To have committed every crime but that of being a father.
—Emil Cioran, The Trouble with Being Born
In the very early hours of an otherwise unmemorable day in autumn 2007, I decided that I would never have children.
I’d recently committed to studying a seemingly unlimited supply of material—first-person accounts (or testimony), history, philosophy, fiction and poetry—focused on the Holocaust, as research for an ill-fated PhD thesis. Reading and thinking about that material, day and night, left me struggling to sleep. I didn’t have nightmares; instead, I’d stop breathing, or imagine that I’d stopped breathing, at the moment of drifting off. At other times I was sure that my heart had stalled. I’d jolt awake in a panic, try to collect my breath or locate my pulse, then spend several hours reading whatever came to hand—usually dry philosophical monographs—in an effort to soothe myself to sleep.
I’d just finished reading Thomas Bernhard’s final novel, Extinction (1986), a scorching repudiation of Austria’s (and Catholicism’s) modern legacy, its institutions and traditions, art and politics. For the ailing Franz-Josef Murau, nothing of his origins is salvageable, so he is driven to inscribe a personal, familial, cultural and national cull. Extinction culminates in the sickly narrator’s decision to donate his family’s tainted estate to a Jewish community, and the boldness of that relinquishment is thrilling. ‘As I write it I’ll try to extinguish everything that comes into my head. Everything I write about in this work will be extinguished …’ He summons his negating energies against the legal profession, teachers, writers, politicians, the church, photography, hunter,
According to Murau, the Austrian survivors of the Holocaust were barely compensated for their suffering, while perpetrators and collaborators enjoyed generous state pensions and social prestige. Murau is particularly outraged by his parents’ enthusiasm for National Socialism and their decision to hide ‘informers and murderers’ on the family estate in the postwar years; and he has nothing but contempt for his two sisters who, he says, embody the ugly impulses and ethos that proved so destructive. While he cannot redeem those legacies, Murau can deliver himself and his siblings of a contaminated inheritance and extinguish a small but long-standing Austro-European institution in the process.
The extinction that Murau longs for is obviously justifiable, even if it’s dramatised in a typically Bernhardian (farcical and splenetic) manner, but the broader logic of Murau’s renunciations is also appealing. If we shift the historical and political circumstances to meet the Australian context, we might have a protagonist who bequeaths his family’s large estate to a local Indigenous community. Not in search of, or in accordance with, high-minded ideals that would compensate for their losses, but as a more immediate and instinctive expression of disgust, an enlivening and humanising negation.
Murau’s renunciations laid the groundwork for my decision not to procreate, but Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari pushed me over the edge. Their argument (or provocation), in Anti-Oedipus, that the family unit serves to repress marginal desires and behaviours, and therefore marginality as a whole, was resonant. To raise a family was to thrust oneself into a linked hierarchy of tainted and oppressive institutions, and to turn away from that foundational complicity was a radical act. Instead of worrying about the future, I could be like Bernhard and his narrators: free to pursue my moral and intellectual impulses wherever they led. If reading and writing about the Holocaust for three years produced a massive psychological rupture, then so be it. There would be no meaningful consequences or inhibiting responsibilities to hold me back.
• • •
I developed a taste for difficult knowledge in my early teens. I’d often seen respectable and decent-seeming adults—teachers, extended family, public servants, family friends or acquaintances—register that something was wrong in my domestic life. Without fail, they would turn away, pretend they hadn’t noticed anything, and thereby (it seemed to me) avoid any responsibility or other implications that might flow from an uncomfortable encounter. This produced two primary responses: I decided that adults were unworthy of that knowledge, and did my best to conceal it from them. I also came to believe that turning away from troubling truths, no matter how gruelling or confronting, was a form of moral cowardice. Instead of turning away, I thought, a worthy person looks without blinking.
As a teenager, I was particularly glad to read Sophocles’ framing of Oedipus’s misfortunes in Oedipus of Colonus:
Never to have been born is best
But if we must see the light, the next best
Is quickly returning whence we came.
The fact that I could track my pessimistic sensibility back to early iterations of literary culture was, for some reason, deeply pleasing.
My taste for miserable writers recently settled on the South African philosopher David Benatar, who argues that it is morally wrong to bring children into this world, and that our failure to recognise this and behave accordingly amounts to ‘self-deceptive indifference’. In Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence (2006), Benatar insists that ‘Each one of us was harmed by being brought into existence’ and the kind of harm that we are subjected to ‘is not negligible, because the quality of even the best lives is very bad—and considerably worse than most people recognise it to be’. For Benatar, the pleasures of life cannot outweigh its discomforts and distress. ‘It is curious’, he says, ‘that while good people go to great lengths to spare their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place.’
