Miguel de Cervantes’ peculiar tale of the man who believes he is made of glass is one of my favourite of his Novelas Ejemplares (Exemplary Novels), published in 1613, just three years before he died. In my view, Cervantes may be depicting some of the features of what we would now recognise as autistic behaviour (although autism was officially recognised only four centuries later). In this extract, the man, named Tomás Rodaja, concedes he is no good whatsoever at small talk or false flattery (most autistic people find both ‘phatic’ conversation and lying difficult) and, when asked about his health, answers in a very matter-of-fact way also reminiscent of people on the autism spectrum. In broader terms, in the story as a whole, Rodaja has problems with social interaction – one of the key features of autism but rare in Cervantes’ characters, who generally connect with one another with ease. Moreover, his sensory abnormalities are self-evident (sensory differences were included for the first time in the official definition of autism in DSM-5, published in 2013, but they had been recognised since the 1940s). At the same time, however, Rodaja is extrenemely able, intellectually. This would place him on the so-called ‘higher-functioning’ end of the autism spectrum or in the category of Asperger’s syndrome (except that DSM-5 removed that separate classification three years ago). What is clear is that Cervantes, writing 500 years ago, took an interest in, and held a compassionate view of, human differences. Furthermore, he appeared to recognise that a person could be intellectually able yet suffer from emotional and other troubles. This is an enlightened view and one which is still overlooked today by those who wrongly describe Asperger’s syndrome as ‘mild’ autism. Finally, unlike Bruno Bettelheim – who erroneously and scandalously blamed the parents for their child’s autism and misleadingly referred to people with the condition as ‘empty fortresses’ in the 1960s – Cervantes realised that there was a lot going on inside the minds of individuals with unusual mental conditions and that these thoughts and fears were not fortress-like at all, but contributed to considerable fragilities, as well as great gifts. In fact, at times, Rodaja’s behaviour very much resembles that of the gardener, Chance, in Jerzy Kosinski’s 1971 novella, Being There, who has likewise been interpreted by some as autistic. Note, also, the comments on poetry in this extract. Despite his supreme mastery of prose, Cervantes always had ambitions to be a poet but felt his efforts in this area were decidedly inferior in a sixteenth-century Spain dominated by such immense poets as Francisco de Quevedo, Luis de Góngora and Lope de Vega. (Indeed, there is a scene in the first part of Don Quijote in which Cervantes has the Curate say to the Barber: ‘This Cervantes has been a close friend of mine for a great many years, and I know he’s more versed in unhappiness than in verse.’) – Adam Feinstein
The news of Rodaja’s madness, his responses and sayings, spread throughout Castille. They came to the attention of a prince, or at least a nobleman at the Court. He sent a gentleman friend of his in Salamanca to fetch him. This gentleman, on meeting Rodaja, announced: ‘Let me inform the Honourable Dr Glasscase that an important person at Court would like to meet you and has sent me to bring you to him.’
To which Rodaja replied: ‘You must present my apologies to the gentlemen in question. I’m hopeless at small talk. I get embarrassed and I’m no good at flattery.’
Undaunted, the gentleman from Salamanca sent him to the Court. They got him there through the following subterfuge. They wrapped him in straw in a wicker basket, like the ones used to carry glass objects, and balanced the opposite basket with stones. Then they inserted a few shards of glass in the straw to make it look as though they were carrying nothing but glass bottles. He arrived in Valladolid at night, and they unpacked him as soon as he reached at the house of the nobleman who had sent for him. He was very warmly received by this gentleman, who told him: ‘Welcome, welcome, Dr Glasscase. How was the journey? How are you feeling?’
To which Rodaja responded: ‘There’s no such thing as a bad journey, as long as it comes to an end – unless, that is, it ends at the scaffold. As for my health, it’s entirely neutral, because my pulse and my brain are working hand in hand.’
The next day, having been shown lots of falcons, hawks and other similar fowl, he declared that hunting falconry was a pastime worthy of princes and other noblemen. But they should be warned, he said, that, in financial terms, it was a cripplingly unprofitable exercise. He said hare-hunting was delightful, however, especially when hired hounds were used.
The nobleman of the Court was enchanted by this madness and allowed Rodaja to walk around the town, under the watchful protection of an assistant charged with ensuring that the local lads did him no harm. In just six days, they all got to know him. Everywhere he went, on every street corner, he answered questions from all-comers. One student asked him if he was a poet, because he seemed to have a witty answer to everything. To which he replied:
‘So far, I haven’t been either foolish or fortunate enough.’
‘What do you mean by that?’ asked the student.
Dr Glasscase replied: ‘I haven’t been foolish enough to be a bad poet, nor fortunate enough to be a good one.’
Another student asked him what he thought of poets. He said he valued the science of poets highly, but poets not at all. They asked him why. He said there were so many poets and of these, the good ones were so very rare that they could be counted on the fingers of less than one hand. And thus, since the good poets were virtually invisible, he didn’t value them. On the other hand, he admired and revered the science of poetry, because it contained all the other sciences: it made use of every one of these sciences to decorate, purify and illuminate the world with magnificent works of art, filling life with benefits, delights and wonder.
‘I know just how profoundly we should appreciate the good poets … But what about the bad ones, the gabblers? They’re the most idiotic and arrogant people in the whole world.’ He added: ‘Who amongst us hasn’t watched one of these bad poets insist on reciting a poem to anybody who’ll listen, firing salvoes off at them? You know the sort of thing. He says: “Would your Worships care to hear a little sonnet I dashed off last night? It isn’t worth much but it has a certain attractive je ne sais quoi.” Then he purses his lips, arches his eyebrows, fumbles around in his pocket and pulls out a bundle of thousands of filthy, tattered sheets of paper, each with a sonnet scrawled on it. He picks the one he wants to read and recites it in an affected, mellifluous voice. And if those listening somehow fail to sing his praises, either out of ignorance or sarcasm, he fires back something like: “Either your Worships did not understand my sonnet or I read it badly. I’ll have to read it all over again. This time, please pay closer attention, because the sonnet really does deserve it.” He then recites the poem again, but pausing at different points and making new gestures. Have you never heard these so-called poets criticising one another? The racket sounds just like today’s puppies barking at the grand old mastiffs of the past. But what about the wonderful, illustrious examples that do exist nowadays of the dazzling brilliance of poetry, who can indeed demonstrate the divinity of their genius and the loftiness of their ideas by forging solace and entertainment from their solemn concerns – despite the ignorant sniping of those who detest what they will never understand? On the other hand, don’ t ask me to give even a second’s thought to those who keep reciting nonsense under canopies, making absurdly high claims for themselves and ignorantly clamouring for their place in the panoply of honour.’
On another occasion, Rodaja was asked why most poets tended to be poor. He replied that it was because they wanted to be poor, since they could very easily be rich if they so desired. Their lady friends were all so fabulously wealthy, he pointed out, with their gold-streaked hair and eyebrows glimmering with burnished silver, their emerald green eyes, marble teeth, coral lips and throats of transparent crystal; every one of them weeping liquid pearls for tears and with a talent for producing jasmines and roses at a moment’s notice from even the harshest, most barren soil; ladies with breath sweet as amber, musk or civet. All these things were obvious signs of prosperity. He said all of this – and plenty more besides – of bad poets. But he always spoke positively of the good ones – indeed, he praised them to the high heavens.