Mortality and Natality in the Pandemic
Our tragic world needs beginnings. What, now, are we beginning?
How strangely it was timed: COVID-19 hastening its deadly spread in the United States in March, right on that fine, tempestuous line between seasons. The days were getting longer, and the earth leaned in on its axis toward the sun. Crocuses, sap, and buttercups: they all were in on the springtime pageant. The vernal equinox was just around the corner.
Tragedy often begins in a spring-like birth or marriage and ends in death, in fall’s fateful harvest. A comedy works in reverse, out of death toward the regenerative festivals of spring. Each year, I’ve sensed that I was living through both a comedy and a tragedy. The seasons were shocking and thrilling, but their shocks and thrills had a predictable rhythm.
COVID-19’s arrival in the spring of 2020 was a profound disruption of the cycles. It was a visceral experience of dissonance, nature violating its own regenerative pattern. Don’t touch anything, we were told. Be careful of the air you breathe. The threat of the virus made manifest the limitations and dangers of embodiment, the degree to which we were a part of and subject to life in its both creative and destructive capabilities. The virus was alive, it lived in us and fed on us, and the more it flourished, the more lethal it became.
As we were perfecting our handwashing skills and sewing face masks for health-care workers, the rhododendron bloomed magnificently outside my kitchen window. Its fuchsia and dark greens came to me, refracted strangely by the impermeable glass. Was this a tragedy or a comedy? How and when would it all end? When would it be over? I wanted to grasp its shape, to foresee the narrative arc.
I felt the dissonance particularly acutely because I was trying to finish writing a book about birth, about how humans have made sense of their emergence into life itself. The manuscript would be called Natality, and in it I aimed to explore and expand on twentieth-century political theorist Hannah Arendt’s concept of natality, that complement to mortality that we almost entirely lack a language for. Natality conveys the idea that birth as a beginning represents (in Arendt’s words) “the supreme capacity of man,” a capacity inherent in human life which is the “miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin.”
Because we were all born, Arendt believed, we are always all capable of beginning again, of starting something new through each human action, the most prized of capabilities in Arendt’s estimation. Philosophers and theologians have long stressed that we are mortal creatures, but Arendt emphasized that we are also natal creatures. “Men, though they must die,” she wrote in The Human Condition, “are not born in order to die but in order to begin.”
Much of my book was written through the pandemic and it was shadowed by the fact that what collided in March of 2020 was simultaneously a glorious spring and the tragic spread of a deadly disease. Both were natural. A year later, millions are dead worldwide and well over a half million of my fellow Americans are gone.
I wrote early, long before sunrise, typically as early as three in the morning, in what felt like the dead of night. By six or so, my kids would be up. Perhaps it was a morbid habit, but this cusp time, their waking time, became when I would check the daily COVID-19 death count—the cumulative deaths, the national deaths, the state deaths—all presented with numbers and pixelated colours on a website maintained by Johns Hopkins University.
Maybe I was seeking truth in the collision—of beginnings and endings, sunrises and mortal statistics. My kids would descend the stairs and find me transfixed in the glow of my computer screen, staring into a disaster, with books on birth and drafts of Natality scattered around me. I’d look up when footsteps began pattering. They would descend the poorly lit stairwell step by step, coming down to me and emerging into the light of an unprecedented, uncertain, newborn day.
Maybe it’s the mortal realist in me, the self attuned to threat and emergency, that knew I needed to write a book on birth that refused to be oblivious to the fact that my children could die at any moment. Life is precarious. It is what Robert Hass calls a “freak of beauty” embedded in nature’s ruthless “law of averages.” “It killed something in me . . . or froze it,” he writes, “to have to see where beauty comes from.” This comes from “On Squaw Peak,” a poem about a miscarriage in which he tries not to hate his life or fear “the frame of things.” But the poem ends with laughter, with the speaker and his partner running in the mountains, surrounded by paintbrush and lupine, with larkspur and penstemon arching out of the cracks in the granite, and an awareness of “bright vanishings.” The pandemic made the poem’s brightness and vanishing, its laughter and fearing, its freak of beauty and its law of averages even more salient.
