Beyond the Limits of Theory of Mind Analysis: Olga Orozco’s “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands] and First-Hand Accounts of Autism

by Elizabeth S. Rousselle

February 9, 2013


abstract

The poem “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands] by twentieth-century Argentine poet Olga Orozco evokes aspects of autism such as sensory overload, chaos and fear, isolation from non-autistics, and awareness of alienation, as conveyed by first-hand accounts of people on the autism spectrum.  Orozco and researchers and writers with autism such as Temple Grandin, William Stillman, Kamran Nazeer, and Donna Williams express an insider’s view of the realities of the experience of autism.  In doing so, they overcome the limits of reductive representations of autism such as the theory of mind analysis which makes the erroneous assumption that people with autism are incapable of perceiving that other people have separate minds and modes of thought. 

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In her fourth volume of poetry, Museo Salvaje (1974), twentieth-century Argentine writer Olga Orozco’s poem “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands][2] alienates the conventional reader[3] accustomed to the usual linear and verbal perceptions of the world, but in doing so approximates autistic experience.  “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands] demonstrates the experience of a self-aware person with autism through a complex interplay of metaphors and images that corresponds with descriptions of the actual experience of autism by researchers and writers on the autism spectrum. Even though language is often challenging for people with autism, the discourse of poetry, with its intense images, provides the venue through which language can approach the unique and often speechless position of autism, a mode of thought labeled “thinking in pictures” (Grandin 1995 1).  Psychoanalysts and psychologists often resort to a “theory of the mind” interpretation of autism that assumes that autistic people suffer from “mindblindness” and are not capable of understanding that other people possess separate minds from theirs or maintaining an integrated self (Baron-Cohen 83, 143 and Bass 633). John Duffy and Rebecca Dorner identify the de-humanizing and rhetorical quality of the theory of the mind analysis of autism in psychoanalysis:

In the theory of the mind literature, people with autism are not represented as actual human beings but rather ‘imaginary’ or ‘hypothetical’ figures upon whom researchers and readers may project their own theories of difference and normalcy, empathy and estrangement [ . . . ] We cannot know [the autistic] mind, so remote from our own sensibilities.  Instead, we must imagine it; conjure it; fabricate it to the best of our abilities.  The language of such fabrications will be, necessarily, metaphorical and poetic, rather than strictly objective and scientific” (208).[4]

 

By contrast, Orozco showcases the perspective of a person with autism through the poetic voice in “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands]. “Tierras en erosión.” [Eroding Lands] succeeds in relaying an experience of autism in a narrative that is comprehensible to the reader who is not autistic while at the same time utilizing esoteric images to articulate how autism differs from the neurotypical experience.  This article will relate Orozco’s poem “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands] to self-aware explanations and descriptions of autism by researchers and writers who are themselves on the autism spectrum such as Temple Grandin, William Stillman, Kamran Nazeer, and Donna Williams as well as various other first-hand accounts of autism by parents and advocates of people with autism.  All these perspectives subscribe to the philosophy of viewing autism from the “inside out” rather than adhering to clinical descriptions of autism such as the theory of mind analysis that discount actual autistic experience (Stillman 33). 

Orozco's childhood among abandoned psychiatric patients, whom her charitable grandfather regularly took into their family home, (Bautista Gutiérrez 78) gave her ample exposure to people with exceptionalities and may have inspired her to reflect upon their alienation in her poetry.  As Orozco stipulates in her interview with Jill S. Kuhnheim, her poetry’s hermetic quality does not express negativity but “es de desamparo, que es de falta de vitalidad, inclusive” [it’s about helplessness, including a lack of vitality] (1996 150). In this same interview, Orozco declares that, psychoanalysis, or anything that classifies and categorizes, cannot work adequately to explain behavior or art because each person and each case is, in her words, “particularísimo” [extremely particular]

(quoted in Kuhnheim 1996 159). This particularity contributes to the often times inaccessible and uneasily interpreted nature of Orozco’s poetry. Many critics who have ventured to interpret Orozco’s poetry do so from the standpoint of gnosticism, the complexity of the poetic voice, and intertextuality.  A look at 35 articles published on Orozco’s poetry reveals critics’ tendency to study aspects of autistic experience in Orzoco’s poetry without actually naming or defining them.  The juxtaposition of “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands] and first-hand accounts of autism highlights the poem’s representation of autism. 

