Professor Julia Miele Rodas discusses autism, narrative invention in ‘Robinson Crusoe’ at Wheeler Hall

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At an event organized by the Bay Area Disability Studies Consortium on Oct. 4 at Wheeler Hall, Julia Miele Rodas, a professor in the English department at the Bronx Community College of the City University of New York, spoke on the topic of “Autism and Narrative Invention in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.” Her talk focused on the character of Robinson Crusoe, who is the subject of one of the chapters in her recent book, “Autistic Disturbances: Theorizing Autism Poetics from the DSM to Robinson Crusoe.”

Almost immediately, an audience member drew parallels between “Robinson Crusoe” and the movie “Cast Away,” starring Tom Hanks. Rodas elaborated that the movie had indeed pulled major narrative moments from “Robinson Crusoe.” Chuck Noland, the character Hanks plays, gets shipwrecked during the course of a business venture. He has an interesting relationship with the materials from the wreck, from the way he collects and organizes them to the way he paints a face on a volleyball and talks to it. Noland’s big relationship is with an object represented as a human figure, almost parallel to the character of Friday in “Robinson Crusoe.” Rodas explained that a major difference is that Noland is transformed by this experience into becoming more social, while Crusoe doubles down on individualism. 

One of Rodas’ goals had been to write about autism as it appeared in “a text, in words, in language … as a thing, as an abstract, not in body, not in person.” She firmly believes that teasing out the potentialities of what was already being said about autism means you could talk back and double down against all negative stereotypes about autism. By pulling from both clinical literature and literary criticism, she hoped to dissipate pejoratives about autism in particular. 

She pointed to the fascination in clinical and cultural imagination regarding the subject of autism. Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s book, “The Empty Fortress,” refers to autistics as having a kind of superstructure shell with no interiority. Rodas highlighted that Crusoe’s isolation and feeling of imprisonment are persistent themes in popular representation of autism.

Then Rodas directed the audience’s attention to the autism stereotypy of thing-orientation or paying attention to irrelevant details to the point of missing the big picture. She noted that Crusoe too has this object fixation with his storeroom of things, a behavior that has been unfairly termed as “materialism.” Rodas narrated some bizarre methods that were used to arrive at this conclusion, with psychologist Leo Kanner’s lab poking a pin into an autistic Barbara K., and finding that the child was focused more on the pin than the person holding the pin. Rodas argued that Kanner could well have confused pathology with self-preservation. 

An additional theme of the autism stereotype, according to Rodas, is the idea of building barriers as an extension of the isolation. In the novel, the first thing Crusoe does when he is on the island is to build a series of barriers and fortresses. A member of the audience pointed out that all human civilizations have built walls for protection or territory acquisition and it was not an autism thing. Rodas acknowledged this but pointed out that Crusoe can’t stop building walls. “He even partitions time, an extension of his wall building,” she said.

From Rodas’ perspective, there is something positive about building walls or writing detailed journal lists, and that is a feeling of personal satisfaction. It should not be thought of as a disease but rather a delightful “personal aesthetic.” For Rodas, there was an intimate, cognitive and intellectual dynamic to Crusoe’s pattern. Once Crusoe’s pattern was established, it became limitless in its capacity for him.

She was quick to point out that just because Crusoe is doing what is referred to as “containment and order,” it does not indicate “human vacantness” and lack of literary value in the narration. It’s realism and a legitimate way of dealing with the world. This is a way of figuring out what a human is — it’s practical, she argued. “It is actually innovative storytelling drawing the reader into a new fictional reality,” she said.

Rodas underlined that “autistic people and autistic ways of operating in the world often get objectified, undermined and devalued.” It is, therefore, important to destigmatize ideas like thing-oriented approaches to the world. Ultimately, Rodas’ talk served to remind us to not engage in the fictional diagnosis of pathologies in literature but rather to think of them as narratives that explore the diversity of the human mind. 

Contact Hari Srinivasan at [email protected].