Poulet, Georges: From the Imprecation of Existence to the Accusation Against Being: Antinatalism in Georges Poulet’s Unknown Masterpiece “Nothing Is…”

Georges Poulet was perhaps the first to show that the bringing forth of new human beings fulfils the defining conditions of a criminal offence.

In Poulet’s novel Rien n’est… that traditional topos of an imprecation cast upon existence, which recurs again and again throughout European intellectual history, achieves a literary culmination and takes on new form: that of an accusation against being directed specifically against one’s own parents.

Poulet, then, is most likely the first to transcend, in his 1913 Bildungsroman (not yet translated into English) Rien n’est…, the topoi of a hitherto rather impotent and ineffective imprecation upon, and reproach to, existence and to outline that personalisation of the accusation against existence (i.e. an accusation juridified and levelled against one’s own progenitors) which, in former years, allowed secular courts to deal with that metaphysical question of a “right to non-existence” which lies, still today, outside the ambit of the law  (àUnwished-for/Unasked Existence.

In his novel – highly praised in its day by the Nobel-Prize-winning Belgian author Maeterlinck – Poulet demonstrates how the substantial basis for such an accusation can be acquired by following out the logic of the French Code Civil. Turning his back on all “gratitude for existence” – that gratitude which most human beings imbibe with their mothers’ milk (insofar as they do not count among the millions of children who have, since time immemorial, died every year of hunger or of easily avoidable infections) – Poulet draws, as it were, a cork from the bottle of the Napoleonic Code Civil. The genie that thereby escaped from the bottle plainly failed, however, to exert any influence on the forma mentis of humanity during Poulet’s lifetime. Despite the praise received from Maeterlinck it is only in our own day that the idea sketched out by Poulet – that of a juridification and personalization of the ancient imprecation cast upon existence – is beginning to gain some resonance. Certain individuals suffering from serious disabilities – people conceived and borne, necessarily, without their having asked to be and existing without any request on their part to do so –  are now beginning to understand themselves as victims of a misdeed and are, in some cases, setting about defending themselves against those who initiated these existences or against the medical misdiagnoses that contributed thereto (e.g. pre-implantation or ultrasound diagnoses which overlooked serious illness or malformations) using means which already lay, in rudimentary form, to hand in the French Code Civil.
Where it is read and interpreted in the light of Poulet’s analyses and considerations the significant modern legal corpus that is the Code Civil might serve as a model and driving force for those formal “accusations of existence” which are finally, in our present day, being mounted. In other words: precisely within one of the most determinant modern “immunity systems”, through which a civilized future for humanity was intended to be guaranteed, Poulet discovers, under the auspices of “liberty, equality and fraternity, a key weak point in our otherwise barely-questioned social synthesis – a weak point which makes it possible for each individual to legitimately bring a juridical charge against the initiators of his or her existence. Thus, for a humanity the component individuals of which have been enlightened regarding the coercive nature of their existence, there is opened up a legal-metaphysical perspective which promises nothing less than a great wave of such juridical charges – a prospect which should serve to prompt couples thinking of indeed engaging in such existence-initiating action to take some distance from such decisions and thereby contribute to ebbing-away of human existence on this earth.

The progress from the traditional “imprecation cast upon existence”, traceable back to deepest antiquity, to the modern juridical charge against existence can be observed in the following passage, in which the young Andoche attacks his father Galipat (and which we give here both in the French original and in English translation):  

Je sais bien que j’ai l’air de dire une bêtise quand je déclare que je n’ai pas demandé à naître. C’est cependant vrai.
Connais-tu l’article 1382 du Code civil?
– Non, fis-je, surpris de l’arrivée de Code civil dans cette histoire.
– L’article 1382 dit textuellement: «Tout fait quelconque de l’homme, qui cause à autrui un dommage, oblige celui par la faute duquel il est arrivé à le réparer.» Eh! bien, Galipiat a pu prendre un certain plaisir, le jour où ma mère a consenti à le distraire; mais c’est moi qui ai payé la casse, si j’ose ainsi parler. Il y a eu de sa part dommage causé à ma personne, puisqu’il m’a transmis la vie et, avec cette servitude douloureuse, toutes les maladies que lui, sa femme et leurs ascendants à l’un et à l’autre ont recueillies et collectionnées au cours de leurs débauches, de / leurs aventures et de leurs fatigues, sans compter celles que je vais gagner moi-même dans mes propres excès et mes catastrophes personnelles.

