Ernest Becker 4: Nah, we don’t REALLY die, do we?

Ernest Becker 4: Nah, we don’t REALLY die, do we?


Alright, so Becker is keen on telling us that we are animals and our ‘animality’ must be considered in any analysis of what our place is on this planet.  More than that he states that like all animals we want to continue to live.  We crave life but know that it will end.  But that just can’t be!  We are such wonderful creatures, we’ve got these big brains and bodies that can give us such pleasure.  Why we must be the most intelligent things in the universe!  We can’t possibly die… Well, maybe, just maybe we don’t die.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.  Maybe our flesh and blood dies, but WE don’t.  Yes, disease and death are the twin evils that we face, but maybe, just maybe, that’s just a part of what we are.  Well…let’s let Becker speak now as gets to the point of his Introduction and of his book:


The reader has surely already seen the rub, and objected in his own mind that the symbolic denial of mortality is a figment of the imagination for flesh-and-blood organisms, that if man seeks to avoid evil and assure his eternal prosperity he is living a fantasy for which there is no scientific evidence so far.  To which I would add that this would be all right if the fantasy were a harmless one.  The fact is that self-transcendence via culture does not give man s simple and staightforward solution to the problem of death; the terror of death still rumbles underneath the cultural repression…What men have done is to shift the fear of death onto the higher level of cultural perpetuity; and this very triumph ushers in an ominous new problem. Since men must now hold for dear life onto the self-transcending meaning of the society in which they live, onto the immortality symbols which guarantee them indefinite duration of some kind, a new kind of instability and anxiety is created. And this anxiety is precisely what spills over into the affairs of men.  In seeking to avoid evil [in the form of death and disease] man is responsible for bringing more evil in to the world than organisms could ever do merely be exercising their digestive tracts.  It is man’s ingenuity, rather than his animal nature, that has given his fellow creatures such a bitter earthly fate.  This is the main argument of my book…how man’s impossible hopes and desires have heaped evil in the world.


So there you have it.  Some of you might consider this a little hyperbolic, but it’s nothing of the sort.  Any casual student of history or anthropology will tell you that attempts by people to destroy others who threaten their immortality are the hallmark of our time on this planet.  Just a hint to where we’re going with this from page 125 of EFE:  Each society is a hero system which promises victory over evil and death.

Ernest Becker 3: Not my tummy, no, not that!



I’m going to start right off with this quotation from Becker’s EFE, pages 3 and 4.


And this brings me to the unique paradox of the human condition: that man wants to persevere as does any animal or primitive organism; he is driven by the same craving to consume…to enjoy continued experience.  But man is cursed with a burden no animal has to bear: he is conscious that his own end is inevitable, that his stomach will die. [Oh no, not my tummy!]


…As I argued in The Denial of Death, man erected cultural symbols which do not age or decay to quiet his fear of his ultimate end – and more immediate concern, to provide the promise of indefinite duration.  His culture gives man an alter-organism which is more durable and powerful than the one nature endowed him with…


What I am saying is that man transcends death via culture not only in simple (or simple-minded) visions of gorging himself with lamb in a perfumed heaven full of dancing girls, but in much more complex and symbolic ways.  Man transcends death not only by continuing to feed his appetites, but especially by finding a meaning for his life, some kind of larger scheme into which he fits: he may believe he has fulfilled God’s purpose, or done his duty to his ancestors or family, or achieved something which has enriched mankind…It is an expression of his will to live, the burning desire of the creature to count, to make a difference on the planet because he has lived, has emerged on it, and has worked, suffered, and died…


This is man’s age-old dilemma in the face of death…what man really fears is not so much extinction, but extinction with insignificance.  Man wants to know that his life has somehow counted, if not for himself, then at least in a larger scheme of things, that it has left a trace, a trace that has meaning.  And in order for anything once alive to have meaning, its effects must remain alive in eternity in some way…


We can see that the self-perpetuation of organisms is the basic motive for what is most distinctive about man – namely, religion.  As Otto Rank put it, all religion springs, in the last analysis, ‘not so much from…fear of natural death as of final destruction.’  But it is culture itself that embodies the transcendence of death in some form or other, whether it appears purely religious or not…[it operates] to raise men above nature, to assure them that in some ways their lives count in the universe more than purely physical things count.


So, culture is the mechanism by which we convince ourselves that we are immortal.  That has some pretty important consequences for us, and devastating ones at that as we’ll see tomorrow. 


