Nonfiction / Kascha Semonovitch
:: Descartes and Doulas ::
When I went into labor, my doula asked me think of a mantra—something I could repeat—for the early part of the process. For this phase, my doula said, I needed something that took a little concentration, took a little of my mind because I would not yet be all body. Some people liked to look at pictures or sing or dance. Or repeated a poem or a prayer. Just repeating om om or humming would work for when, honestly, it just doesn’t matter what you’re thinking because you’ll probably just be making nail marks in your partner’s shoulders or shitting yourself. But for this part I needed a little phrase to say and say again to keep the mind busy.
She thought maybe I could recite a piece of poetry I had memorized. This horrified me. Instead, I choice to recite the structure of Descartes’s Meditations as laid out in the synopsis. In retrospect, I can see how I sound like an arrogant academic. But it was honestly the best thing I could think of at the time: it was something I had memorized while teaching to the point of entirely internalizing it so that I could think it even while distressed. “Distressed” in reference to active labor is one of those awesome euphemisms only childbirth educators would use. If you’re “distressed” in labor it is in the way that distressed fabric has been beaten or dyed until it changes structure. It will never look the same.
My doula and I, it turns out, didn’t get along. I never spoke to her again after she “successfully” guided me through an un-medicated labor. At the end of the labor, my pelvis broke in two, and I couldn’t walk for months. She didn’t visit me in the hospital.
But in the beginning, I trusted her, and I picked the synopsis of Descartes’s book. It is one of the most common required texts in introductory philosophy classes, and also one of my favorites. This is the structure of the text:
1. Doubt all things.
2. Prove the existence of the mind.
3. Prove the existence of God.
4. Determine criteria for truth.
5. Prove God again.
6. Prove the existence of the external world and the division of the mind and body.
In early labor—which for me lasted about fifteen minutes because I had a baby in three hours—I repeated, One doubt all, two prove the mind, three prove God, fourth truths, five prove God again, six the world, one doubt all, two prove the—
Then, I would get interrupted by pain and start again. It’s a little like the habit of counting steps while you’re running; not all runners do it, but I know many who will simply count steps when the body has pleasantly taken over the mind so that counting is about all that’s left.
Repeating the structure of The Meditations made sense as mantra. The content of The Meditations made absolutely no sense at all.
The Meditations are all about structure. Formal, logical structure. For teaching purposes, the point of reading The Meditations is not at all to show they are correct. The lessons include learning how to make distinctions, how to develop terminology, how to trace the origin of terminology through history.
But the big reason we teach the text is that it demonstrates how a logical structure must be consistent and that that structure can be an effect persuasive technique. And that starting from the wrong premises can lead you to the wrong conclusions. The text’s logic is hard to refute if you can’t dispute the premises. If you really let yourself go in a reading of The Meditations, you are persuaded by it.
When the book opens, Descartes is alone. He is in his bedroom with some free, private time: “I have today suitably freed my mind of all cares, secured for myself a period of leisurely tranquility, and am withdrawing into solitude.”
The laboring body does not have this privilege. As a parent one abdicates the right to privacy for many years; laboring takes away that privilege entirely. Practically, especially in the U.S., you simply are not allowed to be alone when laboring. I chose to have my husband and doula with me for comfort; at the hospital, the nurses had to stay within earshot and at least with those partners. I shat myself over and over in front of at least three people. It could have been a city; I don’t know. Privacy was not an option.
But existentially as well, I was not alone. I was not; the single letter “I,” standing there alone, does not refer to the pregnant body. The pregnant body is not isolated. It is not a container for two minds or a stack of mind-body Russian dolls. The pregnant body is a variation on all bodies; mind a flower on the stalk and seed of body. In labor, it isn’t possible to wonder if you are alone: the imminences of a force that is not you ruptures your sense of self along with your labia.
The uterus almost turns inside out in the final phases. In our birthing class, the midwife demonstrated it by pulling a large, knit, wool sock over a baby doll and then pushing the baby out, leaving an invert sock. The image stayed with me.
The baby would initiate that. This was supposed to be a miraculous revelation—our babies were already communicating with us. I heard not beauty but a sci-fi movie voice intoning, We are not alone. I know I wasn’t alone in the class in thinking that this was horrifying; the aliens inside would decide when we got turned inside out.
