The Nonexistent Knight & The Cloven Viscount by Italo Calvino
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
As someone with autism, I can say that the character Gurduloo from the Non-Existent Knight is a perfect metaphor for what it's like to have autism. You first see Gurduloo pretending to be a duck as a group of soldiers walk past, but immediately afterward, Gurduloo pretends to be an acorn. Gurduloo has no self-concept: he is whatever he happens to see. If he's with ducks, he's a duck. If he's with acorns, he's an acorn. If he's drinking soup, "all is soup."
Autism is a lack of self-concept like this. We don't extricate ourselves from the world and the things in it, so we assume that everything in it is a part of us, and that we are a part of everything. See this in how autistic people get "lost in" obsessions and how they tend not to like change. For if you're identified with whatever you're doing, to switch tasks would, literally, be death. Moreover, like Gurduloo does, you can lose track of who's supposed to say what, or even who is who, is a conversation. Gurduloo says this to Charlemagne, for instance:
“I touch my nose with the earth. I fall to my feet at your knees. I declare myself an august servant of your most humble majesty. Order and I will obey myself!” He brandished a spoon tied to his belt “And when your majesty says, ‘I order command and desire,’ and do this with your scepter, as I do, with this, d’you see? And when you shout as I shout, ‘I orderrr commanddd and desirrrre!’ you subjects must all obey me or I’ll have you strung up, you first there with that beard and silly old face.”
People with autism are identified with whatever they're doing. This has a good side and a bad side. It's good because there is an ecstasy that comes from completely losing yourself in your surroundings, as the Knights of the Grail show in this book (and the late autistic author Donna Williams shows in her book "Autism and Sensing: The Unlost Instinct"), but it's bad because we therefore end up being "prisoner of the world's stuff." We are beneath everything. So sometimes we try to have a distinct identity, and often (though hopefully not always, it tends to be devoid of the life we otherwise completely lose ourselves in. So we are either like Gurduloo, who exists but doesn't think he does, or like the Non-Existent Knight, an empty suit of armor that fights in battles, who doesn't exsit but thinks he does. The first is the stereotypical low-functioning autistic person. The second is the Big-Bang-Theory Asperger type.
Existence is nice, but so is non-existence.
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