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. 

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

  1. So, like I was so apt to do all through the indoctrination process we refer to as education, I simply ask the big question, in all caps for emphasis, WHY? I often speak of our stupid big brain, and the mulitutde of problems that it causes, non more so than this issue of fearing death and wanting lfe to have meant something by the time we become worm food. We are born mamals, and like all mamals, full of insticts to sustain our survivial. Unfortunately we are blessed, and cursed, with the stupid big brain. Historical sociology I would assume knows when the upright human species suddenly started thinking outlside the box of survival, and commenced a wayward journey through history, messing up existence with ridiculous thoughts. I have heard theories regarding the climate change that resulted in our tree dwelling habits evolving to plains foragers where we accidently flipped a “cow pie” and discovered by accidient Psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and the trip really started to take off. Lying around the camp fire late at night, gorged on the feast of wild beast easily taken due to the improved vision that comes with the fungi ingestions, relaxed in post coital bliss following a hunters most cherished community service reward, staring up at the stars and free to wonder, to contemplate, to halucinate, and there you have it, religion born and all its trappings – the heavens and the gods that inhabit them, all fabrications of a drug induced mind looking out into an uncomprehendable infinity of space, balls of dust and fusion reactions, for as far as the naked eye could see on a clear prehistoric night. Roger, need a beer?


    1. Great comment, Tom. I’ve got a book called Intoxication by Ronald Siegel (1989) which argues pretty much what you do here. Since time immemorial we’ve been looking for ways to get high and by so doing having a bit of fun, but also communing and bartering with the gods. In my youth some of the most fun I had with my brain was with acid. I didn’t do much of it, but the experiences I did have, if I were religiously inclined, could have been the basis for the formation of a cult or whatever. And we’re not the only animal that wants to get high. Siegel notes several species of animals that strive to get stoned just like we do. Our big brains, however, make a big deal out of it while elephants are just out for a bit of fun.
      Beer? Yes, of course. Soon. Time and place? You could come out here, say to the CBC. That would be good.


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