These are my comments on my short story Edmund. Spoiler alert: if you intend to read the story, please read it first.
Edmund is an enigmatic story. But the bigger enigma is: How did I come to write it?
Like many people with Asperger Syndrome, I have difficulty with story. Generally it strikes me as totally pointless. I don’t read novels. I don’t read fiction of any kind. I don’t watch films or plays. I get nothing out of them, and actually I find them very difficult to follow.
I don’t usually write stories either. Writing stories requires imagination, and like most people with Asperger Syndrome I am deficient on imagination. I have no imaginary world. When very occasionally I do write a story, I am generally using story as a medium for exploring a line of reasoning, and not for its more usual social, moral, cultural or entertainment purposes.
So where on earth did Edmund come from?
Given my usual apathy to story, I find it remarkable that the story of Edmund has in fact been inside me for as long as I can remember. I don’t feel as if I made it up. It doesn’t feel to me like fiction at all. It runs deep in my psyche. I suspect that Edmund’s story developed in me at a very young age as I struggled alone with the questions of why I am here and why it doesn’t feel right. My sense of not belonging in this world is every bit as acute as Edmund’s. When eventually I wrote his story down at the age of 57, the only significant things I had to make up were the details of what went wrong in his first week at school, and his means of suicide.
So, is Edmund based on me? No, I wouldn’t put it that way at all. It is quite the other way round. I am based on Edmund. Edmund’s story is my creation myth. Edmund is the prototype. He is not the prototype for all people with Asperger Syndrome, but he is the prototype for a large subclass that includes myself. Edmund is the prototype and I am a pale imitation.
I hasten to add that I am a very pale imitation. My cognitive development as a young child may have been reasonably fast, but it was nothing like as fast as Edmund’s. The infant Edmund reaches all his cognitive milestones some months younger than I did. I learned a musical instrument from the age of six, not four. I guess I might have been seven or eight, not five and a half, before I could have written a letter as fluent as Edmund’s. Unlike Edmund I could never end my own life, and for that I have my Christian faith to thank.
Yet my mind is Edmund’s in all its essentials. The human mind at birth is not a blank slate. Certain knowledge is so fundamental to my mind that I am convinced it must have been part of my mind at birth (see the Wikipedia article on nativism). It is hard‐wired in my brain, and I presume it was hard‐wired in my DNA before that. I cannot conceive of what it is like to have a different sort of mind in which that knowledge is not fundamental.
So, what is this knowledge that I am talking about? It is knowledge of:
- the natural numbers, 0 1 2 3 4 5 and so on, equipped with the operations of addition and multiplication;
- the structure of Euclidean 3‑space (an idealisation of the ordinary physical space around us), with its isometries of translation, rotation and reflection;
- the chromatic musical scale, with its immensely rich harmonic structure of octaves, fifths and thirds, its embedded diatonic scales, and all the symmetries of transposition.
By way of complete contrast, my mind has not got native support for people. My mental module for conceiving of people is an add‐on, a learned extension. That is entirely characteristic of Asperger Syndrome.
The knowledge that I have spoken of as being hard‐wired in my brain – knowledge of numeric structure, spatial structure and musical scale structure – obviously had to await brain development and experience for its expression. But I am convinced that from conception it has been an essential part of me, without which I am not me. Equivalently, that knowledge in me is logically prior to my physical existence.
For, in truth, what kind of thing is the number 6? (Or any other number.) Is it a mere human construct, a piece of mental scaffolding that helps us to think about 6 cows and 6 stars? Or is it, as Plato maintained, a pure entity that logically precedes cows and stars: a perfect, timeless form that has a more fundamental reality than cows and stars and would exist even if there were no physical universe? When it comes to mathematics, I am a platonist. The natural numbers along with their structure and properties are necessary, in the sense that they could not have failed to be as they are. They are not spatiotemporal. They do not depend either on the physical realm or on intelligent agents. Surely 2 × 3 = 3 × 2 quite independently of the physical realm. The natural numbers reside in the Platonic realm, the World of Pure Forms, which is logically prior to the physical realm, and has to my mind a more fundamental reality than the physical realm.
