One of my college classes was called "Individualism and the Common Good," a course jam-packed with literature and films that I still remember 20 years later. One of the books we were required to read was Christopher Nolan's semi-autobiographical novel, Under the Eye of the Clock. I refer to this as a semi-autobiographical novel because although the story is of Nolan's life, he writes of himself in the third person, as a boy named Joseph Meehan. From the back cover of the book, which still has a place on my bookshelf:"Imprisoned from birth by a mute and paralyzed body, Christopher Nolan found his voice with the aid of a typing stick attached to his forehead ... he reveals with words at once compelling, strange, and evocative a world most people have never known. Yet with the insight that distinguishes the finest work of autobiography, Nolan's writing transcends his unusual experience and captures the universal need for love, acceptance, and friendship."
And his mother's words, as Christopher Nolan writes, in the voice of Joseph:
"I never prayed for you to be born crippled. I wanted you to be full of life, able to run and jump and talk just like Yvonne. But you are you, you are Joseph, not Yvonne. Listen here, Joseph, you can see, you can hear, you can think, you are loved by me and Dad. We love you, just as you are ... "
What parent of a special needs child hasn't thought the same as Mrs. Nolan? Christopher's mother's love is also referenced in this quote by U2 singer Bono, who attended school with Nolan (and whose song, "Miracle Drug" is reportedly about the author).
"We all went to the same school and just as we were leaving, a fellow called Christopher Nolan arrived. He had been deprived of oxygen for two hours when he was born, so he was paraplegic. But his mother believed he could understand what was going on and used to teach him at home. Eventually, they discovered a drug that allowed him to move one muscle in his neck. So they attached this unicorn device to his forehead and he learned to type. And out of him came all these poems that he'd been storing up in his head. Then he put out a collection called Dam-Burst of Dreams, which won a load of awards and he went off to university and became a genius. All because of a mother's love and a medical breakthrough."
When I first read Under the Eye of the Clock, published in 1987 when Christopher Nolan was 21, I was only two years younger, a 19 year old college student. I had no idea that within the next two decades I would have a child diagnosed with autism and be able to empathize oh-so-well with Mrs. Nolan's words. I want to re-read Under the Eye of the Clock soon, but until then, I found myself paging through the book tonight, reading passages like this one in the chapter titled "Hell Guffawed" (great title) of Joseph's thoughts and nervousness following his tour of - and acceptance to - Mount Temple Comprehensive School.
Consider how lucky you are. You have served your time to coldness in outlook. Now you have got your foot in the door, maybe you ought to panic. Think of the others gone before you - did they have fiery intellects? Were they stored away in a back room, dirty, neglected, frowned upon? Did sun ever tan their opaque skin? Did they ever see the night sky? Did kindness ever move them to tears? Did they ever delve their hand in cold water? Did someone ever feel for their clenched fists and gentl prise them open, so that water could run between their withered fingers? Did they feel the cold nervous heartbeat of a damp frog? Did they hold a wriggling worm in the palm of their hand? Did they ever feel soft summer rain as it tickled down their face or the headbowed battle to breathe in the face of a blizzard? Did they ever gloat with pleasure in a warm bubbly bath and afterwards sneeze in an aroma of talcum powder? Did sunshine blind them from an early-morning golden-copper sun, or did they ever see winter-bared trees silhoutted against crimson shot with pastel blue evening skies? Did they ever hear a real sound of laughter free of innuendo coming pouring from a pal's heart? Did they ever feel absolute satisfaction when the golf ball they were let help to hit rolled straight as a die and plopped into the miniscule-sized hole? Did they ever have their father's company on lovely secluded walks as birds did their nut, each bird bursting forth its chest trying to outdo its neighbours song-filled stand? Did they ever feel a dear sister's love when she spent backbreaking hours designing and painting an intricate celtic drawing especially for them? Did they ever love a foolish dog and marvel at his happiness? Did they ever feel good omens? Did they ever heave a sigh of healthy feeling despite awful paralysis? Did they rush through breakfast to be in time for school? Did they wait for Santas unable to sleep, fretting that Santa wouldn't come if they were not asleep? Did they dare to carp if bad vibes came from their sister? Did they ever detect jealousy in their sister's clambering for bigger helpings, bigger toys, bigger slices of family attention? Did they ever get so much love that the able-bodied sister wished that she were crippled too? Did they ever? And if they didn't, was that the end of that?
It took me about 10 minutes to type that lengthy passage. I can only wonder how long it took Christopher Nolan to do the same, only using the typing stick attached to his forehead.
And finally, one more passage, this from the chapter "Knife Used" where Christopher writes about his teacher's discovery that attaching the typing stick to his forehead would give Christopher a means of communication:
"Now he struggled with the certainty that he was going to succeed and with that certainty came a feeling of encouragement. The encouragement was absolute, just as though someone was egging him on. His belief now came from himself and he wondered how this came about. He knew that with years of defeat he should now be experiencing despair, but instead a spirit of enlightment was telling him, you're going to come through with a bow, a bow to break your chain and let out your voice. "
A bow to break your chain and let out your voice. Yes. That is exactly what Christopher Nolan, dead at 43 following "ingest[ing] food into his airway" (according to the BBC) did with Under the Eye of the Clock. Not only did he let out his voice, but it turned out to be one so eloquent for millions of others and those of us who love them.