Too cute for words?

I love cute as much as anyone else, I suppose, although it’s not a quality I have possessed since early childhood I’m afraid. Many things are cute, though: puppies, babies, toddlers… and they all seem to have certain attributes in common: large, or prominent eyes, larger than expected head, and so on –neoteny, it’s called. They all seem vulnerable, and deserving of protection. Needing cuddling.

And yet, apart from agreeing affably with doting parents describing their newborns, or singles obsessing over their new puppies, I didn’t give cuteness any extra thought, I have to admit. I mean, cute is, well, cute. There didn’t seem to be any need to dwell on the features, or deify their appearance. But an older article by Joel Frohlich, then a PhD student at UCLA, about cuteness in Aeon did tweak my interest: https://aeon.co/ideas/how-the-cute-pikachu-is-a-chocolate-milkshake-for-the-brain

Perhaps it was the etymology of the word that initially intrigued me. ‘The word emerged as a shortened form of the word ‘acute’, originally meaning sharp, clever or shrewd. Schoolboys in the United States began using cute to mean pretty or attractive in the early 19th century. But cuteness also implies weakness. Mignon, the French word for cute or dainty, is the origin of the English word ‘minion’, a weak follower or underling… It was not until the 20th century that the Nobel laureates Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen described the ‘infant schema’ that humans find cute or endearing: round eyes, chubby cheeks, high eyebrows, a small chin and a high head-to-body-size ratio. These features serve an important evolutionary purpose by helping the brain recognise helpless infants who need our attention and affection for their survival.’

In other words, ‘cute’ was a mechanism to elicit protection and caring. Indeed it seems to be neurologically wired. MRI studies of adults presented with infant faces revealed that the ‘brain starts recognising faces as cute or infantile in less than a seventh of a second after the face is presented.’ These stimuli activate ‘the nucleus accumbens, a critical piece of neural machinery in the brain’s reward circuit. The nucleus accumbens contains neurons that release dopamine.’

But it can be tricked, so ‘baby-like features might exceed those of real infants, making the character a supernormal stimulus: unbearably adorable, but without the high maintenance of a real baby.’ So, is cuteness in these circumstances, actually a Trojan Horse? An interesting thought.

Cuteness is situational -or at least, should be. Cuteness out of context can be frightening, and even grotesque. Think of the clown in Stephen King’s novel It for example. Imitation, when recognized as such, seems out of place. Wrong. Cute is a beginning -an early stage of something that will eventually change as it grows up. Its transience is perhaps what makes it loveable. At that stage it is genderless, asexual, and powerless. It poses no threat -in fact, it solicits our indulgence. Think what would happen if it were a trick, however: our guard would be down and we would be vulnerable.

But there’s a spectrum of cuteness; there must be, because it –or its homologues- seem to be appearing in situations that don’t remotely suggest innocence, youth, or vulnerability. Think of the proliferation of cutesy Emojis. As Simon May, a visiting professor of philosophy at King’s College London points out in an essay (also in Aeon https://aeon.co/ideas/why-the-power-of-cute-is-colonising-our-world ) ‘This faintly menacing subversion of boundaries – between the fragile and the resilient, the reassuring and the unsettling, the innocent and the knowing – when presented in cute’s frivolous, teasing idiom, is central to its immense popularity… Cute is above all a teasing expression of the unclarity, uncertainty, uncanniness and the continuous flux or ‘becoming’ that our era detects at the heart of all existence, living and nonliving. In the ever-changing styles and objects that exemplify it, it is nothing if not transient, and it lacks any claim to lasting significance. Plus it exploits the way that indeterminacy, when pressed beyond a certain point, becomes menacing – which is a reality that cute is able to render beguiling precisely because it does so trivially, charmingly, unmenacingly. Cute expresses an intuition that life has no firm foundations, no enduring, stable ‘being’.’

