Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Kvothe High on Asperger Syndrome

For my birthday present, I bought myself Patrick Rothfuss' Wise Man's Fear on Kindle. Considering how often Rothfuss has been compared to Tolkien, it would have been appropriate for me to take this "precious birthday present" and make it ours. To ensure that no one steals it we could run off to a secret cave underneath a mountain with plenty of fish. There we could read the precious all by ourselves and not share it with nasty thieving hobbit readers. As I am not Gollum I did wish to share one particular piece which, for reasons that should soon be obvious, I found humorous but also personally very meaningful.

At one point early in the novel, the hero Kvothe is tricked by his archenemy at the university, Ambrose Jakis (like Draco Malfoy but a bigger bastard), into ingesting a substance that completely takes away his ability to read social conventions. This is done right before Kvothe is supposed to be examined by the administration in order to determine his fees for the next term. This leads to the following interaction between Kvothe and his friends Simmon and Fela as Simmon tries to keep Kvothe in line with a series of number rankings as how socially not acceptable something is.

There was a knock on the door. "It's me," Sim's voice came through the wood. "Is everything all right in there?"

"You know what's strange?" I said to him through the door. "I tried to think of something funny I could do while you were gone, but I couldn't." I looked around at the room. "I think that means humor is rooted in social transgression. I can't transgress because I can't figure out what would be socially unacceptable. Everything seems the same to me."

"You might have a point," he said, then asked, "did you do something anyway?"

"No," I said. "I decided to be good. Did you find Fela?"

"I did. She's here. But before we come in, you have to promise not to do anything without asking me first. Fair?"

I laughed. "Fair enough. Just don't make me do stupid things in front of her."

I promise," Sim said. "Why don't you sit down? Just to be safe."

"I'm already sitting," I said.

Sim opened the door. I could see Fela peering over his shoulder.

"Hello Fela," I said. "I need to trade slots with you."

"First," Sim said. "You should put your shirt back on. That's about a two."

"Oh," I said. "Sorry. I was hot."

"You could have opened the window."

"I thought it would be safer if I limited my interactions with external objects," I said.

Sim raised an eyebrow. "That's actually a really good idea. It just steered you a little wrong in this case."

"Wow." I heard Fela's voice from the hallway. "Is he serious?"

"Absolutly serious," Sim said. "Honestly? I don't think it's safe for you to come in."

I tugged my shirt on. "Dressed," I said. "I'll even sit on my hands if it will make you feel better." I did just that, tucking them under my legs. Sim let Fela inside, then closed the door behind her.

"Fela, you are just gorgeous," I said. "I would give you all the money in my purse if I could just look at you naked for two minutes. I'd give everything I own. Except my lute."

It's hard to say which of them blushed a deeper red. I think it was Sim.

"I wasn't supposed to say that, was I?" I said.

No," Sim said. "That's about a five."

"But that doesn't make any sense," I said. "Women are naked in paintings. People buy paintings, don't they? Women pose for them."

Sim nodded. "That's true. But still. Just sit for a moment and don't say or do anything? Okay?

I nodded.

"I can't quite believe this," Fela said, the blush fading from her cheeks. "I can't help but think the two of you are playing some sort of elaborate joke on me."

"I wish we were," Simmon said. "This stuff is terribly dangerous."

"How can he remember naked paintings and not remember you're supposed to keep your shirt on in public? she asked Sim, her eyes never leaving me.

"It just didn't seem very important," I said. "I took my shirt off when I was whipped. That was public. It seems a strange thing to get in trouble for."

"Do you know what would happen if you tried to knife Ambrose? Simmon asked.

I thought for a second. It was like trying to remember what you'd eaten for breakfast a month ago. "There'd be a trial, I suppose," I said slowly, "and people would buy me drinks."

Fela muffled a laugh behind her hand.

"How about this? Simmon asked me. "Which is worse, stealing a pie or killing Ambrose?"

I gave it a moment's hard thought. "A meat pie, or a fruit pie?" (Kindle 1557-89.)

This has to be one of the best descriptions of Asperger logic I have ever read. Of course, if you are an Asperger you do not need to ingest anything and the effects are lifelong. By the time any Asperger has become an adult he will have developed a two-sided attitude toward social conventions. One the one hand Aspergers do not read social cues and therefore regularly step right over all sorts of conventions, giving the appearance of not caring about them and of even being downright rude. On the other hand, by the time one reaches adulthood, even an Asperger has come to realize that there are very real consequences to not operating according to social conventions. Because of this they will obsequiously bend over backward, constantly apologizing to others and asking to make sure they are acting in a socially acceptable manner. In my own personal experience, I have had a number of rather hilarious conversations with other Aspergers in which we both found ourselves apologizing and asking the other whether what we were saying was socially appropriate or not, neither of us knowing and, for that matter, neither of us caring.

This obsequiousness, in of itself, leads to a counter reaction. Much as with divine commands, eventually one gets tired of living under the burden of neurotypical social conventions that seem to make absolutely no sense, but which carry extreme consequences for their violation. This leads one to try break free, deny their value and systematically break them. This, in turn, leads to guilt, a renewed awareness of the consequences for violating social conventions and a return to bending over backward to try keeping them. Thus with Asperger adults, you will find that they both care and do not care about social conventions. This duality exists from minute to minute and even at the same time.

(Stay tuned for a full review of the novel.)


Miss S. said...

Thanks for sharing the interesting excerpt and your even more interesting exploration afterward.

Pink Carnation Maryann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pink Carnation Maryann said...


After calming down, Izgad, you have a great point that it is "one of the best descriptions of Aspie logic". It is one of the most poignant, to me, as a fellow Aspie.

Thinking again, if it is acted well, it will be hysterically funny, because humor, according to John Vorhaus, is "truth and pain". Keep in mind: I laugh at almost anything.

It sounds as if you have been talking to lots of fellow Aspies recently, and I miss the fun conversations, that you describe, very much. Hopefully, I'll talk to more in the future.