Adequately Ensouled

Michele Pridmore-Brown’s LRB review of Edith Sheffer’s Asperger’s Children opens with a useful discussion of Gemüt, a German word seemingly without exact English equivalent. Gemütlichket is commonly translated as “friendliness” or “geniality”, while Gemüt itself translates as “mind”, “heart” or “soul”; one gloss has “the totality of the mental and spiritual powers of a human being”. There is a distant correspondence between Müt and “mood”.

We might describe Gemüt as the characteristic of being “emotionally present” to oneself and others — or perhaps even of being emotionally present to oneself through others, “socially integrated” to the point where knowing one’s own mind is inextricable from knowing one’s social standing. For the social theorists of the Third Reich, Gemüt was the personal quality underpinning all civic virtue; as Pridmore-Brown glosses it:

[Nazi paediatrician] Ernst Illing claimed that he could make a call about a child at the age of three or four — he could spot what he called “Gemüt poverty”. Gemüt meant “soul” or “spirit”, but also gestured to a person’s capacity for tribal belonging: for feeling and emoting spirit, as in national or school spirit; and for social competence…Gemüt-poverty was a medico-spiritual diagnosis that could send children to their death at a place like Spiegelgrund…

“Gemüt-poverty” was labelled by Hans Asperger as “autistic psychopathy”, a disorder of personality that was simultaneously a disorder of social being, the two being linked — or, rather, pathologically unlinked, in the case of the disordered individual. Asperger’s innovation within this framing was to qualify this supposed dissociation as a form of genius, akin perhaps to the aura of uncommon sensitivity which, in the Romantic imagination, attached itself to the consumptive. A child might be preserved from extermination by drawing attention to his “fine and aristocratic features” and “rare maturity of taste in art”. Through proper clinical intervention, members of this natural aristocracy might be guided towards some useful function within the organic totality of the Reich.

Pridmore-Brown notes the tone of self-conscious benevolence with which this eugenicist classification of children and young people — “developing” humans, we might say — was formulated and applied. Fitness for incorporation in the spiritual community of the German people was directly equivalent to fitness for life, for full human thriving. Social mis-fittedness was likewise directly correlated with biological unfitness (“dysselection”, in Sylvia Wynter’s useful term). The struggle to mould an autistic individual into someone who could pass as an integrated member of society was the struggle for a soul, as much as for a chance at life. Such were the stakes of the “medico-spiritual diagnosis”.

The disordered personality is one of today’s more prominent folk demons. The “borderline” and the “narcissist” are alike pictured as figures of untameable, untreatable malignancy. Some efforts have been made to rehabilitate BPD in the popular imagination, chiefly by emphasising its common aetiology in childhood abuse and trauma; notwithstanding, no-one likes the narcissists (and there is increasingly a tendency to speak of “Borderline Personality Disorder with narcissistic traits/defences” when referring to people one is only prepared to sympathise with up to a point). Autism is not now classified as a personality disorder, but it is useful to remember that it has been associated with “psychopathy”, “schizophrenia” and “sociopathy” in the past, and remains in some quarters the subject of a folk demonology which does not particularly care to distinguish between the malignancy of the “narcissist” and that of the “heartless Aspergers” type (especially when it comes to former spouses).

Medico-spiritual diagnoses have an unstable, hybrid, chimærical nature. At times it is opportune to stress the medical, e.g. autism as a “neurotype”, a variation in brain-function with an apparent heritable component. At other times, the “spiritual” — that is, the holistically-connected nexus of moral and social values — comes to the fore, for example when autists are represented as bearers of a unique form of integrity, truthfulness, guilelessness and so on. Pridmore-Brown writes that:

Sheffer is clear: autism in its severe forms is about underlying biology; but what we now call Asperger’s Syndrome is a cultural artefact.If the terms “Autism” and “Aspergers” have gained momentum recently, that may be in part because of a rise in environmental triggers, but it’s also because our children’s minds are again under intense scrutiny — though for different reasons. In our era of networking and social media, of “ghosting” and attention-grabbing individuation, we’re anxious about their ability, metaphorically and literally, to get the requisite “likes”. We now value a capacity not so much for feeling “Gemüt”…but for strategically emoting or performing “soft skills”.