            Temple Grandin, an adult with autism who holds a Ph.D. in animal science, has written various accounts of autism.  Her book Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports from My Life with Autism (1995) explains that on one end of the continuum is the person with Asperger’s or Kanner’s autism who has mild sensory oversensitivity problems, and at the other end of the spectrum is a person who receives “jumbled, inaccurate information, both visually and aurally” (1995 52).  “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands] explores autistic experience nearer the latter end of the spectrum but with a certain mindfulness of this alternative way of perceiving the world.[5] People with autism cannot escape periods of disconnection in a world dominated by their mostly non-autistic fellow human beings. They are beset by a constant deluge of what Grandin describes as “raw sensory data” because their cortex is designed differently and does not organize information into schemas before it is transferred to consciousness (Grandin and Johnson 63).  In addition, a 2007 study entitled “The Intense World Syndrome” concludes that people with autism have a hyper-functioning amygdala that can induce “quick and powerful fear associations with usually neutral stimuli” (Stillman 2010 46).  Individuals with autism perceive many details in their immediate environment while neurotypical people block out vast amounts of information in order to organize the world in a generalized and abstract fashion. 

Orozco’s “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands] relays this lack of connection with the consciousness of the majority of people in its comparison of the function of the autistic mind to the geological process of erosion: “Soy como una fisura en esta incomprensible geología/como burbuja a ciegas por estos laberintos que no sé adonde dan/Me arrastran a mansalva de una punta a otra/estas negras gargantas que me devoran sin cesar” [I am like a fissure within this incomprehensible geology/I am like a bubble blindly navigating my way through these labyrinths whose final destinations escape me/these devouring black holes drag me mercilessly from one point to another/these black throats that devour me endlessly] (v.16-19). The images of the eroding land formations around the poetic voice represent the invasion of layers and layers of feelings and over stimulation that the person with autism feels are inevitable and over which s/he has limited control. In contrast to theory of the mind researcher Simon Baron-Cohen’s assertion of autistics’ “mindblindness” and inability to distinguish their mind from others’ minds, Kamran Nazeer, author of Send in the Idiots: Stories from the Other Side of Autism and a person on the autism spectrum himself, describes people with autism as feeling that “they are overwhelmed even by their own minds” (68).  Grandin actually applies the word “blind” to non-autistic people’s cognitive functioning, as she recognizes that non-autistic people have “inattentional blindness” because they are not able to pick up on details in the environment the way autistic people and animals do and subsequently ignore information that can be important (Grandin and Johnson 25, 51).  Grandin revels in the way in which autistic people and animals share the ability to interact in a more intense way with their environment because they are able to perceive all of its many cues and changes.  At the same time, Grandin realizes from first-hand

experience how frightening all of the endless stimuli can be.[6]  “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands] captures the autistic mind besieged by a flood of cognitive input. The external affective activity, now internalized by the autistic individual and symbolized by the shifting and disintegrating Earth, bombards the autistic ego with sensory input that cannot be expressed in affect or language.  Instead, people with autism perceive the world in pictures and their sensory experiences are so rich and foreign to non-autistic people that often times language does not exist to describe them.

