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.