The Choice Of Parents by Israel Zangwill

Story type: Essay

“Yes,” said Marindin quietly, “they may say they write for Posterity, but what living author besides myself does write for Posterity?”

This sounded so unlike Marindin’s modesty that I wondered if the port and the paradoxes of our Christmas dinner had got into his head at last. The veteran man of letters had talked brilliantly more suo of many things, most of all perhaps of his dead friend, Charles Dickens. Who seemed more surely to have been writing Christmas stories for Posterity? we had asked ourselves musingly, as we discussed the change of temper since the days when Dickens or Father Christmas might have stood for the Time-Spirit. Many good things had Marindin said of Ibsen and Nietzsche and the modern apostles of self-development who sneered at the Gospel of self-sacrifice, and at all the amiable virtues our infancy had drawn from “The Fairchild Family” with its engaging references to Jeremiah xvii. 9. But now he was breaking out in a new way, and I missed the reassuring twinkle in his eye.

“I think I may without arrogance claim to be the one author who really has considerable influence with Posterity,” he went on, drawing serenely at his cigar and adjusting his right leg more comfortably across the arm of his easy-chair. “Is there any one else whom Posterity listens to?”

I shifted uneasily in my own arm-chair. “What do you mean?” I inquired baldly.

“Don’t you know I write for the unborn?” he counter-queried.

“But they don’t read you–yet,” I said, trying to smile.

“My dear fellow! Why, I’m the best-read man in Ante-land. The unborn swear by me! My publishers, Fore and Futurus, are simply rolling in promissory notes.”

“You’ve become a Theosophist!” I cried in alarm, for that familiar twinkle in his eye had been replaced by a strange exaltation.

“And what if I have?”

“Theosophy!” I cried scornfully–“Theology for Atheists! The main contemporary form of the Higher Foolishness.”

“The Higher Foolishness!” echoed Marindin indignantly.

“Yes, the Foolishness of the fool with brains. The brainless fool fulfils himself in low ways–in alcoholic saturnalia, in salvation carnivals, in freethought hysterics, in political bombs. The Higher Foolishness expresses itself in aberrations of poetry and art, in table-rapping and theosophy, in vegetarianism, and in mystic calculations about the Beast.”

“It is you who are the fool,” he replied shortly. “Theosophy is true–that is, my form of it. Birth is but the name for the entry upon this particular form of existence.

“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.
The soul that rises with us, our life’s star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar.

“The unborn pre-exist, even as the dead persist; and instead of addressing Posterity posthumously and circuitously, I have anticipated its verdict. I have written for the unborn, direct. I have been the apostle of the New Ethics among the pre-natal populations, the prophet of individualism among the unborn.”

“What! You have propagated the teaching that free choice must be the battle-cry of the future, that the only genuine morality is that which is the spontaneous outcome of an emancipated individuality!”


“But what has free choice to do with the unborn?”

“What has it to do? Great heavens! Everything. The battle-cry of the future will be Free Birth.”

“Free Birth!” I echoed.

“Yes–this is what I have been preaching to the unborn–the choice of their parents before consenting to be born! Compulsory birth must be swept away. What! would you sweep away all checks upon the individuality of the individual–once he is born would you tear asunder all the swaddling-bands of our baby civilisation; would you replace the rules of the nursery by the orderly anarchy of manhood and womanhood, and yet retain such an incoherent anachronism as compulsory birth–a disability which often cripples a man upon the very threshold of his career? Without this initial reform the individualism of your Ibsens and Auberon Herberts becomes a mere simulacrum, a hollow mockery. If you are to develop your individuality, it must be your own individuality that you develop, not an individuality thrust upon you by a couple of outsiders.”

“And you have preached this with success?”

“With unheard-of success.”

“Unheard-of, indeed!” I muttered sarcastically.

“In your plane of existence!” he retorted. “In Ante-land the movement has spread widely; scarcely a soul but has become convinced of the evils of compulsion in this most personal matter, and of the necessity of having a voice in its own incarnation. And it is I, moi qui vous parle, who have sown the seeds of the revolt against our present social arrangements. Too long had parents presumed upon the ignorance and helplessness of the unborn and upon their failure to combine. But now the great wave of emancipation which is lifting us all off our feet has reached the coming race. And soon the old ideal will be nothing but a strangled snake by the cradle of Hercules.”