Orozco begins “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands] with a poetic voice unconvinced of the supposed control one exercises over the psyche and its processes of memory and perception, “Se diría que reino sobre estos territorios,/se diría que a veces los recorro desde la falsa costa hasta la zona del gran fuego central” [One would say that I reign over these territories/one would say that at times I travel from the false coast to the great central fire] (v.2-4). The verb “reinar” [to reign] implies the authoritative control that the poetic ego ideally possesses as it flows from one end to the other of a coherent psychic space. The poetic voice identifies the so-called normal functioning of psychic reality that it should have: “como a región baldía sometida a mi arbitrio por la ley del saqueo y el sol de la costumbre” [as in a wasteland governed at my will by the law of plunder and the sun of custom] (v.4).  The assumption is that the construction of external reality comes so surely to human beings that it is an act of habit and free will.  In fact, the perception of outside stimuli is so much more developed in the person with autism that Karen Zelan, a therapist specializing in autism, describes people with autism as appearing to “be more in and quite literally of the world than [neurotypicals] are” (84).  In her memoir Somebody Somewhere: Breaking Free from the World of Autism, Donna Williams states that her “subconscious mind began to store meaning that [her] conscious mind had not yet learned to reach for.  [She] was still in a state of pure sensing without thought or feeling” (8).  Williams further describes living in a system of “all world, no self” or “all self, no world” and how the invasion of the world would lead to the gradual crumbling of “her world” (1994 23, 72). “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands] evokes not only the subconscious and symbolic way of thinking characteristic of an experience of autism but also the idea of the erosion of the earth as a metaphor for the instability of the autistic self in the face of external stimulation. 

Orozco's use of repetition of both language and literary devices speaks to the active and narrative quality of the poem, as it tells the story of a consciousness plagued by the overpowering actions of the mysterious “territorios” [territories] of its soul.  Orozco begins the first two verses with “[s]e diría,” [one would say] indicating that there is an overriding consensus about what is happening.  These words are repeated in verses fives and six, and they are all followed by indications that the poetic voice is not in danger.  The conditional use of “se diría” [one would say] indicates immediately the lack of validity of these statements.   In between these two repetitions of “se diría” [one would say] are repetitions of similes such as “como a tierra de nadie” [as if in the land of no one] (v. 3) that enhance the description of how the poetic voice potentially reigns over and explores these territories. Orozco uses the repetition of the relative article “que” in the next three verses to describe the invaders against whom these territories of the poetic voice are supposed to “oponer murallas” [put up walls] (v. 6).  This repetition creates an incantation-like rhythm that, according to Melanie Nicholson, contributes to the magical and subversive elements of Orozco's poetry (58).

The repetition of “se diría que . . . ” [one would say that . . .] also indicates that the poetic voice functions differently than the neutral voice of authority that claims to understand mainstream experience. This declaration of the poetic voice that it is supposed to be capable of deciphering this wave of affect reflects the experience of a person with autism who has worked since early childhood to assimilate to the dominant culture of neurotypical people.  This awareness also recalls the autistic person’s knowledge that s/he is participating in an experience not shared by the majority of non-autistic human beings and further discounts the theory of mind interpretation of autism that insists that autistic people are incapable of realizing that other people’s minds are different from theirs.[7]  Kyra Anderson, mother of a child on the autistic spectrum, further explains the limits of the theory of mind analysis of autism: “If your energy is used up trying to regulate your central nervous system, you don’t have any left over to dip into your ToM [theory of mind] pocket and wonder what the other guy is thinking.  It’s not that you can’t; it’s a matter of priorities, of the hierarchy of needs.” (155).

“Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands] imparts a multi-faceted poetic voice in three ways--that of the expected “yo” / “nosotros,” [I/we][8] that of the mysterious territories that attack it, and that of the impersonal “se diría”[one would say] that marks the beginning of the poem.  This varying perspective dominates the poem and destabilizes the poetic voice.  The “se diría” [one would say] that starts the poem indicates that the “yo”/ “nosotros” [I/we] perspective does not agree with the consensus that it reigns over these territories.  This “se diría” [one would say] refers to the majority of the population that perceives the world in a way not belabored by the constant flood of sensory information of autism.  Fantasy never pervades this point of view, unlike the otherworldly territories that stifle and suffocate the “yo” / “nosotros” [I/we]. These territories attack the “yo” / “nosotros” [I/we] in a variety of ways, always with actions that indicate violent change.  The cascade of attacks recalls autist DJ Savarese’s response to his teacher when she asks him why he is having difficulty writing: “Nightmares stored in gestures not in words” (quoted in Ralph James Savarese 434). “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands] employs a constant combination of fantastic images and autistic perceptions that convey the extreme amount of sensory input and change in the mind with autism.

            The poetic voice reveals its marvel at such change in a “nosotros” [we] that comes in the form of an exclamation about the strangely sacred nature of this process: “¡Sagrada ceremonia la que urdimos en tierra mis tejidos y yo!” [What a sacred ceremony my webs and I weave on land!] (v. 10). This verse marks the first time that the autistic poetic voice communicates directly its awareness of its unorthodox state of mind.  It is also the one and only mention in the poem of the connection between the autistic poetic voice and the fantastic metaphor of the webs and the sacred ceremony they create.  After this exclamation, the poetic voice resumes the “I” and “they” juxtaposition that reiterates the autistic poetic voice's struggle against these uncontrollable forces, all manifested through active verbs and fantastic allusions.  The overriding chaos and underlying desire for equilibrium in “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands] is reminiscent of the title of Oliver Sacks’ segment on autism, “Rage for Order,” in his documentary The Mind Traveler, a profile of the state of mind of various types of exceptionalities (Baron et al. 85).  Donna Williams, author of Nobody Nowhere: The Remarkable Autobiography of an Autistic Girl, describes her need to “[make] outside order out of inner chaos” (43). 

In “Tierras en erosión,” the poetic voice does not succeed in reigning over its consciousness because of the arcane stimulatory forces that prohibit any final resting state.  The “falsa costa,” [false coast] (v. 2), “zona del gran fuego central” [zone of the great fire] (v. 2), “ley del saqueo” [the law of plundering] (v. 4), “sol de la costumbre” [the sun of custom] (v. 4) and other obscure and unidentifiable places in the poem evoke the intense perceptions of people with autism who often cannot express their internal situations with language.  The description is reminiscent of William Stillman’s in his book The Autism Prophecies: How an Evolution of Healers and Intuitives Is Influencing Our Spiritual Future:

If we can accept that those with autism, who are inherently gentle and exquisitely sensitive, buzz and vibrate at a higher frequency—as it relates to all the senses—then the challenge to literally integrate with the physical becomes quite a struggle.  In classic autism there is an untarnished purity of senses, much the same as members of the animal kingdom perceive the world without societal filters.

[ . . . ] Outside of those who consciously devote time to prayer or meditation, often overlooked are opportunities to isolate in absorbing states of solitude and reflection.  But such conditions are natural to many people with autism for whom the physical body is alien—a leaden vessel at odds with a high-frequency identity that continually ponders aesthetics and high-thought.  It is not unlike a perpetual meditation—always thinking, observing, processing, and contemplating. (24, 53)

 

Orozco’s depiction of an alternative world in “Tierras en erosión” also recalls Kyra Anderson’s commentary as a parent of a child with autism: “When I first discovered my son had Asperger’s syndrome, I felt as if I had been plucked from my orbit and flung into the birth of a new solar system, a place of swirling matter thick with energy and possibility but also utterly chaotic and frightening” (xi).  Ralph James Savarese, the adoptive parent of a child with autism, uses the same sense of intense difference to describe the experience of children with autism:

Lack of input, too much input, a system of sensory processing wildly out of whack—these were the issues confronting kids with autism, kids who couldn’t seem to focus.  At times, the everyday world was like a siren blaring in their ears or a fireworks display before their eyes.  At other times, a void: a blank, operating room white, with the Autist like a patient on a table who doesn’t feel a thing—a patient in search of his body. (123)

 

Since non-autistic people have never had these experiences and therefore have no precise language to describe them, esoteric ideas such as those in “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands] are an excellent metaphor and vehicle to express the uniqueness of autism.

The poetic voice in “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands] maintains social barriers for self-protection from society while striving to become self-sufficient.  The poetic voice’s self-sufficiency is exemplified by the societies that come to exist within its imagination. The societies may then defend the fantasy world that protects the autistic mind from alienation. The similes comparing the autistic subject’s psyche with geological phenomena recall the impenetrable psychic activity between the person with autism and other people.  The labyrinths and black holes the poetic voice encounters evoke the intense sensory input and lack of communicative output.[9]   Or, as Stillman asserts, “although the expressive capacity of many autistics is deemed sub-par [ . . . ], their receptive ability [ . . . ] is operating at maximum capacity or, in many instances, is in overdrive” (2010 135). 

