Below is the second of a series of three posts occasioned by my recent reading of French psychoanalyst Jacques André’s Les désordres du temps (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2010). I thank Barbara Kowalczuk, one of my readers, for calling my attention to that work.
II. The After-Birth
Every birth is premature. Every baby comes before it is due.
Every birth is premature from two different perspectives at once: the perspective of the one being born, and the perspective of those to and among whom that one is born. So, for example, it is both for the baby itself and for its parents that every baby comes before it is due. Every baby arrives unexpected, from both perspectives.
For the baby itself, it can hardly “expect” its own birth, precisely because until then it isn’t even born yet. There is, in effect, no one there to expect itself, until that one is first born.
With regard to those to and among whom the baby is borne, to the mother who bears the baby and to those around her–fathers, consorts, family, and, in general, the whole community into which the child will be born–every birth occurs before any of them can expect the one yet to be born, either. Of course, we say that pregnant women are “expecting” a child, and talk of “expectant parents” awaiting the birth of a child; but what is expected or awaited is always just that, a child. The actual child who eventually gets born, however, is never just a child, it is precisely this child, the one who actually shows up at birth; and that child, the one actually born, always comes as a surprise, never as someone expected. How could one expect the arrival of someone one has never met–nor ever could have, since it is someone who has not even been born yet?
I am waiting for someone—perhaps someone I’ve requested be sent to fix something on my computer, for instance. Whenever I am thus waiting for someone to come, if I do not know just who that “someone” will actually turn out to be, regardless of whether the one to come turns out to be someone I have met before or not, then it is always as someone un-expected that that actual one eventually shows up at my door. That holds true even—perhaps even most especially—when I nevertheless already know well in advance that “someone” is coming. So, for example, an expectant mother may know nine months in advance that a child is on the way. But just who that child will turn out to be, upon arrival, the expectant mother does not know, and cannot know, until the child itself arrives, all unexpected and as a complete surprise. So it is, indeed, with all arrivals, really. We may be waiting longingly for our savior to appear, to give another example. But the savior we are sent always comes as an unexpected surprise–perhaps even a thoroughly unpleasant one. Our redeemer may live, but if he shows up at our door suddenly and is not at all what we expected, we may miss our chance at redemption. Or, arriving at the same doom by a different route, we may confuse the one sent to rescue us with some vacuous but attractive fellow with the Nordic good looks we may have been expecting, and go off with him to our doom, refusing to let ourselves be saved by the real rescuer—like running away from a true and loving spouse for a fling with an itinerant, no-account drummer, to use a now dated image.
Thus, the arrival of what truly arrives–rather than just the showing up yet one more time of the same old thing come ‘round again, like the proverbially bad penny—is always an unexpected arrival. On the other hand, however, yet inseparable from such an impossibility of expecting the coming one, the one on the way, the one to be born as itself and both by and among others: “One cannot really be born, unless one has been expected,” as Jacques André writes, at one point in his book on “the disorders of time” (page 85). As a gift refused, left un-received, is thereby shorn of fulfillment of its own intention as a gift, and falls short of itself, as it were, so is a birth that arrives unexpected, indeed, as a kind of interruption of expectations, rather than being joyfully welcomed as an arrival long awaited and lovingly prepared for, in effect cut off short of full birth. An unexpected birth is a birth left hanging, not yet fully brought to term—something still unachieved, yet to be completed.
In that regard, what we ordinarily think of simply as one’s birthday and birthplace—the date, time, and location that appear on one’s birth-certificate or the equivalent—might better be called the day, hour, and location at which one’s birth first came truly to be at stake. It was then and there, at that exact time and place, that one’s birth itself—one’s very own birth, one’s birth not just as another one of many (a child), but as this very one, the single, unique one that one is (this child)—was risked or hazarded.
Regardless of whether every trauma is at bottom—and if so, then in just what sense and with what import—a trauma of birth, or “birth-trauma,” every birth is a trauma. It is obviously a trauma for the one being born, but it is also, though perhaps less obviously, a trauma for whoever bears that one, as well as for those into the midst of whom that one is born, as I have tried to explain above. In all trauma something is put at risk or hazarded, set at hazard. If it were not, if nothing were “at stake” in a given occurrence, then that occurrence would not longer have anything “traumatic” about it. Traumatic events are inherently hazardous.
