Lorrie Moore’s ‘A Gate At The Stairs’ And An Implausible Grieving

There is much to like in Lorrie Moore‘s A Gate At The Stairs: there is Moore’s trademark dry humor, her dazzling vocabulary and eye for natural and urban detail, her exploration of weighty issues–race, adoption, gender, families, parenting–with a writerly touch that is deft and light in equal measure. But there is a crucial implausibility in the story, which when encountered by a reader like me, is liable to ripple out and weaken the hold of the novel. And reduce in significant measure its emotional impact.

[Spoilers ahead; turn back or hold your peace forever.]

At the heart–or at least, somewhere vital in the novel’s body–is a terrible tragedy, the worst of all: the death of a young child. It is the black hole in the universe of Sarah Brink, who has now found a nanny–the central character, Tassie Keltjin–to look after her adopted bi-racial child, ostensibly representing the start of a new family.

But Sarah and her husband, Edward, lost their son in no ordinary manner. Instead, his death came about quite directly as a result of actions taken by his father. While driving on a highway, their son had repeatedly engaged in loud, disruptive, and disobedient behavior; his father, finally losing his patience, had snapped and forced the boy out at a highway rest stop; once the lesson had been learned, the boy would be let back in to the car. Thanks to a series of confusing interactions with the traffic behind them, the Brinks are forced off the rest stop and back onto the highway and as they frantically try to turn around and retrieve the boy, he wanders on to the highway and is struck and killed by oncoming traffic.

Lorrie Moore now expects the reader to believe that after such an accident, involving the death of their only son, one caused by the inappropriately angry actions of the father, that the mother–who had protested the father’s actions throughout the incident–stays on in the relationship, and that the couple somehow endures and carries on with their lives. Now scarred, of course, but they do endure.

This, I’m afraid, is entirely implausible. Forgiveness in this matter will not be easily forthcoming, if not impossible. The death of a young child very often tears the relationship of the parents’ apart; this is because haunted and grieving parents, looking for some explanation of this most inexplicable of events, will, quite understandably, blame and indict any entity, material or otherwise, for it. All too often, the love for, and the relationship with, a romantic partner and co-parent, will not survive such a lashing out. It will especially not survive when one of the parents is so clearly to blame.

Parents understand the rage that children can provoke in their parents; some might even–from a distance–empathize with Edward. But very few, and I’m one of them, will be able to comprehend how a grieving mother could ever ‘get over’ the knowledge that her co-parent’s impatience and anger had caused the death of her child. To err is human, to forgive is divine; but gods do not walk this earth. Only flawed humans do.

Causal Analysis, Moral Culpability, And Gaza

If X causes Y, and Y causes Z, then surely X is the cause of Z? So goes the intuition–very roughly–that the causal relation is transitive. It thus often underwrites arguments about moral culpability and responsibility–sometimes even in legal settings. If I am the cause for your actions, then I am culpable, by one reckoning, for the effects of your actions.  (Again, very roughly, for there are very interesting interactions with moral agency here.) The skeptical have, for a long time, pointed to a possible W, the cause of X, which might be dragged into this business, thus endlessly postponing the business of causal ascription as the chain of causes is extended backwards to the origins of the universe. The distinction between distal and proximal causation in legal contexts is sometimes taken to clarify the confusion that might result if this causal chain were to be so extended.

As most pragmatically inclined folks never tire of pointing out, causal ascription is an inherently interest-laden enterprise; our identification of causes is driven not so much by metaphysical clarity about the necessary and sufficient conditions for causation as it is by our desire to be able to produce certain effects and not others, to assign blame and responsibility at some points in the causal chain and not at others. Some parts of the causal chain appear more amenable to our influence than others and thus influence our causal ascriptions in legal and moral analysis. We cannot, for instance, do much about the chemical properties of water and its effect on human lungs when it comes to preventing deaths by drowning, but we can certainly offer swimming lessons and put up warning signs around large bodies of water. (The distinction between distal and proximal causation is a related pragmatic aspect of causal analysis; see too, my little pointer to moral agency above.) And of course, our identification of points in which culpability originates are driven very much by our–sometimes overt, sometimes concealed–motives and interests. What ends are we interested in bringing about? Where might our sympathies lie?

I was reminded of some of these considerations during a discussion on Facebook,  where the following question was asked, in relation to the assignment of responsibility and culpability for the deaths of civilians in Gaza: .

