awareness of it (which is, perhaps, what truly makes it   isolation).   This isolation, as a neurological given, can in part be ameliorated through education or medication, but it can never be entirely overcome.   At the same time, as this novel presents it, no person truly is other to another.   We all are connected by non-symbolic, indexical, and emotional bonds that we share with other animals, as well as by symbolic bonds.   Moreover, our symbolic capacities are built upon and cannot exist apart from the earlier, non-symbolic cognitive structures; and all of us live, think, and interact along a spectrum of symbolic and non-symbolic capacities.   Yet, as this novel also suggests, this spectrum includes as well the autistic spectrum and its tendencies toward isolation.

This tendency toward isolation is social and political, as we observed earlier, a product of the late capitalist, post-Thatcher weakening of social bonds.   In other forms of social life, the novel appears to imply, social bonds would be stronger and tendencies toward isolation and anomie less pronounced.   But, as the example of Christopher and his precisely observed neurological condition suggest, the tendency toward isolation is, finally, irreducibly neurological.   Christopher is, on one level, a metaphor for the social autism that surrounds him.   He is also and, for the purposes of this novel, more fundamentally an instance of an autistic tendency whose bases are biological and whose manifestations pervade individual and social life.

Shortly after his mother's collapse into wailing, Christopher describes his favorite dream.   His mother's wailing, I want to stress again, is not an exit from the symbolic or the social realms.   She had been banished by a symbolic act of betrayal: her letters had been hidden and she was narrated out of her son's life.   Her wailing is her first utterance on returning to the social and symbolic realms, at least with regard to her family.   This animal sound is not an act of departure from the symbolic; quite the opposite, it is her re-entry into a social-symbolic world from which she had been erased.   Her cry, emerging from her deepest organic and cognitive being, protests and rejects isolation and silence.   Thus, the close juxtaposition late in the novel of the mother's wailing with Christopher's favorite dream emphasizes unequivocally Haddon's view that alterity is relative, not absolute.   Everyone desires connection, community, and love.   Christopher, after all, searches for his lost mother and has ambitions to succeed in school and university.   Yet everyone maintains a sector of self that rejects social-symbolic contact and is terrified of touch.

Christopher's dream is an apocalyptic vision in which nearly everyone on earth dies of a virus.   This virus, however, is not biological, but semantic.   As Christopher says, "people catch it because of the meaning of something an infected person says and the meaning of what they do with their faces when they say it" (198).   Because the virus can spread through televised images and dialogue as well as through personal contact, it spreads rapidly; soon, the only people left are people like Christopher who cannot understand facial expressions or the shifting meanings of all symbolic usage.   In this new world, populated only by autistic people, devoid of symbols, meanings, and ambiguities, Christopher feels liberated.   He knows that "no one is going to talk to me or touch me or ask me a question" (199).   He can eat whatever he wants, play computer games all day, drive cars, and when he goes home, "it's not Father's house anymore, it's mine" (200).   When the dream is over, he says, "I am happy" (200).  

Christopher's deepest wish, it seems, is that the world as a site of meaning-the social-symbolic world-be obliterated.   He wishes a reversion to an indexical world consisting only of objects in which signs, presumably, would be unnecessary or would be perfect, unvarying emblems for the things themselves.   Perhaps, in this world, Christopher would lose his own false, metaphorical name and would discover his true one.   In any event, through Christopher's dream, Haddon portrays the apocalyptic imagination as a violent opposition to ambiguity and symbolization-an interpretation very much in keeping with many of the central apocalyptic texts and commentaries. 11  Haddon further implies that the apocalyptic imagination is a form of autistic thinking, and that autistic thinking tends toward apocalypticism.   The urge toward a symbolic reduction so complete that it requires global annihilation, in this view, is part of the human evolutionary-neurological inheritance.   Just as, (as in Christopher's mother's case), we can never be sufficiently emotionally and symbolically connected to others; as Christopher's dream implies, neither can we ever be sufficiently alone.   Both these tendencies and desires exist together, in all people, and in this sense we might read Curious Incident as a neurological psychomacheia , a drama of the struggle within every soul between opposing positions on the neurological spectrum.   Once again, if this interpretation is valid, the social and political conditions depicted in this novel become secondary to, or particular manifestations of conditions and conflicts of our neurology.   The ideology of neurology trumps traditional ideology critique.