I would wish to challenge the proffered distinction between the “severe” — and correspondingly “biological” — and the culturally-artefactual (and presumably relatively “mild”). Autism comes for many people with a range of cognitive, sensory and motor-function impairments which are more readily medicalisable (if not particularly clearly understood in neurobiological terms) than the “softer” impairments in emotional processing and social fluency associated with Aspergers. Talk of a “spectrum” is meant to bridge the gap between these two realms of (dys)function; but as spectrum-talk often does, it projects into the domain under observation a “coherence in contradiction” which originates in a theoretical problematic. Both the distinctions in play, and the terms brought in to smooth them over, are artefacts of a theoretical synthesis — the “medico-spiritual” grading of human material according to an ethno-nationalist eugenic program — whose genealogy needs to be carefully unpicked.

Nevertheless, Pridmore-Brown’s account of the present “autistic moment” is astute. Much of the time, when I talk about the “neurotypical”, what I really mean is the weight of that common evaluation of the Gemüt against which my own recurrent un-Gemütlichkeit appears as a deficit or disorder of being. In my lowest moments I occasionally wonder whether I am quite adequately ensouled; but the demands of “adequacy” are themselves continually being revised, for a variety of reasons not all of which are reliably indexed to moral progress. It’s plausible that it has become more generally common for people, autistic and otherwise, to feel this way. What those who seek diagnoses in later life might be looking for may be, amongst other things, the social license to explore and articulate feelings of this kind.

It is natural and inevitable that a politics of the left should value not only collective agency, but the positive affects associated with shared belief and struggle. The film Pride gives a very moving depiction of political solidarity — between striking miners and gay and lesbian activists — both generating and being nourished in turn by a cascade of emotional and practical liberations: the affective dimension of the struggle is absolutely essential.

While I don’t think Pride is by any means an “unsentimental” film, it makes a valiant attempt, within the constraints of the genre, at showing the work behind the building of solidarity. The affect produced alongside this work doesn’t simply spring up out of the inherent goodness of people’s hearts; it requires risky engagement, psychological openness, “working through” old and ongoing hurts, and a lot of physically showing up.

The evil twin of this understanding of solidarity is a variety of sentimentalism which attaches only positive meanings to “community”, and expects comradeship and fellow-feeling to carry the day in every situation unless nefariously undermined by “toxic” individuals. This produces a dynamic in which failures of comradeship and fellow-feeling to resolve differences of opinion and conflicts of interests immediately give rise to a search for toxic parties to blame, and the habit of managing guilt and insecurity through projection and scapegoating.

I don’t wish to suggest that “toxicity” is purely a hallucination on the part of scapegoat-seeking sentimentalists, or that there are no identifiable patterns of attitude and behaviour behind the appearance of “the narcissist” as a folk devil. I and others close to me have been hurt severely enough by such attitudes and behaviours to be permanently on guard against them; and that includes a certain amount of anxious hypervigilance over “red flags” which might indicate a malign hidden agenda. The world becomes a smaller and scarier place to be in, when you know that there are people in it who are disposed to treat you in that sort of way.

Rather, it’s from this regrettably common experience that the folk demonology draws its potency, and the notion that “toxicity” is always to blame when things go wrong derives its plausibility. It’s a fact that some people are self-seeking flakes, and a small minority are actively malevolent wreckers, but that isn’t in itself sufficient to explain the group dynamics of scapegoating, or the selection (among all possible diagnostic profiles) of the narcissist as Public Enemy Number One. The structure of the fantasy is not a function of the structure of its ostensible referent.

What I’d like to suggest, however, is that an uncritical valuation of Gemütlichkeit as the de rigeur emotional format of anyone considered fit to go on living under communism is both a moral and a practical liability, and it’s a grave mistake to presume that deviations from that format are solely due to the emotionally-warping effects of patriarchal, neo-liberal, settler-colonial etc. social relations. Here I’m not trying to adjudicate the immortal “people are basically good!” / “people are basically evil!” debate; my point is rather that people are not all (or not all the time) the same kind of basic. If your impulse towards solidarity is founded on the expectation that those towards whom it is shown will turn out to be simpatico, or in one sense or another “adequately ensouled”, it will founder on the discovery that they’re frequently not.