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. 

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