‘…it was in his nature to do it…it is the beginning of the coming universal wish not to live’
Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure, 1895
It is the most infamously morbid passage in English literature. It is more shocking than the infanticides of medieval history or Jacobean tragedies, worse than the murders of the Little Princes in the Tower, Macduff’s children, or Tamora being fed her own sons by Titus.
Jude’s eldest son, nicknamed Little Father Time because he has an old soul in his tiny body, overhears his father and step-mother lamenting they cannot afford to feed so many children, and then, being precociously intelligent and logical, kills his infant siblings and himself in the belief he is helping his parents.
Hardy was congenitally cruel to his characters when he finished his sport with them – his betrayal of Tess, just as she’s being executed, by throwing her younger sister at Angel Clare fulfills his private misogynistic fantasies rather than any loftier authorial purpose.
Jude’s little boy is a fatalistic novelist’s symbol of society’s moral decay, he lives and dies as a plot device, it is hard to believe anyone so frail themselves would have the strength to hang a baby, but there is something uncomfortably plausible, even inevitable, about Little Father Time’s character. He is clearly not a criminal, not a misfit. The wise child is the next stage in human evolution: the executor and inheritor of our will, even if we’re too cowardly to sign it.
There is nothing more terrible under the sun than the death of a child. The death of a child by his or her own hand is the most terrible of all, and it implicates all of us, not as individuals, not when even the kindest, most loving of parents is unable to save their darlings from reality, but collectively, as a species of social animals, unable to make our environment safe for our young.
Painting, 1592, of the legend of the Pied Piper copied from the glass window of the Market Church in Hameln, Germany (c.1300-1633). Image: Wikipedia
We are hateful, and don’t be resigned, not here, anyway. Face up to it, and for humanity’s sake don’t click Like. Not on this blog. It’s not a “popular” blog”. It’s my blog and I’ll cry if I want to.
Don’t like, don’t be resigned – change. Change what is happening in the world. What is popular is seldom right. What we enjoy eating most is usually not good for us.
Even fastidious cats don’t know what’s good for them to eat, only what tastes nice. Maybe an innate fatty, sugary death-wish will kill us all before the bombs do. About a third of the children you see in over-developed western nations are too fat; elsewhere in the world they are starving to death; there are others butchered by perverse strangers, or their own feral parents, or even each other; and now there are a few, discomfiting ghostly presences on the edge of liberal consciences, lingering in suicidal despair because of war and exile, because of the society we have colluded in.
Henry Wallis The Death of Chatterton 1856 © Tate. Image: Wikipedia.
“The marvellous boy” who committed suicide in 1770, aged seventeen, became a symbol to the Romantics of resistance to social injustice and cultural repression, of the battle of the authentic self
against modern society’s crass oppression.
We can’t blame the food: it’s us, it’s what we’re made of, our rottenness, poisoning the children. Thousands of years ago, societies sacrificed children for the common good. Now there are children doing the dirty work for us.
Refugee children in Sweden, one of the few countries in the world where asylum seekers are well-treated, have been exhibiting symptoms of a death-wish when their families are threatened with deportation. They dwindle into a semi-comotose state, refusing to eat or drink, confined to wheelchairs and have tubes stuck in their mouths. This has been called uppgivenhetssyndrom, “giving up on life syndrome”.
It has been identified as resignation, but in adult refugees similar behaviour might be called hunger-strike, passive protest or martyrdom.
The children were lied to when they were brought into the world. They see for themselves that living without hope is not worth the cost of existence. They believe they are burdens on their parents.
Through their death-wish, the children might be trying to help us.