Monday, April 20, 2015

The Cosmic Baby and the Wholly (M)Other

Some of you may remember my take on psychogenesis -- i.e., the emergence, or better, presence, of mind -- found on pp. 109-123 of the bʘʘk.

It starts with a quote by John Bowlby, the father of modern attachment theory, which for me is one of the irreducible pillars of existence. In other words, if we want to have a Total View of Reality, we could no more exclude the interpersonal neurobiology of human attachment than we could physics or chemistry. It is that important, especially as elaborated by researchers such as Allan Schore.

My high altitude summary begins with a quote from Bowlby to the effect that "the least-studied phase of human development remains the phase during which a child is acquiring all that makes him most human. Here is a continent to conquer." This is followed by a comment from Tolstoy, who remarked that "it is but a step" from a five year old to an adult, "but from the newborn baby to the child of five is an appalling distance."

The basic idea is that the developmentally premature, neurologically incomplete, and therefore helpless, infant is truly the hinge of psychospiritual development, and without whom we could never have transcended Animal Planet, no matter how big and impressive our brains.

Since infancy is the narrow pain in the neck we must all pass through on the way to adulthood, it occurred to me (before writing the book) that mankind at large must have had to thread this same developmental needle. You might say that man needed to invent infancy in order to become man. So, who came first, the infant or the adult? This is similar -- probably identical -- to the question of what man "is" outside the social context, for man is always situated in a social context, without which he simply wouldn't be man.

One more quote, this one from Norbert Elias: "Over and over again, in the scientific myths of origin no less than the religious ones, [people] feel impelled to imagine: In the beginning was a single human being, who was an adult."

But to jump ahead -- and above -- a bit, there is a damn good reason that ultimate reality appears in history as an infant, because the infant is a quintessential analogue of this very principle -- so long as we bear in mind the orthoparadox that, to paraphrase D.W. Winnicott, there is no such thing as an infant.

Rather, "if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone." That is the key, because the mother-infant dyad is very much a kind of link between two interiors. Indeed, it is the link that forges and deepens those interiors. Conversely, most mental illness (AKA Failure to Launch) is rooted in disturbances in attachment.

I don't know of too many other people who write of the cosmic importance of babies, so imagine my surprise when I see Schindler making the same point. In the chapter we are discussing, The Sanctity of the Intellectual Life, he speaks of "the miracle of the other," i.e., "the gift of one to another, and thereby the rhythm of giving and receiving."

How does this delicate gift-giving rhythm get in here, i.e., into the cosmos? This may sound poetic or sentimental, but it is not; or maybe it is, but it is also literal: "This rhythm has its paradigm in the mother's smile." Or, jumping way ahead of ourselves, we could say that its highest expression comes in the form of Mary's benevolent Yes, an eternal Yes that is the birth of Christianity.

"Being in its highest 'natural' kind," writes Schindler, "takes its primary meaning from the mother-child relation," for "the child's first experience of being lies in its encounter with the mother's smile, received by the child in a manner that is not yet conscious" but "in time liberates the child to respond: to smile in return."

Thus -- and this is the critical point -- this mutual confirmation of being (whose outward sign is the smile) completes an extra-neurological circuit which in turn opens up the ever-expanding sensorium of our worldspace.

Think about the alternative, which is to say, maternal or environmental rejection of the being-ness of the infant (or just failure to recognize and confirm it, which will amount to the same thing from the infant's perspective). This only happens all the time, which is why a psychologist never runs out of potential patients.

Winnicott was quick to point out that nobody is perfect, such that all the baby really requires is "good enough mothering," for humans are a Resilient Bunch, and besides, we need pain and frustration, only in tolerable doses (just as the immune system needs germs and viruses to strengthen itself). But you might be surprised to learn how frequently this minimom standard fails to be met.

Schindler alludes to the metacosmic angle of this subject, describing how "This rhythm of gift and receptivity -- which is to say, this other-centered rhythm" which is "found at the level of human being, provides an index or analogue in terms of which to approach all levels of being."

That is a bold statement, i.e., that the human baby explains everything! But look at it from the other way around, and you can appreciate the fact that without the baby, we could explain nothing, for we could never have exited the closed loop of animal neurology.

