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26 May 2021updated 21 Jul 2021 1:27pm

Parenthood in an age of crisis

The moral dilemmas of becoming a father. 

By Gavin Jacobson

At least 917 people died in Britain on the day my son was born – 103,000 worldwide. It was 11 April 2020, three days after the first peak of the coronavirus pandemic. My wife had gone into labour the evening before. The hospital looked deserted when we arrived – just the occasional orderly enjoying a cigarette by the back entrance and some distrait fathers-to-be wandering nervously around the car park. But there was no sign of the ordinary sick and injured, who had been kept away by the lockdown.

In the months before, we had attended antenatal classes and read (if not absorbed) the catechisms in Arlene Eisenberg’s What To Expect When You’re Expecting. But nobody expects their child to be delivered in the beak of a Black Swan. No amount of instruction, nor all of the matériel in the world – blankets, bottles, cots, creams, hats, nappies, toys, prams, medicines and ­mother-in-laws – can prepare you for the start of parenthood in a global emergency; or for the moment when a nurse tells you that it’s too dangerous to accompany your partner (in labour and in pain) into the hospital.

After I was sent back outside, I became another member of that night’s tumbleweed brigade, drifting across the car park waiting to be called in once advanced labour had begun. Four hours later, I was in the maternity ward; five hours after that, tired and proud, I was holding our baby in my arms.

The pandemic has robbed everyone of something – loved ones, careers, the joys of human connection. It has robbed me of perspective. I can recall the moment of our son’s arrival, but it is blurred in the hippocampus by a scene that persists in sharper resolution: the unmanned reception, deserted corridors and stairwells, idle wheelchairs and vacant lifts of the empty hospital. The absence of other patients and visitors that night intensified the sense of disaster then enveloping the world. At times since, with scenes of mass burials in New York and raging funeral pyres in India, it really has seemed as if the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski was right, “the Devil is part of our experience”. How could we be having a child now?

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This is the animating question of Tom Whyman’s Infinitely Full of Hope, an intelligent and moving philosophical memoir on fatherhood in an age of crisis and disaster. Against the backdrop of climate catastrophe, political disempowerment and incipient techno-dystopia, “my decision to bring new life into the world”, Whyman writes, “might seem baffling, even cruel”. Recounting his own experiences of pre- and early parenthood, his book endeavours to resolve that moral dilemma. But instead of asking how we can justify bringing life into a world full of pain and with diminishing prospects, Whyman turns the question on its head and asks, given the terrible state of the world, “How could someone not create new life?” In so doing he mounts a critical broadside against the theories of anti-natalism, which consider it a selfish act to ­create new life and have become increasingly ­popular in recent years.

Whyman, a jobbing philosopher in the north-east of England, who was a contributor to the now disbanded American title the Outline, is one of the UK’s more ­interesting writer-thinkers. This is partly owing to his position on the margins of academia – ­unencumbered by the rigmarole of securing tenure, or satisfying the Research Excellence Framework, Whyman can flout the strictures of university decorum and be wilder in thought and more intimate in ­register.

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books by Heather McGhee, Marc Morris, Véronique Tadjo and Francisco Garcia]

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Whyman is also a member of the precariat, never as financially secure as those with cushy berths inside the academy. The book is enriched by his flâneur-like freedom, rare in its combination of emotional availability and sense of moral and political urgency.

The core of Whyman’s argument is that children can be a source of hope and that hope can be “a vital spur to action”. If cynicism, resignation and despair deaden all instincts to rebel against and remake the orders we live in, hope “involves some active engagement with or involvement in the world”. Whyman suggests that in order to hope we need to cultivate hopeful virtues: charity (“to judge the intentions of others fairly”), solidarity (“to stand together”), and modesty (“having good practical sense of what our agency might achieve”).

Gloom and melancholia are tempting, especially for those on the left, but Whyman refuses to wallow, insisting that we can teach ourselves how to hope in the service of political action. Whyman wants to overthrow what the Brazilian theorist Roberto Unger calls the “dictatorship of no alternatives”, and to reimagine society anew, a greener, more equal and compassionate order than the one we endure today. Here Whyman links hope to praxis – putting theory into practice – a notion encapsulated by Marx’s timeworn dictum that the point of philosophy isn’t just to interpret the world but to change it.

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Marx was not alone in his ambition to turn theory into an art of practical emancipation. Max Horkheimer insisted that critical theory “never aims simply at an increase of knowledge as such; its goal is man’s emancipation from slavery” (although from the mid-1940s, faced with the terrors of the Holocaust, and safely ensconced at Columbia University, Horkheimer would deny the unity of theory and praxis). Hannah Arendt privileged the active life over contemplation in The Human Condition (1958), returning to Aristotle’s notion that man’s participation in the common realm is the sine qua non of our being. Foucault said that his Discipline and Punish (1975) was “for users, not readers”.

