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Self-Knowledge: Melancholy


The Tragedy of Birth

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It is common, on meeting with one of these packages with a bonnet on its head, its small body wrapped tightly in a blanket, to marvel at the exceptional beauty and perfection on display.

Photo by Jimmy Conover on Unsplash

We look at the tightly closed eyes and wonder what mysterious regions this wizard might be travelling through in its mind. It seems at once to know nothing and everything, as if it contains within itself a trace of the wisdom of all ages; it looks both terribly young and infinitely old, totally naive and boundlessly knowledgeable. It has been pulled as if by magic out of the realm of slumbering souls, it was – only a few months before – in existence only as scattered atoms that might have reached the earth from exploding stars in the early days of the universe. Now it has taken shape as a unique being – with neat, folded eyelids and a soft downy head – that might be extinguished only in a hundred years. 

We may be moved but there would – at the same time – be so many reasons to be extremely concerned and not a bit tearful as well. Our young friend is preparing to enter a world that ravages all who have ever been impudent enough to step into it, a world in which its own needs and wants will not figure highly on any stranger’s list of concerns, in which it will soon enough be told to grow up and stop pitying itself, in which it will have to earn its keep by competing ruthlessly with its peers, in which those it loves will seldom love it back as intently as it longs, in which it will be the target of envy and backbiting, in which it will struggle to understand itself, in which it will mess up key decisions – and in which it will never again enjoy the peace and comfort of those early tightly swaddled days.

Before it can be at true rest once more, this brave warrior’s heart will beat some four billion times, it will be humiliated, it will be ignored, it will want to die, it will cry out in agony and feel forsaken. It will be in lonely hotel rooms awake in the early hours, terrified of what the future will bring, or lie next to people it wants to separate from but acutely doesn’t want to hurt. It will write imploring letters to people begging for mercy. It will knock at the doors of loved ones who don’t want to answer. It will struggle to make itself understood by family members. It will have to drag itself out of bed for another day in a job that crushes its spirit. It will have arguments with spouses who are in no mood to see things from its point of view. It will feel nostalgic for its younger self and remember with bittersweetness its promising, encouraging beginnings; those badges it won at school, the excitement at the end of its exams, those early summers by the beach – against which the later disappointments stand out so starkly.

Its parents are likely to badly want that this little life go extremely well – but how little agency they ultimately possess against the multiple horrors waiting outside the nursery door; how much they will have to stand back helplessly and watch fate do its worst. They can for a few years make sure that there is a kiss every evening, that the lunchbox has some apple slices and favourite tuna sandwiches and that there is help with homework and tying shoelaces, but soon enough, the child will have to make its way unaided and there will be no chance to stop any of the blows or tears.

The Christian tradition painted a lot of mothers and babies but – unlike much of the modern rigmarole around kids – the religion stood out for bathing both parent and child in an atmosphere of sadness. In altar pieces, typically, a thoughtful Jesus sits on Mary’s lap, gazing upwards, playing with her hair or looking at the pages of a holy book and she looks down at him or over into the distance with an air of deep melancholy. She seems to be under no illusions about what life has in store, she senses that this child won’t get through without agony; her love for him is a source of terrible pain because his suffering will automatically become hers. Already in the nursery, there is an apprehension of the martyrdom on Calvary. Life is at once a gift to be celebrated and, at the same time, an unmitigated tragedy. That – these paintings tell us – is the human lot.

Rogier van der Weyden, Virgin and Child (Durán Madonna), c. 1435-8

We may not ourselves be directly headed for a Crucifixion outside Jerusalem, but – as the Christian story makes clear – we will are all likely to suffer in ways that lack justice or proportion and that will leave any loving parent distressed and terrified at what they had done to us by bringing someone to life. We have done nothing especially wrong – other than being born and yet that will be enough to merit ample, devilish punishment.

The Ancient Greek historian Herodotus observed with approval that the Thracian peoples were in the habit of celebrating at funerals and, conversely, of weeping at births. If we were more clear-eyed or simply less taken in by the smiles of young ones, we might have the courage to follow these sombre realists in their prescient lamentations. 

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