Maieutic Mētis and Natality
Mētis of the midwife is no different from the subtlety of the politician and warrior skilled in strategy. For she must not only be able in difficult births to bring skillful aid to the patient but also be sufficiently quick-witted to react to everything that happens. . . sharp intelligence is never aimless. (Detienne and Vernant, 309-10)
From its Greek origins, maieutics refers to midwifery. Both the profession and the metaphor of midwifery invite our supple mētis to liminal threshholds: for those who have been in the birthing room certainly, but also in our own natality, which bookends our own unique life in time as surely as death. We bear witness to the uniqueness of natal creativity of all types, in which something we believe precious and worthy of efforts to exteriorize its existence has been gestated with hope and care towards its created, fragile and vulnerable appearance into the world. To engage in maieutic mētis is also the path to discovering what we know of the world and our place in it, but perhaps not yet fully conscious of its power: a will-to-meaning exercised towards our own authentic glory as Being.
Let us start with the birthing room. Can you imagine? Do you recall? The sharp and quick-witted mētis intelligence of the midwife traces (both metaphorically and literally) the unique and unfolding needs of parent and fetus on the journey of gestation, childbirth, postpartum resilience, and on towards early parenting. But there is also the invitation for parental mētis, both from the knowing of their own bodies as well as following the guidance of the midwife, just as Odysseus followed his Athena through the waters. Indeed, the entirety of the parental journey through childbirth finds water as the dominating element.
Narrowing our focus to the labors of birth, both parents and partners to the process will recall the challenges, surprises, exasperations, and euphoria of that liminal space, in which time is experienced as alternatingly suspended, extended and compressed into a million moments requiring a nimble response. We arrive bag in hand ready to commence harder laboring, and are turned back – [sigh], ok, it is not yet time, go home and wait. Now we arrive to a moment of uterine contraction and it seizes our entire attention such that we can be present to nothing other than the body’s demand to persevere and pass through – the bond and the circle. And now, to arrive to the moment foreseen of beholding the face of our child, and find breath and glory and suffering and sometimes even death. And the bodies bear woundings that mark this passage of time, and the mother and child’s life-sharing placenta – this created raft that made the very crossing possible – withers into its own death and is placed aside, perhaps with shared ceremony, and certainly with the midwife’s final observations of its integrity.
Childbirth, like other liminal events, is marked not only by its navigation of time but also of space and its movements: of gestational holdings into the enforcing contractions of release, of the expelling of amniotic waters and first breaths into airways, of umbilical connections severed into individuality, of dark interiority ruptured by the newborn’s face, cries, and irreducible exteriority. In the labors of birth, all the senses are awakened to mystery and meanings in this time and these spaces, and is not rarefied. Labor towards birth is terribly real. The only legitimate response for a parent is to follow the metamorphosis as carefully as one might walk on a narrow ledge.
The midwife partner is more than welcome here in mētis, guiding in the moment through danger or pain – repositioning, soothing, easing, educating, challenging, distracting, preparing, exhorting, with the use of hand, body, voice and presence. This is a kind of dialogue, and as we will consider shortly, one that is true of giving birth to our own deep knowing in existential analysis.
The birth of one’s own offspring is one possible natal event, but every life is book-ended by our own natality. The story-telling of “When you were born . . . ” is rich with meanings for both the story-teller and the one whose story is told. Adriana Cavarero places beautiful attention to this liminal event of natality and its narratability:
[W]ithin the scene of birth, the coinciding of unity and identity, in the as-yet-unqualifiable-nude-who, is only a miracle of the beginning. Because straight away time begins to flow and the existence of the newborn, which carries on her exposure in time, becomes a story. In the course of this becoming, or rather in the course of her exposure to the becoming-time of existence, the unity of the who that unmistakably appears at birth comes to pass – as a legacy of that first announcement…” (38-39)
Cavarero goes on to note that there is significance in having one who tells the story of our natal origins, and that each of us desires to hear this story – and not for mere curiosity, but because there is a kind of knowing that is only accessible by hearing the narration of our individual unity and uniqueness inside of plurality through the lips of another. This kind of knowing is embodied, rich with feeling. She notes that Ulysses wept as he heard his story told, not because he did not know the story in some sense, but that his autobiographical knowing could not satisfy the desire to be knowable in another’s telling of his story. Our narratability is a manifestation of our unique natality, subjective and objective coheres in a new storied integrity. There are many who might narrate our stories to us, but the midwife or parent at the event of one’s birth bears special witness to this liminal entrance into one’s own life, testifying to the mētis that permitted new birth. At some future time, we might have the gift of our natal story told to us, preceding personal memory: a narrating of an origin story, precious for all the new meanings held therein.