Perhaps that’s what makes non-contextual cute so inappropriate, so menacing. ‘This ‘unpindownability’, as we might call it, that pervades cute – the erosion of borders between what used to be seen as distinct or discontinuous realms, such as childhood and adulthood – is also reflected in the blurred gender of many cute objects… Moreover, as a sensibility, cute is incompatible with the modern cult of sincerity and authenticity, which dates from the 18th century and assumes that each of us has an ‘inner’ authentic self – or at least a set of beliefs, feelings, drives and tastes that uniquely identifies us, and that we can clearly grasp and know to be truthfully expressed. Cute has nothing to do with showing inwardness. In its more uncanny forms, at least, it steps entirely aside from our prevailing faith that we can know – and control – when we are being sincere and authentic.’

Whoa -that takes cute down a road I don’t care to travel: it’s an unnecessary detour away from the destination I had intended. Away from attraction, and into the Maelstrom of distraction. Contrived cute is uncute, actually. It is a tiger in a kitten’s mask.

I think there is a depth to beauty which -as ephemeral and idiosyncratic as it may seem- is missing from cute. Both hint at admirability, and yet in different ways: one describes a surface,  the other a content -much as if the value of a wallet could be captured by its outward appearance alone.

For some reason cute reminds of a Latin phrase of Virgil in his Aeneid -although in a different context, to be sure: Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes –‘I fear the Greeks even bearing gifts’- a reference to the prolonged Greek war against Troy and their attempt to gain entrance to the city with their gift of the infamous Trojan Horse. Cute is a first impression, not a conclusion. I suppose it’s as good a place to start as any, but I wonder if, in the end, it’s much ado about nothing…

The time is out of joint

It came as a great shock, of course -Youth  does not easily admit defeat: it lives as if there is always a tomorrow, will always be a tomorrow. The sun will rise after any darkness; day will always follow night. Youth is immortal, although perhaps it is that death is further away than they can see. It is beyond the horizon of a land so vast, it barely recedes as they wander along the rainbow of their still-wet days.

At least that’s how Elissa saw it in the years I knew her. We met at university in our freshman year -some club or other, I suppose -although we also took many of the same classes, I recall. And then after three years, she transferred to another school and I lost track of her -until one day I saw a face that shouldn’t have been where I saw it.

I had just started doing my first ward rounds on a neurology rotation in my fourth year of medical school, and there, tucked in a sunny corner of a four-bed room, was a pair of eyes that suddenly twinkled with recognition. Almost everything else I’d seen that first morning on the ward was depressing: asymmetrical faces, immobile bodies, eyes that stared unseeing, and perhaps uncaring, at the ceiling tiles -a ward of scarred, and time-ravaged bodies.

But there she was: a more mature, but still beautiful version of the Elissa I knew. Her auburn hair was shorter than I remembered -but partly shaved and bandaged near the crown. And her face told me she had gone through a lot since we had last seen each other.

I glanced at her chart. The beds on the neurosurgery unit were filled, and so she had been placed on this ward after her brain biopsy a few days previously, until something became available for her on the surgical ward. The biopsy results were depressing -definitely not encouraging for a 29 year old just beginning her PhD program in Psychology.

“Is that who I think it is?” she asked as I approached her bedside.

“I guess that depends on who you’re hoping for,” I answered lightly, and with a smile.

“So…” She ran her eyes across my face and then over the short white coat that medical students wore when visiting patients in those days. “Are you a doctor now?” she asked, even though her expression told me she knew I wasn’t. “Sit down and tell me what you’ve been doing,” she added, before I could answer.

We talked about our lives for a while -well, about everything other than why we were meeting after all this time in a hospital. Elissa could sense my discomfort.

“It’s okay to talk about it, you know…” she said, after an awkward silence when I’d seemed to run out of things to say.

I smiled weakly and shuffled around in my chair.

