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Tallis in Wonderland

An Invitation to Navel Gazing

Raymond Tallis requests the pleasure of your company for this most philosophical of gatherings.

From far, from eve and morning,
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither: here am I.

AE Houseman, A Shropshire Lad

I want to invite you to navel-gaze along with me. It’s an activity that has had a bad press, and has become a by-word for an excessive focus on one’s self, or for an inward-looking preoccupation with a narrow range of issues that excludes awareness of the wider world. But there is a more respectable mode of contemplating one’s navel: omphaloskepsis as an aid to meditation, in which the omphalos (a.k.a. navel or umbilicus) becomes a window on a world beyond the horizon of quotidian concerns.

Facing The Darkness

Somewhere between the inward-looking gaze of the narcissist and the world-encompassing vision of the omphaloskeptic mystic, there is the objective gaze of the anatomist. It reveals that the item rather dismissively called ‘the belly button’ has a surprisingly complex structure. Have a look and you will see a central bump called the mamelon; a dense scar, or ‘cicatrix’; a slightly raised skin margin, like a fortification, around the mamelon and the cicatrix, known as the ‘cushion’; and the ‘furrow’, which take the form of a depression inside the cushion and surrounding the mamelon.

I hadn’t noticed all this until I began researching this article, and so was reminded yet again of how brushing is our acquaintance with our own bodies. Ignorance, like charity, begins at home. I am not sure that I could pick the back of my hand – which I know ‘like the back of my hand’ – out of an identity parade. My navel would be even more resistant to identification in a line-up.

Under my skin, of course, darkness rules. The ‘embodied subject’ is a strange creature, as its body has only limited transparency to its subjectivity. We subjects know little of the fleshly kit necessary for our existence and with which we are to some unspecifiable degree identified. I possess organs I have never seen (thank heavens), and am the beneficiary, and to some extent the product, of cellular processes of which I have little ken. Our alien navel reminds us of our hybrid nature as embodied subjects. It also reminds us of the strange time when we grew towards the possibility of ourselves.

This scar is the shriveled remnant of the umbilical cord, cut moments after we exchanged the unlit uterus for a bright extra-uterine world which would inflate over the years from a cot to continents; from William James’ ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’ to a life structured and regulated by the timetable and the calendar. Our belly buttons point backwards in time to the first of our many beginnings. Examining it – looking through the layers of curriculum vitae built up over the days, weeks, years, and decades since we greeted the world with howls of distress – we are reminded how and when our story began. It is a relic of the lifeline that connected us to the placenta clamped to the uterine wall. The fat, wobbly straw of the umbilical cord ensured a constant and reliable delivery of oxygen and nutrition, and the removal of carbon dioxide and other metabolic waste – all necessary for the life we had to maintain to grow towards independent viability. The mark left by its removal is a reminder of those months where, neither patiently nor impatiently, we suffered our coming into being.

The embryologist Lewis Wolpert has argued that, in the miraculous journey beginning with single-celled zygote born of the fusion of a sperm and an oocyte, and resulting in an entity that would ultimately have sufficient wit to catch a bus, run a business, bring up a child, exhibit icy politeness, or take a position on the Oxford comma, the most portentous step was gastrulation. Gastrulation marks the emergence of an embryonic architecture in which an inner layer of cells is differentiated from an outer layer of cells: a more important landmark, Wolpert says, than birth, marriage, and death. Indeed, this is probably the most significant evolutionary innovation in the animal kingdom, since it is the first step in the emergence of complex life. Herein lies the root of all insides and outsides, of surfaces and depths, and ultimately, of the embodied subject who distinguishes the ‘I’ in here from the ‘it’ out there.

Welcome To The World

During the nine months of his mindless self-assembling, of structuration and differentiation, in which his accumulating body played an increasing role in creating the environment within which his genes would be expressed, your columnist was at best dimly aware of the outside world. It would be many years before he learnt that his gastrulation took place roughly at the time that Stalin declared the beginning of the Cold War, Trans Australia Airlines made their first international flight, Clement Atlee revealed his plan for Indian Independence, Pope Pius XII announced the appointments of twelve new cardinals, and the first general-purpose computer began operation. An unimaginable world was awaiting him, as, courtesy of his umbilical cord ‘the stuff of life to knit me’ was harvested by his growing self.

As for that world, it was – and is – utterly unlike that inhabited by any other living creatures. Just how unlike is captured by Ludwig Wittgenstein in the opening lines of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921):

1. The world is all that is the case.

1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.

