Chris Foss, Professor of English, has published an approximately 1600-word book review of Chris Gabbard’s A Life Beyond Reason in the most recent number of the journal Eighteenth Century Studies. Gabbard was hired out of Stanford by the University of North Florida because of his expertise in the literature of the British Enlightenment. His book, however, is no scholarly monograph on the Age of Reason, but rather a moving personal memoir chronicling his family’s life and times in their own very different Augustan Age, a period which commenced with the birth of his son August. This amazing boy lived for 14 years facing a litany of diagnoses stemming from the complications of an obstructed labor: “cerebral palsy, spastic quadriplegia, profound mental retardation, cortical visual impairment, microcephaly, seizure disorder, osteopenia—and the list went on” (35). There is pain and suffering aplenty in this narrative, along with understandable doses of anger and frustration, but above all this is a story about love and joy, and long before one reaches the final page it is abundantly clear that Gabbard’s Augustan Age has not ended with an untimely death from pneumonia; the child lives on not only in the author’s memory, but through this book in the hearts and minds of every reader who meets him and comes to appreciate the many lessons a life beyond reason holds for all.
Socrates’s dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (11) serves as the pivot upon which Gabbard transforms his whole understanding of what matters in life, for August’s cognitive capacity prevents him from ever being able to examine his life in this way, and yet Gabbard finds plenty of worth in the pleasure August not merely experiences but expresses through shrieks of glee and squawks of delight, through his contagious laughter. Gabbard credits disability rights activist Harriet McBryde Johnson, and her public debates with philosopher Peter Singer, as crystalizing his new position on what exactly constitutes a life worth living. Singer’s position on decriminalizing child euthanasia is based on a belief that disabled lives “will be permeated with suffering and therefore will not be worth living” is informed by a belief that equates personhood with “characteristics like rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness” (100). The accomplished and articulate Johnson not only embodied how an individual’s life with a severe disability is anything but “intrinsically suboptimal” (100), but she further revealed how relationships with such persons, far from being worthless, can in fact be “profoundly beautiful” (103).
Gabbard offers Coleridge likely would judge him (as he did Wordsworth’s Betty Foy from “The Idiot Boy”) as an “impersonation of an instinct abandoned by judgment,” for “what is love,” he continues, “if not ‘instinct abandoned by judgment’?” (104). With this epiphany, life beyond reason in his own Age of Johnson/Augustan Age clarifies “it is not the unexamined life that is not worth living but the life without love” (104). Drawing on the “land of interdependence” he finds in Donne’s “Meditation 17” (85), Gabbard posits his shared experiences with his son constitute “a mutually beneficial ethics of care” (108). Attuned to “August’s little ways”—“the twitch of his lips, the shift of an eyebrow,” his grins and grimaces, his fussing and laughing—Gabbard views their connection not as “adhering to a so—called custodial care model” but instead as “characterized neither by his dependence on me not by my surrender of independence to him” (108). That is, while they “depended upon one another in radically different ways,” the father’s caregiving was anything but “selfless”: “I needed him as much as he needed me. If I didn’t love him, all of this effort would have been a grudging sacrifice. But he made me happy, and, so, in our peculiar way, we split everything down the middle” (109).