“Why, I never heard of such a thing in all my born days!” I cried helplessly.

“Of course not; you are more ignorant than the babe unborn. You trouble yourself about the next world, but as to what may be going on in the last world, that never enters your head. But for the tyranny of outward social forms you and I might have deferred our birth till a serener century. Henceforth the dreamer of dreams will have only himself to blame if he is born out of his due time and called upon to set the crooked straight. Job himself would have escaped his misfortunes if he had only had the patience to wait. In future any one who is born in a hurry will be a born idiot.”

“What! Will the unborn choose the time of birth as well as their parents?”

“One is implicated in the other. Suppose the soul wished to be the son of an American Duke, naturally it would have to wait till aristocracy was developed across the Atlantic, say some time in the next century.”

“I see. And is there a public opinion in Ante-land that regulates private action?”

“Yes, but I have now educated it to the higher ethics. It used to be the respectable thing to be born of strangers without one’s own consent, though at the bottom of their souls many persons believed this to be sheer immorality, and cursed the day they were led to the cradle, and became the mere playthings of the parents who acquired them–pretty toys to be dandled and caressed, just a larger variety of doll. But all this is almost over. Henceforth birth will be considered immoral unless it is spontaneous–the outcome of an intelligent selection of parents, based on love.”

“On love?”

“Yes; should not a child love its father and mother? and how can we expect it to love people it has never seen, to whom it is tied in the most brutal way, without a voice in the control of its destinies at the absolutely most important turning-point of its whole existence?”

“True, a child should love its parents,” I conceded. “But is not the quiet, sober affection that springs up after birth, an affection founded on mutual association and mutual esteem, better than all the tempestuous ardours of pre-natal passion that may not survive the christening?”

“Ah, that is the good old orthodox cant!” cried Marindin, puffing out a great cloud of smoke. “What certainty is there this post-natal love would spring up? And, at any rate, a man would no longer be able to blame Providence if he found himself tied for life to a couple for whom he had nothing but loathing and contempt. Even the adherents of the old conception of compulsory childship begin to see that the stringency of the filial tie needs relaxation. Already it is recognised that in cases of cruelty the child may be divorced from the parent. But there is a hopeless incompatibility of temper and temperament which is not necessarily attended with cruelty. Drunkenness, lunacy, and criminality should also be regarded as valid grounds for divorce, the parent being no longer allowed to bear the name of the child it has dishonoured.”

“But who shall say,” I asked sceptically, “that the new self-appointed generation will be happier than the old? What guarantee is there that the choice of parents will be made with taste and discretion?”

Marindin shrugged his shoulders impatiently.

“Come and interview the unborn,” he said, and fixed his unsmiling eye on mine, as though to hypnotise me. What happened then I shall never be able to explain. I was translated into another scale of being, into the last world in fact; and just as it is impossible to describe a symphony to a deaf mute or a sunset to a man born blind, so it is impossible for me to put down in terms of our present consciousness the experiences I went through in that earlier pre-natal stage of existence. What I perceived in Ante-land must needs be expressed through the language of this world, to which in effect it bears as true and constant a relation as the vibration of a violin string to its music. I soon gathered that, as Marindin had claimed, his doctrines had made considerable incursions in the last world, and, what was more surprising, in this. There seemed to be quite a considerable sect of parents spread all through Europe and America, pledged to respect the rights of the unborn, and it was in co-operation with this enlightened minority–destined, no doubt, in time to become the Universal Church–that the unborn worked. The sect embraced many couples of wealth and position, and, as was to be expected, at the start there had been a rush among the unborn for millionaire parents. But it was soon discovered that birth for money was a mistake, that it too often led to a spendthrift youth and a bankrupt age, and that there was not seldom a legacy duty to pay in the shape of hereditary diseases, sometimes amounting to as much as two pains in the pound; the gold rush was therefore abating. Birth for beauty had also been popular till experience demonstrated the insubstantiality of good looks as a panoply throughout life. Gradually the real conditions of earthly happiness were coming to be understood. Unborn preachers in their unbuilt churches tried in their unspoken sermons to lead souls to the higher bodies or to save souls from precipitate incarnation. Marindin’s own unwritten books sustained Paley’s thesis of the essentially equal distribution of happiness among all classes, and left it for the individual soul to decide between the realities of toil and the unrealities of prosperity, Marindin took the opportunity of our presence in Ante-land to pay a visit to his publishers, Fore and Futurus, of whose honesty and generosity he spoke in glowing terms. Fore received us; he seemed to be a thorough gentleman, this unborn publisher. He showed us the design for a cover to a new “Guide to the Selection of Parents,” which he was about to bring out, and which he hoped would become the standard work on the subject. I gathered that these “Guides” were very popular as birthday presents, enabling, as they did, those just about to be born to think once more before making the final plunge. The feature of the Fore and Futurus “Guide” was the appendix of contributions from souls already born, whose mistakes might serve to benefit those still unattached.

