Bringing up Brainchildren



The Curies called radium and polonium their \”enfants.\” Nietzsche coddled his Zarathustra as \”my son.\” Relativity is known as \”Einstein\’s brainchild.\”

What nestles in this parental metaphor?

Sometimes a whole career. Not long ago, a retiring colleague sighed, stared at her empty hands, and told me she had forgone parenting to devote herself to scholarship. She had excelled at it, showing every kind of creativity and care, and had published outstanding books. Yet at that point, when it was too late to do otherwise, she sighed. I doubt it was the only time.

All across academe, childless or not, men and women invest years in research and writing. Children are optional, brainchildren are not. They come forth with sacrifice, anxiety, and often guilt and regret. \”I assure you that the birth of a book, whether good or bad, is a very serious and absorbing business,\” the University of Oxford don Benjamin Jowett wrote in the 19th century. That\’s still true.

To call a work a \”child\” takes it very seriously. The brainchild metaphor is a figure that composers, artists, authors, and inventors pick up and hold tenderly: a helpless, squirming, babbling thing, invested with parental hope and in need of loving care. It satisfies the urge for reproduction and its several vanities.

It is sometimes said that brainchildren are substitutes for children and rivals to them, for better or worse. How better? Brainchildren can be the best offspring. According to Vasari, Michelangelo said, \”I have only too much of a wife in this art of mine, who has always kept me in tribulation, and my children shall be the works that I may leave, which, even if they are naught, will live a while. Woe to Lorenzo di Bartoluccio Ghiberti, if he had not made the gates of S. Giovanni, for his children and grandchildren sold or squandered all that he left.\”

How worse? Brainchildren can be needy and take over. Biographies are replete with authors and artists who neglected their children to pursue their work.

Some choose children, some choose brainchildren, and many heroic and sleep-deprived parents choose both. Guillaume Budé, adviser to King Francis I of France and author of the seminal De Philologia (1532), described his \”chosen course of action: a lawful wife to bear me children, … and by Philology to procreate books to win me an eternal name.\”

This is the first verse of the siren song of brainchildren: They can live for centuries, survive catastrophes, carry a name across oceans, and propagate among nations. In Plato\’s Symposium, Diotima predicted that men would envy Homer and Hesiod \”because they left behind them such children as prepare everlasting fame\”—their poems.

Wittgenstein had only brainchildren. Dr. Seuss had no children. Neither did Lewis Carroll, Beatrix Potter, or Maurice Sendak. Johann Sebastian Bach, however, filled churches and cathedrals with children and brainchildren. Constance Garnett, the English translator, spent years in her youth raising an only child, then for 40 more years begat brainchildren by Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Herzen, Tolstoy, and Turgenev.

The second verse of the siren song of brainchildren flatters narcissism. Kierkegaard exulted that \”the ideas are cascading down upon me: healthy, happy, thriving, gay, blessed children, born with ease and yet all of them with the birthmark of my personality.\”

Patented, copyrighted, leased, and sold, brainchildren support children. It is a conspicuous virtue. J.K. Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter book to support herself and her child. Muriel Spark left her husband, put her baby in her mother\’s care, and devoted herself to writing novels and Child of Light (1951), her biography of Mary Shelley, who wrote to support her only surviving child.

The metaphor is applied with genuine and enduring love. Speaking for her husband and herself, Hiroko Shimbo wrote of The Japanese Kitchen (2000), \”This book is a child of ours, and we look forward to watching it grow.\”

Erasmus wrote, \”It is human nature to be passionately attached to one\’s own writings, just as parents are to their children.\”

Brainchildren emulate children in multiple ways. They run the usual risks of child rearing: ruin by hyperattention (Balzac\’s \”The Unknown Masterpiece\”); revulsion (Mary Shelley called Frankenstein \”my hideous progeny\”); abuse. Writing Of Time and the River (1935), Thomas Wolfe felt, \”I have come to have a strange and deep affection for this great hacked and battered creature of a manuscript as if it were my son.\”

Parents of brainchildren exhibit parental behaviors, such as favoring the youngest. In his preface to The Borough (1810), George Crabbe admitted: \”Books, like children, when established, have doubtless our parental affection and good wishes; we rejoice to hear that they are doing well, and are received and respected in good company: but it is to manuscripts in the study, as to children in the nursery, that our care, our anxiety, and our tenderness are principally directed. …\”