The pleasure of reading Benatar’s work owes much to its formal and counter-intuitive subversions, which are delivered in a deadly serious voice. A good example is when he employs the familiar logic of an optimist—how lucky we are, just to be alive!—to pessimistic ends:
Although, as we have seen, nobody is lucky enough not to be born, everybody is unlucky enough to have been born—and particularly bad luck it is, as I shall now explain. On the quite plausible assumption that one’s genetic origin is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for having come into existence, one could not have been formed by anything other than the particular gametes that produced the zygote from which one developed. This implies, in turn, that one could not have had any genetic parents other than those that one does have. It follows from this that any person’s chances of having come into existence are extremely remote. The existence of any one person is dependent not only on that person’s parents themselves having come into existence and having met but also on their having conceived that person at the time that they did. Indeed, mere moments might make a difference to which particular sperm is instrumental in a conception. The recognition of how unlikely it was that one would have come into existence, combined with the recognition that coming into existence is always a serious harm, yields the conclusion that one’s having come into existence is really bad luck. It is bad enough when one suffers some harm. It is worse still when the chances of having been harmed are very remote.
Unlike Bernhard’s long-winded, circular and manic narrators, Benatar soberly constructs straightforward philosophical arguments, which are punctuated by unusual sentences such as these:
I shall argue that it would be better, all things being equal, if human extinction happened earlier rather than later.
If our lives are quite as bad as I shall still suggest they are, and if people were prone to see this true quality of their lives for what it is, they might be much more inclined to kill themselves …
Conscious life, although but a blip on the radar of cosmic time, is laden with suffering—suffering that is directed to no end other than its own perpetuation.
I do not think that there should ever have been any people.
I recall the moment when my relationship to personal misfortune took an interesting turn. I was 18 years old and living alongside elderly bachelors, wounded widowers and depressed divorcees in a boarding house overlooking the Port Adelaide docks. My beloved cat had just disappeared, my only friend had grown impatient with my gloomy disposition, I was deeply in love with a girl who did not love me in return, I hated my job, I was alienated from my family, and I saw no hope for the future.
I needed a distraction, so I withdrew all the money from my bank account and took a bus to the nearest shopping centre in West Lakes. After trying on a pair of fancy sneakers, I realised—too late—that my wallet had fallen out of my pocket in transit. I retraced my steps several times over, eyes wide, sweating with panic, to no avail.
At first it seemed like too much. I walked around the shopping centre in a daze, sat on a bench and stared into space. Was it possible to keep dusting myself off, over and again, without hope of satisfaction or advancement? At what point are we permitted to give up? I listed all of my recent disappointments, calamities and humiliations, piling one on top of the other while shaking my head in sorrowful disbelief. Then I
• • •
If Benatar’s antinatalism strikes us as extreme, Emil Cioran’s is off the charts. In The Trouble with Being Born, the Romanian philosopher writes:
The real, the unique misfortune: to see the light of day. A disaster which dates back to aggressiveness, to the seed of expansion and rage within origins, to the tendency to the worst which first shook them up.
If I used to ask myself, over a coffin: ‘What good did it do the occupant to be born?’ I now put the same question about anyone alive.
My vision of the future is so exact that if I had children, I should strangle them here and now.
Cioran’s pessimism is different to Benatar’s; like Bernhard, Cioran makes use of irony and spleen. We read him for aesthetic thrills more than philosophical rigour—and it is a pleasure that he participates in. ‘Not to have been born, merely musing on that,’ writes Cioran, ‘what happiness, what freedom, what space!’ Cioran approaches a kind of ecstasy while contemplating an alternative to life. If Benatar experiences the same electric charge, he doesn’t show it.
I practised the art of imaginary self-erasure, on and off, for many years. My childish fantasies were not particularly sophisticated: instead of a world with me in it, the world had no me in it. The disappearance was achieved through a series of minor extractions. I imagined scenes from my daily life, with myself removed, or I brought to mind my strongest memories and imagined that they belonged to another rememberer.
There’s nothing exceptional about being one of the many young people who habitually entertain thoughts of self-erasure, and I never thought of myself as unwell because of it; instead, the life I knew appeared to lack a necessary quality, and my dissatisfaction seemed justified, even empowering. What happiness, what freedom, what space!
The suicidal narrator of Bernhard’s late novella Yes (1978) is revived by an encounter with abject misery. The novella is his attempt to recall and reanimate the time he spent with a woman who subsequently walked into the path of a truck. Her unhappy confessions and reports were so invigorating, he says, that it forestalled his own suicide, even making it possible to immerse himself in work again. Bernhard’s own fiction—like Schopenhauer’s philosophy—has the same effect. By extending distrust and misery to extreme depths, he undermines the paralysis that they ordinarily provoke. In this way, pessimism takes on a mobilising function. As Cioran writes in On the Heights of Despair: ‘The more I read the pessimists, the more I love life. After reading Schopenhauer, I always feel like a bridegroom on his wedding night.’ Pessimism—and negativity in general—can energise without drifting into positivity. You don’t have to be happy to be vital.
