Autistic Atwood

A famous scene from The Handmaid’s Tale: the handmaids are summoned to a “particicution” – a participatory execution – purportedly of a man who has raped two women, causing one to miscarry. Incited to a frenzy by the recital of his crimes, the women rush forward en masse and dismember him with their bare hands. It is presently revealed that the crime was a fiction: the condemned man was in fact a member of the Mayday resistance, a convenient victim for a Bacchanalian ceremony of outrage. A repressive society must have its outlets: the men get their brothel, the women their collective blood-feast. We understand that the women express through this frenzy their grief and fury at what has been done to them, but also that this is an ancient jouissance and derangement – one of the standing potentialities of human (and archetypically female, if you’re into that sort of thing) nature.

It is not out of a spirit of evenhandedness that Margaret Atwood dwells on female violence and cruelty in Gilead, although she is ever mindful that, in the words of the old Maoist dictum, “women hold up half the sky”. There is no more efficient functionary in a society premised on female subjugation than an Aunt Lydia. But even outside of her celebrated dystopias, Atwood has always kept a sharp eye on the internal contradictions of “women’s culture”, the entanglement of solidarity and care with competition and internecine undermining. Her commitment to a type of realism, carefully observing all the moving parts of a situation, has sometimes placed her at odds with feminisms that have sought to uphold a monocausal view of social agency in which men act and women suffer (or, at best, resist). Even in Gilead, a quilt of reactionary novelty stitching together every outrage against women ever devised by patriarchy, there is no clean separation of “sides” along gendered lines.

Writing this, I wondered whether Atwood was (you know, “a bit”) autistic: it’s one of the peculiarities of our tribe that we lack team spirit and tend to favour detached observation of social dynamics over moral partisanship. One reads that she has attracted epithets such as “frosty”, “scary”, “witch-like”, and “remote”. So, I googled. It turns out she caught a lot of flack for her depiction, in Oryx and Crake, of an autistic character as an emotionally obliterated zealot of logic committed to replacing human beings with something less irrational. I don’t know: let’s try out the conjecture that Atwood is a true autist and of Crake’s party without knowing it. This is the author who invented a device for remotely signing books a dozen at a time. Only a sperg would have thought of something like that. Or, possibly, a famous neurotypical writer with tendonitis.

Update: I have to issue a correction here - the LongPen was meant for signing books one at a time, and combined the robotic signature-reproducing mechanism with a voice-and-video link: its purpose was to enable a kind of intimacy at a distance – the contact readers seek with authors at book-signings – rather than mechanise such contact and reduce it to the physical act of signing. So, I have to sacrifice the quip on the altar of accuracy…

My reaction to Oryx and Crake on first reading it, well over a decade ago, was similar to that of the autistic blogger Lindsey of Autist’s Corner, who at first “liked [Crake] and identified with him” because he “demonstrated my rationality and intellectualism, my boyfriend’s misanthropy and our shared tendency to ask a lot of ‘why’ questions about human misery and try to come up with inventive, radical solutions”. Lindsey’s subsequent critical reading of the book picks up on the aspie supremacism that saturates Crake’s worldview, and the way Atwood makes him “a personification of everything she is trying to criticize about biotechnology, agribusiness and consumer culture”. Atwood depicts Crake as a pedagogically overstimulated and undernourished tech-head – as Lindsey brilliantly observes:

He’s one of what C.S. Lewis called the “men without chests” in his The Abolition of Man – people whose intellects have been educated far beyond their moral development. There is a long literary tradition of bemoaning this type of pedagogical asymmetry.

I think the relatability (from a certain standpoint) of Crake, and the critique of the uses to which his “neurons” end up being put, are complementary, not antagonistic. Simply put, it isn’t the fault of Crake’s autism that he is spiritually mutilated – as Lindsey points out, there is a pedagogy behind the production of figures of this kind. Perhaps we are supposed to think that a neurotypical character would have found the absence of any moral dimension to their intellectual training more salient. But Crake is autistically relatable precisely because he isn’t amoral, but rather excessively morally consistent: he takes the problem of pain (personified by Oryx, who occupies the position of Synechdochic Victim) seriously enough to devise and implement a solution to it. Misanthropy is not an amoral position; it is if anything more moral than easy-going tolerance of humanity’s flaws. And the society Atwood shows Crake growing up in does not, by any reasonable evaluation, deserve to survive.

