élan vital

So I’ve been traveling a lot for work lately. Sometimes you luck out in the places you go, and while I was in Hawaii I decided to visit the U.S.S. Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor, because it’s not all kayaking and Spam when you’re hanging out in paradise — you have to come to grips with a little reality every now and then. The Parks Service is more than willing to help you out with this; when you go to the Arizona they make you watch a movie first which tastefully shows actual kamikaze planes crashing into our ships on the morning of December 7. I, your faithful guide, point this out, because the film itself gives no warning that there’s going to be that kind of imagery, and then BLAMMO! (Take that, little old lady from Indiana who wanted to see something vaguely historical!)

Anyway, after the movie you stagger out of the dark and onto a dock and they take you by boat out to the memorial, which looks like this:

The U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor

I think it’s meant to be as though you’re standing on the bridge of the ship, which is submerged in the water beneath you.


I learned some interesting things while at the memorial. The Arizona was sunk with a full fuel tank; 1.5 million gallons of oil went to the floor of the harbor with it, and that oil leaks out slowly. In the 70 years since the attack, nearly 900,000 gallons have escaped into the seawater around the ship.

Yes, it IS polluting the harbor, but for very patriotic reasons.

There are also visitors you wouldn’t expect. Apparently Japanese tourists periodically come by and offer flowers and (I’m guessing) apologies.

The Japanese awkwardly bring us some flowers.

It’s surprisingly touching. Now I wonder if I shouldn’t go to Hiroshima and do something similar. I’ve always been suspicious of people who think their country should never apologize for anything. Leave aside all question of who was right and who was wrong for a minute. Assume that we were right to drop the bomb. Sometimes you have to do horrible things, but there’s no reason you can’t admit afterwards that you regret having done it, regardless of whether you thought it was justified.

The memorial also has a program to allow surviving members of the Arizona‘s crew to have their cremated remains interred in the ship. Sailors who were assigned to the Arizona prior to, but not on the day of, the Pearl Harbor attack may have their ashes scattered on the waves over the ship. But it’s the actual lowering of someone’s earthly remnants into the hull itself that I find interesting. It reflects a kind of loyalty to the very bodies of the dead long after either science or religion would say that any part of consciousness remains in those bodies. It’s superstition, but a gentle, loving sort of superstition — a kind of persistence of vision that allows us to imagine our comrades trapped, even yet, down in the gloom and cold of the long-flooded compartments, and to want to keep them company.

Later in my travels, Elana and H. came out to join me in Washington state, which was good because at that point I had missed about six weeks of his short little life. It’s been interesting catching up. When I left him, he was still what we affectionately referred to as “plant baby”: he pooped and slept and ate and slept and squirmed and slept and pooped and ate and sometimes he would smile in brief, transient flashes, but it didn’t seem to have anything to do with outside stimulus. Whereas now he cranes his head around to look at you and watches people’s mouths when they talk, and he loves to sit up and turn his head from side to side, and also — his greatest trick — he will totally mimic you if you make a sound that he knows how to make. (He has said, so far, “Okay!” and “Guy!” and “Yeah!” and once he said “Guyum!” when I said “Diamonds,” though that might be a stretch.) Also, just a few days ago he started reliably sticking out his tongue in response to the tongues of others.

He is also enormously fat and rosy, at least compared to the slightly purple and starved little stick figure who was born to us three months ago. He looks like this:

Our baby's future.

So he has changed tremendously, and without underestimating the spectacular role his mother has played in his development, there’s a sense in which seeing him change and grow is like seeing a watchspring unwind. Milestones click along with unnerving regularity. I feel certain that you could cause your child’s internal human-making mechanism to fail or falter through neglect or mistreatment, but H. has the benefit of love and attention and a lot of milk, and he’s sticking to his timetable with rigid consistency.

Since having a baby, I’ve thought a lot about the Arthur C. Clarke novel Rendezvous With Rama, in which a long hollow tube from space enters our solar system and turns out to be populated with weird robots. At first it’s thought that the ship’s inhabitants have died, but one scientist theorizes that

“What we failed to take into account was the possibility of nonbiological survival. If we accept Dr. Perera’s very plausible theory… the creatures who have been observed inside Rama did not exist until a short time ago. Their patterns, or templates, were stored in some central information bank, and when the time was ripe they were manufactured from available raw materials — presumably the organometallic soup of the Cylindrical Sea…. From our point of point of view, it does not matter if the Ramans themselves have all been dead for a million years, or whether they, too, will be re-created, to join their servants, at any moment. With or without them, their will is being done, and will continue to be done.”

