The Brain Train Runs Away With Temple Grandin

Much of autism’s mystery and fascination lies in a paradox: On one hand, autism seems to create a profound disconnect between inner and outer lives; on the other, it generates what the neuroscientist Oliver Sacks calls an essential and “most intricate interaction” between the disorder and one’s other traits.

In the autistic person, it seems, hums a vital and distinctive essence — but one whose nature is obscured by thick layers of behavior and perception. Or, as Temple Grandin puts it, “two panes of glass.”

For a quarter century, Dr. Grandin — the brainy, straight-speaking, cowboy-shirt-wearing animal scientist and slaughterhouse designer who at 62 is perhaps the world’s most famous autistic person — has been helping people break through the barriers separating autistic from nonautistic experience.

These, I note at my review of Grandin’s new book, “The Autistic Brain,” are her strengths:

When they burst upon the scene in her 1995 book “Thinking in Pictures,” they amazed people, as they continue to do in many of her YouTube and TED talks (not to mention the 2010 biopic “Temple Grandin,” in which she was played by Claire Danes). Alas, in “The Autistic Brain,” her fourth book, she largely abandons these strengths, setting out instead to examine autism via its roots in the brain. It does not lead to rich ground.

Read the entire review: ‘The Autistic Brain’ Review — Temple Grandin Traces Roots of a Disorder – NYTimes.com.

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Though McCarthy is a famously slow writer, the traditional author’s worries of plot and pacing and voice appear to only take up a modicum of McCarthy’s time. While I’m sure stylistic concerns gnaw at him, there are also whole pages of Blood Meridian that were, incredibly, written on first try (including the astonishing “legion of horribles” passage). Instead, McCarthy seems to spend most of his time hunched over in the post-production editing bay, mulling over the access he’s willing to grant the reader and splicing out any descriptive bits that might risk tainting us with a character’s psychology. In drafts, he writes sentences that make the contemporary reader sit up straight in his chair in revelation—“the kid could have shot the judge … His fatal weakness” or “The kid gives his own moral stand”—only to omit them in the next draft. It’s as if McCarthy writes these expository moments only for his own reference, knowing that later he’ll erase them and leave the reader to navigate by as dusty and torn a map as possible.

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: Early drafts and history. – Slate Magazine

There Are Still Idjits Banning Books Out There

Slaughterhouse-Five continues to be controversial. In August of 2011, the novel was banned at the Republic High School in Missouri. The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library countered by offering 150 free copies of the novel to Republic High School students on a first come, first served basis.

I came across that in Wikipedia yesterday as I was preparing to read a passage from Slaughterhouse Five at the ACLU’s Banned Books Event here in Montpelier. It amazes me that people still do this. The Republic High School’s ban on this book directly contradicts a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case in which the court wisely ruled that, No, you can’t ban a book from your high school library just because it uses a few naughty words, portrays some of war’s horrors, and shows U.S. soldiers behaving badly. 

The reading last night was lovely. We read in the Episcopalian Church here, and while we waited for the place to fill, novelist Kathryn Davis, one of the readers and a member of the church, told us about some of the stained glass windows there. Then it was time to start.

The readings were all splendid, but three in particular just ran me over.

War historian and 7th-generation Vermonter Howard Coffin can read Lincoln so well that he can actually amplify and refine the ring of Lincoln’s words. Last night he read, from Huckleberry Finn, the scene in which Huck, having finally done the right thing and written the letter that will return Jim to his owner, changes his mind and, deciding he will go to hell after all, dammit, tears up the letter.

Poet and playwright David Budbill, who often reads with jazz players, brought a devastating rolling rhythm to the scene in The Grapes of Wrath in which the ragged man tells the Joads and other California-bound strivers that they aren’t going to find what they hope to find in that golden land, for they would find ten men vying for each job, and the owners paid too little to eat on, and he had watched his wife and children starve to death. Then he walked off down the road in the dark, his footsteps sounding for quite some time.