• • •
Barely a year after deciding that I would never father a child, my first son was born, and life took on a different colouring. The decision to immerse myself in hard truths began to seem more pathological than ethical, and my work on post-Holocaust literature quickly unravelled. One part of me felt lost, cheated and dejected, while the rest savoured the transformation. I was split apart.
In The Tragic Sense of Life, the Spanish novelist and pessimist Miguel de Unamuno foregrounds the existential contradiction ‘between my heart which says Yes, and my head which says No!’ The irreconcilable tension produced by these opposing drives gives pessimism its ironic texture. Unamuno continues: ‘Since we live solely from and by contradictions, since life is tragedy and the tragedy is in the perpetual struggle without hope or victory, then it is all a contradiction.’
As a pessimist, I can only regard my own sensibilities with suspicion. If I’d had a happier childhood, would I have developed a different way of being in the world? Was the source of my pessimism biological? Could I dilute my cynical genes by mixing them with happy ones?
According to Cioran, ‘Negation never proceeds from reasoning but from something much more obscure and old. Argu-ments come afterward, to justify and sustain it. Every no rises out of the blood.’ Cioran identifies a familial source for his own nature:
Every family has its own philosophy. One of my cousins, who died young, once wrote me: ‘It’s all the way it’s always been and probably always will be until there’s nothing left anymore.’ Whereas my mother ended the last note she ever sent me with this testamentary sentence: ‘Whatever people try to do, they’ll regret it sooner or later.’ Nor can I even boast of having acquired this vice of regret by my own setbacks. It precedes me, it participates in the patrimony of my tribe.
I can also trace my sensibility back to familial predispositions. Negativity is our method and disenchantment our refuge.
My own antinatalism failed—it could only fail—because it went against another compulsion. Broadly speaking, my first strategy for counteracting the unhappiness that prevailed throughout most of my early life was to cultivate care. My children bear the mark of this impulse: my eldest son’s middle name is Francis, after the saint who treasured animals and nursed lepers; and my second son’s middle name is Alyosha, after Dostoevsky’s youngest Karamazov—the one who listens to, embraces and binds his soul-sick brothers to the world. The forms of care that Assisi and Alyosha practise are not dulling obligations. Care enriches their lives. The practical and ‘emotional labour’ this involves is, for them and me, a source of vitality and meaning.
Giacomo Leopardi, a founding pessimist, was enamoured with laughter. In ‘An Elegy to Birds’, he writes:
It is certainly a wondrous thing, that in man, who of all creatures is the most troubled and wretched, we find the faculty of laughter … Wondrous also is the use we make of this faculty: for we see many in some cruel mischance, others in great misery of mind, others who scarcely retain any love of life, utterly sure of the vanity of every human good, virtually incapable of any joy, and void of every hope, who nevertheless laugh.
The sentences quoted from Cioran and Benatar in this essay seem riotously funny to me. That this is not a widely shared response is a source of some confusion and frustration. Why do I laugh when reading ‘I do not think that there should ever have been any people’, while others find it all too alien or bleak? How to explain that frisson of pleasure? The fact that I recognise myself in Benatar’s extremities, and thereby glimpse one of the many forms of my own ridiculousness, probably has something to do with it. If I find Benatar comically excessive, people who view the world through a rosier lens than mine must also find me excessive and strange. Perhaps it’s necessary to sympathise with Benatar in order to find him funny.
I was pessimistic before I understood what pessimism was, and I was drawn to caring roles before I was able to justify it. These are foundational, rather than developed sensibilities. The pessimist in me rejects any expectation for a happy ending; the carer strives to make the best of every situation. One focuses on absolute limitations while the other concerns himself with rich possibilities. The pessimist trusts no-one, while the carer trusts widely. I strive to help my children feel oriented and safe, but safe or familiar thinking repulses me. The yes and the no, laughter and despair, the irrepressibly positive and the unforgivingly negative—both are energising, especially when they interact with each other.
Benatar, a stricter pessimist than most, thinks the human capacity to generate new outlooks in response to difficult circumstances is a cheap and instinctive self-delusion: we tell ourselves that life is still worth living, despite our unhappy circumstances, because we are made that way. Our laughter is nothing more than an unwilled survival strategy, more mechanical than wondrous. And what could be funnier, or more enlivening, than that? •
Shannon Burns is a freelance writer and a member of the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice.