ignis, glacies et pertinacia

The Genesis of Artistic Creativity by Michael Fitzgerald

In Autism Research Unit, Book Review on June 8, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Subtitled Asperger’s Syndrome and the Arts, Michael Fitzgerald’s book broaches one of the last taboos as regards creative artists. For some time it has been acknowledged by most unbiased observers that highly regarded scientists, mathematicians and engineers may be autistic. Anthony Storr in his collection of essays, Churchill’s Black Dog, discussed Isaac Newton, for example, as being autistic. It is thought of as being acceptable that what students of the humanities, literature and the arts consider to be the mechanistic mindset of the sciences may be bolstered or at least uninhibited by an autistic temperament. The arts, on the other hand, are a looser, more free-flowing kind of creativity and our arts graduate commentators like to insulate themselves from the unaesthetic notion that artists might themselves be on the autistic spectrum by the notion that, though autistic savants may be able to draw buildings they have seen for only a handful of seconds or reconstitute note-perfect versions of songs they have heard, the resultant art is somehow soulless. The exceptions, such as Erik Satie, prove the rule by the idiosyncracies of their art, which are unique but flawed in the human sense. All manner of reasonings are given for behaviour remarkable for its eccentricity, yes, comfortingly vague word that it is, but also for its need for routine, for solitude, for its incompetence with regards to human relationships and empathy. The weight of more conventionally respectable artistic ailments, from the “black blood” of mood disorders with its history of poetic treatment, to Porphyria, perhaps, that old chestnut of syphilus, or, more implausible denial of all, simply an attraction to the perverse and unconventional.

Somebody had to take apart some of these assumptions, point out the conclusions that can be drawn from the biographies of artists, and state the various ways in which both the negative and positive symptoms of autism could in fact benefit a life dedicated to art no less (or, perhaps, little less, or alternatively, no less, but less probably; all possible conclusions that may be drawn once the subject is further researched) than a life dedicated to science.

Some of these potential benefits ought to be evident to anybody who has worked with individuals on the autistic spectrum. Autism confers an obsessive tenacity. It can remove the distractions of social interaction which might prevent other artists reaching what they might think of as their potential. It provides a different take on the world, the alienation from it that can benefit a creative artist. Similarly, the very social difficulties that autism invariably provokes, as well as the difficulties of finding a place for oneself in the world, the comforts of a job and loving relationship, provokes exactly the kind of life crises that come up again and again in biographies as being the progenitors of a creative breakthrough. And then there is the fact that people with autism do not know how to compromise; their work is all there is.

Michael Fitzgerald discusses many of these factors. The book is divided into sections on writers, philosophers, muscians and painters each with as many as eight and as few as four examples of creative artists. Each artist is discussed in short more or less uniformly headlined sections of as little as five or six pages. Indications of Asperger’s syndrome or high functioning autism are evinced and briefly discussed.

Fitzgerald in his introduction makes the obligatory defence of posthumous diagnosis, which has been controversial since the success of previous such works by the likes of Kay Refield Jamison, whose work Fitzgerald indeed draws on. Since far more evidence can be drawn from the various biographies of long-dead individuals of note than in the interviews and from the school reports etc. demanded by a contemporary diagnostic consultation, since indeed far more social contexts are discussed in such a biography than the two (home and school for example) required in certain diagnostic criteria, and since the development of a given disorder over a lifetime may be evident from such biographies, there is surely an argument that, face to face contact or no, if such a diagnosis is not justified, then no diagnosis based upon contemporary consultation may be either. Were this not the case, the discussion of historical figures and their behaviours to shed light on the disorders they appear to exemplify would nevertheless be of interest to many who work with such disorders or are affected by them. If such defences must continue to be made, however, it might be preferred that they were made rather better than is the case with Fitzgerald here who, though he makes his case, somewhat tramples on it with a discussion of posthumous ratings of IQ in figures thought to be on the autistic spectrum. Following a discussion of the failings of IQ as an objective measure of intelligence, this makes such an exercise as the posthumous rating of IQ seem even more silly an exercise than it would appear in and of itself, and it is unfortunate that Fitzgerald traduces the essaying of posthumous diagnoses with such a practice.

Nevertheless, Fitzgerald’s diagnoses themselves appear to be sound. (More so than many given by psychiatrists in the flesh in the cases of students I worked with at a college of special education were I to be drawn into a comparison, but sound in and of themselves.) In each case, I would be very interested in following up some of the biographical sources he draws on. Unfortunately, his discussion of each case is so concise, giving only those anecdotes and discrete items of evidence germane to diagnosis, that I do not feel I am, from this book alone, much informed as to the nature of each individual’s character and eccentricities.

On the other hand, if Fitzgerald does not go into a great deal of depth on each individual, he does provide sufficient examples of autistic individuals in each field to advance his thesis. If he had covered fewer it could easily be said by the usual commentators that these individuals, like Mozart, are exceptions that prove the rule. Also, such breadth as this ensures that each reader will learn something about figures he thought he knew, such as, perhaps, George Orwell and William Butler Yeats, as well as discovering new characters, such as Glenn Gould and Jack B. Yeats.