As precious as childbirth and birth stories, natality as liminal event has other access points throughout a life. Cavarero notes that “by making herself a spectator of another’s birth, the self can surprise herself by imagining, analogically, the event of her own birth” (ibid, 39). This might be held not only in a physical birthing room, but in art. Beyond curious consumers of spectacle, birth-witnessing can surprise us as a gateway to liturgical mystery, towards an apprehension of metaphysical unity and duality in tension. There are also the natal events of our own powerful creativity, when a human being holds in a holy tension the creation, holding, improvising and laboring towards something that “just must be born,” inclusive but not limited to art, literature, idea, or discovery. These may also manifest as liminal events, in which which the vulnerability and courage of bringing something into the light of day from its gestational interiority is full of terror and awe, and the self after this event is forever changed by having passed through, whether by conscious choice or as if compelled.
But let us turn to maieutic laboring in one final sense. Maieutic dialogue, in which the teacher delivers the gift of knowing from the learner’s own thoughts and responses, comparable to a midwife’s nimble mētis, has its origins as idea in Plato’s Theaetetus. In this text, Socrates notes that he is the son of a midwife and honors his mother’s craft, telling his frustrated student that “you are suffering the pangs of labor, Theaetetus, because you are not empty, but pregnant.”
All that is true of their art of midwifery is true also of mine, but mine differs from theirs in being practised upon men, not women, and in tending their souls in labor, not their bodies. . . Now I have said all this to you at such length, my dear boy, because I suspect that you, as you yourself believe, are in pain because you are pregnant with something within you. Apply, then, to me, remembering that I am the son of a midwife and have myself a midwife’s gifts, and do your best to answer the questions I ask as I ask them. And if, when I have examined any of the things you say, it should prove that I think it is a mere image and not real, and therefore quietly take it from you and throw it away, do not be angry as women are when they are deprived of their first offspring. For many, my dear friend, before this have got into such a state of mind towards me that they are actually ready to bite me, if I take some foolish notion away from them, and they do not believe that I do this in kindness, since they are far from knowing that no god is unkind to mortals, and that I do nothing of this sort from unkindness, either, and that it is quite out of the question for me to allow an imposture or to destroy the true. And so, Theaetetus, begin again and try to tell us what knowledge is. And never say that you are unable to do so; for if God wills it and gives you courage, you will be able to say what he can. I think, then, that he who knows anything perceives that which he knows, and, as it appears at present, knowledge is nothing else than perception.”
I have cited this at length for the author’s exploration of the analogy (without personally condoning either the misogyny and infanticide that are present there, both of which are violations that are far from eradicated from contemporary life.) In existential work, maieutic dialogue has a sharp aim: the successful delivery of knowledge. Knowledge does lie within and is invited forth in consciousness to that which can not only be known, but said. These sayings of the laboring Theaetetus are attended by Socrates with good humor, hope, and open-hearted anticipation for what they reveal about his gestational progress. There is no shame in this vulnerability of perplexity, upon pain of violating a fragile and emergent Mētis Wisdom. The birth invited is Theaetetus’s interior knowledge into exteriorized knowing and becoming; this “baby” could never belong to Socrates. A midwife of knowledge must moderate her attachments through a mētis posture of cunning awareness with measured restraint, and to do otherwise would violate its moral ontology.
Peter Wilberg frames the maieutic posture of an existential analyst as one of ethical listening.
The aim of maieutic listening is to create the conditions for a feeling and thoughtful speech and therefore also for a genuine listening dialogue in which feelings are communicated dia-logos – ‘through the word’ rather than in words. The basic inner discipline of maieutic listening is the withholding of the spoken word, not just while another person is speaking but before and after they speak. It is through this discipline that we strengthen our capacity to bear with others in silence, sharing with them the task of bearing the feelings that lie pregnant in silence.” www.heidegger.org.uk/lisasmid.htm
This metaphor of the midwife at the birth, with watchful but ever-patient waiting for a child that is not of her conception but is welcomed in receptivity – this maieutic dialogue is a practice of Mētis Wisdom at the horizon of the birth of knowing. It is not the knowing of the midwife, but the perplexed laboring Theaetetus and what lies within to come forward as his authentic offspring that creates the boundaries of his unique liminal crossing. But both the birth of knowing and midwifery bearing-witness through listening presence has the illumination of epiphany. “Teaching is not reducible to maieutics; it comes from the exterior and brings me more than I contain. In its non-violent transitivity the very epiphany of the face is produced.”
Our existential birthpangs draw attention to something in the depths, ready to become conscious and open towards issue. The individual calls upon mētis for the birthing; navigating this crossing in time, space, and being cannot be given to another, not even the midwife. After these perilous crossings, the stories can be told by those who bear witness. In these mysteries and metaphors of natality, we celebrate emerging meanings with the sharp-eyed, nimble aims of the midwife, and the hope of a child whose exteriority reflects glory face-to-face.
- Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant. Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society. Translated by Janet Lloyd. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1978.
- Adriana Cavarero. Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood. translated by Paul Kottman. New York: Routledge, 2000.
- Plato, Theaetetus, 148c-151e, accessed from www.perseus.tufts.edu/
- Peter Wilberg, “The Listener as Midwife,” accessed at http://www.heidegger.org.uk/lisasmid.htm
- Emmanuel Levinas. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2007.