Friday, February 19, 2010

Immanence, Sublimity, Infants: More Notes on Fatherhood

It’s been just over a year since I became a father, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve been waylaid by people who want to admire the lovely little Lila Archambeau. Generally, I’m happy when this happens, even when it’s at the grocery store and I’m in a hurry: paternal pride is a powerful force. But there’s one expression, intended as praise, that I’ve always rankled at a bit. This is the statement — usually delivered as a kind of conclusion of after some questions about Lila’s age, name, and the like — that “she’s a miracle.” Maybe it’s the all of the religious freight the word carries that irks my cold, dark, atheist’s heart. I always want to pull out some medical records and point out that the kid is the product of some serious science, not an act of divine intervention. But the more I think about it, the more I find my reaction every bit as unthinking, and probably shallower, than the statement that the baby-admirer was actually making. Because I have been professorized beyond any help or hope of repair, and because I can do nothing without a text, I’m afraid I can only explain what I mean with reference to some passages of Gilles Deleuze and Immanuel Kant.

I haven’t read Deleuze’s “Immanence: A Life,” for a long time, but Johannes Göransson recently reminded me of it when he posted some choice quotes to his blog. My favorite is one where Deleuze gives an example of the difference between the idea of a life and someone’s particular life:

A life…No one has described what a life is better than Charles Dickens, if we take the indefinite article as an index of the transcendental. A disreputable man, a rogue, held in contempt by everyone, is found as he lies dying. Suddenly, those taking care of him manifest an eagerness, respect, even love for his slightest sign of life. Everybody bustles about to save him, to the point where, in his deepest coma, this wicked man himself senses something soft and sweet penetrating him. But to the degrees that he comes back to life, his saviors turn colder, and he becomes once again mean and crude. Between his life and his death, there is a moment that is only that of a life playing with death. The life of the individual gives way to an impersonal and yet singular life that releases a pure event freed from the accidents of internal and external life, that is, from the subjectivity and objectivity of what happens…

This is interesting stuff! I mean, Deleuze really gets at the way a life is different from life in general and someone’s particular life. Life in general — what’s that? Something general, like “wildlife,” or all creatures? Or maybe some abstract notion of the life-force itself, like you get when you read D.H. Lawrence. That’s hard to connect to emotionally, because of how general or abstract it is. And particular people’s lives — well, you can love or hate a particular person for his or her personal qualities (or, more likely, you can feel ambivalent or indifferent). But there is a very real phenomenon that Deleuze is getting at here — the widespread reverence of the single life that is not particularized by personal qualities or a particular subjectivity — not "all life," not "Dave's life" but "a life." Think about it: those characters gathered around Dickens’ dying rogue don’t really care for the man. His personal qualities, the things that make him into a particular human, are odious. The people don’t admire him as an individual, still less do the love him for who he is. But when he starts to fade out, he loses those personal qualities, and what they see is not the guy who was cruel to them — they see one little life, at the verge of disappearing (“Between his life and his death, there is a moment that is only that of a life playing with death”). Individual qualities like greediness, pettiness, and a general propensity to be a selfish asshat suddenly lack relevance, and all that’s left is the essential fact that there is a life in front of us. This life is “an impersonal and yet singular” because, in this state of near-death, no personal qualities come into play — but at the same time, this is not all life, or an abstract life force. It’s a singular life.