A look at those names may bring up another objection. From his selection of 21 historical figures, only one, Simone Weil, is female. This may reflect a number of things. Autism, of course, is disproportionately a male phenomenon. Historically, too, women, and even neurotypical women of high social standing, had far fewer opportunities to express themselves creatively. It leaves one question. Where the eccentricities of autistic men more tolerated, enabling them – with the usual life crises, ridicule, and difficulties, of course – to doggedly pursue their interests in the time they made for themselves, while women, failing to fulfil their more stringent social roles, were further disadvantaged, or are there many examples of female artistic genius out there waiting to be discovered and is this another indication of the autistic literature being slow to pick up on the experiences of autistic women.

Whatever the shortfalls, this is a fine book with which to begin to get to grips with this last taboo and, though it will be seen as a specialist interest topic, the viewing of the history of creativity through the filter of autism is as useful as any other more or less arbitary cross section of what would otherwise be an intimidatingly vast area, for throwing up interesting leads. For me these may be Glenn Gould, Bela Bartok and Jack B. Yeats, but each reader will have different names to follow up. Fitzgerald has written an engaging, well laid out book, and Jessica Kingsley has furthered its impressive reputation.

Candida Die Off

In Autism Research Unit, Department of Nutrition, Food diary, Unforgiving Minutes on May 26, 2010 at 10:00 pm

A few lost days recently, and mainly to Candida Die Off. Probably I have mentioned this before, and certainly I will mention it again. It may be that the mechanism for it is not yet quite fully understood and that it will not in future be described as Candida Die Off, but since the self-styled hard-nosed scientists who ridicule such ideas provide no better hypothesis for how and why I come to feel so shite before I come to feel better following the imposition of a strict dietary regime after a lax spell or the ingestion of probiotics, and since they get many details wrong when they swagger into the fray, since indeed those who talk of Candida die off, off-puttingly flaky though they may be, describe perfectly how I feel and give the only plausible reason why I should feel it, Candida die off it remains.

So, the hypothesis goes something like this:

Because of the increasing prevalence of highly refined carbohydrates and sugars in our diet, because of the high-yeast fast bake process, because of the shift towards milling of flours which removes all nutritional value, because of the over prescription of anti biotics by doctors and the use of prophylactic anti biotics in animal feed, the gut flora (the balance of “good” bacteria to bad and other strains), there is increasingly a problem of Candidiasis in Western populations.

Candida albicans is a common yeast-like microorganism which, given the right environment, and in a dearth of more desireable “gut flora”, can flourish, literally threading itself through the gut lining of suffers.

In itself it can cause a problem, releasing toxins. But this threading through the gut too can cause “leaky gut syndrome”, where particles that ought not to pass through the selectively-permeable membranes of the gut, can pass thorugh. Once they have done so they can in some cases interfere with the function of the central nervous system. In others, they can trigger food allergies which then further inflame the gut lining, decreasing absorption and leading to yet further problems.

To defeat this an anti-Candida diet has to be employed. I have benefitted from this myself, though I have never found myself able to persist in its strictures which involve the exclusion of all refined carbs (I couldn’t give up exercise, for one thing, which makes me crave carbs, I often say that if I had the organisational capacity to carry out the diet, I wouldn’t need it, and I have poor/non-existent impulse control besides). In addition, pro-biotics are important, to build up the immune system against the invasive organism.

While these necessary measures are being taken, though, something called Candida Die off occurs in which, depending on which theory you go for (to me the results are the same and so it makes little odds) either A> dying Candida releases the toxins that would otherwise be left inside or B> the Candida, now that the environment is more challenging, becomes more aggressive in order to bed itself into body tissues. In the process, you experience something called Herxheimer reaction (which also may or may not be the correct nomenclature). Essentially, this is toxic overload. You feel like hell, have all the symptoms of flu, including tingling skin (check), lethargy (check), sleepiness (check), and feeling cold.

Mine came on first a few days ago when I began eating home-made probiotic sauerkraut and took a probiotic capsule or two. I wasn’t quite getting it right. These measures should be rolled in slowly after the strict following of an anti-Candida diet. I hadn’t quite done this. My priorities and obsessions shift so much that I tend to be all or nothing most of the time, and I had come on too strong with the probiotics after too loose an interpretation of the Candida diet. (Another reason I have for believing this hypothesis incidentally, is the severity of the symptoms and the way they corrolate with how lax I have been in applying the diet, how quickly I move from eating badly to eating well – with or without probiotics – and how aggressively I introduce probiotics.)

In addition, I woke up this morning after sleeping badly last night, feeling like I had a cold. Though I had been shaky all day yesterday and knew I was coming down with Herheimer/Die off, I went for a fell run race starting at 19:15 and ran 4 miles with an 1100 feet climb. I came down and felt better than I had all day, but by the time it came to go to bed, I felt alert. My head was spinning. I couldn’t sleep until late, another symptom, now I look back, of Herxheimer. Exercise too helps to kill the Candida and I had ran pretty hard.

