Wednesday, November 28, 2018

See it Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor: A Review

Maxfield Sparrow
unstrangemind.com

[image: cover of the book See It
Feelingly, by Ralph Savarese]
See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor (Thought in the Act) by Ralph James Savarese
Foreword by Stephen Kuusisto
Duke University Press Books (October 12, 2018)

Reading See it Feelingly took me much longer than I expected, because I wanted to stop to take notes with almost every page turn. Dr. Savarese has produced a masterpiece, simultaneously dense and accessible. His voice moves freely—alternating among lyrical, narrative, and instructive—never losing the flow, never dipping into pedantry, never soaring too far toward the abstract for the reader to follow. Not only is this collection of essays brimming with the most important information and ideas about autism, it is a collaboration of rare beauty.

See it Feelingly crosses genres effortlessly. The result is a book rich in the neuroscience of autism, literary criticism, Autistic poetry, the science and politics of neurodiversity, theory and practice of inclusive education, and direct quotes from Autists. See it Feelingly also belongs on my virtual bookshelf of Autistic Poetics*, along with Autistic Disturbances: Theorizing Autistic Poetics from the DSM to Robinson Crusoe, by Julia M. Rodas, and Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness, by Melanie Yergeau. While Savarese, unlike Rodas and Yergeau, is not Autistic, his work that has culminated in See it Feelingly has given him great depth of insight into Autistic poetics. More importantly, his understanding of Autistic poetics is directly informed by the extensive conversations and feedback from his Autistic friends with whom he explores literary works.

There are six Autistic co-readers highlighted in See it Feelingly. Dr. Savarese makes it clear that he considers the relationships between his Autistic friends and himself to be more about shared journeys as equals than a hierarchical teacher-student relationship. One reason for this attitude was that his Autistic friends were teaching him as much, if not more than, he was teaching them. And they weren’t the stereotypically expected sort of lessons about autism and Autistics. Rather, his co-readers were teaching him new ways of engaging with the text—Autistic ways of reading. As Savarese writes on page 54,
“What literature professors call 'close reading' might as well be called 'autistic reading,' I decided, for the kind of careful attention and full-bodied engagement that Tito evinced are exactly what literature deserves.”
Savarese returns often to the theme of embodiment in writing and reading—“feelingly seeing” the text. He shows the deeply somatic (body/sensory as opposed to mind-based) nature of Autistic experience by weaving together three information strands: conversations in which various of his six co-readers share experiences of how they interact with the texts they are reading and discussing; explanations of some of the differences in brain structures and functions that cause Autistic people to engage somatic regions of our brains more actively and with more connections than non-autistic people; and a review of somatic theories in linguistics and poetics, suggesting that the sounds of language evolved as echoes of body movements. “Metric feet” in poetry echo the way language echoes the footfalls of running.

The six Autistic people Dr. Savarese explored literature with were: his son, DJ Savarese; Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay; Jamie Burke; Dora Raymaker; Eugenie; and Temple Grandin. As Savarese notes in the introduction, what he has done is not a scientific study or even a random sample. The people he worked with were the people he knew one way or another. Or, as in Grandin’s case, people both famous and somewhat accessible. The choice to include Grandin also stemmed from the irresistible challenge of re-visiting Dr. Oliver Sacks’ assessment of Grandin’s assumed deficit with respect to literature in his book, An Anthropologist on Mars.

Dr. Savarese chose the books he read with each of his friends. The chapter about reading with his son is labeled prologue rather than chapter one. I think that choice is meant to show how DJ wasn’t just another Autistic to read with but The Autistic who taught Dr. Savarese his first lessons in full-autistic-body reading, re-living personal trauma while reading fictional trauma, close-autistic-reading, and the importance of building a raft of safety upon which to navigate the often treacherous waters of literature. Savarese focused mainly on a shared reading of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. In chapter one, Savarese immersed in a slow—two chapters at a time—reading of Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, with Mukhopadhyay. In chapter two, Savarese and Burke explore a classic Native American novel that plays with concepts of time, space, and ritual: Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko.

