Berfrois

The Hermeneutics of Babies

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by Cecile Alduy

Babies are usually the stuff of private life, clichés, and endearing memories that we check out as we set foot on campus grounds. Yet babies are the greatest–and arguably the cutest–hermeneutic subjects. We talk and teach about death, love, sexuality, gender, psychology, war, truth, the body, and yet we are excluding one of the most foundational of human experiences: being a mother or father; and being a baby.

Of course, there are many historical reasons for this loophole: for centuries, infants and children under seven were not even counted in the household number because of the high chances that they would die before that age; in the upper classes, wet nurses rather than mothers would take care of infants well into childhood, so that the current emphasis in our culture on “the bonding phase” in the first days and weeks and months of a newborn belongs to the very recent modern psychological makeup of motherhood in Western cultures; women writers have been an epiphenomena in the history of the literature establishment and more often than not have adopted writing codes that precluded any relation of their specific experiences as mothers, a taboo topic in many ways because of its connection to birthing, nursing, and all the forbidden body parts involved in those two activities. And of course, there is the historicity of the notion of “baby” as we know it—a cultural, economic and imaginary construct embraced only fairly recently as a widespread, non-gender-specific object of endearment and desire (that is to say, an object of collective fantasy for men and women alike, and one that is partially constructed and endlessly exploited by media culture, advertising and all sorts of merchandising enterprises).

It does not help that infants have been conceptualized from the start as infans—those who don’t speak (curiously, les enfants [children] derive from the same root, even as the word extend now all the way until adolescence. That says a lot about what used to be for a long time the French conception of how much what kids have to say matters. But before the word bébé appeared at the end of the 18th century, newborns were called enfants, the most famous of them being l’enfant Jésus. In Rabelais, neither Gargantua nor Pantagruel are considered babies — for good reasons since the concept doesn’t exist yet — even as their infancy is described with great humor: their mothers give birth to their enfant and then promptly disappear, whether they die or exit forever the narrative. So long for the present-day emphasis on mother-infant intimacy. Gargantua immediately speaks two words – à boire — and therefore leaves behind a realm without words or timelines to enter a world where storytelling can take place. Our discursive space has historically not been too much interested in those who remain outside of its own boundaries, at least from Descartes onward. Yet, it is because babies remain for some time untouched by the strictures of collective tongues that their systems of making sense of the world and their means of expression are so fascinating to me.

Babies are hermeneutic subjects par excellence. When they come out of the womb, none of our dichotomies apply, not even outside and inside one’s body, day and night, me and you. And every waking hour they start interpreting the world: noticing patterns (nap then lunch, bath-book-song then sleep), contrasts (wet/dry, mom’s arms/dad’s arms, banging on a small yogurt pot/on a large one), cruxes of signifiers (mom’s endlessly changing facial expression, sounds, movement, versus the mobile above the crib), and reference points that anchor their lives into a recognizable, hospitable, shall we say human world (the doudou, mom’s smell, the blankie, soon something like “home”). As much as we try to read them, they are readers of the world: they approach the most ordinary object as a universe to explore, a mystery to decipher. Not a single object is common, because at first nothing has anything in common with anything else. Before categories exist to sap our enjoyment of the here and now by concealing everything under a name, thus creating the illusion we know them, each thing is a unique instance of just itself. So here they are, navigating a sea of ever changing information, where very little is ever the same for lack of being remembered or even consciously differentiated or apprehended as separate from a magma of other singular experiences, in a learning experiment that spans everything from what air feels like in one’s lung to the difference between liquids and solids, experiencing the world without ever naming it. Quite an immersion program, where no possible translation into any reference language or culture exists, where the very shape of space and time, the boundaries of one’s skin are still fluid. The amount of “newness” in a single minute of a baby’s day is daunting. And the rate of their epistemological adjustment is staggering.

Yet just as fascinating is how swiftly they learn to point at things and designate them with sounds that, without a doubt, are the equivalent to them of what words are to us. Only 15 months into this incredibly complex whirlpool of sensations and cycles of needs, frustrations and pleasures that a baby’s life is, and they are already masters of deixis. Soon, they start dividing the world along Sausurrien lines: black and white, hungry and full, before/after.

To say nothing of their emotional intelligence: while adults seem to develop the strange reader’s ability to zone out, block out, and genuinely overlook subtle or not-so-subtle cues (and even explicit statements) from others while priding themselves for their mastery of language, infants pick up on unspoken feelings, tensions, moods, a crack in the voice, an hesitation, an unconscious desire. With such psychological and epistemological richness, it is still surprising, and slightly frustrating, to see so few babies even in the most post-modern,novels or in philosophical discussions. (A few very recent exceptions are Darrieusecq’s Le bébé and Nancy Houston, Ligne de Faille and Journal de la creation). What other literary challenge would be as daring, and as profound, as trying to convey the world as it is, – this world that exists outside of language, although we seem to be condemned to have to reach for it through language — through babies’ eyes? This world, where we can be, but which we also want to hold, and understand, this world which we seem to be able to caress, celebrate, memorialize, embrace, only through language, how would it look like if we could convey it from the absolutely fresh, open, curious, agile, all embracing perspective of babies?

Piece originally published at ArcadeCreative Commons License
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  • T. Philbanks

    I think Joyce felt a bit of the pull of this “hermeneutic” in opening Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man the way he did. “Nicens,” “tuckoo,” “hairy face,” being sung to.