‘It’s all in the timing’: 100 days not out — my reflections on fatherhood so far (Part B)

I never wanted children. As a Philosophy major, like my intellectual hero, Friedrich W. Nietzsche (1844–1900), I considered my ideas as my progeny. Owing to their take up, or lack thereof, I guess they were orphaned before infancy. Poor bastards.

I’m a big advocate of the antinatalist theories of Peter Wessel Zappfe (1889–1990). Zappfe argues that repression of a

‘damaging surplus of consciousness […] is a requirement of social adaptability and of everything commonly referred to as healthy and normal living’.

He builds upon the ideas of Nietzsche, and Freud (most notably in Civilization and its discontents), who believed that to be ‘humane’ is to repress what is ‘human’. We are chimps who possess/are at the mercy of (depending on your preferred thesis) an extraordinary amount of consciousness in proportion to our physical being-ness in the world (as Heidegger would have it).

Popularised through the mouthpiece of Rust Cohle in series one of HBO’s TV series True Detective (2014), antinatalism holds that consciousness is a ‘tragic misstep in evolution’, and that the human animal is one destined to suffer because of this. The Buddha would certainly side with this, through his three eternal truths: anicca (impermamence), anatta (no self) and dukkha (suffering). Buddha believed that owing to ego clinging, and attachment to sensory experience, that the human animal would suffer owing to being enraptured in a constant cycle (samsara) of craving and aversion. However, Buddha didn’t leave matters to rest there; he proposed a way out of suffering: simply observe the experience of sensation from within the corporeal self and mind, and realise the experiential truth of anicca and anatta. Through this disciplined practice of observance (vipassana), a human being could achieve liberation from samsara, and become a bodhicitta (enlightened one), whose heart becomes open and empathetic following the realisation of the three eternal truths. Fair enough. How then to combine Buddha’s 2,500 years old truths with the contemporary condition? Enter Herr Nietzsche.

As a diagnostician of 19th century fin-de-siècle malaise, and in the face of seismic changes in narratives governing social-life, in the (in)famous aphorism 125 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche presents a parable of a ‘madman’, who proclaims that ‘God is dead’, and that ‘we’, as modern subjects, have killed him. In sum, Nietzsche’s madman is deemed as so by the mob, who observe the passing of God as no bad thing. The madman, however, discerns that the death of God symbolises an epoch in which the narrative of religion as governing social life and morality to have come to an end. With this shift will come a belief in alternative neo-religions, as we the mob, swirling in a metaphysical abyss, will seek to create and sustain meaning in the face of realising that there is arguably none. The challenge this poses is one of nihilism; the belief that there is no ultimate meaning to existence. This, Nietzsche argues, is the greatest challenge facing humanity in the twentieth century. His mature to late works from 1882 onward are an attempt to confront this challenge.

This challenge of nihilism can be met through amor fati, or, a ‘love of fate’, best articulated in section 10 of Ecce Homo (1888), in which Nietzsche postulates:

‘My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants to have nothing different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bear the necessary, still less to conceal it — all idealism is mendaciousness before the necessary — but to love it’.

In other words, Nietzsche’s gambit is to advocate an inversion of the unremitting pessimism of one of his major early philosophical influences, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), with a fervent ‘yes’ saying in the face of the tragicomedy of existence.

A Nietzschean amor fati (which I had tattooed on my right wrist a decade ago to remind myself to not be such a miserable bastard), as well as a process of vipassana (which I subjected myself to through a torturous ten-day silent retreat, also a decade ago — it turns out starting a PhD in Philosophy is a sure fire way to elicit madness and desperation), are both honourable attempts to respond to the perennial challenge of nihilism and suffering. We, these chimps who possess/are possessed by a hyper-consciousness, require narrative to ascribe meaning to existence. As the stories we tell ourselves — ‘I’m a good/bad person, liberal/conservative, Muslim/Jew’ — continually, and necessarily, fail to consistently sustain us throughout our lives as they are contested, proven to be false in the face of evidence etc., we suffer. Antinatalism’s acuity lies in its humble and courageous recognition that the human animal is a necessarily contradictory one.

So, with an appreciation of antinatalism, cognisant of Buddha’s truths and path to liberation, as well as Nietzsche’s acute diagnosis of the contemporary condition, why on earth did I become a father?! Sachin will suffer, my role is to permit him the time, space and energy to process it and reflect upon his own narrativisation.

Narrativity

Viktor Frankl (1905–1997) was a Holocaust survivor, and founder of what he dubbed ‘logotherapy’ (derived from the Ancient Greek ‘logos [λόγος,], or ‘word’). His project can be summarised by the Nietzschean adage/challenge: ‘if we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how’ (2003, p. 6) In essence, we need meaning to sustain ourselves through the travails of existence. Nietzsche’s critical task was, post the death of God, to find meaning in the face of nihilism and pernicious pseudo-religious beliefs; for example, nationalism, neoliberalism etc.

