Escape 22: The Science of Man after Hitler
I have lingered on guilt, sacrifice, heroism, and immortality because they are the key concepts for the science of man in society that is emerging on our time.
Sociology has largely ignored this kind of analysis because it’s been caught up with it’s own immortality-project, it’s own definition of itself as a structural or constructionist endeavour. History, evolution and process are not welcome in its parlour. In my younger days I thought that if I wrote interesting and relevant material I would be taken seriously. I was a bit naïve. Sociologists could ignore Hitler or Mao as aberrations. Becker mentions two sociologists who bucked the trend, Kenneth Burke and Hugh Dalziel Duncan. I don’t know their work. It was never on the curriculum when I studied at university. Although Burke died it 1995 he was born in 1897 so his work could easily have been on the menu of any number of courses. Becker does point out though that their work is pretty much contained within Rank’s, so I don’t feel so bad not having read them. I have read many of Rank’s books, Art and Artist being one of my favourites.
The point here is that the old-time religious immortality-ideologies, the thousands that have existed and the many that still do can promise immortality. The body is the source of all evil and temptation. It’s where the Devil resides. If you can stay in the realm of the symbolic you stand a chance of heroic eternal life, but if you succumb to the pleasures of the flesh, you die just as all flesh dies. Spirit, if you can believe in it, lives on eternally. That has got to be the most difficult thing for people who still believe in a supernatural world. It’s bound to be a different supernatural world than many others so who’s supernatural world is the right one? Doubt creeps in and that brings on guilt and the need to expiate that guilt. One way out is to strike out at other immortality-projects, destroy them. They all, potentially, have a role to play in the expiation of guilt and in the concretization of belief in the one and only real way to heaven. But what happens in a world where the secular rules, where science and technology cannot promise any kind of sacred absolution? Then, as Becker points out, the nation, the race or ‘the people’ become god, the transcendent immortality-project that keeps people in the same kind of grip that ancient religions did and modern religions still do. It’s ridiculous, but it worked for Hitler and it worked for Mao. Both had no transcendent god to offer the people, only a vision of the people themselves as the vehicle for apotheosis. Hitler promised the German people a heroic victory over death as represented by the Jewish people. Mao had the great revolution and the glorious future into which his believers would march in all their glory.
In this cosmology it is the people themselves who carry the ‘immortal revolutionary substance’; God, then, ‘is none other than the masses of the Chinese people.’
Man still gropes for transcendence, but now this is not necessarily nature and God, but the SS or the CIA; the only thing that remains constant is that the individual still gives himself with the same humble trembling as the primitive to his totemic ancestor. The stake is identical – immortality power – and the unit of motivation is still the single individual and his fears and hopes.
The kind of effervescence that the promise of immortality brings is evident in events from music festivals to victory celebrations to protest marches. We don’t often have the kind of real opportunity to feel alive alongside thousands of others in a common cause where the stakes are high. We have our substitutes on professional hockey, football, soccer, cricket, the Olympics. These can get our blood pressure up; they can get that collective effervescence (as Durkheim described it) going in a ritual bloodletting and victorious battle. How often have I heard someone say, “Yeah, we kicked the shit out of the Oilers last night.” Meaning that the Canucks defeated the Oilers. The ‘we’ there is completely out of place in this sentence given the reality of the competition, but that doesn’t matter, it’s us against them, and it’s our immortality that’s at stake.