The problem with this interpretation and its corollaries, however, lies in the amount of care bestowed on Christopher, the avatar of isolation and apocalypse, by the other characters and, again to generalize from my own experience, by the novel's readers.   Why should he be an object of care?   And why especially should he be an object of care when he cannot reciprocate that care, at least not in ways that those who care for him would wish for?   One cares, I think, for Christopher because of his vulnerability, his needs, his limits.   The novel presents him continually in the context of this care, even though Christopher's narration seems oblivious to it.   Haddon seems almost to present this care as a moral imperative.   But rather than indicating reasons for this imperative, Haddon presents it as a fact: his parents care, and others who come in contact with him care, and the reader who encounters him, presumably, cares.   One must care because one does care, rather than the reverse.   His vulnerability, which manifests itself through his symbolic and social limitations, demands that one bestow care.   Yet, as I have argued, these symbolic and social limitations--which constitute his vulnerability and thus the imperative to care for him-render him both different from and similar to others.   His autistic qualities locate him on a neurological spectrum shared by all people.   One empathizes with him, and empathizes even with his inability to empathize; one cares even for his inability to care.   And this is because, I think, all of us share, in part, this lack of empathy and care, this wish for isolation, even the urge to annihilate the social and symbolic world.   It is, perhaps, the absolute self-sufficiency and absolute vulnerability and need of the infant that ultimately demands this care.

But this care requires a social setting: families, communities, institutions.   The urge to negate social and symbolic structures also has a place in those same structures.   Although care for radical vulnerability may be based in our neurology, different social arrangements and institutions make possible different types and degrees of caring; and though the apocalyptic-autistic sensibility may be a neurological constant, again, different forms of social organization can channel urges toward social-symbolic negation in different directions and with different results-toward art, disciplined spiritual emptying, or other single-minded peaceful pursuits; or toward genocide, war, or greed-inspired destruction of the natural world.   In this sense, Haddon's precise depiction of Christopher's social world may not be merely a realist red-herring that is subordinated to implacable neurological foundations.   Caring for the most vulnerable, fostering their gifts and their agency, and learning from them is more possible in some societies than in others, and to identify obstacles to caring is a beginning of social critique.



1. The other as wholly other-the sacred, the sublime, the abject, the Lacanian real, the Levinasian other, in some discussions the traumatic-must be, by definition, off the spectrum, inconceivable and unrepresentable.   In some cases, representations of disability, especially linguistic disability, merge with these notions of the wholly other.   Melville's Billy Budd, Faulkner's Benjy, DeLillo's Wilder, and many of the subjects of Sacks's case studies all, in different ways, function as surrogates or catachreses for some alterity outside of symbolic categories.   See my "Falling Towers and Postmodern Wild Children: Oliver Sacks, Don DeLillo, and Turns Against Language" for a discussion of the relation between representations of linguistic impairment and notions of alterity.

2. One can ask the analogous philosophical question, is there genuine alterity in Hegelian dialectic or Bakhtinian heteroglossia?   That is, if the putative "other" can be incorporated into a larger conceptual, historical, or linguistic form, is it still other or is it simply part of a now more complex whole?   Or, conversely, is the putative whole-historical process, novelistic form-not whole at all?   Is it, rather, an unstable construct, convenient for its formal economy but in reality torn open by genuine alterities and always incompatible with itself?   See Prince for a brilliant discussion of these questions with regard to eighteenth century philosophical dialogues.   See also Derrida's critique of Levinas in "Violence and Metaphysics" and Zizek's ongoing commentaries on Hegel.

3. See Baron-Cohen, Baron-Cohen, eds., and Frith for discussions of theory of mind in relation to autism.   Although Grandin agrees with the thesis that people on the autistic spectrum  lack, in some degree, an ability to grasp other people's perspectives, other people with autism and Asperger's object to this position.   See "A Discussion About Theory of Mind: From an Autistic Perspective" for a selection of comments.