By ‘world’, Wittgenstein means the human world rather than the material universe. It is a ‘Thatosphere’ of stuff made explicit by conscious subjects; a realm woven out of the shared intentionality of vast numbers of consciousnesses present and past, forged out of a boundless conversation in which the baby will come to participate as it progresses from howls that register the distance between how things are and how it would like them to be, to smiles and gestures, isolated words, and ultimately, to full-blown dialogue.

I highlight the distance between the material universe and the human world in response to philosophers who claim that we are ‘just animals’, or theologians who see us as fallen creatures. According to St Augustine, “we are born between faeces and urine” (inter faeces et urinam nascimur). This was not intended as a guide to midwives. Rather, it’s his way of pulling us down a peg or two by reminding us of the rather messy start of our lives. But while this description of our doorway into the world is literally true, it is not the whole truth. No other animal picks out this fact and reflects on what it might say about our nature – and, even less, does so in Latin.

navel gazing
Navel gazing in 2nd C. Rome. At the Louvre

We are also reminded of our profound difference from other mammals by the fact that the umbilical cord is cut by a pair of scissors, manufactured to a high standard and imported into the delivery room from some considerable distance, rather than gnawed through by the midwife or mother. In the action-packed minutes that follow, the difference from all other beasts, even from our nearest primate kin, is widened, as we acquire certain particulars that we carry throughout our lives. For instance, our date and time of birth is documented – so we are located in a universal calendar; and we are soon united with the name by which we will introduce ourselves and be introduced to others, and will learn later to write down, or spell out letter-by-letter over the phone. Even more astonishingly, we are almost immediately gathered up into a quantitative world of assessments and measurements. Thus was it recorded that, at 6:30 a.m. on 10th October 1946, the cooking of Raymond Tallis into the rawest of raw youths was complete and shortly after the cutting of the physical cord – anticipating the future cutting of many symbolic, metaphorical cords – I sat my first examination and was awarded my first marks. My pulse, respiration, general appearance, and activity were all assessed. Had I been born six years later; this would have been totted up to the eponymous score introduced into neonatal practice by Virginia Apgar. To these details would be added my weight, which, next to my sex, would be the particular most eagerly sought out by well-wishers. All of these checks were intended to establish whether this minute, newly-forged, link in the Great Chain of Being was a going concern.

I have mentioned ‘my weight’, and readers with long memories may recall how thought-provoking I have found this ‘possessive’. (‘What a Possessive! On Being Embodied’, Philosophy Now Issue 112, 2016). It is especially striking when we think of it as ascribed to a newborn, who is no more able to ‘possess’ this vital statistic as applied to itself than is a bag of vegetables being weighed in a grocer’s shop. I dwell on this to highlight how extraordinary it is that the newborn will eventually embrace a world defined by quantities so thoroughly as to be able to quantify itself. Admittedly, it will be some time – and indeed some kilograms – before it acquires an understanding of its weight, and a bit more before it learns to weigh itself and worry about what’s on the scale. But the length of that interval before it can possess its weight by speaking of it as ‘my weight’ does not make the cognitive journey any less amazing.

Return To The Source

And so, I return to my navel to unpack more reflections from this memorial of the months before my entry into the world, and of the first minutes of the first day of my life. That Raymond Tallis should have begun at that particular time is difficult for Raymond Tallis to grasp except as a mere matter of objective fact. I can say it, but I cannot realize it; cannot truly encircle the truth that I entered the universe at a point in its history – and so late in that history. While I know objectively that the universe existed long before I was aware of it, before a minute part of it became ‘my world’, I cannot imagine the endless dark centuries of my absence, lit by the retrospective virtual gaze of factual knowledge. Yes, it is easy to say that the universe has managed without my presence for all but about a two-hundred millionth of its existence, and to acknowledge that I turned up 13.7 billion years after Nothing exploded into Something; 4.5 billion years after the Earth peeled off from the rest of the material world; around 4 billion years after life began in the modest form of single cells; and 200,000 years after so-called ‘modern’ humans first walked the earth. I can rehearse these facts, but, because everything prior to my flash of sentience – made available to me courtesy of being curated by the mouths, pens, and relics of others – covers such vast stretches of time, I cannot truly think them.

Given that it was so long before the stuff of life got round to knitting your columnist, and, indeed, you, my reader, it is a pity that so brief an interval separates our beginnings from our endings.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2022

Raymond Tallis’s latest book, Freedom: An Impossible Reality, is out now.

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