In the Baker Library at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, hangs a fresco mural by the revolutionary Mexican painter, Jose Clement Orozco, that is, ironically, a mordant social comment on the ineptitude of the bookish world of modern academe. Gods of the Modern World portrays an array of cadaverous and immobile university professors standing off to the side as an academic mid-wife, crouched before a dissected corpse stretched over a pile of books, attends to yet another instance of the stillbirth truth. Several bottled fetal skeletons, strewn over another pile of books, attest to similar failures in the past.

The words PLEASE KEEP DOOR LOCKED, in the lower right-hand corner of the mural, captures the cave-like insularity of these impotent, yet proudly regaled professors, and sounds a note of hopelessness that, one might venture to say, anticipated Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the America Mind. The mere tenuring of professors and publishing of books, no matter to what degree of prodigality, cannot guarantee the delivery of truth. But more starkly than that, as the mural intimates, the world of academe can produce its own gods who, lacking any link to the Creator, botch both life and truth, while remaining stoically ignorant of their own powerlessness.

Housed in that same library are copies of a pro-abortion essay by Judith Jarvis Thomson that has now become the most widely reprinted essay, not only on the subject of abortion, but in all of contemporary philosophy. This essay represents the perfect realization of Orozco’s artistic vision. It is the  re-enactment, on an academic level, of the endless series of stillbirths – of undelivered truth and unborn children – that Orozco depicted in his mural. Socrates, the great philosophical mid-wife of truth, would not be comfortable in the Baker Library, either viewing Orozco’s nightmarish vision, or reading any one of the innumerable reprints of Thomson’s essay.

Belabored parallel

My thoughts returned to Thomson’s deathless essay recently when a philosopher from a distinguished university in the U.S. sent me a long draft he is working on that is a sustained defence of Thomson’s argument. He sees no morally significant difference between the case Thomson fabricates and the typical case of a woman who has a distressed pregnancy.

For those who may not be familiar with Thomson’s analogy, I will summarize it: You wake up one morning, after having been kidnapped by the Society of Music Lovers, and find yourself hooked up to a famous violinist. This violinist has a kidney disorder and needs to use your kidneys for a period of nine months or he will die.

Thomson argues that it would be morally permissible for you to unplug yourself, and assumes that most people would agree. She uses this case as a similitude for the woman with an unwanted pregnancy. Just as you have the right to unplug yourself from the violinist to whom you are yoked, a woman has an equally plausible right to abort the child with whom she, also, is unhappily yoked. My correspondent finds the two situations to be, from a moral standpoint, in perfect parallel.

According to John T. Noonan, Jr., the similitude is “grotesque.” But so is Orozco’s mural. We are still left with the problem of how to make what is grotesque seem grotesque to university personnel. What word shall we use to capture the state of  not being able to recognize the grotesque as grotesque? Metagrotesque? How can one reply to Thomson’s tired and inapplicable analogy? It is a challenge that might have caused even Orozco to fall into despair.

Disturbing elitism

In the violist case, we have a man who is first kidnapped and then subjected to assault and battery by being attached, against his will, to an ailing musician. There is something disturbingly elitist about the fact that the person in need of help is a famous violinist. Would Thomson’s argument have achieved its own extraordinary fame and success if she had the National Dairy Association be the kidnappers and an obscure farmer, the man with the kidney problem? Nonetheless, the relationship between you and the violinist resembles that of a parasite to its host, more than it does that of a woman and the child she has conceived through sexual union. Now it is true that Simone de Beauvoir views the unborn child specifically as a “parasite”, and Camille Paglia has characterized it as a “vampire.” But, like Thomson, neither seem able to appreciate the fact that as a result of becoming pregnant, one becomes a mother, and not a victim of a parasite’s tenacity or a vampire’s fury. In fact, it is exactly what is missing from Thomson ‘s analogy, an understanding that certain kinds of relationships can transform one’s personal identity in a way that is not only positive but personally fulfilling.

If you link two strangers together, kidney to kidney, one does not become the mother or father of the other. There is no identity transformation. The two are still strangers, hooked or unhooked. But conceiving a child profoundly alters not only one’s identity, but also the specific moral responsibilities one assumes to the child conceived. Motherhood is at once physiological, psychological, social, moral, and even mystical. It transcends time (prisoners and slaves, contrariwise, merely sever time). And who can begin to do justice to the trans-subjective (and trans-cultural) significance of motherhood? Well, probably, not Judith Jarvis Thomson.

Being an unwilling and unwitting accomplice in a medical procedure is not something that is a mark one’s being. But motherhood is. Being a mother is a manifestation of one’s existential and enduring reality.