4. The philosopher Donald Davidson argues provocatively that metaphors do not have some hidden, alternative meaning that is either substituted for a surface meaning or links two previously unrelated meanings, or that radically disrupts an established meaning.   Davidson argues instead that a metaphor simply means what it says-that there is no such thing as metaphorical meaning; there is only literal meaning.   Therefore, for Davidson, as for Christopher, metaphors are lies.   "Most metaphorical sentences," writes Davidson, "are patently false, just as all similes are trivially true...For a metaphor says only what it shows on its face-usually a patent falsehood or an absurd truth.   And this plain truth or falsehood needs no paraphrase-its meaning is given in the literal meaning of the words" (258, 59; Davidson's emphasis).   Insofar as metaphors can be distinguished from lies, Davidson argues, their difference "is not a difference in the words used or what they mean..., but in how the words are used" (259).   Whether one uses words in order to lie or to make a metaphor depends on an understanding of a linguistic-that is, a social-situation: and here, of course, in the realm of social understanding, is where Christopher's competence most falters.   For Davidson, the act of thinking about the untruth or absurdity of the metaphor's literal meaning can lead to productive new ways of thinking; but these new ways of thinking are not produced by a special kind of metaphorical meaning.   The metaphor means what it says.

5. This linguistic incapacity along the autistic spectrum varies.   Prince-Hughes, in her memoir, stresses that social difficulties can coexist with verbal fluency, an observation supported by the research of Tager-Flusberg, who reported that the social and communicative impairments of autism may "not have any identifiable influence on the course of grammatical development" (175).

6. Haddon's interests in language are different from those, for example, of DeLillo's in White Noise . Christopher is not Wilder; he is not a real or imagined wild child, or figure of radical alterity.   Because, unlike Wilder, Christopher is portrayed with a clinical precision that lets us see him explicitly as occupying a place on the autistic spectrum, an interpretation of Christopher's relation to language should look less toward philosophy and theology, and more toward evolutionary neurology.   See Berger, "Falling Towers."   For discussions of the longing for a perfect language, see Eco, Steiner, and Ree.

7. I am not, of course, doing justice in any way to the technical aspects of Damasio's and Edelman's writing.   Their arguments rely in part on discussions of brain physiology and mechanisms of physical evolution.   I lack both the space and the expertise to comment on these technical discussions here.

8. There is a history of fictional detectives with odd, defining, and socially isolating features.   Detectives on television series are particularly prone to the single, defining oddity: Cannon the fat detective, Ironside the paraplegic detective, Columbo the (seemingly) stupid detective, Monk the obsessive-compulsive detective.   Similarly, racial and gender deviations from the white male norm function in detective narratives much like physical or neurological impairments.   It is striking, however, how in many of these scenarios, the impairment or deviation actually has little to do with the plot.   Monk's obsessive-compulsive disorder, for example, is the primary source of the program's humor and contributes in small ways to Monk's ability to solve the mysteries he encounters, but ultimately, his disability is an arbitrary addition to a genre that seems to demand some marginalizing symptom for the protagonist.   His disability, and the peculiar features of the other detectives mentioned above, are gimmicks.   Christopher's Asperger's, on the other hand, is essential to how his detective narrative unfolds; it determines how he experiences the world and how he thinks.  

9. The decline of working class social institutions and practices is portrayed compellingly in post-Thatcher films like The Full Monty and Brassed Off .   See also sociologist Robert Putnam's analysis of the decline of comparable American social practices in Bowling Alone .

10. In The Sound and the Fury , Benjy's incomprehensible moaning is described as "hopeless and prolonged.   It was nothing.   Just sound.   It might have been all time and injustice and sorrow become vocal for an instant..." (288).   In White Noise , after Wilder has cried continuously for seven hours, his father imagines he has "just returned from a period of wandering in some remote and holy place" (79), uttering "a sound so large and pure...saying nameless ancient dirge all the more impressive for its resolute monotony" (78).

11. The Book of Revelation contrasts the purity and incommensurability of the New Jerusalem with the economic and sexual exchanges that characterize Babylon.   Zizek glosses the "second death" referred to in Revelation 20:6, 14 as the extinguishing of the symbolic order that completes the destruction of the physical world ( Sublime Object , 132-34; Looking Awry , 22-23).   See also Kermode and Berger ( After the End ) for interpretations of apocalyptic desire as a wish to end ambiguity.

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