Neurodiversity and Narratology in Three Thousand Years of Longing
It’s a bit ironic that a movie that is about storytelling is weaker at story-telling than its characters. Three Thousand Years of Longing doesn’t always do a good narratological job — even so, it has a couple of great stories packed into it — and I certainly don’t think it works well as a love story (a platonic relationship might have worked better), but it does have some really fascinating characters in it.
Alithea (from Greek αλήθεια “truth”) Binnie, one of the two protagonists, is obviously on the autism spectrum. She tells her djinn: “The way my brain is wired is the source both of my power and my solitude”. Lonely since early childhood she developed a lot of imagination and a love for storytelling that first came to her in the form of Enzo, an imaginary friend. Stories become Alithea’s special interest and she is even able to make a living out of it as a professional narratologist. It’s her way of making sense of humankind/neurotypicals and she tries to find the underlying patterns that connect stories and myths from all over the world.
When her djinn appears a huge problem arises: there is nothing she desires from him. She does not seek wealth, nor status, nor another loved one to ease her loneliness, which she has come to cherish after a marriage that felt like a prison to her. Alithea is obviously not a very happy person, but she also understands that material wealth and pretty much anything the djinn can offer her won’t change that or could only make her worse off. Except for spending time with him and talking to him.
There are few characters in recent movies I can identify as much with a Alithea. Also, having been writing about neurodiversity, I find her an extremely realistic character. A lot of people will probably have difficulties understanding why she doesn’t wish for something cool from the djinn. For the past couple of years I have been arguing that neurodiverse people have mostly hunter-gatherer minds. Hunter-gatherers don’t value material possessions a lot, but they do like exacting information about possible sources of vegetables and hypothesising about the information animal tracks provide. In brief, they are far more interested in talking about the “truth” than acquiring material possessions.
This search for truth can also be seen in one of the minor characters, Zefir, the first girl the djinn falls in love with. She is a genius inventor à la Leonardo da Vinci and her thirst for truth and knowledge is insatiable.
She was a skilled artist, but no one saw her art. She told me she was eaten up with unused power. She thought she might be a witch. Except, she said, if she were a man, her intellect would have been ordinarily accepted.
Ironically, I have a female friend who works in IT and who told me that throughout her childhood she considered herself to be a witch. It reflects the experience of neurodiverse people who perceive themselves to be different from neurotypical folks and have different powers and strengths than them.
Finally, less obviously, the djinn himself is neurodiverse. One can understand that when he reveals his two greatest desires:
I saw at once that she was sharp, and she saw that I was desperate for freedom and conversation.
Freedom and conversation. Of course, everyone values freedom, but few people would value self-determination as highly as foragers/neurodiverse people. Neurodiverse people aren’t exactly known as great conversationalists. That’s because they hate small-talk. However, they are unstoppable once given the chance to talk about their special interests. Plotting evolutionary subsistence types onto Solomon Schwartz’s universal values makes it clear why the characters in the story make their choices the way they do.
When I was a kid I was fascinated by mythology. They were stories about the origin of human beings. Of course, as mentioned in the film, myths have been supplanted by science. However, in many of them there are some hidden truths, reflecting patterns people in the past perceived. The psycholanalysts Freud and Jung understood that (even though I won’t agree with much of their teachings about them). So did famous narratologists like Joseph Campbell.
It’s not only about ancient myths, but most good stories show some truths about the human condition. Patterns not everyone can perceive. And there are certainly plenty of patterns about neurodiverse people in Three Thousand Years of Longing .
For more on the hunter-gatherer neurotribe check out my :