What conceivable trauma could be more hazardous—that is, what could put more at risk—than being born? Birth is so hazardous, in fact, that it is the hazard that must first be hazarded, if there are ever to be any hazards at all. Without the risk of being born, there’d be no opening at all there in the first place, to let anything be put at risk. Indeed, birth is the very risking, the very hazarding, of the risk that no risks will really be run, no hazards hazarded, ever.
Birth is an absolute hazard, then. It is the hazard of all hazards, the risk of all risks, the wager without which there can no wage to wager. Birth is the unconditional wager, the riskiest of all conceivable risks. It is so risky that it even risks that what it risks will never even come to be known, a risk that risks not even being registered by anyone as a risk in the first place, but that may just pass everyone by unnoticed, like a ship passing by in the night. Thus, it is an altogether blind risk: a risk in which one is not only called upon to risk everything one has, without being permitted an inventory of what that is, or, therefore, any way to count in advance, before one decides to risk, the possible costs of losing, but also any assurance that one will ever even know how much one has lost, should one lose. Indeed, one even risks altogether forgetting that one ever had, or risked, anything at all in the first place.
Birth is the putting at risk, at hazard, of the very one born, a risk so complete, so perfect, that it even risks itself. Birth is a casting at risk or hazard that goes so far as even to risk that the very risking will never be allowed to manifest, that is, that birth itself will finally come never to have come to pass, that it will come never to have happened–never to have taken place—“in the first place.” Birth is the risking, the throwing at hazard, of the very one born, in such a radical way that it remains at risk whether that one—that very one the birth of whom was in fact hazarded at the time and place recorded on one’s birth-certificate or its equivalent—will actually succeed in having been born as that one, the very one that one is, or at least would have been, had one ever really succeeded in having been born in the first place. Unfortunately, many die—some of them after lives even longer than one hundred years—without ever having been born in the first place, and with even the fantasy that they might have been born erased forever. No longer can one speak of any possible changes in such lives, even in the memory of others. As André remarks later in his book (page 128): “To change one’s life, one must first have one.”
The struggle of life is to have been born. It may take most of a long lifetime to reach that goal, if one reaches it at all. If one does not, then one dies still unborn, as it were, regardless of how old one may be. Our birth does not really happen, it does not take place anywhere at any time, unless we have, sometime after what we might at least provisionally call our “first” birth, a sort of “second birth,” a “re-birth”–what I would like to call an “after-birth,” in a sense of that term very different from its usual one, of course.
What are called “after-shocks” follow the initial shock-waves of an earthquake, and can often even be far more destructive than those initial shocks. In the same way, in Freud’s definitive example of a trauma, a survivor walks away from a serious train accident apparently unscathed, only after a latency period to then suffer “belatedly,” as an “after-shock”—in French, “après-coup”—from the impact of the original shock of the accident itself. It is only in such after-shocks, in fact, that the “initial” shock, the “original” trauma, registers or manifests—breaks out into the open—as a shock or trauma in the first place! Before that, before such shocks that come “after” that “first” shock, the first shock, so to speak, has not yet made any impact on, which is to say actually managed to be a shock to, the very one it struck. Only when it comes “back” as a “later” shock, an “after”-shock, does it succeed in having such an impact on, and delivering a shock to, the very one it did strike in the “first” blow or shock. The “first” strike or shock only becomes that very thing, the “first” shock, in relation to its apparent “recurrence” in the “after”-shock wherein it manifests itself “belatedly” (in Freud’s German, nachträglich) as what has already hap-pened, which is to say hazarded itself, put itself into play and at risk, in and as the “first” strike.
As André neatly expresses it at various points in his book in conjunction with his discussion of the “return of the repressed” in the form of the “transference” so crucial to any psychoanalytic “cure” of a “precocious” trauma, a trauma of early childhood or “infancy,” what one in dealing with in such situations is the paradoxical re–turn of what prior to such return never “turned,” the coming again of what never came before, the “repeating of what has never taken place [eu lieu]” (page 116). Only in the “after-shock” does the “first” or “original shock,” which first put itself at hazard long ago, literally take place—that is, set itself up and at work at some place. That place, where what has already in one sense happened, but has yet to take place or to take its place, as it were, does take place, and take that place “for itself, as its “own” place, is nothing either more or less than the one who is stricken. That one, and only that one, is the strike point—“ground zero,” if one will.
What conceivable precocious trauma could be either more traumatic or more precocious than birth, that precocity that first makes precocity itself possible to begin with, that trauma without which no traumas at all could occur? What is true of all trauma is most especially and emphatically true of the trauma of birth: it does not take place when it first hap-pens, but only afterward, when it hap-pens again, and even then only with great good luck, the chance happen-stance that constitutes “good hap,” a truly happy hap.