The metaphor of crumbling parts of the Earth further proves effective for describing the intense effects of external stimuli for people with autism.  Lu Hanessian, an autism advocate and parent of a child on the autism spectrum, cites her child’s perception of his teacher: “The teacher is like 12,000 pirates trying to steal my lungs, bones, and body” (vii).  Orozco concludes “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands] by describing the aggressive geological processes as if they were diabolical personified forces: “Me sofocan con fibras de humedad/ me trituran entre fauces de hueso como a una mariposa” [They suffocate me with their humid fibers/they crush me with their bony jaws as if I were a butterfly] (v.20-21).  Orozco finds esoteric combinations of words to express the usually unarticulated experience of autism.  Images of wet fibers that smother and bony mouths that grind up the delicate butterfly recall what Stillman refers to as the “exquisitely sensitive” nature of people with autism (2009 83).  The autistic subject perceives of surrounding human beings, capable of affective communication, as organic properties and robotic entities containing mouths that do not speak meaningful messages.  These images also evoke Stillman’s notion that for people with autism “the world hurts,” and for this reason there is a need to foster an appreciation for the autistic experience from the point of view of the person with autism (2009 108). 

The autistic subject’s continued experience of sensory overload does not enable the poem to end with a calm dénouement.  The original “tierras” [lands] or layers of psychic functioning that were supposed to protect the poetic voice prove their ineffectiveness. These supposedly invincible psychic walls of the ego do nothing but toss the poetic voice out to its uncommonly chaotic perceptions and do nothing to help it contend with the incessant changes inherent in the human communication and interaction that cannot be processed.  This leaves the autistic poetic voice in an inevitable state of descent and chaos.  The fact that this “great fall” (“gran caída”) (v.27) and this final fit of insanity (“vértigo final”) (v. 27) are “always imminent” (“siempre inminente”) (v. 28 signals the frequent anxiety of the autistic subject frequently accosted by inner pandemonium due to the unremitting impenetrability of the so-called external “reality” of the majority of non-autistic human beings in the world.  The “insufrible luz” [insufferable light] (v. 29) calls to mind the bright lights that many people with autism eschew (Stillman 2010 77).

Paradoxically, the geological references in “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands] can also be comforting in comparison to non-autistic people’s failed attempts to relate to the person with autism.  As a high-functioning autistic academic, Grandin tells autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen that she is capable of feeling sympathy for what is physical and physiological even though she lacks the empathic ability needed to understand dramas, maintain relationships or even play peek-a-boo (Baron-Cohen 140-141).  Grandin often feels like an “anthropologist on Mars” and is grateful for the relief that she finds in reading science and technology thanks to their more explicit language and independence from unstated assumptions (Baron-Cohen 142).  The use of the metaphor of geological erosion to represent autistic psychic fragmentation speaks to the autistic person’s preference for physical laws as opposed to stimulations of feelings.  For this reason, many emotional bonds that autistics develop are often with places and objects and not people (Grandin, 1995 92).  The concrete process of erosion lends itself to an association with place as well as the language of pictures preferred by the autistic mind as explained by Grandin who has trouble understanding philosophy because she cannot translate it into pictures (1995 31).

The timeless idea of the eyes as the windows of the soul is one that implies that autistics’ lack of direct eye contact with anyone is linked to their more autonomous and isolated sense of self.  In her interview with Jill S. Kuhnheim, Orozco describes her recurring dream of “gente que tenía unas caras sin rasgos” [people with featureless faces] after Kuhnheim asks her what she means by “fatalidad ciega” [blind misfortune] (1996 156).  Orozco uses the term “fatalidad ciega” or “blind misfortune” to describe the resulting inexpressiveness of the bowls (“cuencos”) she frequently employs in her poetry.  Orozco’s references to faces without eyes and blind misfortune recall autistic experience.  People with autism do not recognize faces the way that non-autistic people do because they perceive both objects and faces with the object recognition part of their brains (Grandin and Johnson 107).  Eyeless faces and blind misfortune reflect the isolation of human beings from one another that Orozco confronts in her poetry. Orozco grew up in Las Pampas where the supernatural was a part of everyday life. She describes the desire to be removed from her body and attain a more spiritual self: “el cuerpo siempre me produjo una extrañeza angustiosa, como si fuera un enmascaramiento de otra cosa, como si detrás hubiera algo que no sé pero que sentí con fuerza” [my body always produced a sort of anxiety in me, as if it were covering up something else, as if beyond my body there was something that I did not know but that I could definitely feel] (quoted in Blanco 177).  In many first-hand accounts, people with autism report the experience of the stress of living in bodies that often do not work and move the way they want them to, resulting in extreme anxiety in their day-to-day lives (Baron et al. 211). Donna Williams describes her intense desire to leave her body: “I wanted desperately to get out of my own body.  To leave it here to be stomped on, used, and abused as its invaders so chose.  I was annoyed at this physical body and the way it held me in like the walls of an impenetrable prison” (1999 137).

