Mary and Max

Mary and Max

The sad and beautiful tale of Mary and Max is one of my favorite films of all time.

On two opposite sides of the planet, a lonely little Australian girl and a lonely middle-aged obese New-Yorker become friends. Mary and Max are both made of plasticine, yet they’re two of the realest people ever to appear on screen.

mary-and-max

From Mary’s poo colored birth-mark to Max’s chocolate hot-dog recipe, from Ethel the rooster to Henry(s) the fish, from Ive’s painted eyebrows to Damien’s stutter, from egg laying rabbis to babies found in beer glasses, from Vera’s cooking sherry to dr. Hazalhof’s obsessions with warts, and from bird taxidermies to jars full of toe-nail clippings – every single scene in this movie is a little miracle of compassion and nuance, a portrait of humanity at its simultaneous highest peaks and lowest crevices.

Shades of brown and tan are gently sprinkled with reds and pinks, empty shelves are decorated with toys, bare walls are adorned with drawings, expressionless faces are made to smile, while the lonely and potentially grim existence of a sad little girl and an anxious middle-aged Aspie is being filled with excitement, chocolate, pets, and friendship.

I could probably go on like this forever, counting the infinite number of ways this film touched me, but what would be the point? Sufficed to thank Adam Elliot for making us this modest masterpiece, and urge whoever hasn’t watched Mary and Max to not waste another moment.

The emotional textile of Mary and Max’s existence is so rich, that one barely manages to take a deep breath between gently laid brush strokes of sadness and courage, loneliness and hope, despair and longing, fear and love. It is this vivid emotional landscape that inspired me to finally attempt a discussion on what stands at the core of my research; emotions and their meaning ­– particularly in the case of autistic people.

*

Confuzzled. Apparently just another made-up word (alongside snirt; namely the combination of snow and dirt, and smushables; the groceries found squashed at the bottom of the grocery bag), Max’s neologism reveals a lot about the nature of human emotions and the words we have for them. A combination of confused and puzzled, it even says something about the inherent limitedness of our emotional lexicon, whereby the words we have to describe our emotions are often insufficient. This limitedness is particularly consequential, I dare to suggest, in the lives of autistic people. But let us start from the beginning. Brace yourselves; discussing emotions is always an arduous task.

Many social anthropologists have wondered about the nature of human emotions. Are they universal? Do people of all cultures share exactly the same emotions? Are we all born with a capacity to experience emotions in similar ways? Do the words we use to describe our emotional states accurately reflect what we actually feel inside? Based on an extensive reading of anthropological theories, I will answer all of these questions with a hesitant ‘no’. Emotions, according to such theorists as Catherine Lutz, Unni Wikan, and Sarah Ahmed, to name a few, are not a property of the individual. They are not internal. Our emotional terms refer not to distinct ‘things’ within us, but rather to the nature of any specific relationship between a person and another person, between a person and an object, or even between a person and an idea, at a given moment. Emotions are always directed at something or another, and in this directedness they lie. Emotions are the stuff of which connections are made of. In this sense, emotions are relational.

Moreover, while all humans are born with the innate capability of being affected by their environment, their company, and even their own thoughts, this capability is not what is usually referred to when emotions are talked about. Rather, emotions refer to the cultural and lingual categorization of these affects, the connotations they raise, and the value judgment they are given (good or bad? Pleasant or unpleasant? Moral or immoral?). Emotions are the afterthought of the affective, the visceral, even the somatic. An afterthought that is inevitably framed in culture and limited by language. In this sense, emotions are socially constructed.

Similarly, seeing as humans are products of their upbringing, of the language they speak, and the social, historical and cultural context in which they live, our only available means of making any kind of sense at all of what we think and feel – is by using the vocabulary handed down to us by our parents, teachers, friends, the media etc. One cannot interpret what one cannot name. People of different cultures, therefore, or of different historical times, would have quite different ways to discuss their emotions; i.e., they will experience their emotions differently. In this sense, emotions are culturally specific.

Finally, emotions are only ever invoked in context. Sadness, or hope, do not lie within us waiting to surface; instead, emotional terms are begged when events, occurrences, relationships, and evaluations of a certain kind occur. Emotions are thus always specific, and no two are alike, despite the limited vocabulary we have whereby fear, for example, can refer to a great many different kinds of feelings, effectively crudely lumping them in one distinct ‘emotion’. When we think of emotions, when we articulate them – they are there. But when we forget about them, they simply cease to be. They are gone. When we are reminded in them again, they are then altered, changed, adapted to their new context, this time as the objects at which our new emotion is directed. And so on and so forth. In this sense, emotions are emergent.