By contrast, Descartes, lonely male, decides he has to prove he is not alone: “If this objective reality of any of my ideas is found to be so great that I am certain that the same reality was not in me, either formally or eminently, and that therefore I myself cannot be the cause of the idea, then it necessarily follows that I am not alone in the world.”
The content of The Meditations not only does not fit the state of laboring but it does not fit the state of living either. Even for a person privileged with solitude, this proof makes no sense if you look at the body. No mammal bodies lack proof. If, instead of only metaphorically navel-gazing, Descartes had literally keeled over and peered into his navel, he would have seen evidence that, at least once, he had not been alone in the world. He too once dehisced.
In the logic of the text, Descartes would argue that he could not address his navel because he’s not sure it’s his. At the same time, he admits between meditations that this bodily disconnect is hard to maintain for the length of time it takes to read a sentence or an entire meditation. The body never ceases exerting its gravity on the mind and a proper proof takes this into the equation.
But the funny thing about the mind is that it can convince itself, if even for a little while, that it is not the body. You can feel, while tapping away at your computer, while losing track of time, while checking out of a conversation, while deceiving yourself about pain or about perceptual scale—the phantom limb, the perspectival twist of a tall building—that you are not the same as your deceptive senses.
That odd duplicity of the mind—to know it is not separate and to try to be—is worth paying attention to. Even though it might not be correct to say we are mind and body, we often feel it is.
But not when we’re having a baby.
When I pushed the baby out, the ligament that connects the two bones of the pelvis let go. Without that support, I couldn’t walk. So after working so hard to have a VBAC—a vaginal birth after C‑section—I was more bed-bound than any C‑section patient. I couldn’t turn myself over in bed; I couldn’t pee or poop alone. When I finally went home, I was wheelchair and walker-bound for a few months.
The worst part, however, was that I was in the hospital alone for five days without sleeping. A few hours after they put the baby on my chest, my husband went to the bathroom and puked. A sturdy virus had him and my three-year-old vomiting for days. As a result, they couldn’t come to the maternity ward.
I called my doula. She said she had decided to change careers. As in, she had decided that very evening. She said that to me at two in the morning. I don’t think it was entirely me and my failed Cartesian meditation—I think she’d reached a point of exhaustion and age and she’d run out—but I was the immediate casualty.
So there I was, alone in the hospital bed, not able to roll over and definitely not able to sleep. Since I’m bipolar, this was especially a problem. My husband wasn’t there and my OB was out of town and my doula quit, so no one mentioned the state of my mind. On the fourth night I saw the wallpaper move—there was no wallpaper in the hospital—and I heard voices waking me up and I wasn’t asleep. I called for my husband even though he hadn’t slept much for a few days either, and he, beloved, got up and left the sick three-year-old with a friend.
But I still couldn’t sleep. The next day, after figuring out how to get a wheelchair into our old house, they got me home, and everyone hoped I’d sleep better. I didn’t, and it took some heavy anti-psychotics to bring me down.
The fun stuff comes at the beginning of The Meditations—Descartes considering how often he’s been wrong when trusting his eyes, speculating that all the people on the street outside might be “automata,” wondering whether he might be mad, if his senses might be controlled by an evil demon. Could we merely be brains in a vat, minds stimulated by some evil genius? Could the world be an illusion like The Matrix? Could, well, the wallpaper be moving on its own? Fun questions for intro philosophy classes.
But in the end, Descartes is not a fun guy. He’s not an artist but an architect, and the boring kind, working in CAD. He lays down an epistemological foundation one irrefutable fact after the other: if I say I am thinking, then I must be somewhere thinking; if I existence something better than me and more reliable must have made me; all those things I have proved in the same way I would prove mathematical formulations, so I will use that model from now on for everything; look how well it works for God—God is as obvious as a triangle; given how perfect God is, he wouldn’t be deceiving me about my feeling that the world is really there and that body and mind are separate.