In her poetic production Orozco escapes the material world, as the poetic voice does in “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands], satisfying the desire to escape the body.  Orozco’s unique perspective allows her to write in a manner that differentiates autistic and non-autistic experience. Orozco wishes to reflect not just human experience but also the importance of inert and non-language-producing objects to the overall meaning of the universe. Like Orozco’s poetic voice in “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands], some people with autism prefer the unchanging nature of inanimate objects and the comparatively straightforward emotions of animals to the constant oscillation of human behavior. As a whole poetic event, “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands] succeeds in making the typically mute experience of autism, as is often conveyed by non-autistics, into a whirlwind of expression through images, metaphors, similes, and irony. Ironically, communicating with language, thinking in abstract terms, interpreting meaning, and expressing affect are simultaneously what drive poetry and often differentiate people with autism from people with mainstream cognitive functioning. For this reason “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands] stands as an unlikely but skillful representation of poetic discourse, autistic epistemology, and autism as a human experience. 

“Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands] concludes with the exclamation of the poetic voice’s surprise that such a reality could exist: “¡Qué lugar para creer y para amar!” [What a place for believing and loving!] (v.30-31).  Orozco demonstrates the sense of “desamparo” or helplessness that she claims generally to evoke in her poetry through this exclamation of helplessness by the autistic poetic voice at the end of “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands]: “¡Tantas embalsamadas batallas que se animan en un foso del/alma!/” [So many embalmed battles that are stirred up in a pit of the soul] (v.32).  These “batallas” [battles] and “metamorfosis” [metamorphoses] are particularly challenging for the autistic mind, for it has trouble tolerating any deviance from routine.  The overall metaphor of erosion as change creates the catalyst needed to engage an otherwise autonomous autistic ego.  The symbol of the process of erosion for transformation also speaks to the autistic mind’s intense need to develop its own system of symbols in order to navigate its way through the everyday world of spoken language, body language, and affect. The literally earth-shattering process of erosion represents what Kamran Nazeer has identified as the “element of otherworldliness” and “resilient autonomy” inherent in the autistic mind (70).

Hope shines through the terrains of “blind misfortune” as the autistic poetic voice realizes that these psychic battles akin to the geological phenomenon of erosion take place in only a portion of its limitless soul.  They result from the thousands of external cues of the environment and their overwhelming effect on its differently functioning psyche.  In its final question, the poetic voice challenges the accepted fact that such psychic upheaval works in the service of its subject: “¿Tanta carnecería de leyenda levantada en mi honor?” [So much legendary butchery raised in my honor?] (v.33) The fact that this verse is in the form of a question indicates that the autistic poetic voice is beginning to take on characteristics of non-autistic people since people with autism do not typically ask questions (Grandin 2005 251). This question at the end of the poem also recalls the omniscient voice of “se diría” [one would say] at the beginning of the poem and re-acclimates the poetic voice in the non-autistic world of limited sensory perception and its attendant stability.  The final interrogative statement both reaffirms the poetic voice's presence in the non-autistic world and also differentiates itself through questioning.  Indeed such a stand against unexplained psychic upheaval evokes a sense of hope and humanity that indicates the successful partial adaptation of many adults with autism to the non-autistic world.  This final question also recalls Orozco’s definition of the function of the poet: “[E]l poeta ayuda a las grandes catarsis, a mirar juntos el fondo de la noche, a vislumbrar la unidad en un mundo fragmentado por la separación y el aislamiento . . . ” [The poet facilitates great catharses, to look at the deep of the night together, to illuminate unity in a world fragmented by separation and isolation] (quoted in Kuhnheim 1996 153).  Orozco’s insistence that there exists an overriding unity in the animate as well as inanimate objects of the world implies an optimism and a belief that it is through  “. . . la sentencia, el poema y el libro como formas de revelación y permanencia análogas a la Unidad, por las cuales la poeta pretende trascenderse y aproximarse a lo indecible” [feeling, poetry, and books as forms of revelation and permanence analogous to Unity through which the poet claims to transcend and approximate the indefinable] (quoted in Kuhnheim 1996 46).