One way to read Oryx and Crake is as an argument that such a society will produce its own gravediggers, in the form of the very tech elite it creates to service its demand for innovation. Ultimately, Crake performs the same narrative function as the “superhuman AI” that inevitably decides to rationalise humanity out of existence. I wrote a story as a child about a giant Space Eye observing every terrible thing that happened on the surface of the Earth, and shedding a single enormous tear that “extinguished the flame of the sun”. Maudlin, but the same basic idea: synopsis, then judgement. I think this is an autistic trope. Moral judgement for neurotypicals typically entails a decision in favour of the righteous (team us) against the unrighteous (team them), and is always situated in relation to some particular nexus of power struggles. They’re always telling us there’s no such thing as a “view from nowhere”, but there is, and it’s ours. Or, less facetiously, it’s quite an autistic thing to do to try to imagine what a view from nowhere might see, and to identify imaginatively with that perspective.

The puzzle this leaves me with, is how Atwood’s championing of the liberal arts fits into all this. It’s increasingly commonplace to hear our own society’s “tech elite” castigated for their neglect of literature and philosophy, all the things that might supply a supposedly absent ethical grounding to their endeavours. I won’t go over all the reasons why this is bullshit here, except to say that even a superficial reading of the history of English Literature as a discipline will show that its internal intellectual trajectory has involved a series of increasingly pointed dismantlings of the notion that there exists a repository of timeless human values handily encoded into doorstop-sized Victorian novels, and that literature departments in universities are the natural guardians and transmitters of this treasured inheritance. I don’t imagine that Atwood sees her own publications as ersatz scripture, vehicles for moral instruction. If I had to hazard a guess, it would be that what she values is the “complexity” of the literary encounter, the way it inveigles the reader into moral deliberation rather than delivering a “black and white” judgement on the world. Artistic flexibility versus autistic fixity. Perhaps she would not agree with me that the society she depicts in Oryx and Crake gets what (to coin a phrase) it fucking deserves.

But this is a problem with dystopia: as a genre, it performs precisely the sort of moral getting-all-your-ducks-in-a-row that a liberal arts sensibility is supposed to inoculate one against. Yes, you can write an “ambiguous dystopia”, just as Ursula le Guin intended The Dispossessed as “an ambiguous utopia” (with the crux of the ambiguity borne by an autistic-coded protagonist; I’ll say more about that another time), but I’m not sure where the ambiguity in Oryx and Crake might reside. I started out by reading The Handmaid’s Tale as a novel not about totalitarian female political victimhood (and virtuous last-ditch resistance), but about women’s contradictory humanity even in the most morally straitened circumstances: not even this degree of victimisation can take away the possibility of being viciously cruel, petty, driven by primal bloodlust (however nefariously incited and directed) and so on. Of course it also carries a torch for resistance, solidarity, and moral hope; but nothing in the novel guarantees the eventual triumph of these values. In Oryx and Crake, I think the conventional accusation that the agent of society’s doom lacks a sense of the tragic (which might enable him to abide with, and work to alleviate, the pain of society’s victims, rather than seeking to eradicate it at its root) is weakened by the depiction of a world that has no reserves of tragic consciousness on which he or anybody else within it could draw. It is in this respect a much more straightforwardly despairing novel.

My autistic Atwood, or Atwood read autistically, tries to offload this despair onto an alien sensibility, that of the STEM-centric aspie supremacists whose transhumanist plot against human reality has disastrously succeeded, but I choose to read this as projection, as the abjection of a part of her own sensibility – call it “writerly detachment”, if the clinical label seems too grasping. Her Crake is a world-unmakingly powerful figure who looks at a humanity which routinely tortures the weak (animals and children) for tasty snacks and cheap entertainment, and says “no”: the complexity of the literary encounter cannot redeem this. This seems a proper expression of doubt for an adherent of the humanist faith to make, and an autistic fragment of oneself (or fragment of one’s autistic self) an expedient vehicle for voicing it.

The problem, as Lindsey and others have noted, with Crake as stereotyped autistic STEM-lord whose overly “systemising” brain has no room in it for literary ambiguity, is that the stereotype squeezes out any possibility of an actually autistic reckoning with the complexity of the world. Because Atwood could not recognise her own pattern-recognition and pattern-making, her own relationship to symbolisation and irony, in the stereotype of the nerrrrd, she could not picture her way of seeing as adjacent to, or overlapping with, an autistic way of seeing. Conversely, she could not allow Crake any of her own insight, self-awareness or playfulness (strangely, considering he was at least in part modelled on the irrepressibly puckish Glenn Gould). Nevertheless, he has an aura: in his serene admiration for the machinery of the world, his blackpilled dismissiveness towards morally convenient bullshit, there is something about him of the author let off the leash.