The way we feel about infants is, I think, very much the same as these characters from Dickens felt about the dying rogue. Deleuze felt this way, too. Here’s what he says:

It even seems that a singular life might do without any individuality, without any other concomitant that individualizes it. For example, very small children all resemble one another and have hardly any individuality, but they have singularities: a smile, a gesture, a funny face — not subjective qualities…

It’s true: infants have qualities that make them singular (no one else looks quite the same, no one else has quite the same smile or wave or way of sitting), but to have these qualities is not the same as having a full-blown individual subjectivity. Very small infants haven’t had the experiences to form themselves into individuals in the sense we normally mean by that word. They’re singular, but they’re not quite personalities. Before, say 18 or 24 months, they haven’t yet learned about autonomy and shame. When they start saying “no” and throwing tantrums, you know a sense of self is starting to develop, and the kid’s on his or her way to being someone in particular. But before that, we’re dealing with a singular life that isn’t yet a fully individuated subjectivity (I’m bracing myself for people telling me I’m wrong, and that little 9 month old Egbert is fully individuated, but what I’m saying here is pretty standard-issue developmental psychology, so I refer your outrage to the nearest department of psychology).

With infants we’re dealing with the presence of a life, not someone in particular. This in itself goes a long way to explaining why strangers come up and admire babies. I mean, we don’t come up to adults (who are, after all, infants who’ve been around a while) and praise or adore them: it wouldn’t be appropriate, because we don’t know that person’s individual qualities. We don’t know if he or she is a decent person or a complete shit. But with infants, personal qualities aren’t the issue: the fact of a little, particular life is what’s important, and we tend to react well to these little, particular lives. We even call them “miracles.”

But what, you ask, is up with that? Why this awe at the fact of the infant as a life? I think Kant can take us to something like an explanation with his discussion, in Critique of Judgment, of the sublime. Sublimity has been a topic of discussion for literary theorists at least since Longinus, but guys like Longinus and Edmund Burke (the other heavy-hitter in the field of sublimity) had concentrated for the most part on the properties of sublime pieces of writing, or sublime art objects, or sublime scenes in nature (largeness, awe-inspiringness, grandeur, and all that). Kant took the discussion away from the properties of objects in the world and toward a discussion of what happens in our minds when we experience the sublime. Long story short, he felt that there were two main components to the experience of sublimity:

1. We apprehend something awe-inspiringly vast in space, in time, or at a more abstract level —a glacial seems ice-sheet seems sublime when we see it, or the idea of the rise and fall of civilizations seems sublime when we contemplate it (perhaps in the presence of some suitably grand ruins), the vastness of space seems sublime when we’re aware of it, and even the concept of mathematical infinity, when it hits us square in the forehead, feels sublime.

2. We apprehend our own smallness and weakness in relation to this vast thing, and stand in awe not only of the big thing, but of our own ability (insignificant as we are) to exist in the presence of something this big and powerful, and to not be destroyed by it.

So: if you stand on the edge of the volcano, and see its huge force, you experience the sublime not merely by standing in awe of the power of the volcano, but by thinking “little me, I’m here, I’m seeing this thing compared to which I’m nothing, but I’m still here! I am not destroyed!." There’s a kind of awe in this, and a quickening of the senses, an appreciation of both our power and our fragility.

I think it’s this notion of our power and our fragility that comes into play when we see a life (as opposed to a particular life) — as we do when we see an infant.

Consider this: when we encounter another adult human going about his or her business, we get bogged down in the particulars of self-interest and social interaction (“is this guy trying to fuck with me?” “how can I get this chump to sign on the dotted line and buy my old Camaro?” “whoa — if I play my cards right here, I might get laid!” or whatever). But when we encounter an infant, we’re like those Dickens characters gathered around the dying rogue. We see one small life set against the vast darkness of the universe. We see this little thing that, somehow, in all of the gigantic void of space and all of the eons of lifeless time in the universe, opens a little window of being-and-becoming, of existing, of living. We don’t have to worry about all of the usual chickenshit of human interaction: we’re dealing with fundamentals here, with the small flame of life flickering against a darkness of non-life that extends out to the limits of space and backwards and forwards to the limits of time. And we get a sense both of that vast lifelessness and of the unvanquished, fragile, infinitely small reality of a life. It’s sublime

If that’s what people mean when they call the presence of my daughter a miracle (and I think at some deeply felt — if not deeply thought — level, they do mean this), I’m down with it.