“I open [a book]: it speaks. I close it and it becomes a thing to be looked at. Thus more than anything else in the world, it resembles a man. At first approach, a man is his form and color; next his voice strikes us, and finally his voice is transformed into a mind that mingles with our own.”
In the library I watched a boy I know from our special-education program signing out a tall stack of comic books, more than he could comfortably carry. Adults I took to be his parents stood beside him, waiting to help. I don’t know if he can read, or how well, and I’m not certain of his diagnosis though I assume autism. In class he carries on a ceaseless commentary, a monologue composed of wishes, observations, anecdotes, songs and nonsense syllables. He’s sunny and good-natured but given to periodic fits of anger and stubbornness. I like him.
When he and his parents turned, the father carrying most of the comics, I greeted the boy by name and identified myself to the adults. He smiled, greeted me and repeated the name of our school several times as a question, with a little interrogatory lift at the end of words. At some level he recognized me but our unfamiliar context made my presence alien and difficult to place. His parents, sensitized by years of commonplace confusions and pleased I had acknowledged their son, understood my gesture and reinforced it. They wished to be polite, to support their son and avoid an embarrassing public scene.
I have no philosophy when it comes to such things, no codified rules of conduct. As in most of my life, I try to rely on intuition, common sense and courtesy. The kids I work with are mysteries without definitive solutions, like the rest of us. To reduce a person to his diagnosis (or sex, or race, or nationality, or whatever) makes life easier for us at the expense of his individual existence, which must be at least as complicated as our own.
The passage at the top of this post is from “The Physical Aspects of a Book,” an essay by Paul Valéry in Aesthetics (volume thirteen of the sixteen-volume Collected Works of Paul Valéry). I like the notion of people-as-books, and vice-versa, a metaphor that flowers for so long as we think about it. Our introduction to others begins with appearance, and is notoriously misleading. Then the voice, likewise, but Valéry reminds us that voice is the mind’s expression. With patience, trust and respect, another mind “mingles with our own.” (Edgar Bowers describes Valéry as “Humbling his pride by trying to write well.”)
In his second book, Awakenings (1973), Oliver Sacks suggests something similar in a footnote to his prologue. Sacks is a neurologist who worked, starting in the nineteen-sixties, with survivors of the encephalitis lethargica pandemic that occurred in the wake of World War I. They had been “asleep” for almost half a century and were “awakened” when treated with a new medication, L-DOPA. Their “sleeping-sickness” resembled Parkinson’s disease. Suggesting that physicians, researchers and caregivers ought to establish “a collaboration, a participation, a relation” with such patients, Sacks writes:
“Indeed we must go further, for if – as we have reason to suspect – our patients may be subject to experiences as strange as the motions they show, they may need much help, a delicate and patient and imaginative collaboration, in order to formulate the almost-unformulable, in order to communicate the almost incommunicable. We may be co-explorers in the uncanny realm of being-Parkinsonism, this land beyond the boundaries of common experience; but our quarry in this strange country will not be `specimens,’ data, or `facts,’ but images, similitudes, analogies, metaphors – whatever may assist to make the strange familiar, and to bring into the thinkable the previously unthinkable.”
We're all “co-explorers” in the uncanny human realm but some of us are a little handier with metaphors.