Cathexis: Between Shadow
and Substance

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Once Zhuang Zhou dreamt he was a butterfly, flitting about contentedly and without care, knowing nothing of the man Zhuang Zhou.  When he woke to find himself as much a man as when he retired, he was yet unsure whether he was Zhuang Zhou who had just awakened from dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly starting to dream he was Zhuang Zhou.  How shall one discern between Zhuang Zhou and the butterfly?  Such (discernment) is called the Transformation of Things.

Zhuangzi, chapter 2

You mustn’t say that. He isn’t a toy. He’s real!

—Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

In early CE1961, American actor Melvin J. Blanc (CE1908-CE1989) [get comfy—this video’s good for an hour and change], best known for having created the voices of many of the characters in classic Warner Brothers’ cartoons, was involved in a near-fatal automobile accident on Sunset Boulevard (Los Angeles, CA metropolitan area—details begin around the 41:15 mark).  Even after treatment at the UCLA Hospital, he still remained in a coma.  It was only after one of the attending physicians noticed that the television in Mr. Blanc’s room was playing some of his patient’s voicework that he came up with the idea of invoking Mr. Blanc not by his own name, but as Bugs Bunny.  It wasn’t long until Blanc responded not only with the rabbit’s voice, but in his character.  After the doctor prompted the actor with other characters, he finally got a response from Blanc as his “real” self.  While some sceptics might insist that Bugs was still a fiction even despite the doctor using him to call Blanc back to consciousness, I hope they can forgive me if I favour viewing Blanc’s reaction as closer to a death-bed confession—a brief shining moment in which the cartoon was “real” and the actor was a fiction.

The above mental blurring of where Blanc ended and Bugs began can be considered as an example of what psychologists call cathexis (from Greek καθεξις, participle of κατεχειν, compound of κατα down, through + εχειν to have, hold), in which mental or emotional energy is invested in an object, whether that object is physical (like the “reality” of a plush rabbit) or mental (like identifying oneself with a cartoon one).  Because individuals invest their energies by varying degrees to different objects, one person’s glorious revelations can often be another’s lunatic ravings (as Mr. Alfred Yankovic so aptly illustrates in this video).  Just how great the difference in emotional investments can be is all the more evident when autistics and allistics interact.  The texture of certain foods, for example, or the feel of certain fabrics which an allistic might manage to take in stride can be all but torturous to many autistics.  This may often extend to not merely physical sensations but emotional issues.  In my case, some of my more allistic family and friends took offense that I would place more weight on the issues I had with cartoon characters (like the commotion of Chip + Dale’s inarticulate chatter) than matters they considered more germane (like how I was sabotaging myself spiritually by quenching the Holy Spirit’s “initial physical evidence of speaking in tongues”).  In my mind, the debilitation anxiety and emotional turmoil the chipmonks represented gave the lie to the “love, power and sound mind” that St. Paul promised in NzT:2 Timothy 1.7.

But if a young autistic such as I dreaded complying with one allistic’s recommendation, what chance would I have had against the legion of conflicting ideas that greater allistic society foisted on me?  Do I follow my heart and conscience at the risk of being picked out by predatory classmates, or do I suck it up and join them in entering what I was taught was “through the wide gate and into the broad way that leads to destruction”?  Do I comply with doubtlessly well-meaning but (at least as I adjudged) misguided authorities at the expense of my convictions, or do I follow my best light and face the penalties for insubordination?

This above all, to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

—Shakespeare, Hamlet, Ac1, Sc3