On the Accumulated Number of Professions of Antinatalism (Introduction, part 10)

The Israeli philosopher Saul >Smilansky is the author of several important essays on antinatalism. His intensive concern with the topic, however, appears not to have prevented him falling into the serious error of grotesquely underestimating the presence of anti-natalist insights and sentiments in the cultural legacy which has been passed down to us. Curses cast upon existence, such as we find in the Biblical Book of Job (>Biblical Antinatalism) are, Smilansky argues, only rare and exceptional cases within this legacy. Curses cast specifically upon one’s own existence in this way represent a partial or incipient form of antinatalism. Because we are obliged to assume that other people will at some point find themselves in situations similar to our own. And then the – in each case ethically imperative – universalization of the wish never to have been born implies a doubt regarding whether anyone at all should be engendered and brought into the world. Since Smilansky, however, feels himself justified in viewing the presence of such partial or incipient forms of antinatalism in our cultural tradition as so minor as to be negligible, he feels able to write that:

“It also seems significant that there is so little expression of the wish not to have been born, or at least this is so with most people who live under objectively tolerable conditions. If life were so bad, then – even if we bracket the possibility of suicide – we could expect much more expression of the Job-like wish not to have been born, in common sentiments, literature and the like. The idea is culturally available. Yet the sentiment is hardly to be found, except with those who are by temperament unusually melancholy, or are in depression, or, like Job, have some good reason for feeling so.” (Smilansky, Life is Good)

Our handbook provides the proof that Smilansky is in error here – and indeed not just Smilansky. Even Heinz Rölleke, to whom we owe one of the most comprehensive collections of >Wishes Never to Have Been Born (namely, his treatise O wär‘ ich nie geboren… (“Oh, That I Had Never Been Born”), enormously underestimates the presence of anti-natalist formulae in our culture when he writes, for example, that “moreover, there is to be found in the literature of the present day, so hostile to sentiment and emotionality, neither direct anathematizing nor direct praising of natality. It is obvious, rather, that this literature tends to accept human existence as something that is not, indeed, entirely penetrable in its meaning but that remains, nonetheless, unalterable.” (Rölleke)

Two things, however, need to be borne in mind regarding the numerous declamations of the “Oh, that I had never been born!” sort, as well as other “antinatalisms”, that we and other authors have gathered together out of the work of lyricists, dramatists and the writers of narrative literature and to which we have added our own commentaries. Firstly, it is to be remembered that we are dealing here, in the great majority of cases, with expressions of the self-understanding of fictional figures and not necessarily with any conviction actually held by the authors who created these latter. Secondly, it is also to be borne in mind that what comes to expression in these declamations is often no more than a momentary depression and that no conclusions can be drawn from such passing moods even about the Weltanschauung of the literary figure in question, let alone about that of his or her creator. And in light of these considerations the question does indeed seem justified of whether we tend to ascribe to great a significance to spontaneous >Wishes Never to Have Been Born and other traces of antinatalism. One might reply to this objection by pointing out that the sheer number of “antinatalisms” (in the sense of either indirect or explicit anti-natalistic forms or enunciations) to be found in our global literary tradition is such that the import of antinatalism in literature is hardly to be underestimated for this quantitative reason alone – however ephemeral any single anti-natalistic enunciation may appear within the context of a novel, a drama, or a poem. It must, furthermore, be taken into account that the anti-natalist topoi that one encounters again and again in the works of our literary tradition may well represent the slowly accumulated sediments of moods and of currents of feeling embracing the minds of many individuals. That is to say, these topoi may, in many cases, have already established themselves within the “psychic economy” of entire cultured classes within various civilizations before finally coming to be worked into literary form by individual members of these classes – a possibility that certainly speaks in favour of a certain extra-textual presence of antinatalism. A significant example here is Emile Zola’s novel Fécondité (Fertility).

By drawing together anti-natalist testimonies along with certain incipient forms of antinatalism emerging throughout the centuries and commenting upon these testimonies and incipient forms, we hope to demonstrate to our readers specific ways in which – according, at least, to our own reading of the matter – humanity has, through the enunciations of certain individuals, “seen reason”, as it were, and begun to distance and emancipate itself from the mere naturality of procreation. Antinatalism takes seriously the notion that Man has by now established himself as a constitutively cultural being who is in a position to call critically into question that heritage from his natural, animal past that is procreation and to distance himself, by deliberate omission of action, from this fatal heritage. In our view, the notion that the continued existence of humanity represents a self-evident moral imperative amounts to a systematic structure of self-delusion (i.e. to what the Critical Theorists of the Frankfurt School referred to as a Verblendungszusammenhang) which is underpinned and sustained in part by certain laws of our physical being as organisms and in part by certain culturally-nourished prejudices and fallacies. How strong a grip this systematic structure of self-delusion has on us is clear, for example, from the fact that radical social critics like Adorno did indeed provide a thorough analysis of the systematic and collective “blinding of oneself to the truth” that, as they argued, constituted life in contemporary capitalist society but were unable to develop their key insight that “the whole is the untrue” in the more radical sense that we have outlined over these last few pages: namely, that of calling philosophically into question that systematic structure of self-delusion that consists in procreation, and in the perpetuation of the human race, itself.  The following collection of “antinatalisms” documents moments in the history of philosophy, literature and culture at which this systematic structure of self-delusion has indeed begun to crumble, or has even been seen through entirely.

There decidedly counts, in fact, among those claims regarding what is “ordained to be so by Nature” which the Critical Theorists viewed as persistences of the “mythological” on into the modern world and our own present day, the claim that Nature dictates that all human beings must die. Antinatalism reveals this supposed natural necessity of human mortality to be mere ideology. Because our condition as beings who will die is not a condition given in and by Nature but rather a condition brought about by Man himself. The Marxian insight inspiring the Critical Theorists, then, does not go far enough: “the point” is not to criticize society as it is presently constituted and thus to change it; it is rather to abolish human society’s very existence by the application of reason.

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