Tuesday, March 31, 2009

`The Subworld'

I shared the morning with an autistic third grader who remembered me from our previous meeting six weeks ago. His mood had improved and he was no longer argumentative or seriously withdrawn. For the first time he displayed a resilient sense of humor – always a symptom of mental health. We read The Stinky Cheese Man in the school library and he laughed at all the stories, particularly the parody of “The Princess and the Pea.” In Jon Scieszka’s version, the pea is replaced by a bowling ball. My student suggested other substitutions – pizza, a flamethrower, “a really, really fat guy.”

Back in the classroom, the teacher read aloud “Rumpelstiltskin,” always my favorite among the fairy tales collected by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm. Fairy tales are stories of anarchy contained by ritual and repetition – a very appealing strategy. The power of Rumpelstiltskin’s name, and the young queen’s cunning in discovering it, possess the narrative satisfactions of a Homeric tale. The kid loved it, especially the recurrence of words and events in threes –always a charmed number in fairy tales. He noted a trio of them or, as he put it: “Three threes. That makes nine. This story is a nine.” A potent mix for a bright autistic boy and the rest of us: repetition, symmetry, magical powers, good prevailing over evil, a happy ending. Here’s the ending in Ralph Manheim’s translation (not the one read in class):

“`The Devil told you that! The Devil told you that!’ the little man screamed, and in his rage he stamped his right foot so hard that it went into the ground up to his waist. Then in his fury he took his left foot in both hands and tore himself in two.”

I reviewed Guy Davenport’s The Balthus Notebook, his idiosyncratic study of the Polish/French painter Balthasar Kłossowski de Rola, when it was published in 1990 (Davenport approved of my review), and have just reread it with children in mind. The book helped me reevaluate an artist I, like many, had thoroughly misunderstood. In the nineteen-thirties, Balthus illustrated an edition of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, a book Davenport rightly describes as “a dismal and hysterical novel.” He goes on:

“What caught Balthus’s imagination in it was the manner in which children create a subsidiary world, an emotional island which they have the talent to robinsoner, to fill all the contours of. This subworld has its own time, its own weather, its own customs and morals.”

As the father of three sons I knew this intuitively, but Davenport distilled the idea. My autistic third grader found an “emotional island,” a “subworld” created by others – the Volk, the Brothers Grimm – congruent with his own, and colonized it. I’ve never seen him so happy.

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