Then the eerily talented novelist Kathryn Davis read the trial scene from Maya Angelou’s Where the Caged Bird Sings. She inhabited utterly the voice of a narrator describing how, as an eight-year-old girl, she faced cross-examination at her rapist’s trial. Though only a child and one particularly innocent, she is, in classic rape-trial fashion, made a suspect on the stand. And when this eight-year-old girl is asked whether the man who raped her — “‘or rather, the man you say raped you’” — had ever touched her before, she realizes, with the brutal wisdom she has earned far too soon, that to this one question she must lie if this man is to be held accountable. Lying horrifies her. Yet she lies.

The jury convicts. The judge sentences: A year and a day. The next morning the rapist is released regardless, and that very evening, found dead. “Probably kicked to death,” the sheriff’s deputy says as he relates this to the girl’s mother that night. The little girl, plays Monopoly on the living room floor with her beloved brother as she overhears this news, feels seeping into her cells the conviction that her own sin of lying makes her complicit in both her rape and its revenge.

Finally Katherine Patterson, a children’s book author who has watched repeatedly over the years as school boards banned her wonderful books for children, read from her marvelous Bridge to Terabithia and then from a short essay she’d written about being banned so many times. She said, in this essay, that she was always careful not to put in a book anything that might disturb unless it was truly necessary to the story, for she could not stand the thought of some school librarian risking her job over something not essential. Yet some things you must include, for “if you write in a way meant never to disturb anyone, you will never move anyone either.” After the earlier readings — moral confrontations with slavery, rape, misogyny, selfishness, and the horrors of war — her final assertion rang true: These books get banned not because they promote sin, but because they expose it. 

Beware and respect the brave children’s book author, for there is no one anywhere braver. 

Here’s the passage from Slaughterhouse Five.

Nothing more was said about Dresden that night, and Billy closed his eyes, traveled in time to a May afternoon, two days after the end of the Second World War in Europe. Billy and five other American prisoners were riding in a coffin-shaped green wagon, which they had found abandoned, complete with two horses, in a suburb of Dresden. Now they were being drawn by the clop-clop-clopping horses down narrow lanes which had been cleared through the moonlike ruins. They were going back to the slaughterhouse for souvenirs of the war. Billy was reminded of the sounds of milkmen’s horses early in the morning in Ilium, when he was a boy.

Billy sat in the back of the jiggling coffin. His head was tilted back and his nostrils were flaring. He was happy. He was warm. There was food in the wagon, and wine—and a camera, and a stamp collection, and a stuffed owl, and a mantel clock that ran on changes of barometric pressure. The Americans had gone into empty houses in the suburb where they had been imprisoned, and they had taken these and many other things.

The owners, hearing that the Russians were coming, killing and robbing and raping and burning, had fled.

But the Russians hadn’t come yet, even two days after the war. It was peaceful in the ruins. Billy saw only one other person on the way to the slaughterhouse. It was an old man pushing a baby buggy. In the buggy were pots and cups and an umbrella frame, and other things he had found.

•••

Billy stayed in the wagon when it reached the slaughterhouse, sunning himself. The others went looking for souvenirs. Later on in life, the Tralfamadorians would advise Billy to concentrate on the happy moments of his life, and to ignore the unhappy ones—to stare only at pretty things as eternity failed to go by. If this sort of selectivity had been possible for Billy, he might have chosen as his happiest moment his sundrenched snooze in the back of the wagon.

•••

Billy Pilgrim was armed as he snoozed. It was the first time he had been armed since basic training. His companions had insisted that he arm himself, since God only knew what sorts of killers might be in burrows on the face of the moon—wild dogs, packs of rats fattened on corpses, escaped maniacs and murderers, soldiers who would never quit killing until they themselves were killed.

