Fear of birth

Because we don’t feel frightened by the endless time before we were born, Lucretius argues, we should not fear the time after we die. Death is not gloomy but peaceful, like a long, dreamless sleep. But that argument can be turned around. If our prenatal non-existence is like death, and we fear the latter, we should fear the former too. Or if we cannot fear what is already done and in the past, then we can at least feel a sense of the uncanny, especially concerning the months leading up to birth. It is strange to think that during those months, everything was already there and people went about their business as usual. In my case, in fact, it so happens that people stopped speaking, important events were postponed, the world kept a respectful silence.

Some are not so lucky. In his memoir, Vladimir Nabokov writes that he knows of a young chronophobiac who felt a kind of dread when he was shown a homemade movie that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw the world he knew as home, the same house and people, but without him in it. Nobody seemed to mourn his absence. His mother cheerfully waved from an upstairs window, an unfamiliar gesture he interpreted as a goodbye. He felt particularly frightened by the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.

I suspect this young chronophobiac is the memoirist himself. For the scenario to be truly frightening, so that pre-birth mirrors death, he needs time to go in reverse, which was made possible by the invention of the video camera. But Vladimir was born too early for there to exist homemade footage of his place of birth (the book does include a photograph), so he ascribes the experience to his young friend. He carefully avoids mention of his actual location at the time. His mother’s pregnant belly is conveniently hid behind the sill underneath the upstairs window. In his fear of time (and his disdain for Freud), he suppresses his deepest fear: he forgets that in the reverse course of events his shrinking body would not disintegrate but be swallowed up by his mother’s birth canal.

Nabokov’s chronophobia concerns the liminal existence of the baby in the womb, when outside there is already an empty place. Going further back, there was not even that much. There was no name yet and no baby carriage for a child to fill, no empty room nor vacant place in the family. If that time mirrors the time after death, then it mirrors the complete annihiliation of being dead and forgotten. Lucretius might have found such nothingness reassuring. But it happens to be precisely what souls in the underworld, from Odysseus’s to Dante’s katabasis, were most afraid of. They were always asking the living intruder to remember their name up above, in the sunlight, even if in infamy. So there is one fate worse than being eternally absent: to not even be absent anymore.

© 2009–2024, Martijn Wallage