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.
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?