“But how can there be a guide to such a frightful labyrinth?” I inquired curiously. “Japhet in search of a father had a light task before him compared with the selection of one. And it is not only the selection of a father, but of a mother! To take the outside variations only: the father may be handsome, good-looking, plain or ugly; the mother may be beautiful, pretty, plain or ugly. Any of these types of fathers may be paired with any of these types of mothers, which makes sixteen complications. Then there is complexion–fair or dark–which makes sixty-four, for you know how, by algebraic calculations, every new possibility multiplies into all the others. If one turns to mental and moral characteristics, one’s brain swims to think of the new complications incalculably numerous and all multiplying into the old physical combinations. Multiply furthermore by all the combinations arising from considerations of health, money, position, nationality, religion, order of birth–whether as first, second, or thirteenth child–and the strongest intellect reels and breaks down. Even now I have not enumerated all the possibilities; for the total would have to be doubled for the contingency of sex, since I presume birth would not be absolutely free, unless it included the right of choosing one’s sex.

“To take a concrete instance of the embarrassment which Free Birth would bring, and of the invidious distinctions that would have to be made: which is the better lot?–to be the third daughter of a nineteenth-century, healthy, ugly, penniless, clever, middle-aged, moral, free-thinking German Baron by a beautiful, rich, stupid, plebeian Spanish dancer, with one child by a previous marriage, and a tendency to consumption; or the second son of a twentieth-century American Duke, unhealthy, uncultured, handsome, chaste, Ritualist, elderly and poor, by an English heiress, ugly, low-born, Low Church, ill-bred, intellectual, with a silly and only semi-detached mother? But this would be a problem of unreal simplicity, bearing as much relation to actuality as the first law of motion to the flight of a bird, for your choice would lie not between one pair and another, but among all possible pairs.”

“All existing pairs possible to you,” corrected Marindin. “People manage to choose husbands and wives, though according to your computation the whole of the opposite sex would have to be examined and selected from. In practice the choice is narrowed down to a few individuals. So with the choice of parents–most are already snapped up, monopolised or mortgaged, or contracted for, and you have either to choose from the leavings or postpone your birth, and bide your time a century or two. But the problem is greatly simplified by the P. C.”

“What is the P. C.?” I murmured.

“The Parental Certificate, of course. Throughout the terrestrial branch of our sect no one is eligible for parentage who does not possess it. It is given only to those who have passed the P. D. or Parents’ Degree examination, and supplements the old P. L. or Parents’ Licence, which was openly bought and sold.”

“And the qualifications?”

“Oh, very elementary. The candidate is required to pass an exam, (both written and oral) in the training of the young, and to be certified of sound mind in sound body. The P. L. itself has been transformed into a licence to keep one, two or more children, according to means.”

“You see our ‘Guide’ deals merely with the great typical pairs,” explained the publisher. “What Aristotle did for Logic our author has done for Birth. He only pretends to give general categories. Aristotle could not guarantee a man shall properly reason, nor can any individual be infallibly inspired to the wisest choice of parentage. Of course the photographs of parents are of great service to the unborn who are thinking of settling down.”

“How do they get to see them?”

“Oh, as soon as a couple passes the P. D. and receives the P. C. they appear in the illustrated papers–especially the ladies’ papers. ‘Graduates of the Week’ is the heading. And then there is the P. T.–the Pathological Tree.”

I looked at the publisher in perplexity.

“Gracious! I forget this is your first visit to Ante-land,” he said, apologetically. “Look! Here are some P. Ts. my lawyer has just been looking over for me, the property of parents whose advertisements for children I have been answering. My friends are rather anxious I should incarnate.”