I know that I must sound very stupid when I declare that I never asked to be born. But such is in fact the case. Are you familiar with Article 1382 of the Code Civil?
– No, I said, surprised that the Code Civil entered into this matter at all.
– Article 1382 states quite explicitly: “Every human action, of whatever kind, obliges, in the case where said action causes harm to another human being, the person responsible for this harm to compensate the person harmed.”  Galipat, then, may have had a certain pleasure in my mother’s consenting to entertain him. But it was me, if I may say so, who suffered the harm ensuing therefrom. He is the agent of a damage inflicted upon my person, since he passed on life to me and, with this painful servitude, all the sicknesses that he, his wife and their forebears have acquired in the course of their debaucheries, their adventures and their exertions, not to mention those that I am going to acquire myself in the course of my own debaucheries and personal catastrophes.

With this passage Poulet makes a plea for a truly consistent application of penal law, in the sense that all progeny, not just those who turn out to suffer from some serious disability, should be allowed to legally prosecute their progenitors. Poulet has his Andoche defend the idea – which has re-emerged in present-day antinatalist philosophy – that our being brought into being is a harm inflicted on us. My progenitor is taken to count as the “person responsible for a harm done” to me. Should one directly accept the logic of this line of argument, the compensation for the damage done here (the imposition of life being considered here to constitute a “damage”) could only consist in life being taken away again from the person who has thereby suffered damage. But as is evident, life can neither be “given to someone” nor can “someone” be “deprived” of it. In order to form a clearer picture here let us think of an “elementary particle” (rather in the original sense of this term drawn from physics than in the metaphorical sense given to it by Houellebecq) which is resistant, indeed, to all ethical considerations, since, although it is impossible to either improve or cause to deteriorate the condition of such a “particle” but only to alter its position in space, there can nonetheless validly be applied to it that more general notion of “being affected”. Is such an elementary particle “affected” by entering into existence? Not at all. Analogously, “giving the gift of something” to someone presupposes that the “someone” in question already exists. Consequently, an action the effect of which consists precisely in bringing someone into existence cannot be said to be an action that “gives the gift” of anything to anyone at all. And to take something away from someone likewise presupposes that the “someone” in question continues to exist; an action the effect of which consisted in the person affected by it’s ceasing to exist would “take nothing away” from this latter.

Attempts, therefore, to legally prosecute one’s own parents by reason of the fact that they caused one harm or damage by begetting one are ultimately bound to fail due to their lack of rational underpinning: we find ourselves, as a result of our being “called into existence” (though it would be more correct, of course, to say that “one acted in such a way that we arose”) no worse off than if “we” had remained unbegotten. There surely can, however, by tracing out the logic of Poulet’s remarks, be postulated a duty to desist from begetting new human beings for so long as it is not yet guaranteed that these latter will be spared sorrows, hardships, and torments ending in a miserable death-rattle.

Momentum of Positivity and Pollyanna Principle

The “momentum of positivity” is constitutive for nativistic àSystematic Self-Blinding. By this phrase we mean on the one hand the tendency for negative events and experiences to undergo, in retrospect, “positivization” and to be evaluated and described as less negative than they were lived as being when first experienced. A locus classicus for this insight is Eduard von Hartmann’s Philosophy of the Unconscious, in which he explains the “momentum of positivity” to be the result both of the obscuring effect of  >The Spectacles of Memory when looking back at the past and a certain instinct of hope that constantly optimistically anticipates the future.  Also contributing to this “momentum of positivity” is the finding – albeit a disputed one among researchers – that it is generally easier to recall positive things than negative ones.[1]


Pollyanna Hypothesis and Principle

Boucher und Osgood (1969) use the phrase “Pollyanna Hypothesis” to introduce their observation that people have a natural inclination to form positive ideas and draw positive conclusions. Boucher und Osgood remark that “there is a universal human tendency to use evaluatively positive (E+) words more frequently… than evaluatively negative words (E-).” (quoted from Baumeister et al.). Across all languages, “good” appears to be the most frequently applied evaluating term (see Rozin/Royzman).

In their 1978 study “The Pollyanna Principle: Selectivity in language, memory, and thought” Matlin and Stang argued that positive information can be more easily called up out of the memory than negative. It was this that they called “the Pollyanna Principle”.

For what reason are negative events or experiences more difficult to recall than positive ones? The reason lies, perhaps, not in the fact that negative things imprint themselves on the mind less firmly than positive ones; rather, this phenomenon seems to be traceable back to the fact that negative experiences are, over the course of time, at least neutralized, where they are not actually transformed into something positive. àWorking-Through of the Negative.


