Saturday, January 31, 2009

Eighty Little Fingers and Eighty Little Toes

Last Monday Nadya Suleman of Whittier, California, gave birth to eight babies, through in vitro fertilization. The eight new babies join six siblings, ages two through seven, Suleman also conceived in vitro. Suleman is unmarried, and according to her mother Angela Suleman, she has been “obsessed” with having children since her teens.

I have to say that I have been immune to this obsession all my life. Even as a child, I was not especially fond of other children. My attitudes were perhaps partly informed by my own status as my parents’ only child.

I can’t go as far as W.C. Fields, who quipped, “I never met a kid I liked,” but I’ve always been dumbfounded by the question “Do you like children?” or “What do you think about children?” You might as well ask me what I think of forty year olds.

Some children are okay, sure, but in general children are no more attractive or interesting than adults in general—that is, the mass majority of them are dullards, an alarming number of them are assholes, and a few, too few, of them are delightful.

Suleman’s obsession, though, besides being a matter for medical ethicists to debate, is another sure sign of the decadence of American culture. The obsession with “bigger” and “more” and “never enough” is a peculiar one to capitalism, I feel.

American capitalism is goal-oriented. Her friends and family tell the media that Suleman’s goal was to be a mother. But for Americans, once the goal is met, new and grander goals have to be set—especially when the original goal proves unsatisfying. To claim that insatiety, whether in matters of childbearing or personal net worth, is a normal and natural human condition is to ignore history: Plenty of people have been able to say “enough,” not through lack of ability or smallness of passion or feeling, but through appreciation for the boundaries of experience.

A sense of accomplishment is a golden feeling—like new love—but also like new love, it is transient. Obsession seems to be a drive to make the transient endlessly and predictably reduplicable, if not permanent.

Furthermore, it’s interesting to me that America’s best-known native religion, the Church of Latter-Day Saints, is based on the potentially limitless expansion of souls and family, as the key to its view of a happy afterlife. It’s a religion that should have been invented on Wall Street.

I suppose a few opponents of abortion also oppose the sort of manifest destiny Suleman’s procreation habit appears to endorse. But, I suspect, too few. Pro-life implicitly suggests prolific and profligate. I generalize, but I sense a connection there. Underlying the pro-life movement is, in addition to a scarily reductive idea of human sexuality, an assumption that women’s fulfillment comes most truly through pregnancy and childbirth. Women like Suleman strike me as the victims of this idea. (I should perhaps apologize—I cannot judge or even fairly evaluate Suleman’s motives, but I find her actions perplexing and disturbing.)

The sterility that stifles some people’s lives cannot be bought off by assembly-line production of even more sterile lives. Technology’s capacity to mass-produce has served the ends of consumer capitalism but not so much the health of the human spirit. To this extent, technology and capitalism, while having done much to improve standards of living viewed through the lens of economics, have usually diminished quality of life from the perspective of humanism.

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