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REVIEW: The Children of Men, by P.D. James
The Children of Men, P.D. James (Faber and Faber, 1992).
“So how does it feel to be a human being now?” That wasn’t the question I expected to get from my aunt, the first time I saw her after my oldest kid was born. For starters she was a feminist, a prominent academic1 with several books to her name, and somebody who’d always struck me as mercilessly unsentimental. “Do you get it now?” she pressed on. “Before this your life was in shadow, it was fake. Now you’re in the sunlight, now it means something.”
She had kids, so despite having some ideological resistance to getting it, she got it. I got it too. It’s hard to describe what “it” is if you haven’t gotten it, but I’ll try to explain. The moment I first held my child, I had a vision of every human being who had ever done the same. I stood paralyzed, rooted to the spot while before my eyes a whole field of ancestors stretched back into the forgotten past, each cradling a baby just like I was doing. What was I without them? Nothing at all. A cosmic joke, a fluke, or a random collection of atoms. But with them, I was one stage of a process, a chapter of a story.
And not only that, but I was also no longer alone. It had always seemed to me that the problem of intersubjectivity could never be conquered, that between minds there yawned an unbridgeable epistemic chasm. Yet here was an experience that I shared with countless others from the most varied places and times, an experience I shared with emperors and with slaves. André Maurois once said: “Without a family, man, alone in the world, trembles with the cold.” I had always thought he meant this in a practical, or perhaps an emotional sense, but I now realized it was even truer cosmically. I had, as my aunt said, become a human being.
I didn’t just see the past. In that moment, the future also resolved itself into dreadful clarity. I had always known intellectually that someday I would die, and that the world would continue mostly as it had, but I never really believed it. Anything beyond the horizon delimited by my lifetime had been hazy and indistinct. Not anymore. Now I regarded the newborn squirming in my arms, and knew with absolute certainty that if things went well this child would bury me, and then continue living. Suddenly the far-future mattered, I had skin in the game now.2 I was no longer a temporal provincial, past and future both had an immediate and urgent reality, and I knew that I would never think the same way about them again.
Imagine what it would be like to break through and have that experience of transcendent clarity, only to have it all taken back again, and that future torn away from you forever. Now imagine what it would be like if the whole earth experienced that at once. Something like that is the emotional palette of this apocalypse novel by P.D. James, where rather than a meteor or an alien invasion, the end of the world takes the form of sudden-onset global infertility, and the wave of hopelessness that follows in its wake. Don’t confuse this book with the recently released movie of the same name. The film adaptation focuses on a heavy-handed allegory about third-world migration (and also on chase scenes), but the book is focused squarely on the social, emotional, and spiritual consequences of a world without children.
A slew of tiny world-building details create a stifling atmosphere of listlessness and horror. For instance James depicts women satisfying their maternal instincts with pet dogs and cats, sometimes pushing them around in prams or inviting strangers to the births of their puppies and kittens. The elderly engage in ritualized mass-suicides, as the insults of age are harder to bear when not borne for somebody, and physical decline loses one of its greatest consolations when we can no longer watch a new generation growing into strength. Sexual desire itself becomes less potent when deprived of its object, as “even those men and women who would normally have no wish to breed apparently need the assurance that they could have a child if they wished,” and a panicked regime pushes pornography and ribald entertainment on its citizens in a vain effort to stimulate those appetites. And, yes, there are the migrants — vast numbers of them shipped in from younger but more dysfunctional countries to perform the physical labour of which the aging rich world is no longer capable.
All of this probably seemed very shocking and maudlin back when this book was written in 1992, but now it just seems creepily familiar, like reading a horror story and gradually realizing that it’s set in your house. In fact, numerous times while reading this I had to remind myself that I was not holding a piece of trenchant social commentary written last year, but a science fiction novel from 30 years ago that turned out to be prophetic. I can barely walk five minutes outside before running into a young woman cooing over a dog the way she might once have a child, euthanasia of the elderly is making rapid strides, our regime is constantly beaming disgusting pornographic spectacles into everybody’s glowing rectangles but it isn’t working, and yeah there are quite a lot of migrants.
The apocalypse part is more or less happening too. Oh, people are still physically capable of having children (well, some people are), but by and large they aren’t doing it, and as a consequence a number of Asian and European nations are more or less going to disappear. This has all been discussed to death and I don’t want to rehash it, what I want to talk about is the direction of causality. People obsessing about birth rates are usually looking for a way to increase them, and so they’re very interested in which of our social, economic, cultural, or environmental ills are causing people not to have children, and how they can be fixed. But The Children of Men makes me think about things from the other direction: how many of our seemingly unrelated problems are actually caused by people not having children?
Michael Chandler was a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia who studied teen suicide, especially in Indian villages. Chandler observed that there was extreme variance in suicide rate from village to village, and in a series of studies (many of them not on Sci-Hub, alas) asserted that various correlates of “cultural continuity”3 were highly protective against teen suicide. Who cares, right? Any traditionalist will happily spin you a story about how a healthy community is in dialogue with its past, and this sort of thick unchosen obligation will lead to better social blah, blah, blzzzzzz… oh, sorry, I fell asleep there.
What’s interesting about Chandler is that he proposes a totally different mechanism from the standard traditionalist one, though perhaps it’s a mechanism that they could come to like. You see, earlier in his career, Chandler studied the phenomenon of teen suicide on an individual rather than a cultural or communal level, and argued that the key determinant of whether an individual would commit suicide was whether they were able to retain “the narrative thread of one’s personal persistence,” that is, whether they could view the self as a diachronic entity with continuous extension into the past and the future. In Chandler’s view, then, the reason cultural continuity matters has little to do with all the usual social conservative stuff about healthy communities. Instead it’s because communities can serve in a pinch as an alternative locus for the narrative continuity of the self.
It’s a little bit like how people thought of themselves in the earliest days of Greece and Rome, not as individuals, but as the temporarily above-ground part of a vast, superhuman entity: their family or their clan. A person situated in such a relation to a community, whether it’s a family or an Indian village or something quite different, can “borrow” some of its perdurance, can tell themselves that their story is one chapter of a great epic that unfolds itself forever. Chandler’s argument is that this exterior source of identity serves as a fallback at times when for whatever reason somebody can no longer imagine their individual self in the future.
I don’t know whether Chandler is correct about the causes of teen suicide. But I’m increasingly convinced that whether or not one is able to take this synoptic view, in which one’s own life is a single frame of a movie that extends beyond us into the past and the future (not a kaleidoscope, note, but a movie, which has a story, and makes sense) is one of the most important distinctions between people on planet earth today. I think this is what my aunt was gesturing at when she asked how it felt to have become a human being, because from this side of the divide it does feel like the others are living weird parodies of a life, like they’re a different species, mutilated and lacking in something that would make them fully human.
But the flip side to my aunt’s question is that she assumed there was no way I could be fully human in this way without a child. Perhaps that’s a natural thing to assume in 21st century America, but historically it’s bizarre — most people in most times and places belonged to kinship groups that we would find stifling. They also were embedded in an all-encompassing religious life that exercised minute ritual control over time and season, directing their thoughts outwards towards the Greatest Diachronic Entity Of All.4 These and other sources of context for our lives were special precisely because they were available to everybody, including to people without families or children, but by and large they no longer have anything like the requisite strength to fill this role.5
There’s a sort of traditionalist who grouses about the nuclear family and bemoans its preeminence in the Kulak-American consciousness. But this is catastrophically missing the point; Americans vaunt the nuclear family because for most of them it’s all that they have left. The warm blankets of tribe, clan, ritual, and soil have all been stripped away, and immediate family are all that remain between them and the cold night of an impersonal universe that will not even notice their life or their death. For most Americans, their children are the only contact they will ever have with eternity, and without that fleeting taste of eternity they will become something other and lesser. All of which makes the plummeting birth rate even more terrifying than it would otherwise be.
I caught up recently with an old friend who suffers an acute case of what Jane and I term “millennial psychological infertility.” She’s in her mid-30s, happily married, both she and her husband upwardly-mobile in their chosen fields, living in a hip urban center with a high cost of living, and absolutely desperate for a baby but for some reason unable to bring themselves to have one. That describes a horrifyingly large number of my acquaintances, but this friend had one additional, very special ingredient: self-awareness.
“I feel like everything about my life is going great,” she told me, “but also like it’s all meaningless.” She looked at me with haunted eyes. “I’ve been thinking about trying hallucinogens, maybe that will help me figure some stuff out. Or maaaaaybe…” she looked guilty, “we would like to have kids, and we know we don’t have a lot of time, but we really feel like we need to buy a place first. Then we can start to try.” She stared me right in the eyes. “You have kids, what do you think? Will having a baby give my life meaning, or am I just kidding myself?”
“More meaning than you can handle,” I thought to myself. “The meaning of your life will be the crying baby in the next room, a being of infinite value and an entire subjective universe that will starve to death unless you get up and do something. Within weeks you will be begging for a little less meaning in your life.” But I didn’t say any of that out loud, I’m trying to get better about not scaring people. I also didn’t mention all the ghosts I saw around her, the whole long line of peasants all looking a little bit like my friend, standing in their rags and staring awestruck at this, the culmination of their hope, a woman wealthy beyond their ability to imagine, yelling over the insipid music in this dingy bar.
Instead I shrugged and put on a sheepish smile: “Yeah, I guess kids are pretty cool. You guys should go for it.”
This was in the days before cancelation, I’ve often wondered since then whether she would have allowed herself to think the thought today.
It also caused me to wonder whether people without living descendants should be permitted any political representation at all.
These correlates include things like retention of native languages, and also things like… birth rates… hmm.
The title of James’ book is a reference to Psalm 89, which begins:
Lord, Thou hast been our refuge from generation to generation.
Before ever the mountains were formed, or the earth and the world were created, even from age to age thou art.
Turn not man away unto humiliation; yea, Thou hast said, Be converted, ye children of men.
For a thousand years before Thine eyes, O Lord, are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.
Thanks in large part to people like my aunt (no, not feminist professors, I obviously meant Boomers). Our entire high culture is dedicated to blasting away and subverting the sources of identity and continuity that have helped human beings to situate themselves in the universe since time immemorial. There hasn’t been a nihilistic anti-culture like ours since the Aztecs.