“Nobody wants to… They crowd around the bed and tell me how well I’m looking, and if anybody dares to mention my cancer, it’s to tell me I am going to beat it.” She glanced at the chart I was holding and smiled. “But I’m not, you know.” She studied my face for a moment. “I can see the subject makes you uncomfortable, too.” She sighed gently and then reached over and took my hand. “I find myself comforting my visitors more than describing how I feel about dying; they don’t really want to know.” Her eyes landed briefly on my cheeks and then hovered over my head before they returned. “I don’t think they’d understand anyway, you know…”

She smoothed the sheets on her bed with her free hand and sighed again. “The really hard thing is that I’ve accepted my fate, but nobody else has. They won’t let me…” She stared out of the window. “You don’t know how hard that is. I almost feel guilty for letting them down.”

She squeezed my hand. “But you know, what it really makes me feel is so very alone… I can’t talk to them about that -not my friends, at any rate.”

Suddenly she stared into my eyes. “Oh, I don’t mean you!” She smiled like the old Elissa. “It’s just that I’m still entitled to an opinion, don’t you think? And I don’t want to live forever, you know…”

I nodded, and stayed quiet and let her talk. I’d never felt so… so close to her.

Then her eyes began to twinkle again. “I mean I have a few quibbles about the timing and everything, but I think I could accept even that, if they’d only stop trying to console me all the time… and just listen.”

Her face was almost radiant as she poured out her feelings onto me, and we continued talking until a nurse tapped me on the shoulder to remind me I had rounds to do on the rest of the patients.

It was then that Elissa leaned across the bed and kissed me on my cheek. “Thank you, G,” she whispered, using my nickname like it was a caress. “Thank you for just listening…

Elissa died only a few weeks later -there wasn’t much to treat brain tumours with in those days, and she slipped into a coma only days after we’d talked. But our discussion has coloured my thinking ever since.

And one topic we discussed -the unfairness of our allotted lifespan- still surfaces from time to time, even all these years later. Most recently, I suppose, in an essay by Paul Sagar, a lecturer in political theory in the department of political economy, King’s College London. He was writing in Aeon, an online publication, outlining the fears that surround both death and its converse, immortality: https://aeon.co/essays/theres-a-big-problem-with-immortality-it-goes-on-and-on

I suddenly remembered Elissa’s feeling about immortality. I don’t want to live forever -just long enough… Until I’m ready, I guess. So I was pleased to learn that the attitude she taught me was neither anomalous nor unusual.

‘[T]he English moral philosopher Bernard Williams suggested that living forever would be awful, akin to being trapped in a never-ending cocktail party. This was because after a certain amount of living, human life would become unspeakably boring. We need new experiences in order to have reasons to keep on going. But after enough time has passed, we will have experienced everything that we, as individuals, find stimulating. We would lack what Williams called ‘categorical’ desires: ie, desires that give us reasons to keep on living, and instead possess only ‘contingent’ desires: ie, things that we might as well want to do if we’re alive, but aren’t enough on their own to motivate us to stay alive.’

I’m reminded, of course, of Bill Murray in that famous movie Groundhog Day where he lives the same day over and over again. As moral philosopher Samuel Scheffler at New York University points out, ‘because death is a fixed fact, everything that human beings value makes sense only in light of our time being finite, our choices being limited, and our each getting only so many goes before it’s all over. Scheffler’s case is thus not simply that immortality would make us miserable (although it probably would). It’s that, if we had it, we would cease to be distinctively human in the way that we currently are. But then, if we were somehow to attain immortality, it wouldn’t get us what we want from it: namely, for it to be some version of our human selves that lives forever. A desire for immortality is thus a paradox.’

And yet, is that it? There must be something else about, well, death -apart from fearing it- that makes us long to avoid it. Sagar mentions the Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno feeling ‘outrage and anger that something is being taken away from him (‘they are stealing my I!’). Unamuno is imagining the situation that most of us do when we are contemplating our own deaths: not a distant point of decrepitude, aged 107, trapped in a hospital bed, in an underfunded care home – but rather death as claiming us before we are ready.’

As Sagar concludes, ‘ We are not simply afraid of death, we also resent it, because it is experienced as an assault on our personal agency. We can fully control our own deaths in only one direction – and that, of course, is usually no comfort at all.’

I wonder what he might have thought had he met Elissa that day in the hospital so many, many years ago… Those who are dying may also have an opinion.