Confessions of Parental Guilt

Confessions of guilt on the part of parents who retrospectively rue having caused the beginning of their children’s existence will tend to be rare, since parents believe they have the right to claim lack of knowledge concerning the future development of their children.

 

Thomas Mann’s (1875–1955) Three Confessions of Parental Guilt

Mann’s First Confession

On 13.11.1918 Mann notes in his diary:

“When I came back, the child’s ear was just being bound. He was rolling about and crying so badly it tore my heart in two […] When one brings children into the world one creates a suffering that is outside oneself: an objective suffering that one does not oneself feel but only watches others feel and that one feels guilty about.” (Mann, Tagebücher 1918-1921, S. 76 f. ; found by GK)

We have to do here with a confession of parental guilt of which the majority of parents, perhaps, would not be capable. It is, after all, considered as part of the “musical accompaniment” to every normal existence that children cry, be it from physical pain or psychological discomfort, just as they tend, indeed, quite generally to make a lot of noise (since their parts tend to buy them loud toys). But this piece of popular wisdom “Children just cry, that’s all” in fact reveals a shattering hermeticism of necessity which aspires to deny to the crying of children the moral seriousness which is due to it. This denial involves overlooking the fact that children – in contradistinction to grown-ups – tend to become completely absorbed in their own situation of distress and to be entirely dominated by their own pain.

Mann’s Second Confession

A further confession of parental guilt on Thomas Mann’s part is to be found in the volume edited by Erika Mann “In Memory of Klaus Mann”. In the foreword which he contributes to this book Thomas Mann writes:

“My heart is without bitterness over the fact that, in the end, he was unable to think of us. It would really be going too far to speak of ingratitude for a gift as ambiguous and laden with guilt as is the so-called ‘gift of life’” (Mann, My Son Klaus, S. 11. Found by GK)

This formulation is revolutionary from the point of view of the ethics of natality. It contests the belief that children owe their parents gratitude inasmuch as these latter are the cause of their being. Mann, on the contrary presents us here with an àInversion of the Guilt of Natality: The child is not under an obligation to his parents because he has received from them “the gift of life”; rather the parents are under an obligation to the child because what they have given him, in giving him life, has been a “gift” of profound ambiguity.

 

Peter Weiß (1916–1982)

“It is intolerable that I was the one who bestowed on you this world, that I was the one who bestowed on you this disfigured life.” (Die Besiegten)

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