Sunday, July 19, 2009

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time-raoul eshelman

I’d like to talk here about a touching, highly readable novel that is also a fine example of how performatism (my word for post-postmodernism) works in literature. The book I have in mind is Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (London: Vintage, 2004). The novel, which has become a popular classic among both adults and adolescent readers, is typical of performatist literature because it shows how we can experience “impossible” transcendence in everyday terms.

The narrator of Curious Incident is a sixteen-year-old boy with Asperger Syndrome named Christopher Boone. Asperger Syndrome is usually considered either a mild type of autism or something very similar to it. People with the syndrome have a limited ability to feel empathy and often engage in stereotyped or rigid patterns of behavior which make it difficult for them to interact with others socially. Although Asperger patients are typically of normal or above-normal intelligence, their knowledge often cannot be applied practically. The 16-year old Christopher, for example, excels at college-level math and has a vast knowledge of technical and scientific facts. At the same time, though, he is almost unable to do simple things like buy a train ticket or find his way to a nearby railroad station. This is because, as he himself says, he “notices everything” in a rather literal way, and his mind is unable to sort out the flood of new information around him. As with many Asperger patients Christopher also has difficulties dealing with non-literal language and has trouble understanding common slang terms, paradox, poetic metaphors, irony and humor. He also likes to organize his life according to rigid habits and rituals that allow him to shut out disturbing outside influences. When confronted with such disruptive influences he reacts by screaming or moaning and occasionally also by attacking the person he believes is threatening him.

The author, Mark Haddon, worked with Asperger patients, and there is no doubt that the description of his hero has a firm footing in clinical reality. What makes the story interesting is however not simply the way it translates medical facts into an entertaining prose tale. Rather, it is the transformation of this material into a particular scene of the human which enables us as readers to experience transcendence through artificial, aesthetic means. Of particular piquancy in this case is that the teenage narrator in Curious Incident himself explicitly rejects the human, aesthetic and transcendent implications of his own story. Christopher, for example, describes his own mind as a machine, he emphasizes the superiority of logical and statistical reasoning over common sense, he thinks all metaphor is a lie, he is unable to feel collective experience or empathize, he dislikes what he calls “proper novels,” and he explicitly denies the existence of God. The peculiar positive irony of his radically individual, radically rational, and radically anti-aesthetic position is that collectivist, transcendent and aesthetic qualities are restored and redeemed in the course of his own story in spite of the narrator’s own intent. The curious result of the book is that a character who denies the existence of aesthetically mediated transcendence himself accomplishes that transcendence and practically forces us to identify ourselves with it as we read his story.

The plot of the story may be summarized briefly as follows. Christopher Boone, the teenage narrator, who is living with his father after his mother’s death, finds the neighbor’s dog Wellington stabbed to death with a pitchfork and decides to find the solution to the crime in the manner of Sherlock Holmes. Because he has great difficulties interacting with others socially, Christopher’s detective work creates embarrassing situations for his father, who had been having an affair with the dog-owning neighbor, Mrs. Shears. After the father confiscates Christopher’s diary in which he has been collecting evidence on the murder, Christopher discovers letters from his mother revealing that she had in fact never died but was living in London with Mr. Shears. As it turns out, it was the father who hid the letters after his wife left and killed the dog after his relationship with Mrs. Shears went sour. Having lost all trust in his father, Christopher decides to travel to London to live with his mother. This short journey by train is made very difficult because of his inability to interact with others as well as because of his overwhelming fear of strange situations and people. Through ingenuity, willpower and some luck Christopher eventually makes it to his mother’s place in London. There, his surprise appearance creates difficulties which lead his mother to break up with Mr. Shears. Christopher and his mother then return to his hometown of Swindon, where Christopher gradually begins to reconcile with his father. The book ends not with any emotional resolution or particular twist of plot, but with Christopher taking and excelling in his college-entrance math exams. Rather than closing with a conventional epilogue, the book ends by presenting the formal solution of one of Christopher’s favorite math problems.

Christopher Boone is an excellent example of what I call an opaque performatist hero. These types of hero (and heroine) are locked into a state of being that gives them a whole, closed identity but at the same time makes it difficult for them to communicate with others. The “performance” in performatism consists in overcoming precisely this separation from others, of bridging the gap between one’s own, closed self and others.

Christopher’s way of thinking is, first of all, assumes that there is a direct relationship between signs and things: he wants words to refer to things exactly. In addition, Christopher is a proponent of Occam’s razor, which suggests that we reduce all arguments to nothing more than their most necessary parts. The problem is that Christopher not only blocks off what he considers to be “unnecessary” metaphorical meaning, but also all forms of paradox that are unavoidable in normal language use. Thus Christopher can separate the different levels of reference contained in the humorous sentence “his face was drawn but the curtains were real,” but he cannot enjoy their paradoxical effect in the form of a pun or joke. This inability to think paradoxically also applies to discourse itself: “it is like three people trying to talk to you at the same time about different things.” (CI, p. 10) Christopher’s peculiar type of rationality is able to function only by shutting out the discourse of other people.