Yet the failures and cataclysms of the 20th century – the rise of fascism and the gulag, the ruinous egalitarian experiments in China and Cambodia, the anti-climax of 1968, the end of Soviet communism, and the universal dominion of neoliberalism – meant philosophy retreated from its practical ambitions and into the intellectual hermitage of epistemology. There it has mostly stayed.

But as the American thinker and legal advocate Bernard E Harcourt has recently argued, it was precisely in forbidding times like those we’re living through “that critical theory grew the most and has been the most productive”. In the 1920s, for instance, the fall of the Weimar Republic and the emergence of national socialism helped give rise to the Frankfurt School and a generation of theorists across Europe who responded to the imminent sense of political and cultural disaster by trying to marry philosophy and action.

In addition to cooler 20th-century British philosophers such as Mary Midgley, Philippa Foot and GEM Anscombe, many of Whyman’s intellectual influences, such as Theodor Adorno, Franz Kafka and Herbert Marcuse, hail from that Continental tradition of essay writing, theory and experimental fiction. This might explain why Infinitely Full of Hope often reads more like a Walter Benjamin essay than it does a pristine work of Anglo-American logic: shards of incredible lucidity with avoidable digressions, passages laced with awkwardness and self-doubt, humour, and searing personal reflection that underscores the ­immediacy of the ideas.

[See also: The double life of DH Lawrence]

Infinitely Full of Hope is published by the London-based imprint, Repeater Books, which the late cultural critic Mark Fisher founded in 2014. It shares with much of the Repeater canon a fidelity to the style, thinking and memory of Fisher: a boldness of thought and experimentation that comes from writing on the margins of orthodoxy; the desire to run ahead of the political ­moment; the emphasis on the relationship between (pop) culture and politics; acute sensitivity to the sadness of existence under capitalism; and a sense of loss of what could have been.

There is also the emphasis on the personal experiences of the author. As impressive as Whyman’s command of novelists and thinkers such as Adorno, Kafka and Midgley is, it is the confessional passages that really resonate – the despair he and his partner Edie feel when they are struggling to conceive (“for all we knew, we were barren”), and Whyman’s melancholic reflections on the death of a brother he never knew. “He was someone that my parents had known, and so had my grandparents, and my sister: whenever they mentioned him, I felt strangely out of place, like I stumbled by accident into a family I didn’t quite belong to.”

Whyman also finds a kindred soul in the work of the 20th-century novelist Jean Rhys. The affinity is apt, first and ­foremost because the loss of her child only a few weeks after he was born in 1919 was the “central trauma” of her novels. The ­problem of evil, and how to adapt to its presence in the world, was for her, as it is for Whyman, the question that ultimately defines how we live.

But Rhys is also a felicitous cynosure because both she and Whyman regard ­England as a kind of perma-letdown, a cold, self-satisfied land where, as Rhys put it, “people kept knives under their tongues”. The misery of living here, and the animus and alienation born of that misery, is ­something Whyman’s book shares with many young writers on the contemporary left. Like the work of other members of the Repeater stable – Alex Niven, Joe Kennedy, Nathalie Olah, Owen Hatherley – Whyman’s book has been informed by the financial crash of 2008 and life in the long shadow of Conservative rule.

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You could read Infinitely Full of Hope as a memoir from inside the modern precariat, an anxiety-inducing account of what it’s like to live as an adjunct academic-writer bouncing from gig to gig on part-time teaching contracts, desperately trying to edge out of overdrafts, keep up with rents and moving across England to find cheaper pastures. Whyman’s is a tale of just how materially and psychologically damaging the last 11 years have been for people, and of why we don’t just need a different government but “a different way of being governed”. Whyman turns Adorno’s lines over in his head like “mental rosary beads: the thought that real progress would consist in ‘the hope that things will finally get better, that people will at last be able to breathe a sigh of relief’. I longed to be able to breathe that sigh myself.”

One year into parenthood, I’m still holding my breath, worried about whether the boy I have helped bring into the world can withstand all of its barbarisms, ever conscious of Kolakowski’s belief that evil is “a stubborn and unredeemable fact”. “Oh, there is hope,” Kafka wrote, “an infinite amount of hope, just not for us.” But if there is no hope for my generation, if we have failed to resolve the mess left to us by those who came before, how can I make sure that there is hope, an infinite amount of it, for my son?

[See also: Ireland’s forever wars]

Whyman’s memoir is not entirely convincing in its faith in hope – as Fisher put it, we don’t need hope, “we need the ­confidence to act”. But it might prove a helpful start to figuring out how we might bequeath a fighting chance to those who ­follow us. The children are back at school, and the ­imminent threat of global death from this particular virus has abated, at least here and for now. We drop off our son at nursery in the morning, and as I turn and walk away I utter the same words every time: “I hope he has a good day.”

Infinitely Full of Hope
Tom Whyman
Repeater, 218pp, £10.99

This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism