Eric D. Goodman, Womb: a novel in utero,
My heart leaps up when I behold
……A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
…..Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
Literature is replete with attempts to recover the innocence and spontaneity of childhood, as this fine example by Wordsworth attests. (In this case, however, the protagonist has never lost them.) Nature is seen as something numinous and pure; her indifference to human beings, however, is glossed over.
If we follow Blake’s example and attempt to divide poems into those of innocence and those of experience, Wordsworth’s poem eminently qualifies as one of the former. There, is, however, a poem of experience that responds to this poem of child-like spontaneity:
‘The Child is father of the man.’
How can that be? The words are wild.
Suck any sense from that who can,
‘The child is father of the man.’
No, what the poet did write ran,
‘The man is father of the child.’
‘The child is father of the man.’
How can that be? The words are wild.
Gerard Manley Hopkins knew, of course, that Wordsworth didn’t mean the reversal of the parental relation literally. Wordsworth trusted nature and believed a deep connection with the natural world to be of extreme importance. Hopkins didn’t trust nature; for him, a man beset by homoerotic tendencies in an age when such tendencies were unacceptable, natural man was a born sinner and needed the discipline of the Church if he were to find salvation.
“The Child is father of the man.” What does this really mean? There can be no doubt that it is an example of the use of childhood as metaphor. It’s not a desire to return to one’s first childhood, much less to a second one; it is a desire to transcend what Buddhists and Hindus call “discursive reasoning,” the constant chatter of ignorance and estrangement that goes on and on in most minds nonstop. Life isn’t all about “the mania of owning things,” but about relationships—to nature, to others, to God, to ourselves. The child thus becomes a symbol of what we must discover, recover, or even recreate in ourselves.
I cannot resist giving one more example of the idealization of childhood. It’s by Thomas Traherne, a seventeenth-century poet who was a true master of this (inner) worldview:
How like an Angel came I down!
…..How bright are all things here!
When first among his Works I did appear
…..O how their Glory did me crown!
The World resembled his Eternity,
…..In which my soul did walk;
And ev’ry thing that I did see
…..Did with me talk.
This lovely stanza comes from a long poem called “Wonder.”
There seems to be a surfeit of poems of experience these days, some very good; songs of innocence, I suppose, strike many readers as naïve in this age which has witnessed the horrors and savagery of modern warfare of the present and last centuries; an age in which the optimism of the Enlightenment has been severely challenged; an age in which self has become selfie, and “we” merely a concatenation of “me. me, me”.
Is it still possible to write about what Hopkins referred to as “the dearest freshness deep down things?”
In Goodman’s novel, Womb, a novel in utero, the effort to recapture youthful optimism, as the title suggests, is pushed back even farther. Here are two quotes from the book:
…I have access to memory greater than my own, and it takes ample time to explore…I know the great literature that has become part of the universal mind, but not the latest bestsellers. I know the themes of films and plays from years gone by, but not this week’s releases or last summer’s blockbusters. I can picture most of the masterworks at the Louvre, Hermitage, Met and National Gallery, but don’t have a take about what the girl across the street drew in art class this quarter. I can picture the Taj Mahal, locate the Nile on a map, and appreciate the calm atmosphere of a Buddhist temple, but couldn’t fill you in on this year’s hot architect or the latest designer religion…And I know that the greatest good lies in focusing on the here and now, and in helping one another.
Being an intellectual, I don’t want to come off as a simpleton. But after examining the major philosophies, studies, and religions, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is really quite simple. There’s no mysterious secret to a good life. The meaning of life is this: Chill. Relax. Enjoy it right now, because it will be over before you know it.
What would Hopkins or Martin Luther King have said about that?
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. I just want to do God’s will.” If you had known that the purpose of life was to chill, Dr. Martin Luther King, you might be still with us. Yet where would we be today without your blood, without your sweat, without your sacrifice? Relaxing is important, yes, but the way to the promised land is not found during Happy Hour while sipping margaritas.
I found Goodman’s little fetal hippie brat to be insufferable, at least at first. As the novel progresses, however, despite occasional bromidic asides, the little guy more and more assumes the role of an all-knowing narrator, a transformation for which, I think, many readers will be thankful.
Goodman’s all-knowing fetus, is, of course, a metaphor as well. No one, even in California, attributes, I would hope, guru status to a fetus. It is used by Goodman as a literary device to help convey an important message to adults: stop stressing over nonsense and return to what is essential, the power of wisdom and love. When Li Po wrote, “We sit together, the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains,” he meant that, once ego is transcended, one becomes one, as it were, with the whole world. He was not advising seekers to become a pile of dirt! We should not take the great Chinese poet’s metaphor literally; similarly, we must not take the wisdom of an unborn tyke literally as well. (Fetuses undoubtedly have some awareness, but it is limited. Nature limits brain size so that the baby can pass through the birth canal; significant brain development occurs after birth. An aside: infants are able to smile shortly after birth if they see a face close-up. Mothers are delighted, believing that this is an emotional response. It isn’t; it’s a trick of evolution to help secure bonding on the part of the mother. A baby will smile just as readily at a primitive mask; a newborn’s ability to relate to a caregiver is limited).
After a slow start, the novel picks up with a seduction scene. Here is where Mr. Goodman’s talent lies; he knows how to pace a story. Both Mom and Dad are Beautiful People who are in the process of learning what every fetus supposedly already knows. Yet Mom succumbs to the advances of a cad. How can a Beautiful Person ever sink so low? We find out why much later. This is but one example of the author’s ability to resolve situations gradually, and to provide the reader with just enough information to keep her turning pages with unchilled anticipation.
The characterizations are, however, not very nuanced. Mom and Dad and Fetus are a bit too good to be true; Mom’s boss and Stan, the seducer, are, quite simply, jerks. But the author certainly knows how to tell a story.
I do commend the author on the effort it took to write this novel. What came between a difficult beginning and a rather treacly ending is much more interesting than the first or final pages. The book’s design and layout are quite good. The style and the grammar are, for the most part, quite good as well, with only a few minor grammatical errors, e,g., “different than” instead of “different from”; “for awhile,” instead of “for a while” or “awhile.”
This isn’t Flaubert, this isn’t Shakespeare, but it does have merit. For the general reader, especially for those who share the author’s presumptions, Womb might well provide an enjoyable and worthy respite from TV and cell phone. For those who share the author’s aesthetics and worldview, I highly recommend Mr. Goodman’s novel.
© Eric D. Goodman and Thomas Dorsett
Eric D. Goodman has been writing almost since he emerged from the womb. In addition to Womb, a novel in utero, he is also the author of Tracks: A Novel in Stories, and Flightless Goose, a storybook for children. His short fiction, travel stories, and nonfiction have been widely published. Born in California, he has lived in Baltimore for nearly twenty years, where he writes about trains, exotic animals gone wild. and life in utero, among other subjects.
Thomas Dorsett is a retired physician and poet. Examples of his poetry have appeared in approximately five hundred literary journals. He is the author of four collections of poetry, two of which contain original poems, while the other two contain poetry in translation. His latest book, Letters Home, is a collection of letters translated from the German, originally written by a promising Austrian musician who died at the onset of World War l. Dorsett is an active blogger as well; his blog address is thomasdorsett.blogspot.com.