick the specific case of Robert Louis Stevenson, his biographer, Claire Harman, significantly chose to call her book about the writer Myself and the Other Fellow. Stevenson himself seems to have had what we now know as bipolar disorder. He wrote to a friend that, when he was in a high fever, he felt that his mind split off into ‘myself’ – the rational self – and ‘the other fellow’, which was the dark, creative, difficult side of his subconscious. He actually enjoyed the fact that he had these occasionally conflicting states of mind going on simultaneously. Stevenson was always obsessed with the notion that there is really no part of the self that you can contain within a single individual.
As for Edgar Allen Poe, I don’t want to tumble into the facile trap of diagnosing authors (or other celebrities) in hindsight, but others have pointed out that Poe appeared to manifest traits of narcissism and neuroticism. In one of his letters, Poe declared: «I do believe God gave me a spark of genius, but He quenched it in misery.» Returning to autism, there have been claims made that Sherlock Holmes’ attention to detail is reminiscent of many autistic individuals. Holmes’s creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, certainly had his intellectual obsessions (and other very peculiar interests).
There is also the element of literary genres or formats to consider. Is poetry better poised to explore and even to conceal conditions like autism by using figures like hyperbaton and not being ruled so much by grammatical syntax as prose might be? Can we talk of theatre of the absurd or beckettian drama as valid expositions of some kind of mental pathologies contemporary to all of us?
That all depends on what you mean by ‘concealing’ autism. There are a number of very talented poets on the autism spectrum. Selima Hill is a notable example. No one knew she was autistic until she revealed her diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome in public for the first time at an extraordinary meeting which I attended in London, organised by Poet in the City. I spoke to Selima afterwards and pointed out that she used many metaphors and similes in her poems and that this was generally considered unusual for someone with autism. She vehemently denied the suggestion that she used metaphors – until I read one of her own poems back to her and, startled, she reluctantly had to admit it was true!
To reverse the direction of the argument, I actually believe that people with autism often behave like poets, in the sense that they are trying to make sense of the world, to understand it, to interpret it, to explore its bewildering sensory variety. And they can sometimes do this in startlingly inventive and lyrical ways. For example, the contemporary British poet, Elizabeth Barrett, told me that she was once making cheese on toast and her autistic son, Dylan, suddenly asked her: ‘Why is the bread crying?’ This surprising (and touchingly poetic) anthropomorphism reminds me very strikingly of the remarkable moment my mother, the poet Elaine Feinstein – not long before she died in September 2019 – stretched out her arm and exclaimed: ‘I’ll just have one of these gallant strawberries.’
Elizabeth has written many poems about Dylan. I myself published a poem about Johnny, in Patricia McCarthy’s distinguished magazine, Agenda. My poem was called ‘Transfusion’ and it was related to a vivid dream I once had in Madrid in which I was trying to ‘donate’ one of the languages I speak to my non-verbal autistic son via tubes in a hospital operation. Last year, I translated the poem into Spanish and it won a prize in a literary competition in Mexico – so the theme clearly struck an international chord!
Dylan, suddenly asked her: ‘Why is the bread crying?’
It is very interesting that you mention Beckett. Ato Quayson, of the University of Toronto, claims to have detected traits of autism in Samuel Beckett’s 1938 novel, Murphy. There are certainly passages in the description of Murphy himself which remind me of the autobiographical writings of autistic individuals.
And what about acute pain and anguish? A feeling and a sentiment used constantly by literary people to inform their narrations and their characters. Do you see a border line between physiology and contingency? How much it is just genetic fate or luck and how feasible is the creation of worlds and situations where human interaction, historical forces and personal desires are catalysts of change and evolution?
Autism is known to be largely genetic but it is also ‘contingent’ in the sense that autism is still diagnosed by clinical observation, and key behavioural criteria include differences in interacting either with other people or with the world (especially the unpredictabilities of the world). Change of routine is a problem for many autistic individuals, which is why we are particularly proud of the way Johnny is coping with the very unusual circumstances of the lockdown during this coronavirus pandemic). You mention the word ‘evolution’ in your question. Unfortunately, all too often, the deficit-based model of autism continues to dominate in many parts of the world. I prefer to focus on the strengths of autistic individuals – what they can do, rather than what can’t – while of course also facing up to the very real challenges which do exist.
There is a huge untapped human resource of autistic individuals out there with strengths which actually give them an advantage in the workplace.
This positive message was the emphasis of my latest book on autism, Autism Works, about autism and employment. (There is a huge untapped human resource of autistic individuals out there with strengths which actually give them an advantage in the workplace.) If autism were largely characterised by deficits, why has it continued to exist rather than being sifted out by evolutionary forces of natural selection?
It is impossible not to think of the cathartic function that Aristotle confers to tragedy or of the madness experienced by Alonso Quijano (Quixote) as the birth of the modern novel. So are we not in front of something that has always been there? The representation of -and the reader’s empathy with- what Baudelaire called the «irregular vegetable.»