I surveyed the parchment roll with curiosity. It was a tree, on the model of a genealogical tree, but tracing the hygienic record of the family.

“In our sect,” said Marindin impressively, “it will become the pride of the family to have an unblemished pedigree, and any child who gets himself born into such a family will do so with the responsibility of carrying on the noble tradition of the house and living up to the sanitary scutcheon–sante oblige. When children begin to be fastidious about the families they are born into, parents will have to improve, or die childless. And, as the love of offspring springs eternal in the human breast, this will have an immense influence upon the evolution of the race to higher goals. I do not know any force of the future on which we can count more hopefully than on the refinement resulting from the struggle for offspring and the survival of the fittest to be parents. Undesirable families will become extinct. The unborn will subtly mould the born to higher things. Childlessness will become again what it was in the Orient–a shame and a reproach.”

“Yes,” asserted the publisher, smoothing out the P. Ts.; “the old unreasoned instinct and repugnance will be put on a true basis when it is seen that childlessness is a proof of unworthiness–a brand of failure.”

“As old-maidenhood is, less justly, to-day,” I put in.

“Quite so,” said Marindin eagerly. “In their anxiety to be worthy of selection by Posterity, parents will rise to heights of health and holiness of which our sick generation does not dream. If they do not, woe to them! They will be remorselessly left to die out without issue.

“The change has begun; our sect is spreading fast. In the course of a century or two physical and mental deformities will vanish from the earth.” His eye flashed prophetic fire.

“So soon?” I said, with a sceptical smile.

“How could they survive?” Marindin inquired scathingly.

“Is it likely any of us would consent to be born hunchbacks?” broke in the publisher; “or to enter families with hereditary gout? Would any sane Antelander put himself under the yoke of animal instincts or tendencies to drink? Ah, here is a bibulous grandfather!” and he tossed one of the P. Ts. disdainfully aside, though I observed that the old gentleman in question had been an English Earl.

“But, Mr. Fore,” I protested, “will all the unborn attach such importance to the pathological pedigree as you do? What power will make them train up their parents in the way they should go?”

“The greatest power on earth,” broke in Marindin; “the power of selfishness, backed by education. Enlightened selfishness is all that is needed to bring about the millennium. The selfishness of to-day is so stupid. Let the unborn care only for their own skins, and they will improve the parents, and be well brought up themselves by the good parents they have selected.”

“But come now, Mr. Fore,” I said; “the new system has been partially at work, I understand, for some time. Do you assure me, on your word of honor as an unborn publisher, that the filial franchise has been invariably exercised wisely and well?”

“Of course not,” interrupted Marindin. “Haven’t I already told you there has been much fumbling and experimentation, some souls being born for money and some for beauty and some for position? But pioneers must always suffer–for the benefit of those who come after.”

“Certainly there have been rash and improvident births,” admitted the publisher. “Hasty births, premature births, secret births, morganatic births, illegitimate births, and every variety of infelicitous intrusion upon your planet. The rash are born too early, the cautious too late; some even repent on the very brink of birth and elect to be stillborn. But in the majority of cases birth is the outcome of mature deliberation; a contract entered into with a full sense of the responsibilities of the situation.”

“But what do you understand by illegitimate birth?” I asked.

“The selection of parents not possessing the P. C. There are always eccentric spirits who would defy the dearest and most sacred institutions organised by society for its own protection. We are gradually creating a public opinion to discountenance such breaches of the law, and such perils to the commonweal, subversive as they are of all our efforts to promote the general happiness and holiness. Even in your uncivilised communities,” continued the publisher, “these unlicensed and illegitimate immigrants are stamped with life-long opprobrium and subjected to degrading disabilities; how much infamy should then attach to them when the sin they are born in is their own!”

“A lesser degree of illegitimacy,” added Marindin, “is to be born into a family already containing the full number it is licensed for. This happens particularly in rich families, introductions into which are naturally most sought after. It is still a moot point whether the birth should be legitimatised on the death of one of the other children.”

“But it is the indirect results that I look forward to most,” he went on after a pause. “For example, the solution of Nihilism in Russia.”

“What has that to do with the unborn?” I asked, quite puzzled.

“Don’t you see that the czarship will die out?”

“How so?”

“No one will risk being born into the Imperial family. I should say that birth within four degrees of consanguinity of the Czar would be so rare that it would come to be regarded as criminal.”