More generally, the three things of which I have said I am convinced my mind has hard‐wired knowledge – the natural numbers with their structure, Euclidean space with its structure, and the musical scale with its structure – are all necessary, pure and timeless, and part of the Platonic realm. These are the prototypes for the things in the physical realm that imitate them: cows in fields, plastic puzzles, wooden violins. These are the “numbers, shapes and music” that Edmund has imported so vividly into his conscious mind from the Platonic realm where his soul belongs.
So where did the story of Edmund come from? I have no conscious memory of a former life in the Platonic realm. But the story came from somewhere, and I don’t feel as if I made it up.
Corroboration of Edmund
I am by no means the first person to recount what Edmund remembers, or to characterise autism spectrum conditions in terms of innate links to the Platonic realm. On several occasions since I wrote the story down I have come across passages from other sources that corroborate Edmund’s memories. I will give three examples.
Firstly, here is a passage from Mysteries of the Inner Self by Stuart Holroyd. It describes the near‐death experience of Private George Ritchie on 20 December 1943:
He went on to visit two other worlds—not, he said, so‐called spirit worlds, “for they were too real, too solid.” He realized they were also worlds that had been there all along, but could only be seen with “a new openness of wisdom.” The first of these was a world of philosophers and artists of all kinds, men concerned not “with earthly things, but … with truth,” and in it there were universities and great libraries and scientific laboratories.
In that passage do you recognise Edmund’s Happyland, where he was mentored by the philosopher and music teacher Pythagoras, where “all the stories are true”, unlike Earth where “the octave would be spoiled a little because the strings are too thick and not bendy enough”?
Secondly, here is a quote I took from the Internet some years ago, which I can no longer find. It is the testimony of a man with Asperger Syndrome. He wrote:
Autism, Asperger Syndrome and savant‑ism are the unmediated direct experience of a parallel world of pure forms called variously the multiverse, Plato’s ideal world and Jung’s collective unconscious.
Compare: “Hugh lowered his head and covered his eyes, which were wet with emotion. How was he to take Edmund’s words, if not at face value? And if at face value, was he to understand that this child had visited the World of Pure Forms … ?”
Thirdly, the neurologist Oliver Sacks, in his book An Anthropologist on Mars, writes of an autistic boy called Stephen Wiltshire who had attended a special school for developmentally disabled children:
In July of 1993, Margaret phoned me, beside herself with excitement. ‘Stephen’s erupted musical powers,’ she announced. ‘Huge powers! You must come and see him straight away.’ I was startled by her call: I had never known her so excited.
…Liz and I had been chatting with Evie Preston, his music teacher, for a few minutes when Stephen came in, gustily, at the stroke of twelve. … He then rushed over to the piano and, under Evie’s bidding, started to play scales, then to sing chords, starting with major triads. He did all this very easily, and gleefully. The idea of thirds, fifths – this Pythagorean, numerical sense of musical intervals – seemed quite innate in Stephen. ‘I never had to teach him,’ Evie remarked.
He seemed hungry for more. ‘Let’s do sevenths now,’ Evie said, and Stephen nodded and chortled as if he had been promised a chocolate.
Or, as Edmund put it, his understanding of musical intervals, taught to him by Pythagoras before his earthly life, is “one of the happiest stories and it’s about numbers, and shapes, and music, all together. It’s such a happy story because the music and the shapes and the numbers all understand each other so well.”
What a universe God has placed us in! How wonderful that, among us, we have experience of such different parts!
- Holroyd, Stuart, 1976, Mysteries of the Inner Self. London: Aldus Books
- Sacks, Oliver, 1995, An Anthropologist on Mars. New York: Knopf