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the slowness of birth

with 11 comments

Like every other “life event,” giving birth has an odder temporality than one is led to expect by ambient cultural models, fiction and movies, and the like. Some of my favorite moments in fiction take up this issue – Emma Bovary’s death, which seems to go on for ever and ever, the slow starvation of Michael K. in Coetzee’s novel.

We’re used to laughing at Emma’s question: Et Emma cherchait à savoir ce que l’on entendait au juste dans la vie par les mots de félicité, de passion, et d’ivresse, qui lui avaient paru si beaux dans les livres. But then again, what words and abstract concepts mean in life is exactly what good novels, like the novel in which she lives, show. And what they show, again and again, is that above all else these things mean a particular way that time passes, generally more slowly than one would expect.

I spend my working life thinking ever more deeply into the following passage from Lukács Theory of the Novel:

The greatest discrepancy between idea and reality [in the novel of romantic disillusionment] is time: the process of time as duration. The most profound and most humiliating impotence of subjectivity consists not so much in its hopeless struggle against the lack of idea in social forms and their human representatives, as in the fact that it cannot resist the sluggish, yet constant process of time; that it must slip down, slowly yet inexorably, from the peaks it has laboriously scaled; that time – that ungraspable, invisibly moving substance – gradually robs subjectivity of all its possessions and imperceptibly forces alien contents into it. That is why only the novel, the literary form of the transcendent homelessness of the idea, includes real time – Bergson’s durée – among its constitutive principles.

I suppose what I should start saying when I say that I don’t believe in the event is that I do in fact believe in events, I just think that those events take time, sometimes astoundingly long periods of time. When I resist the im selben Augenblick temporality of certain strands of the analysis of the modern, this, at base, is what I’m talking about. I am not sure whether I learned to be this way from reading novels, or if I found in the novel a materialization of what I had always been thinking about, looking to think about.

And so here we are. The water (or as they say here, waters) broke last night, and we drove through the deserted streets of North London down to the hospital – a hospital that happens to be located exactly across the street from my place of work. The midwife checked – yes, the waters have broken. Everyone is healthy but no real contractions have started, and so we are sent home. We will return today if they start. Or, if not, we will return tomorrow morning to “be induced.” There was a little bed in the room, pictured above, waiting to catch what came.

This sort of thing happened the last time around too – “giving birth” spread into a two day process. But it still takes one by surprise, when it happens this way. I guess I’ll read the book that I am supposed to review today. If we’re not moving forward tonight, perhaps we’ll check into a hotel downtown, a hotel I pass every day on the way to the Underground, and wait through another night of slowly giving birth.

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 20, 2009 at 10:45 am

Posted in novel, temporality

11 Responses

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  1. Battling through the corpse-strewn lanes of the ever-decaying megalithic pig-city, the child-for-itself excogitates upon the transcendence-to-come of the womb-of-impermanence in a manner conducive to a bright future in academia’s lowest circles of hell.

    David

    April 20, 2009 at 1:24 pm

  2. mmm… thats very good David! Genre fiction!

    Ads

    April 20, 2009 at 1:28 pm

  3. For us, it wasn’t the full duration that so astounded. It was the syncopation. Even during the final, pushing phases, there are long stretches between contractions (2 minutes or so), and during those times (think of it as 65% of 2 hours) the doctor thought it best to chat with us as if we were at a cocktail party. So, where did you two grow up? Oh, I know someone from there. Perhaps you’ve heard of–oh wait, here comes a contraction: focus on the pushing.

    I guess the novelistic equivalent would be something like the knocks on the door in Crime and Punishment. We wait and wait for a knock, and they do keep coming, but the people who enter are there to distract. Until the end, when the detective properly arrives.

    The difference from Bovary would be that for her there is very little real distraction. There are no real events, I would agree, but then there is also no real freedom from the yearning for the event. Either she is questing after fulfillment or failing to find it. Sometimes–even in the birthing process–the temporality is neither of those.

    pollian

    April 20, 2009 at 2:33 pm

  4. I guess the novelistic equivalent would be something like the knocks on the door in Crime and Punishment. We wait and wait for a knock, and they do keep coming, but the people who enter are there to distract. Until the end, when the detective properly arrives.

    Ah, there’s another good Lukacsian materialization, right there.

    There are no real events, I would agree, but then there is also no real freedom from the yearning for the event.

    Someone sort of called me on this recently. I work on the everyday, and yet… But that’s just the point, that’s it – the yearning for the break that you simulataneously know (or keep learning) won’t arrive, at least not like you thought it would.

    Sometimes–even in the birthing process–the temporality is neither of those.

    Right. Especially the second time around, with this or anything. Hard to incorporate into the novel. In Bovary, all the slowly rotating weather-cocks, towns that have been this way and will be this way, and of course the “just now received the Legion of Honour” in the last line etc haunt the other temporality, the foregrounded rhythm, of the text.

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    April 20, 2009 at 2:45 pm

  5. …like the novel in which she lives, show. And what they show, again and again, is that above all else these things mean a particular way that time passes, generally more slowly than one would expect.

    Or, if you happen to live in a novel, how time stops into a perpetual present, even when you die in the book in which you live. (The anti-hipster in me wants to make a Zombie Bovary pseudo-joke, but I refuse to grump on your interminate.)

    That is why only the novel, the literary form of the transcendent homelessness of the idea, includes real time – Bergson’s durée – among its constitutive principles.

    But only a very particular breed of novel, correct? I’ve been reading a lot of Lukacs of late and been very, very annoyed by him (e.g. this) in a way I never had previously. I’m curious as to whether or not you’re applying Lukacs to texts he himself would’ve hated, and if so, whether you know how happy that makes me.

    SEK

    April 20, 2009 at 4:21 pm

  6. Some of that rhythm is fenced by protocols and best practices, too. For our first the waters broke, nothing happened and my partner had to be induced so many hours later. By the time number three came on the scene the protocol had been amended and you could wait a lot longer. The medical profession is becoming more comfortable with inaction, it seems.

    Best of luck.

    Giovanni

    April 20, 2009 at 11:24 pm

  7. CR,

    Congratulations! I hope it all goes smoothly. . .

    Jasper

    April 21, 2009 at 2:38 pm

  8. Belated congratulations!

    As apology for not responding sooner I bring you a reference to slowness:

    one of my undergrad profs had us watch one of the films in Kieślowski’s The Decalogue — A Short Film About Killing. The murder there goes on and on, horribly, because it really does take minutes and minutes for someone to die of strangulation, and the film extends this on and on and makes the viewers ever more upset, making us recognize how neat and tidy and quick cinematic death usually is.

    Sisyphus

    May 1, 2009 at 1:51 am

  9. Ah I actually own The Decalogue on DVD, and really like what I’ve watched, but it was a long time ago and I never quite finished it. I’ll definitely look into this – thanks Sisyphus!

    adswithoutproducts

    May 1, 2009 at 11:16 am

  10. Yes, congratulations! (Though I suppose I should’ve commented to that effect on the other post.)

    (But re: Sisyphus’ comment… A Short Film about Killing is not part of the Decalogue.)

    Richard

    May 1, 2009 at 1:34 pm

  11. Ah, no wonder I haven’t seen it! I’ve seen most of Decalogue and, you know, the Red White Blue sequence, but all of them so so long ago…

    Thanks both of you for the congrats!

    adswithoutproducts

    May 1, 2009 at 2:44 pm


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