The baby ushers in two related realities, relation and interiority, for human relation is interior-to-interior -- and not just with other humans. That is, even knowledge of so-called "objects" involves an abstraction of their interior, which is to say, their intelligibility.

So ultimately, our whole stance toward reality is interior-to-interior, which is why we have access to truth, beauty, and unity, none of which are empirical objects.

Now, if our task is to conform ourselves to the ultimate, the First and Last Word, then Jesus demonstrates how this is done, in that the second person of the trinity is "first" receptive, just as the baby is first receptive to the mother before "giving back" her love. So Christ "gives back" to the Father, but never "outgrows" this fundamental attitude of receptivity. He doesn't grow up to be Father, as if Sonship is a defect or partial thingy!

Likewise, in human terms, you could assert the orthoparadox that man never "outgrows" his childhood, for if he succeeds in doing so, he will fail to grow out of it. In other words, what sets humans apart from even the higher mammals is that we never transcend our neoteny, and therefore continue growing "forever," again, in imitation of the Trinity.

Here is how Ratzinger describes it in a fine paper called Concerning the Notion of Person in Theology:

"The content of Jesus' existence is 'being from someone toward someone,' the absolute openness of existence without any reservation of what is merely and properly one's own." And "As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you," but first you must willing to receive. Bottom line for today:

"Christ's doctrine is he himself, and he himself is not his own, because his 'I' exists entirely from the 'you."' And both are situated in the loving We. Thus, "The other through which the spirit comes to itself is finally that wholly other for which we use the stammering word 'God'.... The person is all the more itself the more it is with the wholly other, with God" (Ratzinger).


julie said...

Rather, "if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone." That is the key, because the mother-infant dyad is very much a kind of link between two interiors. Indeed, it is the link that forges and deepens those interiors. Conversely, most mental illness (AKA Failure to Launch) is rooted in disturbances in attachment.

Speaking of the infancy of mankind as a whole, it becomes clear in the Pentateuch (and onward, of course) that the Father-child dyad was very much in play through all of it. Much of the harshness of the Law as originally set down bore a likeness to the way we relate to the youngest children in terms of what may and may not be done: they are too young yet to understand the why of what we expect of them, only that there are expectations, which if followed have good results and ignored have bad results. It is only as the children grow older and gain a sense of cause and effect and can imagine the implications of their behavior that the rules become loosened, or even sometimes reversed ("Never touch the stove!" at one age becomes "you can make the pancakes" at another).

How much more necessary this becomes in shaping the behavior of an entire culture, battling the human impulses of greed, envy, and all the rest, and sublimating them into something more closely resembling the Sonship of Christ! And how terribly unlikely that mankind could have passed through such a developmental stage in the absence of a Father determined to see us through it.

Michael Marinacci said...

Julie: I've also likened the Old Testament experience to a sort of spiritual *boot camp*, where a harsh, rule- and boundary-driven environment has to be created so that a people becomes disciplined and righteous enough for God to be born amongst them. I can imagine that the Lord of Hosts probably sounded very much like R. Lee Ermey in His commands to the ancient Israelites.

Van Harvey said...

And then there's the tenured detachment theory of how to deal with children.

Most efficient.

julie said...

Ah yes, the compassionate Mr. Singer. He's just concerned about Quality of Life, doncha know.

Many years ago, my stepdad suffered a long, slow, debilitating decline due to multiple sclerosis. One day he started to choke. He had always told my mom he didn't want a tracheotomy to help with his breathing, and he didn't want to be resuscitated if he started to die. Thank God, when my mom cried out to ask him if she should call for help, he was able to answer, "Yes!"

By any healthy person's metric, he hadn't had any quality of life for years. Even so, he wasn't ready to let go yet. He lived for at least three more after that, if memory serves. They were tough and often unpleasant, on him and on my mom. But worth every minute, even so.

julie said...

Michael, that's a good way to think of it. Also, considering all the necessary steps of purification required just to allow even a single person into the Holy of Holies, how much more was necessary before a person could be born who would even be capable of nurturing that same holy presence within her very body? As if just anyone could have been Mary.

mushroom said...

Christianity comes through Mother/Child. I can see that. It's interesting, then, to think back to the Fall where you only have adults, and God, as Julie pointed out, acting as Father more than Mother.

Great post. I missed you all last week.