We have long theological and intellectual traditions that foreground the vanishing, that wrestle with mortality. But our traditions around birth are less reflective. The word “natality” is not widely known, and it has no alternative expression. Hannah Arendt understood birth not only as something we give but also as an experience that is common to us all and that shapes our lives in indelible ways. Birth is a physical event, but we can also think about it. It takes an entire lifetime to learn birth’s lessons, to reflect on its full capacities, to understand what it means to be natal, created, creating creatures.
It takes an entire lifetime to learn birth’s lessons, to reflect on its full capacities, to understand what it means to be natal, created, creating creatures.
Arendt’s concept of natality had ensnared me nearly a decade ago, when I found it dropped into a proposal sent to me by a philosopher. I had just given birth to my first child and had returned to work as an editor at a university press. Each morning I’d drop my daughter off at daycare and with a bewildered heart drive an hour up I-95 to be re-immersed in the expansive world of big ideas. During the day, I’d read submissions from many of the world’s leading experts on various subjects. It seemed there were books on just about everything.
But at home, at night, exhausted and awake as I tried to soothe a colicky baby whose very existence still felt like a beautiful, earth-shattering shock to me, I thought about how childbirth was rarely mentioned by the authors who wrote to me. Birth, I realized as I rocked her, had been virtually left out of my education.
“No one prepares you” and “no one tells you what it’s like.” These were the hushed words mothers, friends, neighbours, and colleagues said so often in birth’s aftermath. “Birth is beyond language,” many people said to me, using different words to express this inexpressibility. Such an experience could only be written in the book of life, they seemed to believe.
When I discovered natality, a whole world opened up. Arendt gave me a language and framework for articulating birth’s intellectual and existential depths and not just its experiential profundities. She also offered me a democratic sense of birth, one not limited to pregnant women or new mothers. Birth is all of our birthrights, she believed. After all, we all were born. Arendt herself had never had children, but birth became a very significant connecting theme for her, bringing together love, origins, revolution, the future, miracles, democracy, forgiveness, imagination, happiness, freedom, and the common world of human plurality, among other topics.
She returned repeatedly to “the shocked wonder at the miracle of Being” that she saw as a fundamental aspect of reality. This wonder was the fertile state from which new beginnings could germinate, even when situations seemed hopeless. Its fertility was rooted in birth’s natal, shocking recognition—that we exist at all. She sought an aliveness to our aliveness, an awe at our arriving in the world as unprecedented, interrupting, surprising beings.
In the context of her own life, that aliveness had a particularly powerful resonance. She was a German Jewish refugee who had fled the horrors of the Nazi regime and spent eighteen years as a stateless person, arriving in New York after several moves throughout Europe and a brief stay in an internment camp. As a thinker, she was trying to understand how her countrymen, the people she was native to, had rounded the corner in the 1930s and attempted the mass extinction of her people as well as how a global civilization might recover from the devastation of two world wars.
She understood that the contemporary world menaces us “not only with no-thingness but also with no-bodyness.” Why is there somebody rather than nobody? The question, she argued in The Promise of Politics, may sound nihilistic, but it is not. Such questions are instead “the antinihilistic questions asked in the objective situation of nihilism where no-thingness and no-bodyness threaten to destroy the world.”
Why was she alive when so many others had died? Why did she still have a body rather than no body? She understood her aliveness, her embodiment, as an exceptional state. If something still exists, she believed, and is not yet a nothing, it has the capacity for a beginning. It can still create something new. Natality is still within its capacities. It can still be reborn and give birth through each human action.
She was not solely concerned with her own “no-bodyness.” She was also speaking about the existence and survival of her ancestral race and of the human community more broadly. Robert Hass described a couple’s private sorrow in the wake of a miscarriage, but she confronted a mass civilizational horror that bred in many survivors and witnesses a suicidal paralysis and despair.