  “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands] reflects the autonomy, complexity, and humanity of the autistic poetic voice.  The poem’s use of the overall metaphor of erosion, as a crushing event expressing itself in nature and through sensory perception, works well to show the intensity of the external world to the person with autism. Orozco achieves a synthesis of geological phenomena and poetic language that ultimately represents the larger non-autistic world as a series of earth-shattering events as described by researchers and writers on the autism spectrum. By articulating and unifying natural forces of the universe not typically expressed or understood in a world dominated by non-autistic consciousness, “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands] approaches an authenticity of autistic experience that reflects first-hand accounts of autism and goes beyond the theory of mind analysis. 

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Tierras en erosión

 

Se diría que reino sobres estos territorios

se diría que a veces los recorro desde la falsa costa hasta la zona del gran

 fuego central

como a tierra de nadie,

como a región baldía sometida a mi arbitrio por la ley del saqueo y el sol

 de la costumbre.

Se diría que son las heredades para mi Epifanía.

Se diría que oponen sus murallas en marcha contratos invasores,

que abren sus acueductos para multiplicar mi nombre y mi lugar,

que organizan las grandes plantaciones como colonias del Edén perdido,

que erigen uno a uno estos vivos menhires para oficiar mi salvación.

¡Sagrada ceremonia la que urdimos en tierra mis tejidos y yo!

Y sin embargo acechan como tembladerales palpitantes

esta noche de pájaro en clausura donde caigo sin fin,

remolino hacia adentro,

girando con el ciclo cerrado que me habita y no logro alcanzar.

Y de pronto, sin más, sin ir más lejos,

soy como una fisura en esta incomprensible geología,

como burbuja a ciegas por estos laberintos que no sé adónde dan.

Me arrastran a mansalva de una punta a la otra

estas negras gargantas que me devoran sin cesar.

Me sofocan con fibras de humedad,

me trituran entre fauces de hueso como a una mariposa,

me destilan en sordas tuberías y en ávidas esponjas que respiran como los

lentos monstruos de la profundidad,

me empapan en sentinas,

me ligan con tendones y con nervios hasta la desunión,

me ponen a secar en la negrura de este sol interior,

me abandonan como resaca muerta a la furia de todas las corrientes

hasta la gran caída y el vértigo final,

siempre inminente, siempre a punto de  trizarme de golpe contra el acantilado

 de la insufrible luz.

¡Qué lugar para crecer y para amar!

¡Tantos derrumbes, tantas fundaciones, tantas metamorfosis insensatas!

¡Tantas embalsamadas batallas que se animan en un foso del alma!

¿Tanta carnicería de leyenda levantada en mi honor?

 

Eroding Lands

 

One would say that I reign over these territories

One would say that at times I travel from the false coast to the zone of the great

central fire

as if in the land of no one

as in a wasteland governed at my will by the law of plunder and the sun

of custom.

One would say that they are the fortresses for my Epiphany.

One would say that they put their walls in full force against the invaders,

that they open their aqueducts for multiplying my name and my place,

that they organize huge planatations like colonies of a lost Eden,

that they erect these living menhirs to officiate my salvation.

What a sacred ceremony my webs and I weave on land!

And yet they prowl like palpitating quagmires

on this night of the enclosed bird where I fall endlessly,

whirlwind toward the inside,

turning with the closed cycle that still resides within me but that I cannot reach.