And so I have been achy all day, had loose stool (sorry), and felt too crabby for company.

Still, good and bad news. The good: I’ve still got a long way to go. The bad: I’ve found something that works, Sauerkraut and the fermented foods Natasha Campbell McBride believes to be so effective against such problems and the mental difficulties they can cause.

The only lingering bad in all of it, perhaps, is that tomorrow I’m off to do some Dry Stone Walling again and had hoped to chat to the Chainsaw Girl I met last time and who I have been daydreaming about since, but then, since I’m still profoundly ambivalent about relationships and siding, most times, with Gibbon (as Anthony Storr described him in Solitude) who said he often dreamed of being coupled, but was invariably glad to wake up from the reverie and find himself untethered, maybe that itself is no bad thing. All I’ve got to ensure is that I manage to cook something tomorrow morning!

Night Gav-watchers

Gav Belcher

Review The Berlin Wall by Frederick Taylor

In Book Review, Department of History, Department of Politics on May 26, 2010 at 12:41 pm

New Year’s Eve 2009/2010 I wanted to be on my own, as I have many New Year’s Eves, but a few days before a good friend invited me over to be with his girlfriend and a female friend of theirs. Still reluctant, and ambivalent about the fact I was convinced they were trying to set me up, I accepted and drove over.

This friend of theirs was a teacher, was convinced of her own intellectual brilliance, and had a tendency to micro-manage conversation until the whole evening became one long, dread, succession of parlour games. Who would we invite to the ideal dinner party (I hate dinner parties), Barack Obama apparently, to which my unenthused response earned me the assured “Don’t you read Time”. No, I don’t. Another such game led somehow to us discussing what would be our Mastermind topic. Hers was Elvis, and she issued a torrent of facts (and those justifications masquarading as facts that are never far from a true fanatic’s lips). B_____’s would be Rallying in the ’90s. His girlfriend’s, I think, would be something to do with the Berlin Wall. At any rate, one thing I took away from the evening, aside from my own unsuitability for company of any kind and my desire to be a perfect recluse, as I had more or less managed that half year, was that, though I had many special interests as fiercely obsessive as our Elvis aficionado’s that night, I was master of none of them; the fact that I had managed one tenuously assimilated fact about the Berlin Wall that night, and that I had for many years had an interest in precisely this period of Central and Eastern European history, and the Cold War seemed particularly stark, and I played a game of Solitaire Humiliations with myself for a long while afterwards.

Soon after moving to North Wales I was walking around Bangor, a University town, and indeed, a university town I could have lived in had things turned out differently – for most of the summer, awaiting A-Level results, I had indeed believed I would end up at my second choice, studying English with Creative Writing, and looking back now I could see for sure it would have suited me better – and taking a look at the Oxfam, I could not hold back from buying Taylor’s book on the very subject I had proven myself to not understand. One thought I depolyed against the compulsive purchase of the book was that I would never in a million years finish it. I don’t do well with such long books. The faltering motivation and shifting priorities of my ADHD see to that. But it was no good.

Two, three months on, I am glad of that. The book was a slog. I stalled on it numerous times and, though I left myself notes and To Do lists, and though I picked up the book again and again and pushed myself on, my self conscious re-focusing sessions were difficult. Something changed perhaps when I got one hundred and fifty or so pages in and the wall was built. Suddenly the recondite machinations of the various political parties and cabals were thrown into sharp relief by the very real human stories of the individuals and groups on either side of the wall.

Unusually for me I zipped through the next few hundred pages, reading them quickly for me at any rate. The realities of events in the GDR and the larger than life characters of those such as Lyndon Johnson, Walter Ulbricht, John F Kennedy, Nikita Krushchev and, more particularly, those lesser known but, incredibly, equally rare individuals, are for me more enthralling than any political thriller.

It may well be that the events were enthralling enough to keep me reading despite the lacklustre text. There were few passages where Taylor’s prose or delivery stood out and it struck me that perhaps at times the scarcely believable events could have been better served. Still, I am glad I persisted, and feel no less determined, at the end of it, that any future games of Solitaire Humiliations will not find me so ignorant of an area of history I should by now be pretty sure of.

Outside of the text I have a few of my usual bugbears. Acronyms and abbreviations can be opaque at the best of times, and histories concerning the Cold War especially so given the fact that many such are taken from the already perplexing initials of foreign institutions. At the very least I believe a history such as this ought to have a list of abbreviations used. Equally useful, though, would be a list of the key figures. It is not only those with ADHD like myself who may find themselves putting such a book as this aside for a time. It needs an investment of concentration and energy many people lack over a prolonged period. It can be difficult to remember a large cast of characters at the best of times.

Overall, though, reading this book has made me less intimidated by serious historical texts, less liable to persuade myself that I would be unable to make it through them, and indeed, more likely to persist. I may well seek out Taylor’s more highly rated Dresden, and try again with such texts as Timothy Garton Ash’s We The People and The Polish Revolution. Whatever my reservations, this itself must be a high recommendation.