The seeds of natality had been sown in her before the war in a doctoral dissertation she had written on the theme of love in Saint Augustine. But in working her way imaginatively out of the Nazi death chambers and the ground zero of World War II, in looking for new beginnings on the civilizational level, she developed a more communal and earthbound understanding of natality. Natality became more political and less a theory of personal, metaphysical, otherworldly renewal.
Bridging the gaping chasm between love and genocide, searching for understanding, her work in the immediate aftermath of World War II stressed the “grimness of the present.” Her first major book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, was written out of her exile, and it begins with the themes of “homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth.” This was a world of anticipation, a calm in which hope had died and both nostalgic attempts to escape into the past and hopeful efforts to flee into the oblivion of a hoped-for better future are in vain. The past was irretrievable, and the future was entirely unpredictable. Humankind was living between desperate, reckless hopes and desperate, reckless fears. The world felt incomprehensible, and yet to yield to this sense of complete and utter dissolution of meaning was to embrace an existence that was “lifeless, bloodless, meaningless, and unreal.”
Meaning and life, blood and reality were intertwined for her, and they all came together in birth and beginnings. In The Origins of Totalitarianism she quotes Augustine: “‘That a beginning be made man was created.’ . . . This beginning,” she wrote, “is guaranteed by each new birth; it is indeed every man.”
In her next major work, The Human Condition, published seven years later, she wrote that our faith in and hope for the world found “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.’” She wasn’t a Christian. A resolute belief in a Christian creator God would be a verity, like the verities of her ancestral Jewish faith, that she felt had “lost all concrete relevance.” But she continually returned to the miracle of birth in the Gospels. Christ’s birth, its revolutionary reordering of reality and its restarting of time itself, illustrated natality’s regenerative amplitude.
In her development of natality, however, the child is not only Christ. The child is each of us. We were all once that newborn child. The glad tidings aren’t that we’ll be whisked away to heaven when we die, but that creation is here within us, waiting for us to begin again, to start something new. Our tragic, mortal world needs beginnings; it depends on us as beginners.
So what are we beginning?
Natality planted itself in my imagination, and it stayed with me, flowering in unexpected ways over the past decade. This was a period in which I’d have two more children and witness the aggravation of various destructive tendencies of our kind—socially, environmentally, and politically—on both a national and global scale. In such a world, Arendt’s regenerative and democratic approach to birth, her positive and hopeful definitions of natality, and her worldly, political ambitions for the concept all had a strong, subversive appeal.
She helped me see how so many of the most fraught issues in my adult life were connected to birth. They etymologically shared a root: natality, natal, native, nation, nativity, nature. They are all suggestive of belonging, of origins and original states, of connections between people and place, people and community, people and God—connections expressed through birth’s founding event. In the environmental crisis, there was a conflict between nature and natal, creative humans. In the abortion debates, we find questions about where life begins and who controls birth. And in the age of nativism and racial strife, the role of birth in defining one’s political and cultural belonging were being worked out.
I returned continually to Arendt, even as my own sense of natality grew distinct from hers, even as I looked to other thinkers and writers like Toni Morrison, Adrienne Rich, Julian of Norwich, Saidiya Hartman, Alice Walker, Friedrich Nietzsche, Hart Crane, Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf, Louise Erdrich, Sylvia Plath, and so many others whom I have come to see as birth’s great emissaries. Many of these writers stress birth’s carnal, artistic, maternal, and tragic dimensions more emphatically, rooting birth more bloodily and sacrificially in women’s bodies. If natality is exemplified by Christ’s nativity, in staying close to it, they stay close to his physical body, following it all the way to the crucifixion, and rooting themselves in a blooming, ruthless, natural world.
One thinker whose depictions of birth came as a powerful revelation this past year was the anchoress Julian of Norwich. Born in the late thirteenth century, she lived through the Black Death and saw a large portion of her city’s population wiped out. She also had witnessed civil insurrections—the Peasants’ Revolt and the suppression of the Lollards. Some scholars believe she was a mother who had lost her family in the plague. Her seclusion as an anchoress was not just a contemplative withdrawal, perhaps; it was also a quarantine, an attempt to escape disease.