As only a parent can understand a parent (\”Wait until you have children of your own!\”), so a poet recognizes a poet. Coleridge declared that it is \”the prerogative of poetic genius to distinguish by parental instinct its proper offspring from the changelings which the gnomes of vanity or the fairies of fashion may have laid in its cradle or called by its names.\”

At its most audacious, the brainchild trope vaunts the superiority of spirit over flesh. Clement of Alexandria thought it good \”to leave to posterity good children. This is the case with children of our bodies. But words are the progeny of the soul.\”

This is the third verse of the sirens\’ song: Brainchildren can be borne by one parent alone. Ovid claimed that his poems \”were born of me, in the manner of Pallas, / without a mother: these are my bloodline, my children,\” although he had a wife and children. \”There is no doubt that the creative artist feels toward his works like a father,\” said Freud, father of both books and babies.

What then of creative mothers?

For women, for centuries, it was one or the other: brainchildren second-best, motherhood the higher calling. If a woman wrote or painted or composed, it always mattered whether she was a mother, too. For Laura Ingalls Wilder and Doris Lessing, brainchildren came after children. A pantheon of childless novelists—Ann Radcliffe, Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Mitchell—looks like a life lesson. In \”Humoresque,\” Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote:

Love, by whom I was beguiled,

Grant I may not bear a child.

Tillie Olsen\’s stunning Silences asks openly why so many women writers were not mothers, or, being mothers, wrote little about birthing and mothering.

In November 1954, Elle magazine published a photo featuring 70 women novelists, noting the number of children each of them had, as if it were a credential. Roland Barthes wrote, in a widely cited essay in his Mythologies, \”The myth of natality will lend the Muse, whose reputation is sometimes rather licentious, the guarantee of her respectability, the touching decor of the nursery.\” Mothers first, then writers.

Yet the allure of motherhood has become contested, especially in recent years. In This Giving Birth: Pregnancy and Childbirth in American Women\’s Writing (2000), Julie Tharp and Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb chafed at Walt Whitman for maternalizing—he dared to write that \”only the Poet begets\”—and worse. He \”did everything save letting living, breathing mothers speak for themselves. In the process, he stole the language of birth, and in this he was not alone.\”

Concluding her 2009 study of the trope in the works of Nietzsche and Pirandello, Mary Ann Frese Witt wrote, \”a two-millennia-old mental structure allowing male appropriation of woman\’s life-giving function does not die easily.\”

In a 1987 essay, \”Creativity and the Childbirth Metaphor,\” Susan Stanford Friedman gathered a wide array of uses of the childbirth metaphor by men, childless women, and mothers. She showed that it is much more than a haloed commonplace: Authors have turned to the metaphor to express radically different values, anxieties, and aspirations about writing and parenting.

As living metaphors, brainchildren make more sense when more is known about mothering, fathering, long-term parenting, and how those affect parents\’ work. Untempered adulation of children, Barthes\’s \”myth of natality,\” ignores too much. Susan Rubin Suleiman\’s Risking Who One Is (1994) deals head-on with literature of the imagination and of expressed and repressed maternal fantasies—\”violence and guilt as well as the violent energy that attend the artistic creations of mothers.\” When a woman gives up children for her career, there is many a sigh.

Easily taken for granted, the brainchild metaphor recoils at actual parenting, questions its values, and exposes its pitfalls. There are negligent mothers and deadbeat dads; so, too, there are rotten parents of brainchildren, sending them out poorly fed, sloppily dressed, and badly educated. There are children who stay home long after they should have been on their own, who bust budgets, who sully their parents\’ names. So, too, brainchildren.

Sooner or later, however, the brainchild metaphor bloodies its nose against biology. Children rouse passions beyond anything a brainchild can evoke. Brainchildren don\’t catch fevers, bite the dentist, or chase a ball across busy streets. They can be tossed in a wastebasket or left in a drawer without a murmur of protest.

Yet, like children, brainchildren bring worry and delight, wonder and disappointment. They can make you proud. They can break your heart. Children and brainchildren ask alike: \”How much do you care? What do you do for me and what for you?\”

They ask, after all, \”Is this the best you can do?\”

Author Bio: Willis G. Regier is director of the University of Illinois Press. His own most recent brainchild is Quotology (University of Nebraska Press, 2010).