In the 1958 film, The Defiant Ones, Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier escape from a chain gang, but remain manacled to each other. Who would have interpreted these two escapees, who detested each other, as having a bond comparable to a marriage bond (not to mention that between mother and child)? Is wedlock an essentially different kind of relationship than padlock? Someone did write a book a few years ago about divorce and titled it Uncoupling. But again, the presumption is that we human beings are like mechanical units that can couple or uncouple without passing through any horizon of moral responsibility. We are like trains that pass in the night. We meet and pass, but we are presumed not to be “co-present”, to borrow Marcel’s term, or, drawing  on Martin Buber, participants of an “I-Thou” relationship.

The union of a comatose violinist and a kidnap victim is a coupling that is infinitely closer to two people being manacled to each other, than it is to the relationship between a mother and her unborn child. Personal love, of course, is what saves us from the ignominy of being a juxtaposition of solitudes, and allows us to enter into a moral reality that is both transformative and fulfilling. The bond of motherhood is not comparable to the bondage between a sick violinist and his yoke-mate.

Thomson acknowledges that she fully recognizes everyone’s right to life, including that of the fetus. The problem is, she states, that the fetus has no right to occupy a woman’s body. Here, she slips back into dissolving  maternity into two adversarial fragments, something akin to the landlord and a trespasser.

Consider another analogy, one more pertinent to maternity than the violinist scenario. The Carpathia arrives at the location off the coast of Newfoundland where it finds the survivors of the Titanic. Imagine, now that the Captain is a disciple of Thomson’s thinking. He tells the sick, anxious, and grieving survivors that he fully respects their right to live, but unfortunately, since they do not have tickets, have no right to board his ship. There really is not sufficient room, he goes on to explain, and adds that it would be unfair to the paying passengers to deprive them of the pleasant sea experience they had in mind when they purchased their tickets. How would history remember such a Captain? As a pro-rights, pro-choice seaman? Or as a sociopath who is entirely  devoid of human sympathy?

Now consider an example from law. On a cold January night in Minnesota shortly after the turn of the century, Orland Dupue asked the Flateaus, with whom he had dined, if he could stay overnight at their home. Dupue was sick and had fainted. Nonetheless, the Falteaus refused. As a result of his exposure to the cold, Dupue suffered the loss of his frostbitten fingers. The case came to court and the judge ruled that even though the defenders were not contractually obliged to minster to the plaintiff, “The law as well as humanity required that he not be exposed in his helpless condition to the merciless elements.”

The weather was “merciless” in a metaphorical sense. What was truly merciless was the attitude of the Flateaus.

Here is an analogy, however imperfect, that is far closer to the situation of a mother with an unwanted pregnancy than is the violinist case. A world of individual rights where each person imagines himself to be a kind of Robinson Crusoe, is not livable in a human sense. We can respect individual “rights” and still be inhumane (just as we can become college professors and lack any moral sense of reality).  A world of “rights only” is stunted, inhuman, and tragic. It is what is implied by Thomson’s image, but certainly not by motherhood.

No illumination

Thomson’s methodology is rather curious. She creates a  analogue which bears almost no similarity with the analogate it is supposed to illuminate, but uses it to replace the analogate. In this way, the analogate, the mother-child relationship, effectively disappears, and all that is left is an exotic fabrication that sheds no light whatsoever on the intelligibility and uniqueness that is proper to the subject.

Orozco’s words, PLEASE KEEP DOOR LOCKED, are astonishingly apt. The locked doors accurately symbolize the insularity of bookish learning in the modern world, that is, mistaking the book for the light itself, rather than as a medium that transmits the light. The explanation and the thing explained cannot be one and the same. Analogies may clarify, but they can’t replace reality we try to understand.

Orozco’s gruesome analogy, then, comes closer to telling us about something that is going on at the university level, than Thomson’s analogy informs us about the situation of a woman with a distressed pregnancy. In fact, Orozco’s analogy instructs us about the value of Thomson’s analogy.

The story is told of two people, a European and an American, who, in journeying to the next road, came to a crossroad. The sign pointed one way to Heaven and the other way to a lecture on Heaven. The European went to Heaven, while the American took in the lecture.

Here is a clue to how participants in our present culture war line up against each other. On one side, there are the people who want to understand reality; on the other, are those who, having lost interest in reality, are beguiled by theories, analogies, arguments, status and other abstract and secondary phenomena. The title of Orozco’s mural is also revealing, for only God is God. The “gods” of the modern world are pretenders. Man makes a good man, but a horrible God.

Let weary Prometheus finally unplug himself from his predicament. But let us not think that Prometheus is a mother.

(Donald DeMarco is a professor of philosophy at St. Jerome’s College, University of Waterloo, Ontario).