Escape 25: Prisoners of Death
In Chapter 9 of EFE called Social Theory: The Merger of Marx and Freud Becker tackles the question that he poses at the end of Chapter 8 about human nature. He notes that we haven’t come yet to understand it, or really know about it so we flail around looking at aspects of human nature in disciplinary purity just as blind men might touch bits of an elephant’s body without ever recognizing it as an elephant. This is a chapter full of insight but before I get to a fairly long quote that ends the first section of it, I want to summarize the essence of Becker’s thought in this short book but ‘tainted’ on occasion by my own take on things.
So, here we are, a sexually-reproducing mammalian species that through a series of evolutionary events develops enough cerebral cortex to come to be outraged by the fact that members of this species die. Of course, people eons ago may have been ‘primitive’, but they weren’t stupid. They knew that all things died. Plants, animals, everything. Bodies die: we, effectively, have bodies that make us prisoners of death. No escape is possible. People generally ate dead things and they knew that they themselves died. However, as I said earlier, they were outraged by this prospect. Something had to be done about that. Well, I have no first hand knowledge of this and the anthropological record is spotty, but I surmise that people’s dreams, somnolent musings, epilepsy or drug induced visions were the source of the solution to the problem of life and death.
Because life was such a constant struggle with the invisible forces which caused floods, fires, droughts, volcanoes, earthquakes and a host of other disasters, if a person were especially well respected, his or her dreams or visions might be taken very seriously by the group because any hint that an accommodation was possible with the said forces would be welcome indeed. More so, if dead ancestors could be communicated with, well, what a bonus. That killed two birds with one stone. If we could communicate with dead ancestors because a respected member of the group reported that he or she did just that in a dream or vision, that meant that they were still ‘alive’ sort of. It wasn’t much of a stretch then for people to think of themselves as body and spirit. Yes the body dies and that’s too bad, but the spirit lives on into eternity. Problem is that like living people, ancestral spirits can be helpful or malevolent. In both cases, the living had to deal with them. So, eventually we came up with the idea that communication with the spirit world was essential for such a weak species. It wasn’t even much of a leap to think that just about everything that happened in life was governed by invisible forces. The big deal, of course, was to be able to barter with the invisible forces (gods) that could help or hinder living human beings in their determination to live.
So, we come to the invention of ritual, the ‘technique of manufacture’ of life. Done exactly as prescribed in a vision or dream and life would ensue. Fail to perform the ritual exactly as prescribes by the gods or the ancestors in a dream and disaster would ensue. Things haven’t really changed much. The Christian world works exactly in this way.
A difficulty with all of this is that, as Becker argues, groups of people eventually split up to form clans and moieties so that they could compete with each other in attempts to show clearly who was more in tune with the invisible world of gods and ancestors. Becker doesn’t argue, but I think, that it is also entirely plausible that autonomous groups encountered other groups in their wanderings on this planet. In these encounters, it would have been difficult not to notice that their ideas about how to connect with the invisible world might differ substantially from their own. Then what? Whose ideas were the true ones? All of life was at stake. No wonder people fought to the death and were willing to pile corpses upon corpses. Killing became a surefire way of guaranteeing the truth of our own stories and to convince ourselves of our immortality. So, eventually, the group and its ideas and rituals came to be seen as the repository of truth. No other group need apply. Enter scapegoating, war, holocausts and mass executions.
So, to end this already too long post, a quote from Becker:
Each society elevates and rewards leaders who are talented at giving the masses heroic victory, expiation for guilt, relief of personal conflicts. It doesn’t matter how these are achieved: magical religious ritual, magical booming stock markets, magical heroic fulfillment of five-year plans [as the Soviet Union had], or mana-charged military mega-machines – or all together. What counts is to give the people the self-expansion in righteousness that they need. The men who have power can exercise it through many different kinds of social and economic structures, but a universal psychological hunger underpins them all; it is this that locks people and power figures together in a life and death contract.