Natal Myth

One of the most regularly recurringly encountered forms of pronatalistic thought is the explicit or implicit recourse to the notion of some pre-existing soul-like entity, be it individual or non-individual. Since the implicit or explicit claim that there really is such a pre-existing soul or soul-substance represents something of a “foreign body” with the scientific forma mentis of our modern world, we must see in the occurrence of such a notion a modern “natal myth”. Progenerative decisions may well owe a part of their impetus to the effects still exerted, underneath the surface of our modern culture, by such natal myths.

We may recognize, for example, the presence of such a modern natal myth in  Esther Vilar’s formulation that “we slaughter animals and eat them but it is thanks precisely to this pitiless behaviour of ours that these animals see the light of day at all.” (>Livestock, Human and Animal). The “existentially grateful” Günther Anders too recurs involuntarily to this myth when he remarks that he is happy to have been allowed to come into this world, a piece of good fortune that has been refused to most (>Gratitude for Existence >Anders).

As in many other places we are witnesses here to the difficulty – which proves, for many, impossible to overcome – of conceding the possibility of  the creatio ex nihilo of a consciousness in as radical a way as cosmologists attempt to conceive of the “Big Bang”. It reveals itself to be extremely hard to assure oneself of the fact that animal consciousness (Vilar), or one’s own self (Anders) did not, until relatively recently, exist at all (but the world had nonetheless taken its course without us) and that “we” had neither been helped nor harmed when we began to exist (inasmuch as a “helping” or a “harming” demands a comparison with an earlier existential situation: a situation in which we never found ourselves, since we simply did not exist).

There do indeed occur constellations in which the natal myth serves antinatalist tendencies: for example, when the beginning of an existence is declared to be a harm. We find an instance of this in the first lines of  Wildgans’s poem “Nichtsein”:

„Who can have the heart / To awaken a human being / From the slumber of non-being? / Does he not sleep there in sweet twilight / Wishless, spared all fear and all need?”

 

The Guf Space

As an explanation of modern natal myths we might adduce a certain placeless region which we can call, drawing on a Talmudic mythologeme, the “guf space”. In an old dictionary of mythology we read: “Guf (Talmud.), the gathering-place for all souls, which God is said to have created all at once. The number of souls, this myth contends, amounts to only 600,000 in total and these souls gradually transmigrate through all the universe’s bodies.”[1]

According to Talmudic tradition God stored all those souls which He had created in a single moment within this guf (Hebrew for body but also sometimes called otzar: treasure-house), or in the “Hall of the Souls” located in the Seventh Heaven (also called arabot) intending that they should be united, one by one, with bodies. Once all these souls, it was said, had been called down onto the earth by the process of human procreation the Son of David would appear as the Messiah. [2] This mythologeme, in other words, makes procreation a salvationary task, since only he who creates progeny contributes to emptying the guf and thus to drawing nearer the day of the Messiah’s arrival. This means also that each new human being that is born acquires the significance of being a kind of symbol of this progressive emptying of the guf. Each human being is significant, indeed indispensable, inasmuch as through being born they have contributed to the coming of the Messiah. This latter, one might say, is “drawn down by human procreation.[3]

One of the rare references in non-Jewish literature to this natal myth of the guf space is to be found in George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda: “In the doctrine of the Cabbala, souls are born again and again in new bodies till they are perfected and purified, and a soul liberated from a worn-out body may join the fellow-soul that needs it, that they may be perfected together, and their earthly work accomplished. Then they will depart from the mortal region, and leave place for new souls to be born out of the store in the eternal bosom. It is the lingering imperfection of the souls already born into the mortal region that hinders the birth of new souls and the preparation of the Messianic time.“ (Eliot, Daniel Deronda)

Moreover, this mythologically-founded commandment to procreate may at least in part explain why no thinker with close associations to the Jewish cultural milieu – and particularly not the thinkers of the Frankfurt School – ever recommended renunciation of all procreation, even though the members of this School’s first generation, at least, barely cherished any hope of human society’s ever attaining a state of peace.

 

Guf Potential

By way of explaining and forming a clearer notion of these natal myths that continue to exert their effects even in the modern age we might detach the “guf space” from the Talmudic context of its emergence and place side by side with it, as a hermeneutic tool, a certain “guf potential”, with the aid of which we might draw the following analogy: just as cosmology proceeds on the assumption that there is no such thing as an absolute vacuum, so does this modern mythologeme proceed on the assumption that there is no such thing as a state of absolute “non-self-ness”. Even where there would seem to be absolutely no “self”, there hovers in fact a sort of “guf potential”, conceivable perhaps in terms related to those of panpsychism[4], a sort of “almost-self” or “proto-self” which can be called into existence at any time, or which, pronatalistically, can or must be helped into a state of full existence.

[1] Vollmer’s Wörterbuch der Mythologie aller Völker, p. 225.

If this guf is indeed inhabited by only 600,000 souls then it must never have been in fact possible to enjoy the good fortune of never being born.>Polgar, >Freud.

[2] Alternatively, Adam is sometimes called the treasure-house (in the sense of the store-room) of all souls. See Hans-Joachim Schoeps, Gesammelte Schriften, Abteilung 1, Band 2, Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim 2007, p. 99 Anm. 2. On Guf/Arabot see also Jones, The soul of the embryo, p. 96f.

[3] See Wikipedia article on “Guf” unter http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guf, consulted on 10.12.12 along with the bachelor’s thesis of Robert Luschan: Die ethischen Ansichten der Weltreligionen hinsichtlich der Empfängnisverhütung und des Schwangerschaftsabbruches und die Möglichkeit einer kultursensiblen Beratung und Aufklärung in Österreich, submitted on 22.9.2010, p. 28.

[4] For further details see Galen Strawson et al.: Consciousness and its place in nature. Does physicalism entail panpsychism?

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