By the end, the body and the world are back. The body is real, but the body is not the self—because the self can see this, can make this distinction. The reliable mind has proved the world is also reliable and ready for study by physics. Descartes, anxious to participate in the new empirical science, wanted to get out of the house of ontology and on to physics. Because the mediations claim to end thinking on this topic definitively, Descartes’s “meditation” practice is, in a way, the opposite of philosophical thinking. Philosophical thinking, reflection, is never really over; it always goes after the next distinction, the finer clarification.
Still, still, Descartes is worth reading. Descartes is fascinating because even in his failure, he draws your attention to the edifice of self you’ve been standing in. My goodness, you say, but this thing is fragile, the cornerstone is immaterial. This self is blown away with a little metaphysical wind. We better build a better thing.
My experience of those who love to philosophize is that they love the questions Descartes posed no matter what he concluded. They love to stand at the doorway of the house of metaphysics and wonder if it will fall down on their heads. They wonder about going mad, even if it’s the poets who most often do. Even for Daniel Dennett, who dismisses the homunculus as laughable, The Meditations serves as what he calls an intuition pump. The mediations stir up desire. The text is a getting-our-hearts-minds-going tool. In other words, it needs the body and its desires to compel us to read it.
I was horrified at my doula’s suggestion that I recite poetry because I knew it would make me feel too much; it wouldn’t help me be a mind, it would get me going, adding emotional fuel to the fire.
But in fact, The Meditations also get my heart going. They fill me with hope for thinking. They remind me of the pleasure of the mind, of the clickety-clack of the epistemological hammer and the fun of looking at the structure together.
The Meditations is a post-partum text. When we are not in labor, we feel the little fire of fear that we are alone. The post-partum body now holds the other little body outside and can’t be sure of it anymore. The wallpaper moves beneath sleep worn perception.
In a story in Changing Planes, Ursula K. Le Guin imagines an ontology where people are like birds; in youth, everyone says fiercely, Let’s go to the city, everyone leaves the distant nests and flies together and works away, and then after a bit, the wind changes, and they look at each other and say, Isn’t it time to go home? and they wing to the country, have babies, and die only when the babies are ready to fly away. No laborer would need a doula to stand in for the comfort of others.
But we are not birds who migrate together at the twitch of the light. Seasons of the mind do not coincide. Even when bodies communicate, the baby initiating its way outside, the mind resists, convinces itself it can stay. Flockless, we let our young depart like the dead.
The navel is, after all, a scar.
I wasn’t very good at being in labor; I cried, I begged for the epidural, I hated the doula, I hated all of it, I wanted to get back to my mind. In retrospect, I would choose medication, peace, less fuel, less fire. There’s enough to be when having a baby.
I haven’t taught The Meditations or anything else since I had my second child. I have a great deal of selfless life, and a child named Lucian, from luce, the light—all that endless light, the light of the mind, that light that kept me up thinking until there was no more thinking left.
I may not teach, but I still read, and I read The Meditations for me, for the pleasure of noticing that little sense of self that keeps deceiving itself into existence. And for the pleasure of fear that follows. A doula offers comfort. There is no comfort for suffering of life, for the suffering that results from merely having a mind. Laboring toward a baby leads to no more safe conclusions about the self than The Meditations. All I can say after is that it’s all right to let a little deception continue; it’s all right to think you are your singular self, to enjoy the deception of mental life.
From the writer
:: Account ::
This piece recounts a labor. I wrote it because that event keeps ramifying through my life. Birth doesn’t end with the end of labor. Women are encouraged to go back to the workplace, to lean in, as if a singular mind-body had not existentially irrupted into two. As a philosopher, I can’t think through birth in the terms of the texts I have been trained on. These texts were primarily written by male authors, privileged with a privacy I have never had since giving birth.
Kascha Semonovitch’s poems and essays have appeared in journals including Quarterly West, The Bellingham Review, Zyzzyva, the Kenyon Review, and others, and in the chapbook Genesis by Dancing Girl Press. She has received a PhD in philosophy from Boston College, an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson College, and fellowships at the MacDowell Colony and the Ucross Foundation. The editor of two collections of philosophical essays, she has taught philosophy at Boston College, Seattle University, and the Hugo House in Seattle. She runs an art gallery in Seattle.