Ralph James Savarese


On his book See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor

Cover Interview of March 13, 2019

A close-up

I guess I’d like readers to skip the introduction and prologue and go right to the first chapter. In it I recount discussing Herman Melville’s great tome, Moby-Dick, two chapters a week for seventeen months, with Tito Mukhopadhyay. A nonspeaking person with autism, Tito has himself authored a number of very fine books. Because he lives in Texas and I live in Iowa, we used Skype to conduct our discussions. I would speak, and Tito would type his comments on the sidebar. Readers will be astonished by his insights and, especially, by the way that he identifies with the great leviathan. Although I had written a chapter on Herman Melville in my dissertation and although I have read and taught the novel many times, I had never noticed how important the motif of speech is. Ahab, the tyrannical captain of the Pequod, repeatedly rails against the creature’s silence. In fact, he is driven as much by the impossibility of communicating with his enemy as by the loss of his leg. Approaching the severed head of a whale, he smugly issues a command: “Speak thou vast and venerable head…; speak…and tell us the secret thing that is in thee.” Approaching it once again, Ahab cries in frustration, “O head! Thou hast seen enough to split the planets…and not one syllable is thine!” Precisely because speech is considered the quintessential mark of the human, Tito has despaired of his own inability to speak and of what that inability has allowed people to presume about his competence. Reading Moby-Dick with Tito, I was compelled to consider the speech privilege that lies at the heart of human arrogance. I now can’t imagine teaching Moby-Dick without the input of someone like Tito.