And suddently, without anything else, without going much further,

I am like a fissure in this incomprehensible geology,

like a bubble blinded by these labyrinths that lead I don’t know where.

They drag me from one point to another

these black throats that incessantly devour me.

They suffocate me with humid fibers,

they grind me up between bony jawas like a butterfly,

They are secreted from me in deaf tubes and in avid sponges that breathe like the

slow monsters of profundity

they drench me in cesspools,

they bind me with tendons and nerves until our separation,

they put me out to dry in the blackness of this interior sun,

they abandon me like a dead undertow into the fury of all the currents

to the great fall and the final frenzy,

always imminent, always on the verge of tearing me to pieces with a hurl over the cliff

from the insufferable light.

What a place for believing and loving!

So much demolition, so many foundations, so many senseless metamorphoses!

So many embalmed battles that are stirred up in a pit of the soul!

So much legendary butchery raised in my honor?

 

 

 



[1] Recognition must go to my New Directions writing group members who all greatly aided me in editing and rethinking an earlier draft of this paper. My gratitude goes to: David Cooper, Beverly Decker, Molly Donovan, Joanne Gold, Suzanne Iasenza, and Leah Johnson.  Also, I must recognize my student Patrick Jackson who contributed insights about autism during our summer 2010 research project. 

 

[2] All translations of Orozco’s poem are mine. I have included the complete poem as well as its English translation at the end of this article. 

[3] The 1987 Instituto Internacional de Literatura Iberoamericana conference deemed Orozco’s poetry too hermetic even to include in its annual literary conference according to Gloria Bautista Gutiérrez in the introduction to Orozco’s poetry in her anthology of Spanish American women writers, Voces femeninas de Hispanoamérica. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996: 80.

 

[4] See John Duffy and Rebecca Dorner, “The Pathos of ‘Mindblindness’: Autism, Science, and Sadness in ‘Theory of Mind’ Narratives.” Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 5, 2 (2011): 201-215.

 

 

[5] In her book Between Our World and Theirs: Breakthroughs with Autistic Children, psychotherapist Karen Zelan traces how she came to realize that children with autism are not oblivious to their situations as many researchers had presumed: “Once self-aware—many autists I’ve known were cognizant—they fear for themselves and their ability to cope in a complex world.” (6) 

[6] In Animal Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, Grandin describes her own incessant fear as “exactly the way you feel when you’re about to defend your dissertation, only I felt that way all day long, every single day” (193). Similarly, Kamran Nazeer, author of Send in the Idiots: Stories from the Other Side of Autism and on the autism spectrum, asserts that “striking up conversations with strangers is an autistic person’s version of extreme sports” (30). In Nobody Nowhere: The Remarkable Autobiography of an Autistic Girl, Donna Williams describes the experience of being touched emotionally as the “threat of death” (151). 

 

[7] Psychotherapist Karen Zelan believes that many experts believe that people with autism have no theory of mind because she observes many of her clients with autism acting as if they don’t because of their fear of revealing their thoughts to others (86). 

[9] In their book Stress and Coping in Autism (Oxford UP, 2006), researchers Baron, Groden, Groden, and Lipsitt describe autistics’ perceptions of non-autistic efforts to communicate with them: Imagine that you were suddenly whisked away by a party of aliens.  They surround you, gesturing with their bodies and making sounds out of what appears to be a mouth.  But you cannot understand any of their gestures or the sounds that they make.  As you fail to respond to them, they grow more and more agitated, and the pitch and loudness of their sounds increases until it is quite painful.  At the same time, they reach out to touch you.  But their touch is accompanied by a feeling not unlike electric shock--it is simply that excruciating.  Many persons with high-functioning autism have described experiences just like this arising from interactions with well-meaning family members and friends." (134)  Tierras en erosión” approximates this experience.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Elizabeth S. Rousselle "Beyond the Limits of Theory of Mind Analysis: Olga Orozco’s “Tierras en erosión” [Eroding Lands] and First-Hand Accounts of Autism". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. December 15, 2009. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/s_rousselle-beyond_the_limits_of_theory_of_mind_anal. February 9, 2013 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: February 7, 2013, Published: February 9, 2013. Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth S. Rousselle