In his book The genesis of artistic creativity, Michael Fitzgerald briefly reviews the lives of eight writers, four philosophers, five musicians and four painters using a checklist of indicators (from Gillberg 1991 and DSM IV) to establish that they all had Asperger’s syndrome.
Professor Fitzgerald is reliant on these criteria to provide the organising structure for every chapter (apart from the introduction and conclusion), so the book becomes an exercise in ‘ticking the boxes’. Although these criteria are useful tools for clinical diagnosis, by necessity they do not give a sense of the whole person. This results in a highly reductive and constricted picture of the subjects.
It appears that the author’s main purpose is to prove that all the subjects under scrutiny in this book had Asperger’s syndrome. He does not therefore attempt to explore the impact on their lives of other contributory factors, such as maternal neglect (W.B.Yeats), childhood bereavement (Spinoza and others) or prevailing cultural norms and values. This is a shame, as an exploration of the interplay of psychological, environmental and genetic / neurological factors would be of great interest, even if no definitive conclusion were possible. For example, in discussing W.B.Yeats, Fitzgerald refers to Harry McGee (1999) quoting Maddox on Yeats, ‘The secret of Yeats is that his mother did not love him.’ Fitzgerald responds, ‘I disagree with this view. I believe that the secret of Yeats was the impact of autism on his life and work’ (p68). Surely one does not exclude the other? Is Fitzgerald implying that the presence of autism nullifies the effects of maternal neglect or makes it irrelevant?
Professor Fitzgerald later states, in reference to Yeats’s social isolation, ‘…he did overcome this problem to a certain extent, becoming somewhat gregarious in later life’(p69) and ‘Yeats did change, grow and develop, as persons with Asperger’s syndrome certainly can do’(p77). This would suggest that some of the effects of Asperger’s could be subject to environmental influences. If this is the case why does he discount the effects on Yeats of his early familial environment? If there are other explanations for the lessening of Asperger’s symptoms, these are not provided.
To view these celebrated figures in terms of them having Asperger’s does, however, provide a fresh perspective on their lives and behaviour. For some (for instance, Andy Warhol and Glenn Gould) it is easily believable that they had the condition. The likely presence of Asperger’s syndrome in Andy Warhol’s case does make his apparently callous behaviour more explicable. For others, such as Jack B. Yeats, Fitzgerald’s argument for his having Asperger’s is far less convincing. This is due to the author’s tendency to fit anecdotal behaviour into his theory, when other explanations would seem just as likely, if not more so.
The author tends to undermine his arguments by seeing symptoms everywhere. He considers the use of swans in the work of both Hans Christian Andersen and W.B.Yeats as an indicator of Asperger’s. He makes no acknowledgement of historical or cultural influences such as the Children of Lir. Such myths and legends would have had an influence on the writing of both men, whether or not they had Asperger’s syndrome.
In his conclusion Professor Fitzgerald describes his book as ‘a celebration of persons with artistic genius and Aspergers syndrome’. But the book doesn’t read like a celebration. He reduces George Orwell, arguably the greatest political essayist of the twentieth century, to a man who had ‘a sadistic streak, a talent for writing about animals and an ability to add new phrases to the English language’ (p96). This patronising tone crops up throughout the book. In referring to Glenn Gould’s interest in psychoanalysis and psychiatry, Fitzgerald writes of Gould ‘possibly unconsciously wanting to try to understand himself better’. (p201). Why ‘unconsciously’? It would seem perfectly reasonable for someone of Gould’s intelligence and demeanour to consciously want to understand himself better through such study.
In addition, the author makes numerous unsupported and derogatory generalisations about artists and creativity. In a reference to Beethoven he writes, ‘emotional immaturity tends to go with creativity’ (p164). This statement is made (and others like it), but its implications are not explained or explored. Bearing in mind the deep emotional profundity and universality of Beethoven’s music, I do not feel this does him, or other artists, justice. One gets very little sense that the author likes or feels any warmth toward his subjects. In his chapter on Bruce Chatwin, Professor Fitzgerald writes ‘…perversion is often very closely linked to creativity’ (p104). This may have been true for Chatwin, but to make such a generalisation is over egging the pudding.
For all its faults, this book does make one aware of the likely prevalence of Aspergers and its particular characteristics, some of which can be highly advantageous and all of which require a better understanding. It is probable, as the author states, that indicators of Asperger’s are often misdiagnosed.
With the increase in discussion and research pm autistic spectrum disorders we can hope for a better awareness of these conditions in society, and especially in schools. It would be of benefit to all if the focus on children with Asperger’s shifted from their ‘oddness’, to a recognition, encouragement and development of their particular and unusual abilities.