I had lunch with my friend M. the other day, who mentioned Hermann Asperger’s original essay on Autistic children. M. was trying to get a copy of this essay, translated by Uda Frith into English, and frustrated that he couldn’t find one – and not at all willing to fork over the 70 bucks needed to buy the book it is within.
I looked it up on Google books, which reveals considerable parts of it – especially the case study of Helmutt, the Ur-Asperger’s child. Asperger described Hellmut as being oddly unaffected by exterior stimulus, and, in contrast, driven by interior stimulae. Thus, he’d suddenly bash someone for no reason, or he would suddenly throw things around in the classroom. Moreover, his gaze was turned inward.
Asperger gave the six year old boy some tests – naturlich – to discover his level of intelligence. One of the tests was to ask about the similarities and differences of different things. I simply can’t express how much I loved Helmutt’s response to the ‘item’, wood and glass: ‘because the glass is more glassy and the wood is more woody”.
Shades of Shklovsky! And the famous formalist motto, to make the stone more stony!
Asperger’s has become a fashionable syndrome, as we all know. I don’t want to suggest that Mann’s Adrian Leverkuehn is an Asperger’s case - but I do want to suggest that there is a certain autistic strain in German lit, which comes out as a mastery of the “creepy.” In Adrian’s case, this one side of his character - his creepiness, his isolation – is what the narrator so wants to protect, and so exposes in his ‘biography.’ Adrian suffers from his one, his only sexual encounter with a woman – who, with a typically autistic single mindedness, was the one woman in the one brothel he went to – sent there as a practical joke by a taxi driver – who touches him on the shoulder. He smell her perfume. That is it – he flees the brother without ever having sex with any of the girls – but eventually, after a year, returns to find the girl who had touched his shoulder. She has left, gone to another town, and Adrian tracks her down. There she tells him that she has a venereal disease, but he has sex with her anyway. His first and last. His first and last syphilitic infection, too. Before the cure for syphilis, there were multitudinous ‘cures’, all false. And by grace of the mysteries of the immune system, one could either live with a low grade infection, or the disease could attack decades later – paralysis, madness, death. Baudelaire, who caught syphilis in his twenties, finally figured out that the doctors hadn’t cured him – figured out he was maudit in actual and gross physical fact – by his late thirties. He knew where he was headed.
To get back to the creepiness – in Adrian’s nearly unsullied virginity, he – or is it the disease? – becomes obsessed with the Little Mermaid. Der kleine Seejungfrau – provides a bizarrely appropriate motif of horror which contrasts, in the writing of the book, with the time of the writing – that is, the time of the destruction of German cities through the bombing campaign, and the destruction of Europe through the Nazis.
Adrian dreams not only of the little mermaid – who exchanges her bottom part, that fish tail – that androgyny – for human bottom parts, with which she could walk in the world outside of the ocean – but only at a price. Every step brings excrutiating pain, as though red hot needles are being driven into her bare feet.
Of course, as is well know, Mann was extremely bi-sexual. The narrator, Zeitblom expresses his homoerotic feelings for Adrian by wishing to ‘unfuck’ him – that negation of the fuck that, as any of us dimestore Freudians can tell you, is the equivalent of fucking in the unconscious. Adrian knows this too, on some level – hence his choice of Zeitblom to confess, in a letter, his accidental visit to the brothel. The mermaid’s loss of a tail and her possession of a human lower part is a movement from the realm of the unfucked, the embryotic, to the realm of the fucked, perchased with pain at every step. That pain is hobbling, and slows walk to a creep – the creep of the creepy.
Can a whole culture fall into a state of autism? Can its collective dreams converge on the image of the mermaid, losing her tail and walking, with infinite pain, into a barbed wire camp?
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