Yes. As I said earlier, I believe it is very likely that neurological ‘differences’ like autism have always existed. In fact, what strikes me about Borges’ story is his compassionate attitude, his empathy (if you like), towards such differences. Funes el memorioso is ultimately a story about the positive aspects of being different, of being differently wired, cognitively speaking. In that sense, whether or not Borges was actually describing autistic behaviour, his story is can be considered as expressing an extremely enlightened view, written as it was, in the early 1940s, when so many professionals were sending eccentrics with unusual behaviours to institutions. Early in the story, in fact, Borges describes Funes as a «precursor of the race of supermen». This is interesting, in the light of the fact that the celebrated young climate change campaigner with Asperger’s syndrome, Greta Thunberg, describes her condition as a ‘super-power’. I heard the same word uttered last year by a remarkable ten-year-old autistic pianist from Chicago, who had just come off stage after playing pieces by Liszt and Chopin sublimely.
Do we risk performing an inverted Houdini’s act with literature? Is there a danger of stripping some of its magic by bringing something in the way we read that redefines or reduces great works of literature to a biological explanation? It is a very clever and valid idea but what are its limitations?
You are absolutely right to highlight the danger of leaping to over-simplistic explanations. I can give you a very specific example. Some critics have proposed that Calla Honeystone, the central character in Joyce Carol Oates’ 1990 novel, I Lock My Door Upon Myself. is autistic, partly because of the book’s title (although it is actually a myth that people with autism cut themselves off from the world – they simply have problems socially interacting with it, which is different) and partly because Oates’ own sister has severe autism. But Oates herself told me: ‘I did not base Calla on my sister at all. My sister has never uttered a word and has been institutionalised for most of her life. I thought of Calla as extremely dreamy and introverted.’
Critics have also read autism into the character of Benjy Compson, from William Faulkner’s 1929 novel, The Sound and the Fury. Benjy does, it is true, have an attachment to unusual objects (noted by Kanner in 1943). He also has a startling capacity to hear and repeat the conversations around him. This tendency, known as ‘echolalia,’ is frequent in autism. I have serious doubts, however, which stem largely from an interview Faulkner himself gave to Jean Stein van den Heuvel in 1956 in which he declared: «The only emotion I can have for Benjy is grief and pity for all mankind. You can’t feel anything for Benjy, because he doesn’t feel anything.»
Autobiographical accounts by people with autism demonstrate that, on the contrary, they feel a great deal. Faulkner adds, moreover, in the same interview: «Benjy is incapable of good and evil because he had no knowledge of good and evil … Benjy wasn’t rational enough even to be selfish. He was an animal.» Again, we know from first-hand accounts that many people on the autistic spectrum have a very highly developed moral sense.
Similarly, I am unconvinced by Ato Quayson’s attempts to identify the eponymous character in J.M. Koetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K (1984) as autistic by focusing on his preference for silence. There is a condition called selective mutism (in which individuals with language fail to speak in specific situations), but it cannot be diagnosed together with autism.
But there are more persuasive examples of possible early literary depictions of autism. I have already mentioned the claim that Sherlock Holmes may have had aspects of Asperger’s syndrome because of his attention to detail. This claim may have some merit. It definitely seems to me that Herman Melville’s Bartleby, in his wonderful 1853 novella, Bartleby the Scrivener, has many autistic features. He is resistant to change, which was one of the first diagnostic features to be identified by Kanner in 1943. He has restricted food preferences (ginger nut biscuits, to be precise) which are also common in people with autism. Famously, Bartelby’s language is also limited: he repeats the phrase «I’d prefer not to». He is also literal in a way which is reminiscent of the language used by many autistic individuals: when asked what he is doing in vacated offices, Bartelby replies: «Sitting upon the bannister». The statement is factually correct but inappropriate in this context. On the other hand, Melville writes of Bartelby that «not a hint of agitation wrinkled him.» Anxiety is all too common in autism.
Adam Feinstein is a British author, poet, translator, Hispanist, journalist, film critic and autism researcher. His book, A History of Autism: Conversations with the Pioneers (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), received widespread acclaim (Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre, said it was ‘a treasure trove … and a terrific book’). Another of his books, Autism Works: A Guide to Employment Across the Entire Spectrum, published by Routledge in 2018, has been praised as a much-needed practical handbook on the subject, full of invaluable case studies. He has an adult son, Johnny, with autism.
His biography of the Nobel Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life, was first published by Bloomsbury in 2004 and reissued in an updated edition in 2013 (Harold Pinter called it ‘a masterpiece’). His book of translations from Neruda’s Canto General, with colour illustrations by the celebrated Brazilian artist, Ana Maria Pacheco, was published by Pratt Contemporary in 2013. He also wrote the introduction to the Folio Edition of Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths, which appeared in 2007. Arc published his new book of translations, The Unknown Neruda, in 2019 and a selection of his rhyming translations of the great Nicaraguan poet, Rubén Darío, was published in Managua in January 2020.
Feinstein has given numerous lectures on Neruda and autism around the world, including Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala, the United States, Russia, China, India, Spain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. His presentations in the UK include talks at Cambridge and Oxford Universities and at the Royal Society in London. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC and writes for the Guardian, the Observer, the Financial Times and the Times Literary Supplement.
As a film critic and historian, Feinstein specialises in Latin American cinema, which he teaches in London, as well as the life and work of Michael Curtiz.
His own poems and his translations (of Neruda, Federico García Lorca, Mario Benedetti and others) have appeared in numerous magazines, including Agenda, Acumen, PN Review, Poem and Modern Poetry in Translation. He is currently writing two novels and a book on Argentinian cinema.
He has been a Royal Literary Fund Fellow.