Billy had a tremendous cavalry pistol in his belt. It was a relic of World War One. It had a ring in its butt. It was loaded with bullets the size of robins’ eggs. Billy had found it in the bedside table in a house. That was one of the things about the end of the war: Absolutely anybody who wanted a weapon could have one. They were lying all around. Billy had a saber, too. It was a Luftwaffe ceremonial saber. Its hilt was stamped with a screamingeagle. The eagle was carrying a swastika and looking down. Billy found it stuck into a telephone pole. He had pulled it out of the pole as the wagon went by.

•••

Now his snoozing became shallower as he heard a man and a woman speaking German in pitying tones. The speakers were commiserating with somebody lyrically. Before Billy opened his eyes, it seemed to him that the tones might have been those used by the friends of Jesus when they took His ruined body down from His cross. So it goes.

Billy opened his eyes. A middle-aged man and wife were crooning to the horses. They were noticing what the Americans had not noticed—that the horses’ mouths were bleeding, gashed by the bits, that the horses’ hooves were broken, so that every step meant agony, that the horses were insane with thirst. The Americans had treated their form of transportation as though it were no more sensitive than a six-cylinder Chevrolet.

•••

These two horse pitiers moved back along the wagon to where they could gaze in patronizing reproach at Billy—at Billy Pilgrim, who was so long and weak, so ridiculous in his azure toga and silver shoes. They weren’t afraid of him. They weren’t afraid of anything. They were doctors, both obstetricians. They had been delivering babies until the hospitals were all burned down. Now they were picnicking near where their apartment used to be.

The woman was softly beautiful, translucent from having eaten potatoes for so long. The man wore a business suit, necktie and all. Potatoes had made him gaunt. He was as tall as Billy, wore steel-rimmed trifocals. This couple, so involved with babies, had never reproduced themselves, though they could have. This was an interesting comment on the whole idea of reproduction.

They had nine languages between them. They tried Polish on Billy Pilgrim first, since he was dressed so clownishly, since the wretched Poles were the involuntary clowns of the Second World War.

Billy asked them in English what it was they wanted, and they at once scolded him in English for the condition of the horses. They made Billy get out of the wagon and come look at the horses. When Billy saw the condition of his means of transportation, he burst into tears. He hadn’t cried about anything else in the war.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut Series) (pp. 248-252). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

Photo: Dresden after the bombing, overlooked by the allegory of goodness. Courtesy Wikipedia and Deutsche Fotothek

Graham Greene’s Wartime Bookshop

From Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear. This is a side-scene: a shop to which our strange, haunted, rumpled and unshaven main character, Rowe, who’s getting pulled deep into some wartime intrigue he doesn’t even come close to understanding at this point, has repaired so he can watch the door to the office of a Mr. Rennit. In other words, Greene doesn’t need to do what he does here; he needs merely a viable spot, any ordinary shop. Instead we get this. 

Nearly opposite Mr Rennit’s was an auction-room which specialised in books. It was possible from before the shelves nearest the door to keep an eye on the entrance to Mr Rennit’s block. The weekly auction was to take place next day, and visitors flowed in with catalogues; an unshaven chin and a wrinkled suit were not out of place here. A man with a ragged moustache and an out-at-elbows jacket, the pockets bulging with sandwiches, looked carefully through a folio volume of landscape gardening: a Bishop – or he might have been a Dean – was examining a set of the Waverley novels: a big white beard brushed the libidinous pages of an illustrated Brantôme. Nobody here was standardized; in tea-shops and theatres people are cut to the pattern of their environment, but in this auction-room the goods were too various to appeal to any one type. Here was pornography – eighteenth-century French with beautiful little steel engravings celebrating the copulations of elegant over-clothed people on Pompadour couches, here were all the Victorian novelists, the memoirs of obscure pig-stickers, the eccentric philosophies and theologies of the seventeenth century – Newton on the geographical position of Hell, and Jeremiah Whiteley on the Path of Perfection.

It’s been a while. I’d forgotten how good he is.