The Infant Condition

Painters have long had the monopoly on representations of babies, permissioned by that celebrity one—Jesus—to make centuries of studies of infant kneecaps or downy heads, eventually multiplying the infant subject into heavens full of cherubs. Writers, however, have often stood baffled and thwarted before newly arrived people, not knowing how to make a character of someone who speaks few words and has a near-fatal lack of manners. The infant mind has been, to writers, so often a secret no one can tell.

Babies, when they do show up in books, are usually all object, no subject: flyweight and fragile, lacking character, allowed—at most—to be the fleshy nexus of expectations, exteriors, and needs. An infant is a riddle only to be solved by an expansion. When writers see a baby, all they can usually do is hope he or she will grow out of it.

Augustine of Hippo attempted to feel guilty for his infant sins, the ones he admits he cannot remember. He writes in his Confessions, “I began to laugh—at first in my sleep, then when waking. For this I have been told about myself and I believe it—though I cannot remember it—for I see the same things in other infants.” Augustine must conjecture, as psychoanalysts would later, that the only way to know an infant is to believe that all infants are more or less alike. Gustave Flaubert, however, knew that babies could be particular, and sometimes particularly awful. He describes the short-lived illegitimate newborn son of Frédéric, the protagonist of Sentimental Education, as a “yellowish-red object, exceedingly shriveled-looking, which had a bad smell, and which was bawling lustily.” Embrace him, the midwife says, of what to the repulsed Frédéric looks clearly like an it.

Elsa Morante, like Flaubert, stands apart for describing a very specific baby—Giuseppe, an illegitimate child, too, but this one with a “private determination not to die” despite the difficult circumstances of his birth. In History: A Novel, a work that attempts to record the effects of history—in this case the rise of Italian fascism—on those whose lives are usually omitted from literary accounts, this proletarian infant in his crib is rendered in ecstatic detail (his eyes “a darker blue, like a starry night’s,” his hair “like certain migrant ducks”). This is a rare literature that attempts to tell the untold story: Even the dog in History is a fully developed character. Giuseppe is, despite his infancy, unique and motivated. He is not old enough to be modest about his nudity, nor aware of the machinations of time, but acts with the “almost crazy need to express that infinite pleasure with his scarce means” toward those he loves.

Leo Tolstoy is unusual, too, in giving an account of infancy—this one in the first person, about baby Tolstoy himself. His first memory, he wrote, is of being swaddled and hating it, screaming and crying, feeling injustice and self-pity, aware of the cruelty and power of others. “I wanted my freedom, it would not be a trouble to anyone,” he wrote, “and yet I was being tortured. They are sorry for me, and yet they bind me up.” As the literary critic Viktor Shklovsky wrote, Tolstoy “remembered things that none of us are capable of remembering.” Tolstoy’s account suggests that there’s a mercy to Tolstoy being the only known Tolstoy. Given its humiliations, the secret of the infant condition might be better left unsaid.

Anne Boyer, a poet and essayist, is the author of A Handbook of Disappointed Fate (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018) and The Undying, which will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in September.