*

“Max knew nothing about love,” we are told; “it was as foreign to him as scuba-diving … He felt love, but couldn’t articulate it. Its logic was as foreign to him as… as a salad sandwich”. Is this a sentiment many on the autistic spectrum share? It has been my impression that yes indeed, many autistic people frustratingly feel that love is too confusing, inexpressible, and uninterpretable to them. We all feel this at times, I would venture, but possibly not nearly as frequently as autistics do, and to a significantly different extent.

“He felt love, but couldn’t articulate it”. But if that were to be the case, how would Max know that he did indeed feel love? What would be the nature of a love unarticulated, and how would one recognize it as such? Emotions, I and anthropologists before me argue, are never independent of their articulation. In fact, it is the very articulation we speak of when we speak of any specific emotion. What is love, if it is not the loving words, the loving embrace, or the loving gaze; if it is not the motivation to act in certain ways, to think particular thoughts, or to see things in a certain light? Articulation, clearly, is not limited to words. There are various means of articulating love; and seeing as no two emotions are ever identical, articulations of love are potentially infinitely varied.

“He felt love, but couldn’t articulate it”. So what are we to make of this statement, given that it contradicts, in a meaningful way, what we take emotions to be?

Had Max felt a confusing mixture of thoughts and physical sensations of a particular kind, energizing him with great valence; arousing positive connotations and affectionate memories; warping his perspective into a good-natured acceptance of things, like when looking through the eye-piece of a camera while its lens gradually focuses on a patch of colorful flowers – while having no idea that this very concoction can be said to be ‘love’ – was it in fact love that he can be said to have felt?

The unsophisticated and disappointingly straightforward answer would supposedly be no. Love exists only when love is spoken of. Hence, Max did not feel love. But wait, love was spoken of, by the narrator, in retrospect. So in this case, Max’s sensations can be said to have been feelings of love. But what is the role of the narrator in Max’s life? None. The narrator is part of our perspective on Max’s life, not of his. Max is ignorant to the existence of any such narrator telling his story, and articulating his emotions for us, in ways Max cannot. In max’s life, love was never explicitly expressed.

But if it wasn’t expressed, it was certainly articulated! We see it being articulated in so many ways!! In Max’s excitement upon receiving a letter from his friend Mary; at his concern for her well-being; at his interest in all aspects of her life; at his advice for her, and his loyalty to her, and his kindness towards her. We see it at his forcing himself to smile for her sake, and at his using her own tears to make himself cry. Even at his rage and disappointment when he feels she has betrayed him. These are all, unquestionably, beautiful articulations of love! Must we discard them merely because the word ‘love’ is not explicitly uttered by either party? Simply because Max may be unaware that this – this precisely – is what people speak of when they speak of love? Must Max be robbed of having experienced love merely because he was oblivious to the love he was indeed experiencing?

It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t seem fair.

So let us pursue a different option: Max loved Mary, and articulated this love in his letters, and in this very articulation his love can be said to have existed. Love is relational – and in the relation between Max and Mary there was love. Even more so, the relationship between Max and Mary can be said to have been made of love, love being the proverbial stuff of which their connection was made. Love is emergent, so in every new letter, in every bar of chocolate, or a drawing of a pet, brand new shades of ‘love’ arose and expanded. With this perspective in mind, we can say love is the central theme, the driving force, of Mary and Max’s tale. Love is everywhere! And yet confusingly, frustratingly, we are told that Max “felt love, but couldn’t articulate it”. Couldn’t articulate it? That’s all he ever does!

It appears the logical conclusion would be to argue that Max indeed felt love, and indeed articulated it brilliantly, but was simply unaware that he was.

How can we make sense of this statement?

*

Love, like any such distinct emotion term, is socially constructed. But this is not to say that it is made-up, or in any way unreal. Not even remotely. Think of a building.  A building is obviously constructed, but that does not mean it is imaginary, or in any way shabby, short lived, or inconsequential. It does imply, however, that it has not been in its current shape forever, and might not have been the same had circumstances been different. A Thai Pagoda is not similar to a Gothic Cathedral, though both are made of stone bricks. Moreover, the endurance of any construction ultimately depends on how well it is constructed; a well-constructed building can stand erect for millennia, particularly if it is made from quality bricks. And the precise nature, use, and overall shape of a construction depends on the historical and cultural context in which it was made, and in which it is currently being used.

If love is a construction, what is it constructed of? what are its bricks? They are the essentially human capacity to be affected in significant ways by one’s surrounding. Sounds abstract? It is. Strip love of its social, cultural, and historical significance, and you’re left with a strong feeling perhaps, but a feeling so vague that it is no longer recognizable or articulable.

If love is a construction, who constructed love? Generations of poets, authors, philosophers, theologians, scientists, readers, interpreters, parents, friends, lovers. Each employing the notions of their predecessors while adding their own ideas and experiences to articulate love in novel ways, which then subsequently accompany the concept of love further along.

And importantly, if love is a construction, what are its blue-prints and designs? What is its architecture? That would be the way love is framed, categorized into kinds, interpreted, and made sense of; the way it is valued and revered, glorified but also feared; the connotations it raises, the cultural references it builds on, the way it is typically exhibited, expressed, verbalized, and even experienced!

Stone is inevitable. But it can take the shape of a building in infinitely various ways. Similarly, our capacity to be affected is inseparable from our humanity. It is, also, inevitable. But this capacity can take the form of emotion in infinitely various ways. That’s what is emphasized when it is said that love is a social construction.

*

So where does this leave us? I suggested that Max was indeed feeling love, though he was unaware that he was not only feeling it, but was articulating it brilliantly. Now that we have conceptualized love as a social construction, or in other words, as the result of a collective social project, we may begin to understand why Max wasn’t aware that his relationship with Mary would normally be referred to as love; why he wasn’t conscious to the fact that he was articulating love; and why the language of love was said to be foreign to him. Being autistic, Max may have lacked what can be called ‘social intuition’; the capacity to effortlessly internalize such profound social discourses as gender roles, sociality, or indeed ‘emotion talk’.

In other words, seeing as love derives its meaning collectively, through the inherently social practice of language (verbal, written, or extra-lingual), one can be expected to be confused by it if one generally finds it challenging to intuitively understand other types of social practices.

Its logic was as foreign to him as… as a salad sandwich” we are told of Max’s puzzlement of matters of love. So what is it about Max being autistic that created this gap between him feeling love and his expressed inability to articulate love? Emotions, it was said, are social projects, inter-subjective endeavors, where a term is infused with meaning that is then negotiated to the point of mutual agreement. When somebody says “I love”, they are not simply expressing outwardly a strictly internal ‘thing’. No, instead, by uttering the word love, they infuse this utterance with a history of social connotations, with a world of cultural significations; they infuse it with great meaning. This much is – in some way or another – intuitive for neurotypicals; which is why love, or any emotion for that matter, is indeed never really straightforward, but still relatively understandable. Neurotypicals are generally comfortable treading the murky waters of emotion talk. But not autistics, for whom this murk often proves too opaque and impervious.

Max was not aware that love can be articulated in giving a thoughtful advice, by placing a gift-pompom on top of one’s yarmulke, or by sharing a favourite recipe with a friend. Max did love Mary; but unfortunately, seeing as the meaning of ‘love’, in its typical use, is framed and indeed ‘coded’ by neurotypicals, its complex and nuanced meaning was lost on him.
I’ll end with a couple of quotes from Mary and Max that I simply adore:

(1)    “I cannot express myself very clearly at this point, and so I will list my emotions, in the order they feel most intense: hurt, confuzzledness, betrayal, discomfort, distress, and wheeziness.”

(2)    “When I received your book the emotions inside my brain felt like they were in a tumble dryer, smashing into each other. The hurt felt like when I accidentally stapled my lips together. The reason that I forgive you is because you are not perfect. You are imperfect, and so am I. All humans are imperfect.”

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14 thoughts on “Mary and Max

  1. m kelter

    thx for this overview. as mentioned, the other films explicitly about autistics…snow cake, mozart and the whale…i never enjoyed, they were just too shrill…and the characterizations were too textbooky, i’m still waiting to see a fully fleshed out autistic character in film/TV, one that isn’t just a walkthrough of the diagnostic traits. but mary and max sounds lovely, i will definitely watch it on your recommendation. i spent the entirety of my adolescence, 20’s and most of my 30’s searching for a romantic connection, so the topic in this post is interesting to me…love, what it is, how one experiences it. i’m curious to watch this, sounds like a terrific film.

