Monday, August 31, 2015

Claustrophilia

Ever since I was a toddler, I've loved to crawl inside tight places. From underneath couches to closets and crawlspaces, cramped places felt cozy to me. They still do, though now I feel less of a need to actually seek them out. Instead, I fantasize: I have a Pinterest board entirely set aside for pictures of "book nooks," for example, and sometimes I daydream about going off to a mountain and living in a mobile camper for the rest of my days. 

But isn't it weird that this person I am--with a fascination for one-room cabins and book nooks--also obsesses over infinity? When I was three, I asked my mom whether a person who fell in a bottomless pit would get hurt. I made theories about time travel and four-dimensional space as a kid, and as I got older my interests drifted from spacetime to the technological singularity to a Marxist utopia. And of course, that's what led me to my interest in religion and mysticism. I wanted perfection to come down to earth, to see infinity with my own eyes; but I had these thoughts while daydreaming about cupboards and closets.

How do these two things fit together? How can the boy who wanted to see time also try to stuff himself in a bread box? There are some clues: I love Doctor Who, a show about a tiny box that's bigger on the inside; I grew up in a theater whose limited space is its greatest creative asset; and I belong in a religion that believes in an infinite God who lives in a body made of flesh and bones. Am I saying that these things pushed me in that direction? Not really. I'm just beginning to wonder whether I was "put" in a life where these things would be available to me. Like James Hillman's idea of an "acorn" soul who--as a timeless image of a human life--grows into its nature as a tree, I think the unique tangle of the infinite and the finite was part of my life from the very beginning. I guess you could say that it's my calling.

To put it another way, the psychologist Carl Jung once speculated that each person comes into life to "answer a question," and I'm wondering whether my question has to do with how infinity and smallness are connected to each other. Carl Jung's idea leads me to ask myself if God, the universe, destiny, or whatever is giving me a "riddle" to unravel over the course of my life. And if so, what is that riddle, and how quickly am I moving toward the answer?

Hints abound: apart from the things already mentioned, I was born with autism, and with it I got both a savant-like talent for deep thought and an obvious limitation with social and practical things. In a way I guess you could say that I'm bigger on the inside too. The play I wrote called The Box--produced in 2013--was a version of the same principle: two men inside an onstage box, one who wants to escape it ("The 2nd Man") and one who thinks that he and the box are the only things that exist ("The 1st Man"). When they come to terms, it isn't by one "beating" the other; they come together with the help of someone from the "outside," and together they leave. In other words: the longing for infinity and the craving for tiny places come together, leaving the audience with the show's final line, spoken by the 1st Man: "Huh. A bigger box."

That line might itself be the answer to my life's question, even if it's just a beginning one, an acorn just starting to sprout into a tree. Like the two characters in the play, I am fascinated and afraid of both infinity and smallness. Part of me wants to shrink into a tiny box and stay there forever; part of me wants to soar to every unknown horizon. But when something new pops up--a parallel to God, Jung's Self or "transcendent function," or something else--they see that they both actually craved the same thing: an "outside" that is also an "inside." I don't just want to fit inside a closet or see infinity--I want to stuff infinity in my closet! I want to see everything endless and vast wrapped up in something I can touch with my finger.

This is something similar to what archetypal psychologist James Hillman pondered in his meditations on alchemy. In his essay, "The Azure Vault: Caelum as Experience," he says:
"The caelum [a final alchemical goal] consoles the present not by taking experience away from what is, but by offering the box an an image of transcendence, so that vision is delivered from pain and circumstance, freed even from the very desire to transcend the misery simply by the prospect of transcendence, the inquiry it evokes, the light it sheds, and the balm delivered."
The caelum--a Latin word for sky or heaven--represents heaven as it's incarnate in the materials of the alchemist's laboratory. All scientific problems aside, what those alchemists were suggesting was that even the upper limit of transcendence can fit itself into a glass vessel and its chemical contents. We see this wherever something "points" to more than is physically there in the thing itself, when the infinite shines through the finite like glass. This is what it means to be bigger on the inside, to have every outside be an inside: intimations of heaven in a book, a lover, or a glass bottle.

But these answers lead to more questions: what does this mean for me? Why have me answer this "riddle?" Then I wonder: could it be that our culture-- with an overly literal imagination that can only think of greatness in terms of big screens, skyscrapers, and Star Wars--needs someone to point out "the small"'s value? Could it be that I and other autistics are supposed to remind the world that bigger doesn't always mean better? For we autistics are all proof against that idea. A literalist culture like ours doesn't know what to think of the math savant who can't wash his own clothes or a low-functioning autistic who has genius observations about the world but can't speak a word. How can someone that looks so disabled be so valuable? If they don't end up getting good grades, how can they be smart?

We are living proof that things are bigger on the inside, that the transcendent can be wrapped up inside the immanent as a "bigger box." When the 1st Man stepped outside his box, he discovered that the box he loved was bigger than he thought it was--that boxes can get bigger and bigger on the inside while still being boxes. And he didn't just learn what the box really was; he discovered what he had never dreamed: that it isn't only him living in "the box," but anyone and everyone else. The philosopher's idea of the object's "transcendence" of the subject might be true; but that outside is in a bigger inside, and in that bigger box we are all immanent to each other.

Could all this be why I'm limited in the first place? Could the reason I'm awkward and oblivious be so my "bigger inside" can become clear? Or maybe it's so that, by living happily and productively with those limitations, I can show the world that limitation isn't a bad thing. Possible, all possible. But one thing's certain: like the Greek myth where the titan Kronos eats his children the gods, our culture's titanic idols have tried to absorb everything tiny and worthwhile. Buy all your books on Amazon! America is the greatest country in the world! This new iPhone has the biggest memory ever! All; greatest; bigger--when will we realize that it isn't the biggest or the greatest that's best, but the small and the limited? Maybe it will take a catastrophe. Maybe we'll have the technology to get whatever we crave, then realizing to our own shame that it doesn't even come close to being enough. But apart from a tragedy, maybe all we need to do is listen to the bigger insides already among us, the human Tardises walking around stiffly on their toes and refusing to look you in the eye. These autistics hold the key for our culture, if for no other reason than the way they break its obsession on literal size. For if autistics can teach us about the worth--and size--of insides, maybe we still have hope.

As for me, I'm going to do the best I can to show people "the small"'s beauty. I'll try teaching people that everyday life holds wonders beyond the most outlandish fantasy, that the mundane is mystical and the normal profound. As I said elsewhere, Tardises are everywhere, and every wardrobe might lead to Narnia. I think I'd be happy if I got at least some people to see the 1st Man's "bigger box" in their jobs, their disabilities, or their bodies. For I guess that's the answer to my riddle, even if I've only just sketched it: that we are to love the small--to have claustrophilia.

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