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.

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