Death pervades philosophy. We need “natality”, an emphasis on birth

Adapted by the author of Natality: Toward a Philosophy of Birth by Jennifer Banks. Copyright © 2023 by Jennifer Banks. Used with permission from the publisher, WW Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Just about everyone I know who had close contact with the birth has asked these questions: Why didn’t anyone tell me what it was like? Why didn’t anyone prepare me?

These questions, often whispered in private rather than proclaimed in public, are part of a cultural script that is rarely questioned. I asked myself these questions when I gave birth to my children in my thirties. I had an excellent education behind me at that time. I read the newspapers. I had traveled to foreign countries and learned different languages. I was an adult, reasonably educated in the ways of speech. And yet, like so many others, I was unprepared for the birth. What exactly had I been unprepared for? And what exactly could I have been told, from my early days and through my upbringing, upbringing, and adulthood, that would have edified, shaped, strengthened, or strengthened me for this experience?

I started my book Natality: towards a philosophy of birth to try to answer these questions. They seemed as trustworthy as any of the big, complex questions about human existence, the intractable enigmas we live with, constantly striving for better understanding. Because I was a reader, I looked for guidance in books, in the literary, philosophical, and theological traditions that I inherited as a modern Westerner, rather than in medical or car manuals. -assistance by which the birth was more publicly claimed. I was interested in the possibility of shared legacies, variously expressed and perhaps full of their own disagreements, contradictions or irresolutions, on which one could rely to confront birth.

My culture seemed to be in for death. Indeed, woven through my intellectual legacy was a pronounced struggle with mortality, a constant confrontation with the fact of our eventual death. But there was no real shared meaning of what Hannah Arendt called birth rate, of birth as a fundamental part of the human experience that must be faced, reflected, discussed and taught. Instead, birth has been fragmented into billions of individualized pieces, privatized and understood within the context of families, not societies.

What I discovered in researching birth in books over the next decade is that we have rich intellectual, existential, and spiritual traditions around birth, but they remain buried and difficult to access. In Birth rate, I wanted to access these traditions, bring them to the surface and offer readers a wide range of possibilities. In a series of chapters, I have presented the experiences and ideas expressed by a line of people who struggled with their birth rate and who derived great meaning from birth: Hannah Arendt, Friedrich Nietzsche, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Sojourner Truth, Adrienne Rich, and Toni Morrisson. Although many of these thinkers are rarely mentioned in the same breath, they are linked by hidden affinities, and they collectively constitute a submerged and startling counter-tradition about creativity from birth to modernity in the West. They were all leaning toward birth, either experientially or conceptually; they were passionately about life. But in being for life, they recognized the magnitude, the great difficulty, the diversity and the unresolved problems of birth.

In their life and work, they offer examples of how what people experience at birth and what they think about their experiences can shape their lives, have a profound impact on their societies and even alter the course of the story. They understood birth as a private event, experienced individually in people’s bodies, but also as a stone thrown into a huge lake, creating wide social, cultural and political ripples. Birth, they believed, was involved in the maintenance and transformation of human civilization. Most of them recognized how birth had been misused throughout history, and they imagined a new relationship between birth and freedom.

Their visions of birth are particularly poignant today as fatalism, paralysis, doubt, cynicism and despair have become dominant features of life in the 21st century. In their time, these thinkers were very sensitive to the power structures that engendered such discouragement, but in their struggles against these structures they imagined responses other than defeat. Over the past decade, as a pessimistic mood has intensified globally and amid a series of historic crises, these thinkers’ expressions of human birth have offered a powerful alternative to nihilism. The fact that they collectively maintained a courageous, affirmative and non-dogmatic commitment to birth and life, not only in spite of these problems but often because of them, sustained and sustained me through some of the most bruising years of modern history.

Meanwhile, it was death, not birth, that dominated the news cycle. I finished my book during the second full winter of Covid-19. I was sorting out the final details against a backdrop of mass death and a crumbling world order, with six and a half million dead from the pandemic in two years and the world on high alert, fearing a third world war after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Humanity’s death drive seemed unassailable. Global death rates have risen and fertility rates have fallen to their lowest levels on record.

“Even in the darkest of times,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “we have every right to expect some enlightenment.” During those years, in the quieter context of those calamities, I still heard about them: babies being conceived, babies being born. These births rarely made the headlines, but they were as much a part of reality as any war, any disaster, any disease. I wondered who these babies would become, what they would do with their birth, and what unprecedented piece of human history they would help create. Would they find a cure for cancer or help save some endangered species? Or would they do a senseless shootout or detonate a nuclear bomb? I couldn’t predict what they would do with their lives, big or small, creative or destructive, compassionate or vicious. But I knew those babies mattered; they were part of my children’s generation, and the world would soon be in their hands.

Birth does not need to remain buried under all layers of consciousness.

To experience birth, to witness it, and even to celebrate it while living in the midst of death and destruction was to experience a complex and dissonant truth. It was a truth so obvious that it was banal: that we are born and that we die; or that we are native creatures in a mortal world. And yet it was a truth not very digestible, not packaged for quick consumption. It was best expressed not in polemic but in poetry: “Were we driven this far for / Birth or Death? asks one of the mages in TS Eliot Journey of the Magi. The Magi, returning from a difficult winter journey in which they witnessed the miraculous newborn of Christ, return to their kingdoms, no longer feeling at home in the “old dispensation”, but without any vision for a future dispensation. They never answer the question they ask themselves in the poem, and this may be because it is unanswered: “Were we driven this far for / Birth or Death?”

Life is threatened in the 21st century. Even though life expectancy has increased dramatically in recent centuries and the human population has expanded inexorably, humans seem less and less sure that life is worth living, that it is worth passing on to a next generation. We had to face how destructive and deadly a species we are. It seems far too late to do anything about our various crises; The damage is done. Humans did it and humans should pay the price. A growing number of people are preparing for and even celebrating the possibility of the impending extinction of our species.

But these dark calculations did no good or anyone. Little has improved over the past decades. Many things have gotten worse, and this deterioration has occurred under the watchful eye of cynicism. Pessimism often passes itself off as a mere reflection of reality, but it is more than that; it is an active agent, defining a reality which it only claims to express.

And so I thirst for new models, for different visions. From deep within the death spiral vortex of modernity, the authors I described in Birth rate expressed a simple but powerful alternative idea: that we should prepare for birth just as we prepare for death. We have been led all this way for birth as well as death. Birth does not need to remain buried under all layers of consciousness. Here, today, in our ordinary lives, we can begin to tell ourselves what it is – to be born, to give birth, to witness birth, to love birth, to fear birth, to celebrate and mourn birth, and to participate in all the new beginnings of life.

Leave a comment