The Greatest Power We Have: On Jennifer Banks’s “Natality”
By Anna Katharina SchaffnerAugust 14, 2023
Natality: Toward a Philosophy of Birth by Jennifer Banks
Talking about birth, by contrast, is unfashionable: birth is chthonian—messy, organic, a reminder of our embodiment and earthly nature. Conversations about birth, creation, and renewal tend to be relegated to the esoteric feeler-corner of our culture. Rachel Cusk astutely observed that her 2001 memoir on new motherhood was not prominently displayed but banished to the section in bookshops “at the far end of recorded human experience, just past diet books and just before astrology.”
Given these cultural biases, we may be forgiven for assuming that no serious philosopher has much to say about birth. Jennifer Banks’s elegantly subversive new book, Natality: Toward a Philosophy of Birth, demonstrates that, in fact, the opposite is the case: birth and its richly generative metaphors feature centrally in a range of constitutive philosophical and poetic frameworks. And so it should. Our power to create another human being is the greatest power we have—it is, in Hannah Arendt’s words, the “supreme capacity” of human beings. It shapes our life, “defining its limits and its possibilities,” according to Banks. Yet while birth has a profound existential, theological, and moral significance, it has remained curiously understudied.
Birth, Banks argues, “has long hovered in death’s shadow, quietly performing its under-recognized labor.” What, she invites us to consider, would our culture look like if we rethought some of the many death-centered maxims by which we live? Take, for example, Seneca’s famous phrase and reverse it: “Study birth always; it takes an entire lifetime to learn how to give birth or to come to terms with our having been born.” What if we were to start wrestling with our natality instead of our mortality? What might become possible if we “[kept] birth daily before [o]ur eyes”?
These are far from trivial questions. And Banks’s insights are nothing short of revelatory. Using Arendt’s concept of natality, she charts a counter-philosophy to our traditionally death-bound thinking, reminding us of the prominence of creation stories and past traditions that link birth to creativity, change, and renewal. Arendt defines natality as “[t]he miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin.” Banks’s ambition is to (re)establish birth as the foundational experience around which our culture should organize itself. “Birth, like democratic politics,” she writes, “challenges us with otherness, with the putting aside of oneself to make room for another person, and with the challenges of difference and plurality.” Her key thesis is both simple and radical: we were all born, and our birth indelibly shapes our life from beginning to end.
In addition to Arendt, Banks’s case studies include Friedrich Nietzsche, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Sojourner Truth, Adrienne Rich, and Toni Morrison. She recounts her subjects’ birth and life stories, and astutely analyzes the centrality of birth in their oeuvres. Although Arendt remained child-free, beginnings and birth took center stage in her philosophy. Perhaps this was in part a response to one of her lovers, Martin Heidegger, who, like most male philosophers, fetishized death. Heidegger held that we are “thrown” into the world, and that our thrownness results in “being-toward-death”—our lives inevitably oriented towards death’s horizon. Arendt, by contrast, wrote in The Human Condition (1958) that we are “not born in order to die but in order to begin.” Again, perhaps with the Nazi-sympathizing Heidegger in mind, she also considered natality an antidote to totalitarianism—birth as a force that epitomizes our creative capacity for generative action.
Nietzsche is one of very few male philosophers to celebrate birth—although his main claim to fame is his declaration of God’s death. Yet Nietzsche saw the death of God as an opening—for the creation of new traditions, a pagan reenchantment of the world, cultural and spiritual renewal. Birth features not just in the key notion of “becoming” in his work, or in the title of his first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), in which art is celebrated as the ultimate redeeming creative force, but also at the heart of his thinking about the superhuman. The purpose of Nietzsche’s Übermensch was, essentially, to create new values and thereby give birth to a new world.
Banks also points out that Nietzsche coded the Greek god of wine and music, Dionysus, as female, by associating him with darkness, chaos, irrationality, fertility, and fusion. In one of his last works, Twilight of the Idols, or How to Philosophize with a Hammer (1889), Nietzsche describes the Dionysian as a “triumphant Yes to life beyond all death and change; true life as the over-all continuation of life through procreation, through the mysteries of sexuality.” Wryly, Banks quotes Louise Erdrich here: “We owe some of our most moving literature to men who didn’t understand that they wanted to be women nursing babies.”
The 18th-century feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft believed that birth could help society reimagine itself and inspire a more just and equal human order, one that honors creativity, maternal nurturing, and intimacy. Her daughter Mary Shelley, by contrast, held a darker vision of birth—from her imagination sprang a doomed creature made by a hubristic, Promethean creator-scientist. As Banks observes, Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) charts “a tragic realization of humanity’s natal dreams,” a monster—engineered by a sterile male brain—that eventually kills its creator’s loved ones out of revenge.
After she gained her freedom, the former enslaved woman Sojourner Truth spiritually rebirthed herself, becoming an itinerant preacher whose visions were infused with the language of birth and with birth’s “world-making” potential. In Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976), Adrienne Rich explored the paradox that maternity was both the root of women’s oppression and the source of their power. As the fertile energy of creation, it enabled relationality and female potentialities. A mother’s work, Rich wrote in her essay “Conditions for Work: The Common World of Women,” was socially, politically, and culturally crucial, for it is the “activity of world-protection, world-preservation, world-repair.”
In the novel Beloved (1987), in the last of Banks’s case studies, Toni Morrison explores “an example of maternal love pushed to its farthest reaches.” Her character Sethe, an enslaved woman, kills one of her children to protect her from the suffering and indignity she herself has suffered. Here, the birther and the birthed become murderer and murdered, and infanticide is turned into an extreme ethical case study in love.
In his poem “Journey of the Magi” (1927), T. S. Eliot asks: “[W]ere we led all that way for / Birth or Death?” Banks demonstrates that the choice as to whether we privilege birth or death in our philosophical and poetic imaginaries has profound ethical implications, both for our culture and for us as individuals. “I’ve hungered for a different set of principles, new models, a culture less reconciled to its own extinction,” she writes. “I keep imagining it: a society rooted in gestation, intimacy, vulnerability, growth, creativity, reciprocity, change, and otherness—in that strange and unrivaled symbiosis, the entering into the bloodstream of another human being.”
It is time, then, to free birth talk, birth stories, and birth’s rich imagery from their stigma, and to liberate them once and for all from the disparaging gaze of all those fetishists of death.
Anna Katharina Schaffner is a cultural historian and a coach. She is the author of Exhaustion: A History (Columbia University Press, 2016) and The Art of Self-Improvement: Ten Timeless Truths (Yale University Press, 2021).
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