What…is Israel supposed to do? What’s the right response to having a country on your border that sponsors – rather openly – rocket attacks on your territory, and has built a network of tunnels under the border and a whole terror infrastructure from which its operatives can enter the territory and attack your citizens?…I can’t get my mind around the notion that anyone other than Hamas bears the responsibility for this horror. 

Here, Hamas bears moral culpability for civilian deaths: they fire rockets (or kidnap teenagers), which provoke Israeli retaliation, which causes the deaths of Gazan civilians.

In one of my responses, I asked:

Is your general claim that any cross-“border” violence is an invitation to massive, violent retaliation that might involve as an unfortunate side-effect eighty percent civilian casualties?

This was responded to with:

If some crazed Canadian drug lord starts firing mortars into Buffalo NY I wouldn’t recommend massive, violent retaliation. If the Canadian government refused to recognize the US and armed fighters to attack across the border, and refused to assist in their capture … different story. It’s an act of war ON HAMAS’ PART, and when Israel responds with additional acts of war, I don’t think they are culpable.

I then responded with:

As for culpability, is Hamas also responsible when Israel is told by independent relief agencies that children are sheltering in a particular venue and still bombs them anyway?

And then, to bring us to the subject matter of this post, I wrote:

To grant your point about culpability is to do no more than to stop the analysis of the causal chain at a point that suits the thesis you want to establish: that Israel is not morally responsible for the deaths of innocents.

And I then asked the rhetorical question:

You’ve studied proximal causation in legal theory. Who is culpable here?

This discussion, I think, illustrates quite well, the points raised in my preliminary discussion above. Note too, that one response to the Israeli claim that Hamas is culpable for the current deaths of civilians–because of rocket attacks, or the kidnappings of Israeli teenagers–always has been: What about the occupation?

Causation and the Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon

In reviewing Joel Greenberg‘s A Feathered River: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (Bloomsbury, 2014), and in particular in noting his analysis of the causes of the mass disappearance of the passenger pigeon, Elizabeth Kolbert writes:

[G]reenberg isn’t much interested in the mechanics of the bird’s extinction. Even if there was some other contributing factor, he observes, this doesn’t change the outcome, nor does it alter the moral calculus. Greenberg offers the analogy of a man who was pushed off a pier. If the man doesn’t know how to swim and ends up drowning, it might be said that the proximate cause of his death was his own ignorance (or lack of buoyancy). But, “culpability and the ultimate cause remain with the one who pushed.” [emphasis added]

 This example demonstrates well, I think, how causal analysis–and thus, the notion of “cause”–remains a pragmatic enterprise through and through. (The notion of an “ultimate cause” is incoherent, unfortunately.)

To see why, consider that despite being offered several “additional factors” that would explain the disappearance of the pigeons, Greenberg is interested in offering a story that has a conservationist moral: overhunting is a bad thing and ‘”conservation measures” can work.’ The various physical explanations offered–the size of pigeon flocks for instance–will not mesh with such a story and are therefore not suitable for consideration as causes. There is a “moral calculus” to be satisfied: for that, blame has to be assigned somewhere, and its subjects can only be agents of a kind. In this case, human ones.

Why would this be more satisfying for Greenberg? Well, the actions of humans are subject to discussion and critique; an assignment of blame and “culpability” and “responsibility” can provoke morally inflected discussion and lead to actions that can influence the relevant causal networks of humans and their actions in the right ways.

Greenberg’s example of the pier-pushing is interesting for just these reasons. We seek to prevent similar deaths from occurring in the future, so talk of lack of buoyancy will do little to help. However, a morally inflected discourse might. Thus, we assign blame to agents again, whose beliefs and desires were the causes for their actions. Pushing people off piers is a bad thing and should be thought of as such, and so on. We could complicate the picture too, by assigning some blame to those who did not build protective railings or put up warning signs about not getting too close to pier edges. And so on.

(Incidentally, note that we could indict the lack of buoyancy of the human body as a cause too, and use it to motivate early lessons in swimming, but as a culture, we think this will have less impact than socially norming the pushing of people off piers as a bad thing.  Thus, causal analysis in that direction is a non-starter.)

Our discovery of a cause is, more than anything else, an announcement about our ends and the actions we consider will best help us to attain them.