Thursday, June 12, 2008

The possibility of being self-propelled

Back in March, at his Black Mirrors site, Lloyd Mintern posted a fascinating piece called “Bridle” in which he writes about Piaget and the necessary egocentrism of children. Here's just part of it, towards the end:
Everyone was a child. There is a universal. What the child does not understand at first is just how incomparable life is; that is what he has to learn, why he wants constant explanations. The big discovery is that he is a person on his own. He does not start with himself, but finds himself among the others. He does not start out with the idea that he [is] unique, and adapt to a disappointing reality in which he is only one among others, all equally downtrodden and dull. No, he starts out believing others are more real than him, totally interesting, knowledgeable, and he has to find himself among this group. He has to disassociate from the others, who are threatened, it seems, by dullness, for after all, what do they know? It is like they are all children! So they should, and must, cooperate with his exciting adventure of creating a self–it is vital that he, the discovered center of attention, thrive! He grows more and more vivid to himself and excited by the prospects of a unique existence. In fact the building of a self is the consummate unselfish activity. He is astonished if adults accuse him of being self-centered. In fact, he is doing it for them, and they should be pleased with his progress. The child sees the possibility of being self-propelled, but he does not arrive in life with it, he finds it in the world that is a novelty. Babies come into the world prepared from afar, supplied, they are not weak, they are not undeveloped, but they are vessels . . .
Earlier in the post, Lloyd writes that "the child is in the middle of something when he is born, not at the beginning". He's not really talking about the same thing, but this line reminds me of the Bernhard passage that gives this blog its name:
No one ever cast a more damaging light on his relatives than Wertheimer, described them into the dirt. Hated his father, mother, sister, reproached them all with his unhappiness. That he had to continue existing, constantly reminding them that they had thrown him up into that awful existence machine so that he would be spewed out below, a mangled pulp. His mother threw her child into this existence machine, all his life his father kept this existence machine running, which accurately hacked his son to pieces. Parents know very well that they perpetuate their own unhappiness in their children, they go about it cruelly by having children and throwing into the existence machine, he said, I thought. (The Loser, pp. 43-44)
It isn't necessary to hate our parents as Wertheimer did for us to recognize the truth of what is said here. We learn how to behave in the world, we learn what is "acceptable", how to be, through the actions and non-actions of our parents and the other adults in our lives. This much is obvious. But what does it mean? Maybe our parents were simply very busy and were unable to be attuned to our needs, moment-to-moment. Enough of this and perhaps we learn that no one will listen to us if we cry, so perhaps we learn not to cry. Or we learn some other way of avoiding the practice of allowing our true needs to become known. We might learn this about ourselves, that we tend to be emotionally distant, or that we tend to avoid expressing emotions. We might be able to take steps to overcome this in ourselves. Yet, still, when we have children of our own, how easy is it to fall back on what was done when we were children? And then to rationalize it away! ("This is what my parents did, and I turned out ok." Sure you did.)

It will come as no surprise that, along with the Proust and Beckett, Josipovici and Blanchot, I've been dipping into a variety of baby books and parenting books. (It may be more of a surprise when I say that I find the latter related to the former.) But before I get to a couple of those, let me talk a little about this matter of being born. We are born! What the hell! Where do we come from? There are the basic natural facts of it, of course, but then we have our own experiences and consciousness and we are here. Being. A calamity! A calamity? Why is this a calamity? This idea--that being born might be a calamity--is relatively new to me, on the face of it. And yet, when I identified something true in Bernhard's "existence machine", was I not to some extent recognizing this? I think so.

One of these books I've been reading is called Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn (Myla, incidentally, is Howard Zinn's daughter). (The idea of a parenting guide or book is an odd one. Parenting is hard enough as it is without having to hear from some strangers the right way to do something. This book isn't really like that, but the mere existence of such a book, as valuable as I'm finding it, somehow nags at me.) The argument is that the best way to approach things is through mindfulness--being mindful of our own responses to situations, mindful of the child's actual needs. Easier said than done, to be sure. One of the key concepts is "sovereignty"--recognizing the child as a sovereign being with his or her own "way". Anyway, they ask us to imagine what it is like for the child, from the beginning:
We might start by imagining what it is like in the uterus, in a place that is warm, wet, and protected, with constant, rhythmic sounds, a feeling of being contained, held, rocked . . . a world of undifferentiated wholeness, where there is nothing wanting, nothing missing. [...]

When we are born, we leave this harmonious world and emerge into a new and totally different one. There might be harsh light and cold air. We may hear loud, unpredictable noises and feel roughness or hardness against our skin. We feel hunger for the first time. All of this is occurring as raw, pure experience, with no filters of knowing anything. Imagine being thrust into this foreign environment, where you depend entirely on the inhabitants' ability to understand your language and to be sensitive and responsive to your whole being, and to what you may need in any given moment.
What might that be like? How do we, as parents, approach this situation? How are our possible approaches constrained by the amount of available time we have? How do we understand this other being? Given that we have problems of our own, how do we avoid perpetuating them through the child?

I imagined this post, as I unfortunately tend to imagine all posts, as a massive, wide-ranging one, in which I try to fit in everything on my mind touching the topic at hand. But that's not possible. There is much to say; there are implications. But I will close here by noting that, in my view, this basic situation--the fact of being born, of being (oh! how I throw this word around, as if I understood it!), and what that really entails for the child and the parents--this situation suggests a certain political response. And a literary one.

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