- A Life Beyond Reason: A Father's Memoir by Chris Gabbard
When Chris Gabbard was hired by the University of North Florida upon completion of his Ph.D. at Stanford, it was as a scholar of the British Enlightenment [End Page 336] who would soon publish articles on Behn, Defoe, and travel writing. His most recent scholarly work, which includes chapters in collections including Intellectual Disability: A Conceptual History, 1200–1900, Keywords for Disability Studies, and The Madwoman and the Blindman: Jane Eyre, Discourse, Disability, attests to a turn in his writerly preoccupations. In a sense, Gabbard's new book, A Life Beyond Reason, makes use of both stages of his scholarly career, even as it moves beyond them. This 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 arrival of Gabbard's son August in 1999. This amazing boy lived for fourteen 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 in 2013; 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 that a life beyond reason offers to us all.
Before taking up my review proper, it is perhaps best to begin by assuring regular perusers of Eighteenth–Century Studies that this memoir is directed substantially to those interested in the period. The volume refers to a wide variety of figures associated with the Enlightenment or the eras abutting it, including John Donne, John Milton, John Locke, Mary Astell, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Sarah Scott, Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham, and Mary Wollstonecraft. At the same time, Gabbard's narrative asks us to reconsider the Enlightenment world view and its connection to our contemporary faith in science and medicine (as well as academia's own privileging of reason). That A Life of Reason eloquently accomplishes this aim is evidenced by the praise the book has received from scholars including Rachel Adams, Michael Bérubé, Terry Castle, Lennard Davis, Sandra Gilbert, Andrea Lunsford, Mark Osteen, and Ralph James Savarese.
A Life of Reason is a satisfying read of several kinds. Before August, Gab-bard confesses, "I tended to frame everything around me in terms of the Enlightenment and viewed all forms of progress as its legacy" (3). Believing the movement "had laid the foundation of medicine and science," thereby "allow[ing] humankind to control its destiny," he even goes so far as to characterize Enlightenment ideals as his "religion" (10). Perhaps fittingly, though, given Gabbard and his partner Ilene Chazan had identified R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" (even before their marriage) as "Our Song" (9), life as a new parent profoundly altered his faith in the Age of Reason. After August's birth, during the discharge conference that he had expected would function "along the lines of a graduate seminar," where "the scientific method would be on display" and "rational decision-making would be conducted in an atmosphere of complete transparency and neutrality" (29), Gab-bard's increasing sense that something was amiss lead him to suddenly blurt out, "How did this happen?" and then, when no explanation seemed forthcoming, to ask if this silence was "because you haven't found the answer? Or because you're not permitted to say?" (31). And so the "confirmed materialist" (77) began to confront his Enlightenment "clockwork universe" as it "lay[s] shattered on the ground" (73...