I think of my body as a single entity; I think of my family as a team.
Here I am, with my hands hovering over a keyboard. My fingers press keys corresponding to the words I want. I think; I am; this I is in control.
Which is very unlike the behaviors of my family. When I use my own hands to put a plate into the dishwasher, I’ll rinse the plate then slot it neatly into the next available position; when I say to my children, “please put your plates into the dishwasher,” things often end up at odd angles. I might rearrange everything before I run the machine.
My children’s behavior is partly under my control – I can ask them to help, and they know that I’ll be less likely to play board games with them later if they don’t – but my children are also quite clearly independent entities. They have their own goals, their own personalities.
And I know that they’re separate from me. I know that my children aren’t mine to command.
If I were to forget, then I’d perceive the world more like a human baby. Or an adult octopus.
In Marigold and Rose, Louise Glück describes the relationship of two infants, one of whom is designated a writer, in ways vaguely reminiscent of the early chapters of Steven Millhauser’s Edwin Mulhouse.
At times, Glück employs the innocent voices of her protagonists to offer blunt social commentary, such as a critique of our capitalist reflex to undervalue caretaking:
It was also around this time that Mother began to talk about going back to work. She told Father that she wanted to contribute to the household.
If you asked the twins (no one did) they would say that Mother contributed by being Mother. Father explained that to Mother this was different because mothers didn’t get paid and apparently people who got paid contributed and people who didn’t get paid were no help at all.
The twins saw right through this.
As I was reading Marigold and Rose, however, I found myself wishing that Glück engaged with the fundamental (and fascinating!) differences between adult and infant consciousness.
Admittedly, it’s hard to understand the inner experiences of creatures who can’t speak to us, as Thomas Nagel ponders in the essay “What Is It like to Be a Bat?” But, honestly, we can’t fully understand the inner experiences of anyone, no matter how many words they use to convey their feelings. In “The Bear’s Kiss,” Leslie Jamison writes that:
When we love animals, we love creatures whose conception of love we’ll never fully understand. We love creatures whose love for us will always be different from our love for them.
But isn’t this, you might wonder, the state of loving other people as well? Aren’t we always flinging our desire at the opacity of another person, and receiving care we cannot fully comprehend?
So we try our best. With our romantic partners, our friends, our children, we can ask questions and listen. Each question is a science experiment. Our inquiring words perturb the system; we carefully observe what happens next. What facial expressions flit across our interlocutor’s face? If they answer, what do they say?
Similarly, we’ve used experiments to delve into the inner lives of bats. We observe them carefully, trying our best to comprehend. We’ve learned that their brains are quite large relative to their tiny bodies. Some are intensely social: they huddle near & share food with their friends. The males of several species have very large genitalia (again, relative to their tiny bodies) and delight their partners with oral stimulation. They use echolocation to navigate through unfamiliar or crowded areas, but will flit unthinkingly through their usual haunts – much like the way we shuffle mindlessly toward the kitchen every morning – and crash into unexpected spelunkers. They are very different from us, and not.
Over time, it’s unclear whether we might better understand what it would feel like to be a bat, or what it would feel like to be Thomas Nagel.
Or a human baby.
Or an octopus.
As best we can tell, very young babies perceive their bodies as extending through space. My first child, seeing me across the room, would have perceived her legs as being across the room. Those were the legs that moved her from place to place.
At the time, she was still developing control over her body. Her face would sometimes make expressions like smiles, sometimes like horrible grimaces, cycling through countenances like a 1990s screensaver. And it took a long while before she understood exactly how to move her arm toward something instead of flailing wildly until she happened to hit it.
Later, she spent several days with her hand in front of her face, gazing in awe as the fingers clenched and then extended. Our brains devote so many neurons to the manipulation of our hands! She was figuring them out.
And, at that time, she could control “her” legs – my legs, across the room – almost as well as she could control any other muscle. She activated her legs with a yell, she directed them by bobbling her head in one direction or another. Sometimes her legs did what she wanted, sometimes they didn’t, but that was true of every muscle in her body.
Which an adult octopus would understand. Each tentacle has a mind of its own, a brain with its own distinct personality. The octopus’s central nervous system sometimes commands coordinated action from every tentacle – the way my children’s bodies and mine all scamper toward the door when I suddenly exclaim “We have to get in the car right now or we’re going to be late for school!” – but at other times, each tentacle acts independently.
Human babies and adult octopuses both behave as though their consciousness is decentralized.
In Marigold and Rose, however, the infants think and behave like miniature adults, much like the babies painted by medieval artists. When Marigold watches her mother, she knows that she’s observing an entity separate from herself:
Mother did not spend a lot of time on the blanket; she was energetic and purposeful. This must be why she had twins, Marigold thought, instead of a regular baby. It was known Father had wanted a goldfish. The twins watched from the blanket. It was still safe there; they couldn’t as yet crawl.
In all fairness, I’m not sure how well adult readers would understand the inner monologue of an infant depicted accurately: perhaps the first sentence of this scene would sound something like, my legs were restless & left the blanket; my milk was far away.
But we’d soon reach thoughts that would be difficult to translate into adult understanding. My favorite passages from Jazmina Barrera’s Linea Nigra toy with this incomprehension (as translated by Christina MacSweeney):
For no particular reason, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand and translate into Spanish a couple of sentences by Megan O’Rourke: “A mother is beyond any notion of a beginning. That’s what makes her a mother: you cannot start the story.”
I’m getting those lines mixed up with a poem by Katie Schmid called “The Boatman”:
— In the afterlife the first face I see is my mother’s. —
— Every mother is the boatman, having once been the boat. —
I keep trying but the Spanish words won’t say what I mean.
There’s a deep strangeness at the beginning of each of our lives. We were much like cephalopods, once; by the time we reach adulthood (or even childhood!), we have forgotten.
We sailed a parent’s body, a living boat. Later, blinking in the light of the world, our bodies spread throughout the room.