See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor, by Ralph James Savarese

Duncan Wu admires an effort to dismantle assumptions that those on the spectrum are unable to understand literature

November 8, 2018
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The subtext of Ralph James Savarese’s See It Feelingly is that, although autistics can be less good at certain kinds of reading than those he calls “neurotypical”, they are skilled at other kinds of interpretive approaches. That is illustrated through the insights and experiences of autistics: Tito Mukhopadhyay, “a nonspeaking young man from Austin, Texas”; Jamie Burke, “the young man with a chinstrap beard and auburn hair”; Dora Raymaker, a cyberpunk laureate “with her kinky, red hair”; Eugenie, “a multiracial, Jewish, Deaf woman with Asperger syndrome”; Temple Grandin, “the grand dame of autism and livestock handling”; and Savarese’s own son, DJ.

The thing I admired most was the crusading ambition of the volume, signalled in such remarks as “I don’t subscribe to the idea that autistics are broken and need to be fixed”. Savarese proceeds to count the ways in which autistics are superior in reading and analysis; even in those that favour neurotypicals, autistics may sometimes be more competent than is generally recognised: “Although autism is a profoundly visuospatial intelligence, it doesn’t preclude verbal ability.”

The book examines strategies of reading employed by those on the spectrum with the intention of dismantling assumptions about their inability to understand literature. Tito, for instance, has an advantage over us in being acutely sensitive to the power of words to immerse him in the sensory, so loosening his attachment to categorical bonds: “as hearing becomes sight, sound becomes silk”. Savarese presents autism as a condition that provides the individual with a sound basis for literary study.

But I wish his book were better organised. He profiles a different person in each chapter, and although from time to time he allows for comparisons, the effect is to separate his subjects, when it might be more useful to think of them alongside each other. Overall, I wish there had been more consideration of them as a group.

And I don’t think Savarese is helped by harshness towards his predecessors: for him, Oliver Sacks is guilty of demoting autism to “lamentable pathology”. When Sacks writes about Grandin, he is like “a wrangler corralling cattle”. Sacks was a writer of magisterial command of his material and his language, and he deserved better than that.

It might be forgivable were Savarese a better writer himself. But his hallmark is sloppy usage and cloth-eared phrasings littered with non sequiturs and stylistic solecisms: too many sentences begin in the imperative; too many with nouns lacking articles; there are too many quotations from learned authorities (as if they were beyond reproof); and too many sentences that climax in opacity.

Among the linguistic junk that clutters this book, the word “aforementioned” is prominent for its frequency. But then, word salad is a favoured dish; take, for instance, “autistics have never been tested on ingroup/outgroup perception, but I’d bet the farm on different results for monoracial autistics”.

The consolation for grinding through this is Savarese’s interview with Grandin, who, it emerges, can spot a steaming pile of horse manure a mile off. Her judgement on the debates of deconstructionists is: “It was nothing but weird rhetorical crap. I think deconstructing literature is just rubbish.” If only such common sense were shown by my colleagues at that transcontinental circle jerk, that orgy of false humility, inanity and self-congratulation, the annual mega-conference organised by America’s Modern Language Association.

Duncan Wu is Raymond Wagner professor of literary studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC.

See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor
By Ralph James Savarese
Duke University Press, 296pp, £22.99
ISBN 9781478001300
Published 26 October 2018

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