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.

8 thoughts on “Ernest Becker 1: Of mouths, digestive tracts and anuses…

  1. Hi Roger

    Brian told me about your blog a couple of weeks ago and I’m setting aside some time to read your Becker posts in the upcoming week because I’m working on a Directed Study this semester that draws heavily on Becker and I’m looking at the confluence between his thought, Stoicism and Taoism (the latter two are highly related in my mind – both in philosophy and practice).

    The quote you’ve chosen above rings of a passage in Marcus Aurelius’ meditations that you are probably familiar with – I think of it when I read like passages in Becker —

    “meats, and all such things that are for the mouth, under a right apprehension and imagination! as for example: This is the carcass of a fish; this of a bird; and this of a hog. And again more generally; This phalernum, this excellent highly commended wine, is but the bare juice of an ordinary grape. This purple robe, but sheep’s hairs, dyed with the blood of a shellfish. So for coitus, it is but the attrition of an ordinary base entrail, and the excretion of a little vile snivel, with a certain kind of convulsion: according to Hippocrates his opinion. How excellent useful are these lively fancies and representations of things, thus penetrating and passing through the objects, to make their true nature known and apparent! This must thou use all thy life long, and upon all occasions: and then especially, when matters are apprehended as of great worth and respect, thy art and care must be to uncover them, and to behold their vileness, and to take away from them all those serious circumstances and expressions, under which they made so grave a show. For outward pomp and appearance is a great juggler; and then especially art thou most in danger to be beguiled by it, when (to a man’s thinking) thou most seemest to be employed about matters of moment.”

    I read Escape from Evil in fall of 2012 and it has had a tremendous impact on my thinking and my life in general – this semester I am using that work and Denial of Death along with Doris Lessing, Seneca, and some Taoist writers to craft some type of morality/ethics discussion….. today I did a quick search on Becker and Stoicism and came up with this work – “Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism” by Corey Anton…… I’m curious about it, so of course ordered it. Are you familiar with this book?

    I’m not sure I’ll be able to add much to the discussion on your posts – but just wanted you to know that I’m reading them 🙂

    1. Pleased to meet you, Megan. That looks like an interesting book by Corey Anton. I haven’t read it but I’ll be ordering it too. Becker’s earliest work was about Buddhism. I’m quite interested in the Stoicism angle. Definitely worth a look. I wasn’t familiar with the Marcus Aurelius quote either but then again, I’m not a classicist. I was raised as a scholar on much more prosaic lunch meat. But still, I do like caviar and indulge every so often. I studied Latin for 4 years in high school, but by Roman Catholic Oblate Missionaries. I learned how to read Latin, but we were never allowed to read any secular works as you might well imagine. At least I knew what I was singing about when we performed Gregorian chants in chapel.
      Thanks for your comment. I hope we meet again. By the way, what department are you in at SFU?

      1. I’m in Liberal Studies…. the part-time graduate program. And btw – we have met – I’m Brian Green’s wife, and Marika’s very good friend! We were at yours for Dave and Marika’s big party a year and a half ago!

      2. I thought so when I looked at your email address, but the Megan Eliza threw me off. I think I have you and Brian on video somewhere singing up a storm in our back yard! Hope we meet again here…or maybe in Vancouver…

      3. I thought so when I looked at your email address, but the Megan Eliza threw me off, so did your picture. I think I have you and Brian on video somewhere singing up a storm in our back yard! Hope we meet again here…or maybe in Vancouver…I just ordered the Anton book, by the way.

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