Having a baby is a lot like watch the mysterious space cylinder develop robots from organometallic goo. It’s fascinating, but often you feel like a witness to a process that has nothing to do with you. The robots just sort of conjure themselves out of virtually nothing, are your guests and the subjects of your constant curiosity for a little while, and then continue on their way out of your solar system to places where you can’t follow. It’s awesome and weird and a little alienating, though this particular mystery robot has turned out to be pretty cute.

He seems very relaxed about this.

It strikes me that the Rama narrative is also a good analogy for what I consider to be the fundamental problem people have with abortion, which is that we are not really very good at dealing with continuous processes. Our brains like to see things in concrete steps and we love clear lines of demarcation. But our Henry started out as a template and some raw materials and built himself (again, with his mother’s help) into a weird little robot that carries out peculiar and impenetrable tasks — such as language learning — and as time goes on he will create from nothing a fully sentient and engaged Raman, but unlike in Clarke’s book there’s no very good line separating one stage from the other. There’s no point at which he stops being goo and becomes a robot, or stops being a robot and becomes a person with thoughts and ideas and fears and hopes. It’s a gradual process of moving along a continuum, and if you can’t tell where blue ends and green begins on a color spectrum, how can you hope to tell at what point in the journey from cell to man one becomes fully human?

Man, people hate that.

Which is why some people set the line at fertilization and essentially say that some soup and a plan constitutes a human being. Of course, if that’s the case then why not go further and say that wasting sperm is the taking of a potential human life as well? DOWN WITH ONANISM!

On the other hand, ethicists both modern and ancient have tried to set the line at various post-fertilization benchmarks — at the first breath, at quickening, at the first sign of neurological activity, when blood first appears in the embryo — and have rarely succeeded in not looking arbitrary. At the end of the day I have some sympathy for anti-abortionists on this point — where you choose to say life begins seems to be purely a measure of where your conscience kicks in. We have emotional reactions to certain ideas, and then we go looking for “scientific” or “rational” arguments to support what is clearly an intuitive judgement call. (Some are more sentimental than others on this point. My parents used to joke, when they were annoyed with me, that abortion was legal until the age of fourteen. At least I think they were joking.)

The truth is that the human mind is excellent at association and categorization and thoroughly lousy (at least without a lot of training) at ambiguity and sliding scales. It’s troubling to look honestly at a frog and admit that it’s clearly more alive, more conscious, and even more deserving of the right to live than is a single-celled zygote.

The human mind is also excellent at dealing with the ethics of social relationships, but this aspect of our brilliant intelligence fails, too, in the gloomy twilight of gestational symbiosis. The demands that a fetus puts on a woman’s body are unique in the ecology of human interaction. In practically no other situation does one person’s life depend so wholly on another, and in no other situation is one person’s body held so absolutely hostage to the needs of another. Yet we insist on treating the situation as we would any other ethical struggle, as a contest of rights and obligations between two separate parties. Both feminists and anti-abortionists act as though they are defenders of a someone whose obvious right (to life, to personal autonomy) is being usurped, rather than acknowledging that the two “people” might be better seen as one biological continuity that gradually splits into two over time.

I don’t have a good solution for the limitations of human ethical thought — they seem deeply embedded in our brains, so much so that it’s hard for us even to admit that there might be ethical problems we’re not equipped to think about. But I think this might be one, and I think it might be worth a little humility and forbearance — and certainly a recognition that the legal system is far too blunt an instrument to properly parse that continuum.

The truth is that we don’t know what makes us human. We can’t figure out when it enters us, and even when it’s manifestly gone — as in the case of the lost sailors at the bottom of Pearl Harbor — we feel traces of it where it used to be. All we can do is watch it unfurl in the young, catch it while it’s still changing fast enough to be visible.


2 responses to “élan vital

  1. Very thought provoking, and an interesting read. Thanks for that.

    I had an opportunity to visit the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum when my ship pulled in for liberty in the early ’90’s. It was an exceedingly strange experience, and I felt weirdly responsible for the aftermath of the bomb, even though it happened before I was born. Perhaps the fact that I was visiting as a member of the Armed Forces had something to do with my discomfort, but I have to say the Japanese were very gracious about a bunch of U.S. Sailors inundating their facility. Most of us donated money to the Museum on our way out, although we didn’t bring flowers.

    Henry’s turning into quite the cutie, BTW.

  2. Stunning that there are people who want to be ‘buried’ in the sunken ship, and even more so that there is a process in place to achieve it. And nice about the flowers.

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