What we call someone’s birthday is the day when that one, that single, singular one, and no other, was first hazarded, first risked or put at hazard. It is the day that by hap–which means random “chance” or “fortune”: the turn of the wheel, the roll of the die, the fall of the card—that very one was cast, thrown into the game, such that, with a bit of good luck, by lucky chance or good fortune, “good” hap, the birth of that very one might one day, one later day–often very long after the birthday, when that same one was first cast, absolutely, at hazard to hap–come actually to take place, that very place one was, on one’s birthday, born to be. That later day, long after the “first” birthday–the later, long awaited day when the expected one finally arrives, the day the baby is finally brought to term and, therewith, truly borne, the day birth finally takes place, winning the wager so long ago thrown down, is thus the day of the after-birth, wherein birth itself finally takes its proper place.
The after-birth of birth is the moment in and at which one first comes, at last, to have been born—born as oneself, the very self one was born to be. At birth, one is born to be that very self, that one “itself,” the very one that one is. On one’s birthday, one is “born to be” the self on is, in a sense Heidegger struggles to capture in Being and Time when he writes that each one of us “has” oneself (one’s “self”) “to be,” as a sort of task that one may achieve, or fail to achieve (one may “find” or “lose” oneself). Birth is the casting loose of the one born into that task, the task of “becoming who one is,” as Nietzsche put it well before Heidegger. Many “pass on”—which is just the right expression for what happens at the end of a life, even a very long one, which passes by beside one, as one passes by beside it—without ever so becoming. And when they do pass on, it is as if they had never been. Like a fog dispersed by the sun–or a dream one wakes from, as the Psalmist says–they simply vanish away.
Concerning the sort of “cure” that can be achieved, with luck, through psychoanalysis–focally through the process and at the point of “transference,” the point at which what has never yet taken place gets “repeated” in and as an “after-shock,” thereby again offering the participants in the analysis the opportunity to grant it a place to take–André distinguishes (pages 128-129) between what such a “cure” consists of, in cases involving what appear to be new traumas, in effect, and what it consists of, in cases involving “precocious” traumas. In the former case, that of traumas apparently not precocious, “the after-shock augments the past, it adds something to history.” That is, it provides a way of retelling the tale of the past, so that it can now incorporate the traumatic event, which up until that moment of after-shock was repressed, so that it manifested only in neurotic symptoms, and therefore kept disrupting the tale or story, the “history” of “what happened.” In contrast, with regard to after-shocks that “echo precocious traumas,” the moment of after-shock “participates in the genesis of temporality, of the invention of time.” He goes on to write that in the first case, where one is not dealing with an echo of precocious trauma, the moment of after shock “permits the remaking of history, the changing of the past.” However, in cases that do involve such echoes of a truly “precocious” trauma, the after-shock “opens upon historicity” as such. That is, moments of after-shock of the first sort allow us to change the past by adding to its story, open up new, different histories, in which we are no longer a prey to the mechanisms of repression and symptomatic return of the repressed. But moments of the second sorts of after-shock open up history itself, and ground it in what can never be incorporated as part of an ongoing story, to become through such incorporation no more than an episode in that larger, ongoing story. After-shocks that echo precocious traumas ground history—and time itself–in the time-before-time of one’s own birth.
Earlier (pages 96-97), André writes: “The analyst is used to seeing history redesign itself, when a memory many times evoked is ‘suddenly’ seen from a new point of view that permits [such redesign]. Because history is a story [in the sense of a narrative account: un récit], it is possible to rewrite it. It’s obviously more surprising when it is history as such [or “in itself”: en elle-même], the psychic category theretofore inexistent, that the analysis sees born. . . . A history that is at times able to remember its own pre-history, when time was not yet there in time [le temps n’etait pas encore dans le temps].”
The after-birth of birth is the beginning of the story of history itself, the time when time at last begins. It is the moment time starts, giving us all the time in the world, more than enough time to tell all our histories, rendering all our accounts of ourselves. Each and every birth is the hap-hazard-ing of time and history as such, the risking of a wager past counting and accounting, a risk the running of which meets now and then with good hap, and wins the whole world. Such winning moments are the after-birth which make our births themselves—each and every one, but each for each and each one at a time, one by one by one by one, and on forever, without end—indelible.
In such moments our lives themselves become, to quote Rilke, “no longer revocable.”