The Novel “Pollyanna”

The notion of a “Pollyanna Principle” is inspired by certain views expressed by the eponymous heroine of a novel written by Eleanor Hodgman Porter (1868–1920). The best example of this “principle” is the scene in the novel in which the young girl Pollyanna discovers, in the forest, a man with a broken leg and tells him that she is happy. Happy about what? Well, she explains, that only one and not both of his legs are broken. Pollyanna calls this attitude to things the “game” that she has learned from her now-deceased father: “’Oh, yes; the game was to just find something about everything to be glad about—no matter what ’twas,’ rejoined Pollyanna, earnestly.“ (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Pollyanna/Chapter_5) In fact, Pollyanna finds herself prompted very often, in the course of the novel, to play this “game”. And life itself plays such nasty tricks on her that her ability to maintain this “playful” attitude is put to a very hard test.

The aunt with whom Pollyanna lives gives an explanation, very much in antinatalist spirit, of why Pollyanna is obliged to undertake all those attempts to compensate for daily experiences of suffering that are recommended by adepts of positive thinking and other pronatalists:  “…just because I happened to have a sister who was silly enough to marry and bring unnecessary children into a world that was already quite full enough…” (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Pollyanna/Chapter_1). It remains unclear, however, whether the stance expressed here is a matter simply of a demographic-political antinatalism or rather of a breakthrough to an actual moral-theoretical antinatalism.

What Pollyanna calls “the game” is a competence in mastering existence which children early on acquire through practice or – in the case where they do not succeed in doing this themselves “by imitation” – is “beaten into them” by others. Whoever declines to participate in this “game” of fending off all negativity and refuses to don the >Spectacles of Memory is regularly accused of being a “spoilsport”.

[1] Baumeister et al. (2001) arrive, in their study of memory performance, at the conclusion of a certain dominance of the negative; Shelley E. Taylor (1991) and Rozin/Royzman (2001), however, assume a dominance of the positive.

Dissipation of Positivity

Whoever acts in such a way as to bring about, or contribute to bringing about, the coming into existence of a human being, is also acting in such a way that a being begins to exist whose states of happiness dissolve and dissipate much more quickly than his states of misery.

Person-Free Argument

Opponents of antinatalism might advance the argument that there cannot be ascribed to this latter’s intended object – a universe without beings susceptible of suffering – the predicate “morally good”, since in such a universe there would no longer be present any being for whom anything might be “good” or “bad”. Such a universe, so runs the argument, would be ethically neutralized. But the conclusion that an ethically neutral universe is a better one does, therefore, indeed result from a comparison between this universe and ours. We may indeed say: a world in which there are no beings susceptible of suffering is better than a world in which there are such beings.

Definitive Justification in Performative Mode

Whoever advances the claim that it is impossible to definitively reflexively justify a position thereby asserts the very thing that his argument purports to deny: it is once and for all established (so might one reformulate what he is saying here) that nothing can be established finally and once and for all.   

But besides this reflexive form of definitive justification there must also be considered a definitive justification in resultative or performative mode. The ebbing-away of humanity is the definitive onto-logical justification of certain ethical principles (i.e. of negative >Utilitarianism or antinatalism). We may look, for clarification of this resultative form of definitive justification, to Hans Schafgans’s “Der letzte Mann von Paris”:

“For centuries, the whole Western world was struggling over the right path to salvation and we continued, deep into modernity, to deal with the legacy of these struggles. Today, however, paths are no longer important because there is no more ‘going’.” (Schafgans) A definitive performative justification is achieved where the last human beings capable of procreation remain without posterity and judge that “it is good that it should be so!”

Alloted Task

Parents force their children to bear not just the little package of weights and burdens that result from family life but also to carry out, above and beyond these, an immense number of socially allotted tasks.

A certain protest, albeit a seemingly impotent one, against the compulsion to perform all these tasks is to be found in the work of Hugo Ball: “But we are not, in the end, on a treadmill! One is not in the world simply in order to sweat and strain oneself to death!” (Hugo Ball, Flametti oder Vom Dandysmus der Armen). The protest seems impotent because the guilty parties here are not named by their actual name.

Stalemate, Nativistic

No one ever consented, or could possibly have consented, to the beginning of their own existence.  Many antinatalists derive from this fact the proposition that existing human beings had their existence “imposed” on them when they were “taken out of the state of non-existence” and brought into existence. Such an “imposition of existence” (so it is claimed) clearly reveals the moral reprehensibility of procreation.