    Reply
    1. Ben Belek Post author

      Thanks for your comments m kelter! I do believe that experiencing love and making sense of that experience is one of the more complex feelings out there. This is true for everyone, but I think possibly the way autistic people experience and interpret love (and other emotions) is somehow subtly different – though I’m not at the point yet of saying in what way it is different!

      Anyway, please do watch the movie, and I sincerely hope you enjoy it. I wouldn’t say it’s completely devoid of stereotypes, only that it makes up for it by being so damn beautiful. I would love to hear your thoughts on my post after you’ve finished watching it.

      Reply
  2. Lady Ashmire

    I’ve always found the idea that emotion is in any way linked to words a very bizarre one. For me the two are to a large degree mutually exclusive. In putting a feeling into words, it often recedes or goes away altogether. ( This is one reason I find it very hard to trust neurotypicals—how can you feel love if you’re able to say it so easily?) I never thought internally in words until I acquired a blog in my late 20s, and sometimes I feel I’ve lost a lot by learning to accommodate that style.

    Reply
    1. Ben Belek Post author

      Thank you for this fascinating comment Lady Ashmire. I’m so intrigued by this! Yes, us NTs (ok I can’t speak for all of us, but at least in my experience) have the opposite problem, I think: we actually find it extremely difficult to separate emotion from the words we use to describe it. An emotion that hasn’t been put into words… well, it disseminates; it flows away. I guess what I’m wondering is this: when you’re not thinking internally in words, what do you think internally with? And how do you hold on to that thought, so it doesn’t immediately escape you?

      Reply
      1. Lady Ashmire

        Well, mostly with images and feelings. Images work very well indeed if you’re working with an engineering issue of some sort, hence “Aspie superpowers”. Emotions, though, produce mainly physical sensations, or so I and most autistic people I’ve spoken to about it find. I’ve often been surprised when I’ve heard an NT talking about how they thought phrases like “My heart seemed to drop into my stomach” or “Shaking with rage” were mere poetic exaggeration, until some abnormally intense tragedy hit them. Presumably they don’t also literally feel like they might start to float away or that something is actually tugging at their heart whenever they look at their loved one or an adorable puppy. For me, such sensations are inseparable from the emotion( in fact pretty much ARE the emotion) and I cannot imagine what you could be feeling instead if not that. Apparently my inability to sort out physical from emotional pain as a child following my grandmother’s death was actually interpreted by neurotypical adults around me as evidence of a talent for poetic language, instead of simply the literal and frustrating factual phenomenon it was. Holding onto thoughts is something most autistics find easy to a fault, to the point that we very easily develop PTSD from experiences that might seem only mildly upsetting to someone else. All you have to do is remember what was going on, what you saw or smelled or heard or felt around you last time you felt that feeling and it’s right back there being re-experienced, just like when you think of chocolate chip cookies and you can, however briefly, taste and smell them too. Of course the downside of operating that way is that seeing some irrelevant background detail from a previous scene in one’s life in another context can bring back a flood of emotion, sometimes without immediately knowing why. The problem isn’t usually a feeling escaping us, it’s getting drowned in the feeling. Hence, we often develop an intensely logical, detached and structured thought process to deal with it all—and sometimes end up starting to believe, or half-believe, the inaccurate things people say about us based on that.

      2. Ben Belek Post author

        That is a marvellous description Lady Ashmire, Thank you. I suppose this would imply that the variety of physical sensations that stand for emotions in your experience has to be very large, no? I wonder if you could maybe give me some examples of such physical sensations, when they arise and how you interpret them? Like you said, for me, the use of bodily metaphors to describe emotions is mostly that – metaphors. I can only think of a few physical sensations that I can equate with emotions (like upset stomach for nervousness, pounding heart for excitement, tensed jaw for tension…) but that is mostly the exception, I think – though I will need to give this more thought!

        Ben

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  9. James Ernest Heimann

    i know of no other film that deals with hte human condition in all its facits wth such empathy honesty and down right humor.. i have most of my life been together wt people of high intelligence “on the spectrum” including most probably myself (disregard the high intelligence bit) and qua a son wth mental difficulties have been involved with the milieu for ages (am 70).. just found your blog and really looking forward to “getting to know you”

    Reply

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