What is my why? When I was a young adult it was often a celebrity sportsperson, actor, musician, who inspired. It was also most intensely a romantic partner (‘you complete me’ bullshit). It then became someone(s) more enduring; namely, my students, through whom I would share my thoughts and ideas for them to reflect upon and return the favour through their assignments. Then, it became the pleasure of writing, reflecting upon and sharing my thoughts just for their own sake (hence this blog), with no expectation of praise or blame, but rather the humble hope that through such sharing, it may inspire others to critically reflect upon their own narratives, too. And then Sachin came to the crease.

Educational theorist Ansgar Allen (2017) argues that:

‘Philosophy … denigrates the physical procreation of birth giving women. The mother who gives birth to life is superseded in thought by the philosopher who gives birth to ideas. According to this conceit, this fruit of masculine conception, there could be no higher calling than philosophy, of giving birth to ideas by one’s own sex. Unlike women who produce in body nothing that endures beyond death, the philosopher (and misogynist) gives birth as he conceives: namely, in spirit’ (pp. 29–30).

This was my conceit; my Nietzschean (and he was a most certainly a misogynist) belief in my ideas as progeny led to an implicit disregard for actual womanhood and childbirth. Philosophy, however, isn’t completely redundant in fatherhood. My mum recently asked, ‘has Philosophy actually helped you’? It depends what you mean by ‘help’, right? Philosopher, and father of two, Scott Samuelson observes that

‘parenting is not at all unlike philosophy … it takes you on this journey where you usually start off with some great abstract concept, like, I’m going to raise my kids the right way and not like all these other fools. Then reality comes crushing down and you begin to see all your shortcomings, which can be tough and debilitating, but it could also lead you back to the common life, and allow you to see things afresh again’.

Be humble, as Kendrick would have it. Now a father, much to the pleasure of my partner, Vikki, I’m no longer able to navel gaze and intellectually masturbate (or physically masturbate, for that matter!) like I once used to. The amount of times I’ve tried to get in the right head space to sit and write this is testament to my inability to concentrate for sustained periods anymore. In fact, I’m writing this surrounded by a mess of baby clothes, nappies and breast milk stained flooring.

But, I’ll make plain what you already know: life is fucking messy. Religions, ideologies, and all manner of ‘isms and schisms’ (as the Rasta ideology would have it), all seek to impart meaning, structure and order to the chaotic (Dionysian) elements of existence. I commenced my formal education in Philosophy with the desire to know. Knowing, I thought, would result in wisdom, peace and happiness. Cute, right? Instead, what I’ve learned is that we are just a hodgepodge of the stories we collectively tell each other and propagate. With fatherhood, my ‘why’ is to raise our son to be kind, honest and self-reflective, in what I deem to be an insane society that puts profit over people and the planet; nature is, we are, there is no separation — reification is violence.

I continually reflect and aim to exercise patient and present awareness; it’s humbling and comedic to be interrogating Adorno’s critiques of Jazz whilst your baby is, quite literally, shitting on your chest. It is quite paradoxical (and, dare I say borderline pathological!) to critically reflect upon one’s experience in a philosophical manner, share it for others to enjoy/ignore/dismiss, and claim to not be concerned about praise or blame. But, that is genuinely my hope for this. Rather, it is to stimulate you to critically reflect upon your own narrative. What story have you, do you, and will you tell yourself, and others, about what you think you are, and the role you play in the lives of others? Why is there something, rather than nothing? Fuck if I know. What I do know is that, as Buddhist monk Pema Chodron observes, there is no ultimate point, goal or telos. Simply put: ‘the path is the goal’. I’m enjoying walking it with Sachin as my batting partner.

References

Allen, A. 2017. The Cynical Educator. Leicester: Mayfly.

Cederstrom, C. 2018. ‘The philosopher as bad dad’. The New York Times. June 11. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/11/opinion/philosophy-fatherhood.html

Chodron, P. 2008. Comfortable with uncertainty. Boston, Mass.: Shambhala.

Frankl, V. E. 2011. Man’s search for ultimate meaning. London: Rider.

Nietzsche, F. W. 2000. Basic Writings, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: The Modern Library.

Nietzsche, F. W. 2001. The Gay Science, ed. Bernard Williams, trans. Josephine Nauckhoff. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nietzsche, F. W. 2003. Twilight of the Idols and the Anti-Christ, trans. R. J. Hollingdale. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Zappfe. P. W. 1933. The Last Messiah. Available from: https://philosophynow.org/issues/45/The_Last_Messiah

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Sunny Dhillon

Sunny Dhillon

Lecturer in Education Studies (Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, UK). PhD in Philosophy. Interests: Critical Theory, Nietzsche, Krishnamurti.