I have forgotten everything. I have forgotten the taste and smell, and the faces of the people around me. I have forgotten the objects that filled the room on that particular day, the intensity of the light in those very first moments. Everything was too new for me to store and remember. I had to forget. I had to create a void: space for the person I was to become. To be able to perceive myself, I had to forget where I came from and the other body that had sheltered me for so long.
Birth is the absolute limit of knowledge. Beyond – before – that limit, my ‘I’ merges with another life. I become the same body, the same moods, the same atoms as another; another’s blood circulates in my veins. The breath with which I scream when I enter the world comes from another body: a body that will never be part of me. Forgetting is not an accident. I forget so I may become myself. I forget so I may have a face.
And yet, something is preserved. Birth is not an absolute beginning. I was already something before I was born. There was me before me.
Birth is not merely the emergence of the new. It is also the absorption of the future into a past without limits. With birth, I become the involuntary vehicle of infinite previous selves: my parents, their parents, and the parents of their parents, back to the frontiers of humanity and beyond, to the frontiers of the living, and even further. I have in me the vestiges of an endless series of living beings, all born of other living beings.
I did not just forget. I was forced to forget. We live in a culture created and dominated by those who, by definition, have never had the experience of giving birth: men. This is probably why we are obsessed with death and ageing. The cult of death is the heart of our society: we reverentially archive our dead in sealed boxes, we erect mausoleums for them, we never cease to pay tribute to their memory. The grandiose reflections on death of our poets and philosophers fill entire library shelves. Birth, on the other hand, remains a mystery and a taboo. The millennial exclusion of women from the fields of speech and art means that the astonishment we feel around birth is rarely expressed. We barely talk about birth, we barely celebrate it, we barely pay attention to the traces it leaves on our bodies and selves.
So, we all forget.
And yet some of us – women – carry in our bodies the possibility of relearning what birth might mean. Women cannot recover their own birth. But they can go through birth on the other side. The antithesis of birth is not death, it is giving birth: experiencing birth ‘backwards’, and reversing the oblivion.
Giving birth is not just a physical event. It is not just the experience of one’s body engendering another body. It is the awareness of one’s body transformed into a matrix through which life passes in a pure form, stripped of the personal and individual, transmitted from self to self. Birth, from this side, is the experience of dissolving into a sea where life migrates from ego to ego. Life is revealed to be a force whose first instinct is to migrate and multiply. Any parent has acquired the knowledge of transmigration: how the self that has arrived in us from elsewhere migrates towards other destinies and other forms of life. Every self is a migrant.
That is why there can never be a single form of life. There is no unity between life and its form: birth is precisely the negation of this kind of synthesis. We always come from another form, of which we are the deformation, the variation, the anamorphosis. And every living thing can generate from its own a new form which is animated by the same life. Multiplicity is the deepest truth of life, but not in an arithmetic sense. If there is multiplicity in the living, it is because of the continuity of all beings.
In the first, microbial, stages of evolution, all species had the same life. They shared the same body and the same experiences. Everything we are now – whether we are an elephant or an oak, a lion or a mushroom – was concentrated in that same life which first detached itself from silent matter. For billions of years, this life has been transmitted from body to body, from individual to individual, from species to species, from kingdom to kingdom.
The life of any living being does not begin with its birth; it is much older. Our own life, which we imagine to be sealed within us in the most intimate and incommunicable way, does not come from us. It is not exclusive or personal. It has been transmitted to us by others, it has animated other bodies, other pieces of matter than our own. And those who passed this life down to us were not only human. Our humanity is no native or autonomous product. It is an extension and a metamorphosis of another kind of life. More precisely, it is an invention that primates drew from their own bodies, their own DNA, in order to make the life that animated them exist differently. They transmitted our form to us, and they continue to live in us. Moreover, those primates were themselves experiments launched by other species. Evolution is a grand masked ball – one that takes place in time rather than in space. Every species, from era to era, puts on a new mask, and its sons and daughters go unrecognised.
We, the living, have never stopped exchanging bodies, and what each of us is, what we call ‘species’, is only the set of techniques that each living being has borrowed from the others. It is because of this continuity that every species shares its fundamental traits with hundreds of others. Eyes, ears, lungs, nose, warm blood: we share these with millions of other individuals, with thousands of other species – and in all these forms, we are particularly human.
This is the deepest meaning of the Darwinian theory of evolution: species are not real. They are games of life, unstable and ephemeral configurations of a life that transits and circulates from one form to another.
Sign in to Granta.com.