The German-born Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt escaped a French internment camp with only a toothbrush to her name and what would become a surprisingly hopeful core tenet in her philosophy: natality. She writes, “Once called into existence, human life cannot turn into nothingness.” What would it be like, wonders Jennifer Banks in her spectacular book Natality, if philosophy were more oriented toward the idea that, in Arendt’s words, humans “are not born in order to die but in order to begin”? Banks draws into conversation with each other seven figures – Arendt, Friedrich Nietzsche, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Sojourner Truth, Adrienne Rich, and Toni Morrison – who, each in his or her own way, deeply engages with the significance of birth.
The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, “natural” ruin is ultimately the fact of natality.
Natality, Banks argues, bears little relationship to pronatalism; it is not about how many births there are but what it means that we are born at all. Arendt never had children and several of the figures Banks profiles are ambivalent about birth itself, one (Wollstonecraft) even ultimately dying of it. Radicalized by her own experience of childbirth, the feminist poet Adrienne Rich was eager to devour Arendt’s writings, but witheringly critical of what she found. Arendt, with her focus on the possibilities of newness, dismisses maintenance labor: “the daily fight in which the human body is engaged to keep the world clean and prevent its decay bears little resemblance to heroic deeds; the endurance it needs to repair every day anew the waste of yesterday is not courage, and what makes the effort painful is not danger but its relentless repetition.”
To Rich, this was obviously coded as women’s work: “The million tiny stitches, the friction of the scrubbing brush, the scouring cloth, the iron across the shirt, the rubbing of cloth against itself to exorcise the stain, the renewal of the scorched pot, the rusted knifeblade, the invisible weaving of a frayed and threadbare family life” – that is, the many necessary tasks of caring for the humans one has brought into being – constitutes the “activity of world-protection, world-preservation, world-repair.” Rich was no domestic goddess and did not find such work fulfilling in itself, but for that very reason recognized the stamina it took to face it down day after day. Though Arendt and Rich differ, they share an understanding that birth is what refutes, in Rich’s words, the “deep fatalistic pessimism as to the possibility of change.” Children, in an existential sense, reverse the entropy of human life. Writes Arendt: “The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin is ultimately the fact of natality.”
For Arendt, whether against entropy or evil, natality signifies faith and hope: “It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the gospels announced their ‘glad tidings’: ‘A child has been born unto us.’”