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Sherlock Holmes Had Asperger Syndrome

sherlock_holmes_by_puppet_girl86-d4orteuThe Aspie girl said that I am very much like Sherlock Holmes. My mind works pretty much the same way his does. I read the series too long ago to have noticed, but Sherlock Holmes is an Aspie. Tyler Cowen thinks that Sherlock Holmes is the most developed autistic character in the Western literary tradition. I will tell you why, by reading more into the first chapter in “A Study In Scarlet”.

In the beginning, when Dr. Watson meets a friend who asks whether he would like to share a room with man named Sherlock Holmes, this conversation ensues:

“You don’t know Sherlock Holmes yet,” he said; “perhaps you would not care for him as a constant companion.”

“Why, what is there against him?”

“Oh, I didn’t say there was anything against him. He is a little queer in his ideas–an enthusiast in some branches of science. As far as I know he is a decent fellow enough.”

You mustn’t blame me if you don’t get on with him,” he said; “I know nothing more of him than I have learned from meeting him occasionally in the laboratory. You proposed this arrangement, so you must not hold me responsible.”

“If we don’t get on it will be easy to part company,” I answered. “It seems to me, Stamford,” I added, looking hard at my companion, “that you have some reason for washing your hands of the matter. Is this fellow’s temper so formidable, or what is it? Don’t be mealymouthed about it.”

“It is not easy to express the inexpressible,” he answered with a laugh.

There is something about Aspies that makes everyone around them uncomfortable, though they often have not verbalized it yet. In Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”, this is true of Howard Roark, who I suspect, is an Aspie:

“People turned to look at Howard Roark as he passed. Some remained staring after him with sudden resentment. They could give no reason for it: it was an instinct his presence awakened in most people. Howard Roark saw no one. For him, the streets were empty. He could have walked there naked without concern.”

This is what Howard Roark’s landlady thinks about Howard Roark:

“She stood looking after him through the screen door, watching his gaunt figure move across the rigid neatness of her parlor. He always made her uncomfortable in the house, with a vague feeling of apprehension, as if she were waiting to see him swing out suddenly and smash her coffee tables, her Chinese vases, her framed photographs. He had never shown any inclination to do so. She kept expecting it, without knowing why.”

Later in the novel, we read a conversation between Howard Roark and the dean of his architectural school from which he was expelled:

“The Dean moved in his chair. Roark made him uncomfortable. Roark’s eyes were fixed on him politely. The Dean thought, there’s nothing wrong with the way he’s looking at me, in fact it’s quite correct, most properly attentive; only, it’s as if I were not here.”

See this similar passage in Katrin Bentley’s “Alone Together”, a memoir of her relationship with her Aspie husband:

“When Gavin asked me to dance I expected him to know the waltz. Instead he kept stepping on my toes. I was confused and disappointed. He was convinced that I was wrong so I tried to change my step, but it didn’t help. Everyone was waltzing, but we danced foxtrot. He didn’t seem bothered by that, but I was. I felt lost. His steps were well thought through, safe and logical. There was nothing wrong with the way he danced; it just didn’t match up with my steps. I wanted to laugh and twirl and be creative. I was longing to be carried away by the music without having to think intensely before I took a step. His style made me feel restricted and locked in, while mine made him feel dizzy and stressed.”

In the conversation with the dean, there is a clue to why people feel that way about Howard Roark:

“Why?” asked Howard Roark.

No, thought the Dean, no, he hasn’t said anything else; it’s a perfectly innocent word; he’s not threatening me.

Why would this happen? Much of human communication is indirect. But, people are not fully aware that this is going on—that they are reading others and being read by them almost all the time. If people notice this and verbalize what is going on, the harder they will find to become good at the deceptive game of life. This works well with almost everyone, but Aspies are anomalies. People do notice that there is something wrong with them. But, they have not verbalized it yet because verbalizing these thoughts would make them less adept at the game of deception.

A similar conversation with Howard Roark and his colleague and friend Mike:

Weeks later, Mike stopped Roark, one day, at the building, his ugly face puzzled, and asked:

“Say, Red, I heard the super tell a guy from the contractor’s that you’re stuck-up and stubborn and the lousiest bastard he’s ever been up against. What did you do to him?”

“Nothing.”

“What the hell did he mean?”

“I don’t know,” said Roark. “Do you?”

Mike looked at him, shrugged and grinned.

“No,” said Mike.

Dr. Watson then asks his friend what Sherlock Holmes does:

“A medical student, I suppose?” said I.

“No–I have no idea what he intends to go in for. I believe he is well up in anatomy, and he is a first-class chemist; but, as far as I know, he has never taken out any systematic medical classes. His studies are very desultory and eccentric, but he has amassed a lot of out-of-the-way knowledge which would astonish his professors.”

Aspies have obsessive interests and have deep knowledge in the fields they are interested in.

As Simon Baron Cohen observes in “The Essential Difference”:

“Typically they pursued their own intellectual interests to high levels, learning books of facts, or studying the movement of the sun and shadows around their bedroom, or attempting to breed tropical fish, becoming very knowledgeable on these subjects. But many also failed to hand in the required schoolwork, so that they were failing in some academic subjects. Having no drive to please the teacher, they simply followed their own interests rather than the whole curriculum.”

Tyler Cowen thinks that this is the essence of autism:

“One strong feature of autism is the tendency of autistics to impose additional structure on information by the acts of arranging, organizing, classifying, collecting, memorizing, categorizing, and listing. Autistics are information lovers to an extreme degree and they are the people who engage with information most passionately. When it comes to their areas of interest, autistics are the true infovores, as I will call them. Autistics are sometimes portrayed as soulless zombies, but in fact they are the ones with the strongest interest in human codes of meaning. “Joy,” “passion,” and “autism” are probably not three words you are used to finding together but they are often a close fit.”

The conversation between Dr. Watson continues:

“Did you never ask him what he was going in for?” I asked.

“No; he is not a man that it is easy to draw out, though he can be communicative enough when the fancy seizes him.”

Tyler Cowen observes:

“Holmes could talk exceedingly well when he chose, and that night he did choose. He appeared to be in a state of nervous exaltation. I have never known him so brilliant. He spoke on a quick succession of subjects—on miracle plays, on medieval pottery, on Stradivarius violins, on the Buddhism of Ceylon, and on the warships of the future—handling each as though he had made a special study of it.”

This is true of the great economist Adam Smith too, an Aspie. 

From John Rae’s “The Life Of Adam Smith”:

“With a most retentive memory, his conversation was solid beyond that of any man. I have often told him after half an hour’s conversation, ‘Sir, you have said enough to make a book.” His conversation, moreover, was particularly wide in its range. Though Smith seldom started a topic of conversation, there were few topics raised on which he was not found contributing something worth hearing, and Boswell, no very partial witness, admits that his talk evinced “a mind crowded with all manner of subjects. I shall be accused of going too far when I say that he was scarcely ever known to start a new topic himself, or to appear unprepared upon those topics that were introduced by others. Indeed, his conversation was never more amusing than when he gave a loose rein to his genius upon the very few branches of knowledge of which he only possessed the outlines.”

Observe that in The Fountainhead, Howard Roark never speaks and when he speaks these are long lectures on selfishness and how egoism is the fountainhead of human progress, like the brilliant courtroom speech at the end of the novel.

Watson’s friend continues:

“Holmes is a little too scientific for my tastes–it approaches to coldbloodedness.

I could imagine his giving a friend a little pinch of the latest vegetable alkaloid, not out of malevolence, you understand, but simply out of a spirit of inquiry in order to have an accurate idea of the effects. To do him justice, I think that he would take it himself with the same readiness. He appears to have a passion for definite and exact knowledge.”

What people often do not realize is that there is no malice in what Aspies do, and they often impose on themselves what they impose on others:

See this conversation in The Founteainhead in which Howard Roark tells Peter Keating before blowing up a construction project he built:

“I loaded you with more than you could carry. It’s like an electric current too strong for the circuit. It blows the fuse. Now we’ll both pay for it. It will be hard on you, but it will be harder on me.”

Once when Howard Roark wanted to rebuild a building, he paid for it himself:

Then, as the house took shape, it was Roark who found that he wanted to make a change. The eastern wing had never quite satisfied him. Watching it rise, he saw the mistake he had made and the way to correct it; he knew it would bring the house into a more logical whole. He was making his first steps in building and they were his first experiments. He could admit it openly. But Mr. Sanborn refused to allow the change; it was his turn. Roark pleaded with him; once the picture of that new wing had become clear in Roark’s mind he could not bear to look at the house as it stood. “It’s not that I disagree with you,” Mr. Sanborn said coldly, “in fact, I do think you’re right. But we cannot afford it. Sorry.”

“It will cost you less than the senseless changes Mrs. Sanborn has forced me to make.”

“Don’t bring that up again.”

“Mr. Sanborn,” Roark asked slowly, “will you sign a paper that you authorize this change provided it costs you nothing?”

“Certainly. If you can conjure up a miracle to work that.”

He signed. The eastern wing was rebuilt. Roark paid for it himself. It cost him more than the fee he received. Mr. Sanborn hesitated: he wanted to repay it. Mrs. Sanborn stopped him. “It’s just a low trick,” she said, “just a form of high-pressure. He’s blackmailing you on your better feelings. He expects you to pay. Wait and see. He’ll ask for it. Don’t let him get away with that.” Roark did not ask for it. Mr. Sanborn never paid him.

Before deciding to share his room with Dr. Watson, Sherlock Holmes states his terms and conditions:

Sherlock Holmes seemed delighted at the idea of sharing his rooms with me. “I have my eye on a suite in Baker Street,” he said, “which would suit us down to the ground. You don’t mind the smell of strong tobacco, I hope?”

“I always smoke ‘ship’s’ myself,” I answered.

“That’s good enough. I generally have chemicals about, and occasionally do experiments. Would that annoy you?”

“By no means.”

“Let me see–what are my other shortcomings? I get in the dumps at times, and don’t open my mouth for days on end. You must not think I am sulky when I do that. Just let me alone, and I’ll soon be right. What have you to confess now? It’s just as well for two fellows to know the worst of one another before they begin to live together.”

I laughed at this cross-examination. “I keep a bull pup,” I said, “and I object to rows because my nerves are shaken, and I get up at all sorts of ungodly hours, and I am extremely lazy. I have another set of vices when I’m well, but those are the principal ones at present.”

“Do you include violin playing in your category of rows?” he asked, anxiously.“It depends on the player,” I answered. “A well-played violin is a treat for the gods–a badly played one– –”

“Oh, that’s all right,” he cried, with a merry laugh. “I think we may consider the thing as settled–that is, if the rooms are agreeable to you.”

I find it obvious that it makes a hell of a lot of sense to state the terms and conditions before you enter any relationship. An Aspie like Sherlock Holmes is more likely to know it than anyone. As I explained in an unpublished essay of mine:

In her work on male-female communication, Deborah Tannen observes that only the western capitalistic democracies find direct communication a value, though even the west does not practice what it preaches. But, if the prosperous west values direct communication more than the rest of the world, perhaps other societies should emulate them. Tannen thinks that there is nothing wrong with indirect communication if everyone knows what you means. True enough, but everyone does not know what you mean. Indirect communication smothers almost every aspect of our lives. Though not always conspicuous, this is not hard to see.

Consider this. Signing a pre-nuptial contract is very rare, even though half the marriages miserably, in the United States. People want a relationship to have the veneer of idealism, though this is often a matter of appearance than substance. But, if you are not romantic at heart, you are already enduring the truth. There is nothing unromantic about writing a prenup, in any case. But, requesting a prenuptial agreement involves convincing the partner the value of having one.

Men and women are hesitant to request a prenup because such a direct request might send all the wrong signals. This is a substantive mistake because half of them might regret this, retrospectively.

Every day life is full of similar situations. Men and women rarely adduce the proof that they do not have sexually transmitted diseases before having a physical relationship. It is possible to argue that male-female relationships thrive on implicit, non-verbal mutual understanding, and that drawing up an agreement might destroy romance.

I do not wish to disagree, but nearly two million people die every year because of AIDS. Or, consider this. During a recession, firms are squeezed out of funds and will either have to fire people, or to cut the salaries. But, wages rarely fall in a recession because employers prefer mass layoffs over imposing salary cuts. To cut wages, employers will have to directly communicate the rationale to the employees, and win their trust and co-operation. As things stand, this is almost impossible.

People are likely to resent such directness in communication. If the employers cut wages, employees might turn resentful. They might shirk. They might get even. This leads to mass unemployment during economic depressions. But, people do not even notice that there is misery in the world because people do not calmly listen.

Dr. Watson finally asks Sherlock Holmes how he finds out things:

“By the way,” I asked suddenly, stopping and turning upon Stamford, “how the deuce did he know that I had come from Afghanistan?”

My companion smiled an enigmatical smile. “That’s just his little peculiarity,” he said. “A good many people have wanted to know how he finds things out.”

“Oh! a mystery is it?” I cried, rubbing my hands. “This is very piquant. I am much obliged to you for bringing us together. ‘The proper study of mankind is man,’ you know.

You can see a similar line of reasoning in Ayn Rand’s Capitalism. Ayn Rand was an Aspie:

Mankind is not an entity, an organism, or a coral bush. The entity involved in production and trade is man. It is with the study of man—not of the loose aggregate known as a “community”—that any science of the humanities has to begin.

This issue represents one of the epistemological differences between the humanities and the physical sciences, one of the causes of the former’s well-earned inferiority complex in regard to the latter. A physical science would not permit itself (not yet, at least) to ignore or bypass the nature of its subject. Such an attempt would mean: a science of astronomy that gazed at the sky, but refused to study individual stars, planets, and satellites—or a science of medicine that studied disease, without any knowledge or criterion of health, and took, as its basic subject of study, a hospital as a whole, never focusing on individual patients.

A great deal may be learned about society by studying man; but this process cannot be reversed: nothing can be learned about man by studying society—by studying the inter-relationships of entities one has never identified or defined. Yet that is the methodology adopted by most political economists.

PS: I do not enjoy this sort of thing much, but this gives me much greater insight into how I read novels.

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