I wrote this post several years ago in attempt to understand why folks seem to have become lost in the world inside their own heads. It is a topic I had written a book about a few years ago and one that continues to intrigue me. With a few adjustments to the earlier version, here is my attempt to understand the condition known medically as “Asperger’s Syndrome.”
“The Big Bang Theory’s” Sheldon Cooper has it. BBC’s Sherlock Holmes and Doc Martin have it as well. It’s all the rage these days. It’s called “Asperger’s Syndrome” and it is defined as follows:
“a developmental disorder resembling autism that is characterized by impaired social interaction, by restricted and repetitive behaviors and activities, and by normal language and cognitive development —called also Asperger’s disorder.”
Actually, “language and cognitive development” is often exceptional. But these folks have to be taught how to interact with others, because they are not fully aware of the other’s presence — except insofar as the other person accommodates or interferes with the person’s own desires. They seem to be emotionally stunted, lacking a sense of humor and any instinctive reaction to other people’s feelings and the subtle nuances of human behavior.
I wrote a book about the phenomenon years ago before I had ever heard the word. I called it “inverted consciousness” and argued that it is a widespread cultural phenomenon resulting from a fixation on the part of the subject with his or her own experience, an inability to see beyond that experience. For this person “the” world is “my” world. Paintings and music are beautiful or ugly because the subject likes or dislikes them; behavior is right or wrong because it pleases the individual or fails to do so; all opinions are of equal merit — there is no such thing as truth or even expertise. I maintained that there are degrees of this disorder from the extremely inverted consciousness of what I now know is Aspergers down to the occasional or intermittent inversion. It is usually found in men, though I know of a woman or two who have it. My sense of it is that women are more empathetic and compassionate than men as a rule and those qualities do not live comfortably alongside a condition that blinds the person to the fact that there are others in their world — except in so far as the others serve their own purposes. That sounds sexist, but I still think there are important differences between men and women and in this case women are being complimented: Aspergers is very unattractive. However, I apologize in advance to any readers who find this differentiation offensive!
As I say, I do regard the condition as widespread in our culture and took my clue from Ortega y Gasset who noted the symptoms in Europe in the 1930s and wrote about them in describing Mass Man in his classic The Revolt of the Masses. Defining “barbarism” as simply “the failure to take others into account,” Ortega was convinced that Europe was then on the brink of a new barbarism, an age in which people would become more and more removed from one another and “hermetically sealed” within themselves. World War II soon followed, interestingly enough.
Describing this type of person, Ortega said at the time,
“The innate hermetism of his soul is an obstacle to the necessary condition for the discovery of his insufficiency, namely: a comparison of himself with other beings. To compare himself would mean to go outside of himself for a moment and transfer himself to his neighbor.”
But he is incapable of that.
I am not sure what causes this phenomenon, but it does appear to be more and more prevalent. It seems apparent that our current President suffers from the condition to a high degree as well. I suppose our increasingly crowded living conditions together with the almost constant bombardment of images and sounds around us tend to turn our attention inward. In addition, the countless number of electronic toys that seem designed to discourage human interaction must also be considered. I recall vividly the photograph of a group of teenagers sitting in front of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” texting — totally unaware of the extraordinary painting nearby. Note how all of these devices turn the individual’s attention away from what is around them (he said, sitting alone at his computer).
In any event, I thought what Ortega had to say was a powerful message when I first read it, and I find it even more so today. If we are, indeed, “from birth deficient in the faculty of giving attention to what is outside [ourselves], be it fact or persons,” this is something we need to ponder seriously, since it suggests we are becoming increasingly isolated from one another — like Sheldon. And Sherlock. And Doc Martin — who are all funny up to a point, but also pathetic.