Forgetfulness of Birth-Obsession with Death

In his text “The Philosophical Significance of Birth” Hans Saner notes that we observe a “forgetfulness of birth” going hand in hand with an “obsession with death” in Western philosophy from Plato, through Augustine, right up to Kierkegaard and Heidegger (see Saner, Geburt und Phantasie). Without wishing to play off the notion of birth against that of death, Saner does urge us to correct “forgetfulness of birth” within the framework of a philosophy of “natality”. There should thereby be opposed, with compensatory effect, to the (in Saner’s view over-valued) constant talk of death and “the end” a discourse bearing on the positive nature of life’s beginning. Each human being, argues Saner, not only has a birth behind him but is also, as a “birthed being”, endowed with the essential characteristic of nativity “through which he is capable of initiating action or, in a metaphorical sense, of ‘giving birth’.” Throughout his entire life the human being remains an “initiator”, from and by reason of his birth. There can be no doubt but that Saner is striving, with these remarks, toward a pronatal valorization of birth and of existence.

This striving of Saner’s to oppose to the philosophical tradition’s obsession with death a pronatal philosophy of natality has been much appreciated by Sloterdijk, who remarks with regard to this latter notion: “this expression (natality) which seems simply to designate something self-evident, does not in fact belong to the vocabulary of philosophy – an extremely telling fact. It is an artificially-created word, a neologism dating from the second half of our present century and occurs indeed, as far as I am aware, for the very first time in Hans Saner’s own book Geburt und Phantasie. Von der natürlichen Dissidenz des Kindes, Basel 1979. We may say, however, that the ground was prepared for this term by Hannah Arendt’s meditations on human ’Natality’ in her magnum opus The Human Condition…“ (Sloterdijk, Eurotaoismus. See also the same author’s Zeilen und Tage)


Maeterlinck, Maurice (1862–1949)

We also encounter also in the work of Maeterlinck (who elsewhere, in antinatalist spirit, denounces >Species Cowardice) an attempt to point up that death is something of secondary rank to life and natality: “We do destiny a wrong when we link it, to the extent we have done, with death or catastrophe. When will we give up this idea that death is more important than life and disaster greater than happiness? Why do we always look to the side of tears when we judge a being’s destiny and never to the side of joy? […] Does death, then, take up a greater place in existence than birth? But one fails to take birth into account when one weighs up the destiny of the wise man. What makes us happy or unhappy is what we do between birth and death, and not in death itself…“ (Maeterlinck, Weisheit und Schicksal, cited in: Harald Beck (ed.))

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