I was born on the 156th anniversary of Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s expulsion–on grounds of atheism–from Oxford. (Thomas Jefferson Hogg, his collaborator on The Necessity of Atheism, was expelled with him; the two were accused of ‘contumacy in refusing certain answers put to them’ by the master and fellows of University College.) My birthday is also, remarkably enough: the 189th anniversary of Beethoven‘s first public concert; the 140th anniversary of his death; the 96th anniversary of the founding of the Paris Commune (though there seems to be some disagreement about the exact date); and the 43rd anniversary of the premiere of George Bernard Shaw‘s ‘Saint Joan‘ in London. Among other things.
A very distinguished list, I’m sure you will agree. Unfortunately, closer examination of the ‘among other things’ reveals my birthday to also be: the 41st anniversary of the first lip-reading tournament in the US and the 30th anniversary of the day spinach growers in Crystal City, Texas, erected a statue of Popeye. The chuckles that these events might provoke are quickly silenced by noting that my birthday is the 25th anniversary of the arrival of seven hundred Jews from Lvov in Poland at the Belzec concentration camp, and the departure of the first ‘Eichmann transport’ to Auschwitz.
My birth date, through history, appears to have played host to, in equal measure, the sublime, the sordid, the ridiculous, and the horrifying. There seems to a similar pattern in my birth anniversaries: my 4th birthday was marked by the Bangladeshi declaration of independence (which kicked off a genocidal crackdown by the West Pakistani Army on the Bengali populace) and the ascendance of the ‘Benny Hill Show‘ to the top rank in television ratings in the United Kingdom; my 12th by the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty by Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat; and so on. You get the picture: there really isn’t one. My birth date and my birthday is like all the other days of the year, undistinguished and memorable in its own particular way.
An inquiry into, and examination of, the coincidental occurrence of events in world history on the date of one’s birth is an old fascination of ours; it remains a species of divination, an inspection of cosmic tea-leaves, a close reading of the universe’s entrails that tempts and afflicts many of us, sometimes, I suspect, even the hard-headed ones. Could something, possibly, just possibly, connect us to this strange list of events? Could there perhaps be a historical pattern that I am part of? Am I the bodily manifestation of some global world-historical-process? It can engender grandiose idiocy too: Have I inherited some of the intellectual talents of Shelley, Beethoven, Shaw? These are lovely, deluded, tempting thoughts, strategies to grant of possible meaning to a life that otherwise may appear destined for insignificance. The relationship with astrology is, of course, unmistakable; that is precisely what that popular pseudo-science set out to do, to convince us that there was some deeper meaning to the date of our birth, over and above the circumstances leading to the coupling of our parents.
Still, some virtue may be found in such pursuits: if nothing else, it may provoke further reading on a matter that catches our eye, and also remind us that the calendar stretches out long into the past before us, and will continue to do so into the future, long after we are capable of noting the coincidence of our birth anniversaries with events of historical interest.