Birthday (Party)

To the extent to which it is justified to speak of a Fear of Birth, we may perhaps conceive of our custom of celebrating the day of our births as a corresponding measure of compensation, a sort of attempt at reparation. In tacit recollection, as it were, of the terrible shock he suffered in coming into the world, the attempt is made to sweeten, on this one particular day, the existence of the individual so deeply damaged by life by providing him with cakes, gifts and company designed to cheer his spirits. The point, in the end, is to ensure that he does not lose all taste for existence. Birthday parties, as passing earthly events, are counterparts, on a very small scale, to those religious “heavens” and “paradises” which are conceived, on a much larger scale, as “institutions of reparation” which endure eternally.

The birthday party also functions as a sort of measure of “drowning out” which serves to prevent a recollection of the profoundly heteronomous beginning of every life and thus to forestall any reproaches toward the parents.[1]

 

Polgar, Alfred (1873–1955)

Philosophical anthropology has pointed out that the new-born human being remains – in comparison with the newborns of other mammals – unable to fend for itself for an especially long period of time. Polgar expresses very eloquently the fact that, due to this unusually long period in which we are in need of help and protection, we retain all our lives a certain childlike character trait which makes it acceptable for people still to address us as “birthday boy” or “birthday girl” even when we are well advanced in age.

“The mischance of having been born is a burden we drag behind us all our lives. No one is ever rid of this burden even one day earlier than his very last. The whole span of time that is allowed us here is spent in coming to terms with this fact; and to forget it for a few moments now and then seems our only possibility of becoming, for these brief moments, contentedly aware of its consequences.” (Alfed Polgar, Die Mission des Luftballons)

 

Hueck, Walter (1889–1975)

One acute critic of regular, institutionalized commemoration of our birth is Walter Hueck, in whom we find a synthesis of Polgar’s notion of our peculiar helplessness and Musil’s notion of our elapsing time. A birthday is an event to commemorate the day that we came, in a pitifully helpless state, into the world: i.e. a commemoration of an event which – if we are to believe the testimony we ourselves offered of our own experience on that day – was no very happy one for us (>Cries of the Newborn); at the same time, however, a birthday is a reminder that we have become a year older and that there now remains one year less to us on this earth, even if we are spared death by sudden accident or sickness. Hueck asks forthrightly: what exactly is it that is being celebrated at birthday parties? Is it the misery experienced at the time of our first entry into the world, or is it rather the rapid approach of our departure from this world?

“I have never really been able to understand the meaning of birthday celebrations. In the first place a birthday is a commemoration of the moment when we came into this world, helplessly whimpering and smeared with stool. And I think one would have to be a shameless optimist to celebrate the annual rolling around again of this pitiful hour with pomp and solemnity. (…)

A birthday celebration is a blasphemy. Birthday wishes are insults. What truly motivates them is Schadenfreude.” (Hueck, Menschen unter sich)

[1] This is the meaning of Manfred Sommer’s question: “Is the birthday party a kind of apotropaic ritual intended to fend off the shattering of that vitally necessary ‘amnesia regarding birth’ which threatens to occur each time the anniversary of this day of parturition rolls around?” (Sommer, 1988)

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