Another unusual thing about Christopher is that he can’t tell lies. The reason for this however has less to do with a natural love of truth than with an inability to come to terms with what philosophers call contingency, or reflection on what might otherwise have been possible in a particular case: “A lie is when you say something happened which didn’t happen. But there is only ever one thing which happened at a particular time and a particular place. And there are an infinite number of things which didn’t happen at that time and that place. And if I think about something which didn’t happen I start thinking about all the other things which didn’t happen.” (24) Christopher is, however, able to tell “white lies,” which involve telling the truth only partially. These allow him to undercut his father’s ban on doing detective work and escape capture by the police on his way to his mother’s house.

Christopher’s purely rational and analytical type of reasoning also rules out any belief in transcendence. This can be seen in his explicit rejection of his own name. At one point he notes that in Greek Christopher means “carrying Christ” and that the name was given to St. Christopher for carrying Christ across a river. He then adds: “My mother used to say that it meant Christopher was a nice name because it was a story about being kind and helpful, but I do not want my name to mean a story about being kind and helpful. I want my name to mean me.” (CI, p. 20) In rejecting the higher meaning of his name, Christopher denies the originary scene associated with it, which involved both a transcendent being and a social act of helping someone else.

Another peculiarity of Christopher’s thinking is that he is unable to identify and imitate other people’s gestures. Although he is able to distinguish positive and negative smileys, he is unable to identify and react to more nuanced pictograms and, by extension, to more complex human faces and emotions. This leads to a radical separation from others, since a person unable to “read” other people’s gestures and emotions will hardly be able to respond to them in a satisfying way. Christopher, indeed, is afraid of other people and often does not look at them when he talks to them.

Elsewhere I have defined performatism as being based on a “lock” between an inner and outer frame. Performatist characters are more often than not trapped in inner frames, which give them a whole, but closed-off identity. Although this gives them a sure sense of identity it also makes it difficult for them to form productive relationships with other people. In this case, the inner frame may be thought of as the Asberger Syndrome itself. The syndrome produces countless situations in which the hero maintains his identity but shuts out “unnecessary” things like paradox, chance, metaphor, irony and the like. Asperger Syndrome, in effect, is an unchanging trap producing dysfunctional scenes which the narrator has no way of overcoming on his own.

The outer frame, for its part, may be thought of as the work itself, which in this case throws the narrator’s dysfunctionality back onto him with full force. Christopher’s at first purely “logical” search for the cause of the dog’s death causes him to become radically separated from his father and forces him to engage in a (successful) quest for his mother. In this regard the inner frame and the outer frame work together to produce a positive unity or whole. This unity is however experienced differently by Christopher and by us as readers: he grasps it literally and we metaphorically. Whereas Christopher sees himself as achieving something quite practical and concrete, we see him as becoming Christ-like, as fulfilling the originary promise contained in his name—although in an unexpected, unusual way.

Just how this works can be seen in a crucial scene where Christopher is taking his A level math exams. During the test the proctor, a Rev. Peters, reads a book by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone 1995, orig. 1937), a fact which is mentioned twice in the chapter. In the original German, Bonhoeffer’s book is called Nachfolge, or literally “following after.” In form and meaning this is very close to the German word for imitation (Nachahmung), emphasizing that discipleship may be seen as a kind of mimesis or imitation of Christ. One of Bonhoeffer’s main theses is that the call of Christ results in a radical separation from others: “Christ wants to make man lonely, man should not see anything except Him who called him.” (Discipleship, p. 94, my translation) And: “Christ freed men from their immediacy with the world, and brought them into immediacy with himself.” (Discipleship, pp. 94-95) The major difference here is that Christ himself inserts himself as mediator “not only between God and man, but also between man and man, between man and reality.” (Discipleship, p. 95) Obviously, this mediating relationship is lacking in the case of Christopher. This is not just because of his rationally motivated atheism, but because Asberger Syndrome prevents him from accepting any mediation whatsoever.

Viewed against this background, Christopher is someone who is able to imitate only himself. However, by imitating or “following” his own peculiar type of separated logic he manages to change his life for the better by forcing his parents to deal with him truthfully. Put another way, he forces them to deal with him on his own terms, which demand a one-to-one relationship between signs and things. In this regard Christopher can truly be said to “carry himself,” since he manages to transcend a situation in which he is trapped without resorting to a mediator or entering into discourse with others. Indeed, like Christ, he comes to act a mediator for others, in this case his parents.

Moreover, within the limited confines of his own consciousness Christopher comes to feel that he is all powerful. Here are his last words in the main section of the book: “And I know I can do this [become a scientist] because I went to London on my own, and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington? and I found my mother and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.” (CI, p. 268) Christopher, though not developing psychologically in any way, has become deified; he becomes a kind of social god, in the sense that he can now “do anything.” Christopher, however, needs us, the readers, to realize this deification in full. We, in turn, need Christopher’s whole, self-contained and self-confirming person to provide a unified, stable center which we can “follow after” and in doing so experience transcendence vicariously. Christopher, in short, acts as a dysfunctional Christ figure and we as his disciples.

One of the nicer ironies of the book is that it doesn’t end with us on top, but rather tries to turn the narrator-reader relationship upside down once more in favor of the hyper-rational Christopher. The books ends, as already mentioned, with an advanced math problem whose solution appears to me (and certainly to many other readers) as an act of utter impossibility. Once more, we are challenged to forego our own common sense—with the emphasis on “common”—and place our trust in Christopher’s peculiar type of unmediated, isolated and, indeed, potentially divine rationality.


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