These quotations may get shorter as we go along.  Right now it’s important to set the stage for what’s to come…


By the way, ellipses are used in the quotations to indicate that I’ve left some text out.  Square brackets include my interjections. 


Another ‘by the way’, you might be annoyed by Becker’s use of masculine pronouns everywhere and references to mankind and such.  Just remember that he wrote this in the early 70s, when I was getting married.  It was common to do this in those days and people still use masculine forms of speech to refer to all of us.  Be forgiving.  Exercise tolerance.  There’s not enough compassion in the world. 

Ernest Becker 2: Oh, Our Lovely Tummies

Ernest Becker 2: Oh, Our Lovely Tummies

So, following yesterdays post, Becker argues that we are animals.  Well, what else?  I know, I know, we think of ourselves as humans not animals, but that’s not a distinction that makes much sense.  Science has gone way beyond thinking of things on this planet as being exclusively plant, animal or mineral.  It’s not as simple as that.  However, for the moment, I hope you’ll accept my argument (and Becker’s) that we aren’t rocks or minerals or grapefruit.  No, we are animals.  We share genes with grapefruit and we need some minerals to survive, but we aren’t plants or minerals in any obvious sense.  That’s Becker’s opening argument:  we’re animals.  We behave very much in animal ways although we also very much deny it with all of our best efforts.  We have a lot in common with most animals, more with some than with others, of course.  So carrying on from where we left off in the last post Becker writes:


Beyond the toothsome joy of consuming other organisms is the warm contentment of simply continuing to exist – continuing to experience physical stimuli, to sense one’s inner pulsations and musculature, to delight in the pleasures that nerves transmit.  Once the organism is satiated, this becomes its frantic all-consuming task, to hold onto life at any cost – and the costs can be catastrophic in the case of man…For man…this organismic craving takes the form of a search for “prosperity” – the universal ambition of human society…In man the search for appetitive satisfaction has become conscious: he is an organism that knows that he wants food and who knows what will happen if he doesn’t get it, or if he gets it and falls ill and fails to enjoy its benefits.  Once we have an animal who recognizes that he needs prosperity, we also have one who realizes that anything that works against continued prosperity is bad.  And so we understand how man has come, universally, to identify disease and death as the two principle evils of the human organismic condition.  Disease defeats the joys of prosperity while one is alive, and death cuts prosperity off coldly.


Tomorrow we’ll see where Becker takes us from here.  But from what he’s established in the first two or three pages of his book in a chapter called The Human Condition: Beyond Appetite and Ingenuity we know that for us humans, death is a final insult to an organism that is warm and feels so wonderful with a full stomach.  We love our tummies.  How could they possibly melt away into insignificance?

Ernest Becker 1: Of mouths, digestive tracts and anuses…

So, for the next 30 days (probably more) at the rate of one quote per day, I’m going to go through Ernest Becker’s Escape From Evil (EFE) drawing out quotes I feel are particularly powerful.  Becker’s widow and her publisher published EFE in 1975 a year after Becker’s death from cancer in a Vancouver hospital.  I consider EFE to be one of the 5 non-fiction books that has had the greatest impact on me.  I’ve read hundreds, if not thousands, of books and many have moved me, but not many to the extent that this book has.  Sometime, I’ll discuss the other four, but for now, it’s Becker I want to deal with.

My plan is to start on page 1 and go through the book until I get to page 170, the last page of text, pulling out quotes that strike me as particularly interesting and that will contribute to your understanding of his work.  Of course there is no substitute for reading Becker’s books for yourself.  I’m doing this in the expectation that you might just be curious enough with what I do here to get the book and read it.

Becker is described as a cultural anthropologist, but he’s much more than that, in my opinion.  He’s a master storyteller, a psychologist, sociologist, economist, historian and critic and anthropologist all rolled into one.  He’s a consummate inter-disciplinarian.  EFE is about the contradictions, guilt, violence, love and anxieties that plague us all.  He starts his book with an analysis of our ‘animality’ and our ingenuity.  This is the quote I’ve chosen for today.  It starts on page 1:

“Man is an animal…Whatever else he is, is built on this…The only certain thing we know about this planet is that it is a theater for crawling life, organismic life, and at least we know what organisms are and what they are trying to do.