Conversely to this, however, one might seek to establish the reprehensibility of the omission to procreate by claiming that, where procreation does not occur, existence is being withheld from certain not-yet-existent individuals. The pronatalist wants to persuade us of the moral superiority of procreation and therefore speaks of àDeprivation of Existence and of the >Gift of Life; the antinatalist, by contrast, points to the moral questionability of procreation and speaks, therefore, of the >Diktat of Birth. Ontologically considered, both positions are fundamentally flawed, since there was in fact no one on whom life was imposed just as it is impossible to identify anyone who might either have been “deprived” of existence or to whom the “gift” of existence could be given. Existence is not one attribute among others but rather the precondition of all attribution. In order to refuse or to lack something, or to have something imposed on one, one must already exist.

If the proposition has hitherto sometimes been advanced in antinatalist literature that “no one” ever wished to be begotten, one might just as easily say that “no one” ever wished not to be begotten.  Talk, then, of a “Diktat of existence”, or of a “deprivation” of this latter, leads into a checkmate situation which can be traced back to an onto-ethical fallacy.  When antinatalists say that someone was compelled to exist they are committing an onto-ethical fallacy inasmuch as originally there was no one there who could possibly have been “compelled” to anything. Likewise, however, pronatalists are committing an onto-ethical fallacy when they contend that someone has had existence “withheld” from them through their not having been begotten, because there is likewise no one there of whom such things might truly be said. “Diktat of existence” and “gift of life”: the two expressions appear to convey diametrically opposed ideas and yet, when it comes down to what is most essential, they have something in common. Or rather, what they have in common is what both essentially lack. Both lack a referent, a subject to which their enunciations could actually apply.


Given the >Thanatality that is the fate of all human beings as well as the inevitability of experiences of the deaths of near and dear ones along with our own powerlessness in the face of these deaths, parents can be said to surrender up their children – partially blinded by parental joy, perhaps, but certainly not entirely blind to what they are doing – to terribly negative experiences and finally to absolute nothingness.

Parallel Worlds

As if it were not already enough for there to exist a large number of planets in the universe inhabited by beings capable of suffering, we must also reckon – at least if we are to trust Kant’s account of this matter – with a large number of different universes which stand in no causal connection one to the other. Thereby clearly increases exponentially the conceivable number of suffering beings. In 1746, while still a young man, Kant formulated, in his Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces, a hypothesis which was later to be discussed in science fiction and in quantum physics under the title “multiverses”:

“Not correct, then, is the doctrine one hears expounded in the lecture halls of our wisest scholars to the effect that, in the metaphysical sense, there can only ever be a single world. It really is possible that God may have created many millions of worlds, even where ‘world’ is understood in its metaphysical sense; for this reason it remains an undecided matter whether these worlds really exist or not.” (Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces, § 8). And in 1770 Kant develops this thought in his Form and Principles of the Sensible and Intelligible World. According to Kant’s argument in this work “multiverses” are possible precisely if it is not the case “that there exists only one single necessary cause of everything” (Form and Principles of the Sensible and Intelligible World § 21) Since such parallel worlds exist in no causal relationship to our own reality we will never know how the beings that inhabited them fared.

Non-Being as State of the Self

Jumping over the >shadow of one’s own existence proves such a difficult feat to perform that we, mostly, cannot envisage our own non-being except as some state of our own self. If one holds to what is implied by the following translation from the Chinese, we return, when we die, to the “state” in which we were before we began to exist – a claim which allows us to draw the conclusion that something did indeed befall “us” when “we” were called into life:  

“To die means to have no more feelings at all and to return to the state one was in before one’s birth” (Chunqiu, Spring and Autumn of Lü Bu We). Such a “state” imputed to obtain prior to the beginning of existence seems to demand to be interpreted as a kind of impetus toward being: a minimal self or quasi-self which presses, from its side, for its own actualization through the action of >Perpetrators of Existence. The necessary corrective to this notion is provided by Lichtenberg – even if his formulation of it remains obscure – in his Sudelbücher: “Only a very few people have given the thought that it deserves to the value of not-being. When I think of not-being after death what I envisage is the state in which I found myself before I was born. This is not correctly to be described as ‘apathy’ since apathy is, in a sense, still something that one feels; rather, it is simply nothing. If I pass into this state – although, in fact, neither the word ‘I’ nor the words ‘state’ fit the case at all here.” (Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Aus den Sudelbüchern)