06 October, 2009

The Sound and the Fury

"It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing."

Even if you haven't read The Sound and the Fury, you probably know it is named after a line from a Shakespeare play. But if you haven't read the book, you might not know that one of the protagonists is a literal "idiot"--that is, a severely developmentally disabled person who expresses himself with loud, wordless moans.

I'm not sure Faulker thought about the title of his book, beyond thinking it was a clever literary reference. Because it doesn't really fit where you would expect it to. It's clear upon close reading that Benjy's wails and rages don't actually "signify nothing"--they make at least as much sense as any other Compson's behavior, if not more. Benjy lost his beloved sister, one of the only people who was kind to him. Her name is a very common word, and whenever he hears that word, he gets upset. It is popular to explain this by saying "Benjy has no sense of time, and doesn't understand she is gone"--but in fact, if he didn't understand she was gone, he wouldn't moan when he heard her name. It is very easy to understand why Benjy acts the way he does, and anyone who would describe his behavior as senseless is simply too lazy to engage with him. Instead of claiming that he doesn't understand time, it would be more accurate to say that Benjy feels the events of the past very keenly and hasn't gotten over them. This is true of most of the characters, disabled and non-disabled.

When ableist people try to argue that ASD rights advocates are worlds away from "real autistic people," they invariably invoke people like Benjy--archetypes of violent, nonsensical children and adults. This is supposed to make high-functioning ASD people see low-functioning people as the Other. We're supposed to feel guilty and disgusted, and rush to separate ourselves from them.

But the truth is, violence is a perfectly understandable reaction when you are in pain and don't know what to do. I was a violent kid, in large part because I hadn't learned to cope with my ASD. If I had been more severely affected, I imagine my pain would have been worse, and I would have had more trouble figuring out how to cope. So I imagine I would have been more violent, and violent for longer. I would have needed more help. Hopefully the people around me would have understood what kind of help.

Because I understand where developmentally disabled violence comes from, the fact that someone is violent doesn't make me think they're an "idiot," baffling, irrevocably different from me. Benjy's sound and fury signified that he was in pain.

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