At its most elemental level the human organism, like crawling life, has a mouth, digestive tract, and anus, a skin to keep it intact, and appendages with which to acquire food.  Existence, for all organismic life, is a constant struggle to feed – a struggle to incorporate whatever other organisms that can fit into their mouths and press down their gullets without choking.  Seen in these stark terms, life in this planet is a gory spectacle, a science-fiction nightmare in which digestive tracts fitted with teeth at one end are tearing away at whatever flesh they can reach, and at the other end are piling up the fuming waste excrement as they move along in search of more flesh. I think this is why the epoch of the dinosaurs exerts such a strong fascination on us: it is an epic food orgy with king-size actors who convey unmistakably what organisms are dedicated to.  Sensitive souls have reacted with shock to the elemental drama of life on this planet, and one of the reasons Darwin so shocked his time – and still bothers ours – is that he showed this bone-crushing, blood-drinking drama in all of its elementality and necessity: Life cannot go on without the mutual devouring of organisms.  If the living spectacle of all that he had organismically incorporated in order to stay alive, he might well feel horrified by the living energy he had ingested.  The horizon of a gourmet, or even the average person, would be taken up with hundreds of chickens, flocks of lambs and sheep, a small herd of steers, sties full of pigs, and rivers of fish.  The din alone would be deafening.  To paraphrase Elias Canetti, each organism raises it’s head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.”

The problem with Becker’s work is that every sentence is packed with meaning and must itself be digested and incorporated into a string of understanding linking the whole argument in the book.  Obviously I can’t reproduce the whole book here, as much as I’d like to.  So I must be content with snippets which together I hope will paint a decent picture of Becker’s arguments.  As I said before, there is no substitute for reading Becker’s work itself although I would recommend starting with EFE and moving back in time, if you wish, to his penultimate book, The Denial of Death, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize and even earlier works.

Throughout this mini writing and publishing marathon, I propose to italicize the quotes I take from Becker’s EFE and leave my own commentary in normal text.  If you come into this series part way through, you might want to consider starting with this first post and reading subsequent posts in order.  I number them for your convenience.  They will make much more sense to you read this way than any other way.

Only 18.28% of Canadians voted for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in 2011

Just to be clear, as Stephen Harper always claims to be, I’m not arguing here that because just 18.28% of Canadians actually voted for Stephen Harper in the 2011 general election that he has no right to govern.  Given the ‘first past the post’ electoral system we have in Canada this is what we get, a prime minister who can rule the country with just a little over 18% of Canadians voting for him.  To put this in perspective, George W. Bush had only 14% of Americans vote for him when he first got elected president so Mr. Harper at least did better than George W.

Let’s look at the numbers.  On May 2nd, 2011, the day of the last federal election, Elections Canada reported that there were 31,612, 897 Canadians.  This does not jive with the Census numbers which came to 33,476,688, but that’s got nothing to do with the argument here.  Of those 31,612,897 Canadians, 24,257,592 (76%) were eligible to vote.  Some were only 1 week old and they were not eligible, neither were millions of others below the voting age.  A small number weren’t eligible to vote for a number of other reasons.

In any case, of those 24, 257,592 who could vote, only 14,823,408 actually did for a voter turnout rate of 61%.  We won’t ask the 9,434,184 registered voters why they didn’t bother to vote, that would be rude and intrusive.

It turns out that the Conservative Party with Stephen Harper as its leader got 39% of the vote.  That means that he actually got 5,781,129 voters who actually turned out vote for him and his party.  Who knows what would have happened if all eligible voters had turned out.

Now, how did I get to the 18% I announced in the first paragraph above.  Well, the 5,781,129 people who voted for Harper account for about 18.28% of the population.  Like I said, calculating the numbers this way isn’t entirely fair to Mr. Harper and the Conservatives, but it does reflect a certain reality that cannot be ignored.  A little over 18% of the population actually went to the polls and voted Conservative.  They elected our current federal government.  To me this is a great argument for a new system of electing our politicians.  Maybe we should try proportional representation.  See how that goes.  Have a look at this video by my friend, John Higginbotham:

My personal statement [from 1990!]

This ‘personal statement’ was used as an intro for one of my Knowledge Network sociology telecourses in 1990.  By then I’d been doing it for a few years, but I still managed to perform in a very stilted way.  A KNOW crew and I drove all over Vancouver over a 12 hour period looking for suitable locations.  My favourite location is in Chinatown.  I ran across this video while looking through old computer files.

I still like the message.  I’d lose the delivery, though, and I could have made a better sartorial effort!  Apart from that, I think the message still holds even though I did this 24 years ago.  Focus on the message!