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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Kantian baby



The Kantian baby – imagine that there is such a thing for a moment – exemplifies corporeally the Critique of Pure Reason. Reason is, as anyone who has hung around babies knows, the mouth, which anything can enter that the baby can reach and pull. It obeys the purely formal law of its size.  If it were big enough, the baby would put a car, a street, its parents, the house, or the sky in it. But it isn’t that big, so the baby puts in, say, the tip of the tail of the cloth green cat, or – if the parent isn’t wary – the circular wooden bead, or the rounded end of the rectangular parental pinky. It is here that synthetic aprioris are born, and they will proceed to dance like fairies around the baby’s cradle, in a fusion of now and shape, lulling him to sleep. But as we have already mentioned, the supreme bliss of reason depends on reaching and pulling. On, in fact, picking – that supreme tool of understanding, analysis, which resides in the hand. Picking and grasping – this is what the hand does (English, in its genius, even makes grasping synonymous with understanding. Henry James’ characters may look like Edwardian adults, but they, like babies, are always “grasping” mentally; it is a word that he loves, as though the hand’s warmth were needed to fight through the verbal fog which his characters so often pull over themselves). Admittedly, the picking is hesitant at first, and what the eye and body seem to aim at – here’s the pacifier, here’s the squeaky toy – is often not what the hand lands on. Instead, the hand frankly stutters there as it is in the full force of its arc towards the object, and instead what do we have? We have the edge of the blanket, we have a pen, we have the ear of the green frog doll (or is it a frog? With that cat’s ear?). But gradually the hand and the incredibly delicate fingers get better at the whole hand eye coordination thing, and then we pick – we pick the little chain of links of the earring or necklace, we pick and grasp and pull the handle of the coffee cup (sending it on a fatal, romantic dive towards its one true love, the keyboard of your computer). These are picked out of the continuum, grasped, pulled. Oh insatiable fingers!
Of course, reason rules – the fingers pick in order to raise the thing picked to the mouth, which opens in all innocence, naively, hopefully. Reason is a dreamer. But as we  look back, we are amazed at all the picking we’ve done, our miner’s work on the continuum. The continuum, however, is vast, our equipment is disproportionate to the world it is set loose in, and in the end we have picked up so few things, even metaphorically, that we will probably die longing, our fingers wrapped about one more shape – a plastic tube, the fringe of a polyester/cotton coverlet. Still, I admire that instinct for picking and grasping. I honor it here, as much as I can, in these sentences.

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