Chapter three spends a lot of time exploring the connections between the science fiction genre and autism, drawing heavily on Steve Silberman’s autism history, NeuroTribes. Savarese chose the novel before the reading partner in the case of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. After exploring the parallels between Vulcans (Spock) and androids (Data) and Autistics (as well as dipping into the reasons so many Autistics love Star Trek), Savarese knew he wanted to discuss Dick’s novel about a bounty hunter searching for renegade replicants with an Autistic reader. He chose Raymaker because he had been impressed by things she had said in the documentary film Loving Lampposts, Living Autistic. Blade Runner was one of her favorite movies but she had not yet read the book upon which it was based.

In chapter four Dr. Savarese reads with a woman who chooses to go only by the name Eugenie. She is Autistic, Deaf, a classical ballerina and a figure skating choreographer. She already faces so many barriers as a multi-racial, Jewish, Deaf choreographer that she does what she can to keep her autism undercover, fearing it would tip the balance for too many people, rendering her unhirable. Together, they read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Savarese chose that novel as a fertile ground for exploring intersectionality—the synergy that happens when someone has more than one minority identity—in Eugenie’s case, the intersection of being multi-racial and multiply-disabled.

Finally, in chapter five,  Dr. Savarese successfully deconstructs Dr. Sacks’ earlier assessment of Grandin during a shared reading of two short stories from the anthology Among Animals: The Lives of Animals and Humans in Contemporary Short Fiction: “Meat” and “The Ecstatic Cry.” Citing much of what has been said by and about Grandin to support the notion that she is purely logical with only the simplest emotions—he quotes Grandin on page 157, saying, “ [I] only understand . . . fear, anger, happiness, and sadness”—Savarese set out to explore Grandin’s actual emotional landscape through discussing literature together.

While Grandin’s initial response to “Meat” was frustration that the story never revealed what species of animal was described, I shed genuine tears reading just one excerpted paragraph Savarese included. Still, Savarese found great depth of reflection and insight in Grandin’s approach to the texts. Her literary reality was much richer than Savarese, or I, had been led to believe. When Savarese asked Grandin on page 171 if “Meat” had moved her, she replied, “Well, I don’t get overly emotional [...] [b]ut the words created images in my head, and they moved me.” But Savarese was most insightful halfway through his recounting of their discussion of “The Ecstatic Cry” when he suddenly realized that he was trying to box Grandin up and force her into a mold every bit as much as he felt Sacks had done. Savarese writes, “Can we presume competence without striving for normalcy? I think so, but in my quest to uncover emotion, I was certainly muddying the waters.” (182)

In the epilogue, Dr. Savarese revisits theories of literature and reading but soon turns to pondering our future, based on the current grim political landscape in the U.S. He closes with a quote from Azar Nafisi, an Iranian professor, explaining that literature does not, “merely reflect reality but reveal a spectrum of truths, thus intrinsically going against the grain of totalitarian mindsets.” (195)  Echoing her language, Savarese calls upon “a spectrum of readerly minds” to “stretch and amplify” the spectrum of truths. Now, more than ever, the world needs literature. And Dr. Savarese has amply demonstrated how much literature needs Autistics.

See it Feelingly is a manifesto of power, singing out the value and beauty of Autistic minds and lives. It centers non-speaking Autistics while expressing acceptance and inclusion for all flavors of Autists. It does not position our worth in the commercial sense we’re so accustomed to. Some of the co-readers have successful careers; others may never support themselves through labor and earned income. That is not where any of their value as human beings resides and Savarese makes that abundantly clear as he invites us to savor the inner lives of his friends. Literature is about what makes us human and Dr. Savarese and his friends find the humanity in fictional humans … and whales and penguins … by looking into the mirror of literature and seeing themselves reflected there in myriad forms. The careful reader—of any neurology—will look into See it Feelingly and find themselves reflected there as well.

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*Poetics are sets of theories about how language is used artistically and politically in different settings.