Ernest Becker 12: Guilty as charged!
To understand the primitive mind you must understand guilt. Understanding the nature of primitive economics demands that we know what guilt is. Guilt is not a weakness as Nietzsche and Freud thought. Brown seems to have picked up from them this same perspective on it. Becker, however, argues that guilt is not a weakness and to understand it this way means that an understanding of primitive economics must remain elusive. Guilt arises because there are so many binds in life. One of these binds is that of a child who inevitably loves the people who provide her with nourishment and life but who can also frustrate her in the things she wants or doesn’t want [as we witnessed shopping this morning]. Love can quickly turn to hatred and ‘destructive impulses’ and it can be hard on the ears too. This is one kind of bind, but as humans we experience many, many binds. Guilt
…is a feeling of being blocked, limited, transcended, without knowing why. It is the peculiar experience of an organism which can apprehend a totality of things and not be able to move in relation to it. Man experiences this uniquely as a feeling of the crushing awesomeness of things and his helplessness in the face of them.
Think about it: How are you feeling right now about what the Harper government is doing? Are you feeling angry and upset? Have you signed petitions declaring the tar sands to be the work of the devil? Are you feeling disempowered because you can’t really do anything about it? That sense of disempowerment is guilt. We also feel a certain sense of guilt because we know we might be benefitting from the wealth created by the tar sands, but we don’t want to stop driving our cars and using plastic products.
We feel guilt when we don’t feel ‘enough’ gratitude towards those who nourish us and that can include our society or culture (using Becker’s word). We owe everything to our society, even our sense of self-worth so we naturally feel subordinate to it but at the same time we resent it for constraining our actions and imposing upon us ‘unreasonable’ obligations like having to pay taxes.
This real guilt partly explains man’s willing subordinacy to his culture; after all, the world of men is even more dazzling and miraculous in its richness than the awesomeness of nature…An attitude of humble gratitude is a logical one to assume toward the forces that sustain one’s life; we see this very plainly in the learning and development of children.
There are so many different binds in life. Have you achieved in life all you could? If not, how do you feel about that? I can’t remember where I read this but it’s the story of a multi-billionaire who was unsatisfied with his accomplishments because there was someone yet richer than he was. He actually felt guilty about not being the richest person alive. I feel guilt when I don’t speak up when I think I should. Do you? How do you feel when you see someone being abused and do nothing? That’s that old guilty feeling. At trial we may be found guilty and that means only that we’ve not been good and properly subordinate to our society. In this way we are an embodiment and personification of guilt. We can then be used as a scapegoat in the struggle to ensure the gods are happy. Guilt keeps us in line.
We feel guilt for being poor and guilt for being rich and more: As Becker writes,
One can be in a bind in relation to one’s own body, which is the guilt of anality; to feel bound and doomed by one’s physical appendages and orifices. Man also experiences guilt because he takes up space and has unintended effects on others – for example, when we hurt others without intending to, just by being what we are or by following our natural desires and appetites, not to mention when we hurt others physically by accident or thoughtlessness.
If we stand out in a crowd, if we are too prominent we experience guilt.
Some individuals achieve an intensity of individuation in which they stick out so far as that almost each day is an unbearable exposure. [think Hollywood here, Justin Bieber in particular. His notoriety must be near unbearable for him at times]
Of course just being human with faces unique to ourselves makes us stand out in nature. In that we’re way ahead of other animals.
Faces fascinate us precisely because they are unique, because they stick out of nature and evolution as the most fully developed expression of the pushing of the life force in the intensity of its self-realization. We don’t understand why the life force is personalized in this way, what it is trying to achieve; but we flatly know that it is personalizing because we have our heads and faces as empirical testimony, and as a burden of guilt.
Headhunting was not just a particularly gruesome way of killing. It was a way of destroying the most personal and individual aspect of us. In primitive society and in France not so long ago, it was dangerous to have a head! Taking a head was probably a way of sharing guilt and atoning for our own sin of sticking out.
Probably the most important dimension of guilt is its social nature. What did Brown mean when he said that social organization was a structure of shared guilt, “a symbolic mutual confession of it?” (p. 35) What Brown concluded was this:
Mankind has so many things that put it into a bind that it simply cannot stand them unless it expiates them in some way. Each person cannot stand his own emergence and the many ways in which his organism is dumbly baffled from within and transcended from without…This is why the main general characteristic of guilt is that it must be shared: man cannot stand alone.
What you do when you give a gift is lose guilt, if only temporarily. Giving is a way of re-establishing balance or even putting obligations on others. In real terms, guilt motivates individuals to strive to achieve social standards of acceptability. Shopping relieves guilt and raises spirits. In a society like ours where possessions and the market rule, having no possessions or money imposes a huge burden of guilt to the point that it drives people into physical and mental illness. To be idle in a society founded on work is to be guilty whether idle by choice or not.
If guilt is the experience of fear and powerlessness, then immersing oneself in a group is one way of actively defeating it: groups alone can make big surplus, can generate extravagant power in the form of large harvests, the capture of dangerous animals and many of them, the manufacture of splendid and intricate items based on sophisticated techniques, etc. From the beginning of time the group has represented big power, big victory, much life…[we feel giddy in victory, depressed in defeat]
If we thus look at both sides of the picture of guilt, we can see that primitive man allocated to himself the two things that man needs most: the experience of prestige and power that constitutes man a hero, and the experience of expiation that relieves him of the guilt of being human…Man needs self-esteem more than anything; he wants to be a cosmic hero, contributing with his energies to nothing less than the greatness and pleasure of the gods themselves. At the same time, this risks inflating him to proportions he cannot stand; he becomes too much like the gods themselves, and he must renounce this dangerous power. Not to do so is to be unbalanced, to run the great sin of hubris as the Greeks understood it. Hubris means forgetting where the real source of power lies and imagining that it is in oneself.
So, the individualism that characterizes our world is based on the fantasy that we somehow control our own lives, that we are in charge. To some extent we are, of course, but fundamentally we are not. Again, I could point to others who have explained this much more clearly than I can or that Becker has. I think here of Norbert Elias who argues that there is no such thing as a human individual. We are a system of interdependencies and interweavings. The real power in our lives lies in our social relations not in our individual initiative which is meaningless unless it is socially guided and sanctioned.
Guilt makes the world go round. How and when we feel guilt is determined by social expectations. Whenever we feel guilt, whenever we feel blocked, we need to expiate it by some form or another. When we feel an especially strong attachment to our social group in times of awful stress, we may be in a position to relate to what a mother said upon hearing of the death of her son overseas in war. She said in so many words: “If only I had another son to sacrifice too. I feel that what I’ve done already is not enough.” She could not have acknowledged in stronger terms her unconscious realization that she was completely dependent and beholden to her society while realizing at the same time that her sacrifice had not made any difference, had not made her society a better one.