The Imprecation of Existence

In European literature the topos of the imprecation of existence has tended to manifest itself in such formulations as “O would that I had never been born!” and other formulations derived from it. It was most likely Heinz àRölleke who first systematically researched this imprecation of existence as a topos of European literature. Rölleke himself has stated that his reading yielded more than 600 passages expressing this idea. Rölleke claims that this topos forms a tradition stretching back unbroken for thousands of years. Best-known perhaps – though certainly not the earliest – among these topoi is a passage from the fourth speech of the Chorus in àSophocles’s “Oedipus at Colonus” that runs: “Not to have been born exceeds every other thing in value (is, of all things, the best for Man)” This passage is neither the oldest ancient document of the topos that sees an “advantage” in the me phunai (“never having been born”) nor the only one. In the European Middle Ages comparable formulations drawn from the Christian Bible also acquired great cultural impetus and reshaped, in part, the Ancient Greek cultural heritage.

Rölleke rightly points out that extreme and critical situations apt to result in such expostulations as the wish never to have been born must have been part of the experience of human beings at all periods in history[1] and imprecations of existence therefore such as to have been able, at all times, to be formed out of the original matter of each individual’s really or potentially lived life. Just as the theory of physical Nature was “born twice” – once in antiquity and then again, centuries later, in the early modern age[2],  – so too have antinatalistic forms of thought germinated several times in different historical periods and independently of one another.

Where one compares, however, the Ancient Greek and the Biblical traditions of this topos there emerges, argues Rölleke, an interesting difference between the two: “Whereas the formulations of this sort in the literature of antiquity, although couched in very general terms, nevertheless refer, as a rule, to a specific human being in a specific situation, the Fathers of the Church invariably interpret the Biblical propositions referring to an individual person and an individual situation (as in the cases of Jeremiah, Job or Judas) as propositions of universal application and validity. Jeremiah, Job and Judas are each construed respectively as ‘types’.”

The following remarks of Rölleke’s regarding the broad dissemination of the topos of the imprecation of existence are of very great interest here since it is possible to construe this topos as a kind of disguised antecedent of:

“How widespread such a despairingly unrealistic imprecation of one’s own existence actually is, and how universally human this reaction is too (egregious and outrageous as it may initially seem) – this is made clear by the history of European literature in three ways:

  1. This proposition is over and over again interpreted as a universally valid one, as a self-evident gnomon: namely, that it would be better for each human being, indeed for humanity as a whole, not to exist.

  2. It is a formulation which can be proven to recur continuously at regular intervals throughout the whole of European intellectual and literary history.

  3. Already at the point where this formulation is first to be identified, in written form, within the tradition it displays the character of a generally-valid aphorism, a topos (that is to say, a truism). And most of its later occurrences seem to me to share this “topic”, truistic quality.

Sufficiently numerous examples will be cited below to prove the thesis that the articulation of this proposition extends to humanity as a whole. As regards the unbroken nature of the tradition: the first documentary evidence of this sentiment known to me is to be found in ancient Egypt, namely in the so-called First Intermediate Period, that is, approximately 2000 BC. From this period a note has come down to us reading: “The misery of life is so immeasurable that I wish I were dead; and even the little children say: o that I had never been called into life”. This formulation is somewhere around four thousand years old; for the last two and a half thousand years analogous propositions occur in a more or less unbroken chain in our literary and intellectual tradition […] Definitive documentary proof is thereby present of the extreme age of this proposition, of its perenniality, and (above all) of its quality as a topos, i.e. as a proposition bearing on the type “human being” in general – proof, that is to say, of the fact of its being independent of any personal individual destiny or of any state that a specific human being might happen to find himself in at any specific time. Documented also, therefore, is the constantly latently present meaningfulness of this proposition, its susceptibility of being filled up at any time, and as it were suddenly once again, with personal feeling and meaning for any individual human being. As Thomas Mann once put it: “What one has to put up with others have already put up with; and yet others, at some yet earlier time, have given it articulate formulation. There always responds, then, to every cry of despair de profundis an answering cry from somewhere else.”

Interestingly, Rölleke claims that this topos “O would that I had never been born” is not only present from the beginning to the end of the literary history of Europe but even spans the cultural production of the human race as a whole:  It would be better if the human race had never been “born”, that is to say, if human beings had never existed.

[1] From the antinatalist perspective: already by the very fact of their having been begotten human beings have at all times been exposed to such extreme and critical situations.

[2] See Sohn-Rethel‘s essay: Von der Wiedergeburt der Antike zur neuzeitlichen Naturwissenschaft, Bremen 1987.

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