“Yes, that and many another question will be solved quite peaceably,” said the publisher. “You saw me reject a noble grandfather; the growth of democratic ideals among us must ultimately abolish hereditary aristocracy. So, too, the question of second marriages and the deceased wife’s sister may be left to the taste and ethical standards of the unborn, who can easily, if they choose, set their faces against such unions.”

“You see the centre of gravity would be shifted to the pre-natal period,” explained Marindin, “when the soul is more liable to noble influences. The moment the human being is born it is definitely moulded; all your training can only modify the congenital cast. But the real potentialities are in the unborn. While there is not life there is hope. When you commence to educate the child it is already too late. But if the great forces of education are brought to bear upon the unformed, you may bring all Itigh qualities to birth. Think, for instance, how this will contribute to the cause of religion. The unborn will simply eliminate the false religions by refusing to be born into them. Persuade the unborn, touch them, convert them! You, I am sure, Mr. Fore,” he said, turning to the worthy publisher, “would never consent to be born into the wrong religion!”

“Not if hell-fire was the penalty of an unhappy selection,” replied Mr. Fore.

“Of course not,” said Marindin. “Missionaries have always flown in the face of psychology. Henceforward, moreover, Jews will be converted at a period more convenient for baptism.”

“We hope to mould politics, too,” added the publisher, “by boycotting certain races and replenishing others.”

“Yes,” cried Marindin; “it is my hope that by impregnating the unborn with a specific set of prejudices, they might be induced to settle in particular countries, and I cannot help thinking that patriotism would be more intelligent when it was voluntary; self-imposed from admiration of the ideals and history of a particular people. Indeed this seems to me absolutely the only way in which, reason can be brought to bear on the great war question, for in lieu of that loud eloquence of Woolwich infants there would be exercised the silent pressure of the unborn, who could simply annihilate an undesirable nation, or decimate an offensive district by refusing to be born in it. Surely this would be the most rational way of settling the ever-menacing Franco-Prussian quarrel.”

“I observe already a certain anti-Gallic feeling in Ante-land,” put in the publisher. “A growing disinclination to be born in France, if not a preference for being made in Germany. But these things belong to la haute politique”

“My own suspicion is,” I ventured to suggest, “that there is a growing disinclination to be born anywhere, and this new privilege of free choice will simply bring matters to a climax. Your folks, confronted by the endless problem of choosing their own country and century, their own family and their own religion, will dilly-dally and shilly-shally and put off birth so long that they will never change their condition at all. They will come to the conviction that it is better not to be born; better to bear the evils that they know than fly to others that they know not of. What if the immigration of destitute little aliens into our planet ceased altogether?”

Marindin shrugged his shoulders, and there came into his face that indescribable look of the hopeless mystic.

“Then humanity would have reached its goal: it would come naturally and gently to an end. The euthanasia of the race would be accomplished, and the glorified planet, cleansed of wickedness at last, would take up its part again in the chorus of the spheres. But like most ideals, I fear this is but a pleasant dream.” Then, as the publisher turned away to replace the P. Ts. in a safe, he added softly: “Intelligence is never likely to be so widely diffused in Ante-land that the masses would fight shy of birth. There would always be a sufficient proportion of unborn fools left who would prefer the palpabilities of bodily form to the insubstantialities of pre-natal existence. Between you and me, our friend the publisher is extremely anxious to be published.”

“And yet he seems intelligent enough,” I argued.

“Ah, well, it cannot be denied that there are some lives decidedly worth living, and our friend Fore will probably bring up his parents to the same profession as himself.”

“No doubt there would always be competition for the best births,” I observed, smiling.

“Yes,” replied Marindin sadly; “the struggle for existence will always continue among the unborn.”

Suddenly a thought set me a-grin. “Why, what difference can the choice of parents make after all?” I cried. “Suppose you had picked my parents–you would have been I, and I should be somebody else, and somebody else would be you. And there would be the three of us, just the same as now,” and I chuckled aloud.

“You seem to have had pleasant dreams, old man,” replied Marindin. But his voice sounded strange and far away.

* * * * *

I opened my eyes wide in astonishment, and saw him buried in an easy-chair, with a book in his hand and two tears rolling down his cheeks.

“I’ve been reading of Tiny Tim while you snoozed,” he said apologetically.

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