In her thirties, however, either in her anchorage or at home, she became sick, with a paralysis that began in her legs, and experienced a series of visions she called “shewings,” which she documented later in writing. The freshness and daring of these visionary records are still startling, as is the revolutionary, indestructible joyousness she derived from her sickbed. This optimism is succinctly expressed in her statement, made famous by T.S. Eliot in his 1942, mid–World War II poem “Little Gidding,” that “all shall be well.” “This feeling was so joyful and so inward that I felt completely at rest, as though there were nothing on earth that could hurt me,” she writes. This joyous state of well-being was based on the fundamental union between self and God, Jesus and Mary, humankind and an earthly, embodied natural world.
“Jesus,” she writes, “is our own true mother by nature, at our first creation.” The Savior is a mother in whom we are endlessly reborn, endlessly enclosed. In this union, we lift our eyes from the sorrows of the earth; but God, she writes, is also the foundation, “the ground on which our soul stands.” God is the “means by which our essential being and sensory being are kept together.” Her theological vision, which works toward maternity and birth, is materially grounded. It develops the idea of “our sensory soul,” recognizing the profound vulnerability of human life, our fallenness, our relational dependence, the needs and demands of sustenance, and the pain of death and disease, but it also depicts the blissfulness of our eternal gestating. Jesus dies on the cross, but he also gives birth to us there. “Our true mother, Jesus,” she wrote, “bears us into joy and eternal life.”
She tells us that there on her sickbed, on the brink of her own death, staring at the crucifixion, at Jesus’s dried up blood and discolored, tortured body, she laughed.
One of the words Julian repeats is “enclosed” or “enclosing.” It’s April of 2021 as I write, and I’m still in some form of lockdown, enclosed by my house’s walls, awaiting vaccination. I am still painfully wary of nature’s viral threats, but I am watching the earth spring back to life again and there are reasons for hope about what comes next. What will our return to “normalcy,” to embodied rather than virtual human communities, be like? What will we collectively create out of the tragedies we’ve all just witnessed and experienced? How will we act, and what will our actions give birth to as the world recovers? How will we understand life in all its unpredictability and dynamism?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but as I ask them, I hear the voices of Julian of Norwich, Hannah Arendt, and all the other visionary birth pioneers I’ve spent the last decade living with. Life may be tragic, so many of them believed, but it’s also comic. I hear that laugh from Julian of Norwich, echoing down the centuries. That laugh!
In his Poetics, Aristotle spoke about comedy as a way of making life’s baseness and ugliness laughable. Hannah Arendt’s closest friends have attested to her sense of humour. She laughed in the face of life’s brutality and in recognition of her own incomprehension, her own participation in the unpredictable “game,” as she called it—the “play,” the “festival of life.” “All good comedy,” she argued, is “concerned with something deadly serious.” She laughed when she couldn’t quite understand our deadly reality or make peace with the depths of human cruelty. That laughter, like birth and like forgiveness—like any new beginning—is a miracle.
Birth, as I’ve come to understand it, is a tragicomedy. It’s the spring that grows out of winter; it works through an inversion of social mores and expectations to celebrate the pleasurable and inexhaustible regeneration of fertile life. It is my children descending the stairs at dawn in a pandemic; it is my uncomprehending smile as I look up from my deathly statistics to see them, their fingertips light on the bannister.
And all through the pandemic, I’ve thought of Sarah, suddenly pregnant with Isaac at age ninety in the Hebrew Bible. There, in her old age, near the brink of death, she doesn’t weep for her frailty or stress about the dissonance in birth’s mortal context. She says instead, so utterly wildly, “God has made laughter for me.”
Image: Untitled (Woman and Child) by Selma Burke, c. 1950. Smithsonian American Art Museum.Subscribe