ignis, glacies et pertinacia

Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

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.

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.

Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Natasha Campbell-McBride

In Autism Research Unit, Book Review, Department of Nutrition, Department of Psychology on December 10, 2009 at 7:12 pm

I had not used the local library for about two years on account of having ran up a debt on a number of books on rape and the criminal justice system, research for a book that swelled to the size of an Anna Karenina or a Bleak House and helped to take me to the edge and which, needless to say, hasn’t be written. I had also falen out of the habit of considering libraries as one of the ways of getting my hands on a book. If I needed a book I would think E-Bay or Amazon, or, more recently, the Book Depository, and that would set me to thinking about compulsive buying and set in motion all of the strategies I have in place to stop me impulse buying Marshall stack amplifiers with power breaks for playing in my bedroom, Le Creusset casseroles, expensive language packs for Croatian, expsensive vintage typewriters and all the rest of it, but which also stops me, time after time, buying the needful things, the things which might make such strategies a little less necessary. Gut and Psychology Syndrome was one such book, indefinitely postponed by my own complex analytical filters. I had come across Natasha Campbell-McBride well over a year ago – perhaps as much as two, three years back – and it was evident to me that she came from a solid scientific background and that she had a valuable contribution to make in the field of nutritional therapy for neurodevelopmental disorders. Nonetheless, it took me a long time to get to reading her book. Anybody who suffers from the conditions she describes may understand the various shifts of priorities and the miscellaneous mishaps and the various exigencies of a life lived in a far from orderly way all of which militate against the chance of finding a window to focus on the very things which may lend order, but I can only stress that there will always be some things which are well worthy of being shoved to the front of the queue, whatever else seems imperitive, and this is one of them.

Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride is a qualified medical doctor who has worked as a neurosurgeon and also trained in nutrition. The fact that she has a child who was originally diagnosed with asperger’s syndrome also led her to look into the causes of this condition, and to question the orthodoxy that asperger’s is incurable (her son is now a fully-functional adolescent). As a consequence, Dr Campbell-McBride came into contact with the late Bernard Rimland, director of the Autism Research Institute. From him she learned that many individuals with autism recover following the implementation of a gluten and casein free diet.

Campbell-McBride, however, went deeper than this. She discovered that gluten and casein were merely two of many proteins which metabolise into potent neurotoxins in an improperly functioning gut. She discovered that all of the patients she saw who had autism, but also ADHD, dyslexia, schizophrenia, dyspraxia, and other such conditions, have abnormalities of gut flora, the bacteria and microorganisms in the gut.

Campbell-McBride developed a protocol to heal this kind of problem. For her it is the malfunction of the gut that causes the malfunction in the brain. It does not add to it. It does not exacerbate it. It causes it.

In the book, Campbell-McBride lays out her protocol, which she says she successfully used to treat her son. In so doing she takes a look at other popular forms of nutritional intervention. In this section one or two minor factual errors may creep in. She summarises the anti-Candida diet, for example, as one which permits a great deal of pastries and starch. This may be true of certain books which are written in a broadly anti-candida vein, and indeed I know people who claim to be on an anti-Candida diet who bake with non-gluten flours and with sugars all the time, and who eat a great deal of starch, and who, incidentally, are not getting well or any the less irritable by doing so. Many people who have little background in nutrition have taken up the Candida bandwaggon. Alas, what has occurred with Candida is what has occurred elsewhere where the medical establishment fails to acknowledge a problem, that is, the market has produced a glut of nonsense in what is, ironically, a parallel of the pathogenic bacteria that take up residence and start proactively squatting when the goodies move out: these people thrive in the same environment and feed on the same fuel as could sustain knowledgeable men and women with a scientific background, if only they would take up the challenge, but as they hubristically scoff and walk away the quacks move in along with the more principled alternative practitioners and genuine nutritionists. Whatever, Erica White’s more considered approach to Candida is not what is demolished here. But no matter, the fact is that most alternatives to the tough but effective protocol laid out by Dr Campbell-McBride, essentially the too-often overlooked specific carbohydrate diet coupled with the supplementation of therapeutic doses of probiotics, are ineffectual or incomplete.

This I found out a year or two too late, as is often the case, since after years of struggling to apply the more rigorous anti-Candida diet of Erica White and yahoo groups’ ‘Bee’, I cut out all grains for a while and used home-made ghee, clarified butter, instead of the normal stuff, and boosted my level of probiotics, and the changes were rapidly apparent.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and this one eats very well thank you very much. Try it.

Gav B

Booker Shortlist

In Book Review, Commentary, Department of Literature, Every Good Boy Deserves Football on September 25, 2009 at 11:30 pm

I haven’t yet updated my post on the Booker list. I haven’t, and won’t manage to read all of the longlist, and there isn’t now much point, and indeed, I doubt I will manage to write more on the shortlist before the results are announced, so here’s a post I have just written on the Newsnight Review website. Maybe it will, and maybe it won’t be approved. Probably I’ll draw fire like I usually do. I found that on the Booker site. Still, it’s something:

It’s a pretty backward-looking list, with only the Coetzee’s offering taking place in anything like the distant past. Fould’s and Mawer’s work I found strangely passionless given the subject. The Quickening Maze didn’t capture anything of the pressured thought and the flighty imagination of mania and a did a poor job of getting into the head of a major poet during a serious mental illness. It moved between its major characters so breezily, and in such a slim volume, that I got nothing of any of them. It lacked focus. Mawer’s Mesto, a fictionalised Brno, relied once again on an evocative setting, and not only on the city itself, but on an architecturally important building in that city, standing to this day and visible to any reader after a cursory internet search. Mawer’s fictional characters are more persuasive for me than Fould’s fictionalised historical figures, but do not come fully alive. It is a very readable work, plot driven and, perhaps, old fashioned. It is a good novel, but perhaps not a great one. Read the rest of this entry »

Booker Prize Longlist 2009

In Book Review, Department of Literature on August 29, 2009 at 9:43 pm

I’ve been keeping myself busy. For the past couple of week I have been reading the books on the Booker longlist. Robert Musil’s excellent The Man Without Qualities has, unfortunately, stalled for now because of this, but I was starting to feel that I didn’t know enough about contemporary literature, and it seemed a good way of familiarising myself with the various publishing houses and current trends. Read the rest of this entry »

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders

In Book Review, Every Good Boy Deserves Football on July 15, 2009 at 12:30 pm

It’s not often you read something that is like nothing you have ever read before, something that restores to you all of the excitement of reading you had when you first discovered those authors you will love for the rest of your life. This for me was one such book. In 89 pages, Saunders lays out the verities of the stupidities of mankind, the kind of idiocy, hatred, intolerance and persecution that Marcus Aurelious tells us we might as well get used to. And we know it. We know that it happens all around us. We know that the uncomprehensible violence conducted in the twentieth century has taught us nothing at all but how more efficiently to conduct violence. We know too, or ought to know, how powerless we are, almost all of the time, and in all but the most limited spheres, to do anything about this fact, and that, much of the time, all we do by contemplating it is make ourselves more miserable, more obsessive, more misanthropic so that we are less able to be there, on a human level, for those around us over whom we do have some influence. Read the rest of this entry »