The price of a humanity that actually grows and changes is death.
— Read on www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2018/04/how-dying-offers-us-chance-live-fullest-life
Interesting New Statesman article on a topic dear to my heart.
The price of a humanity that actually grows and changes is death.
— Read on www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2018/04/how-dying-offers-us-chance-live-fullest-life
Interesting New Statesman article on a topic dear to my heart.
So, I’ve been reading tons in preparation for writing my post on the roots of misogyny. One thing I’ve done is re-read for the 20th time, I’m sure, Ernest Becker’s Escape from Evil. I have also re-read his Denial of Death again. This time, I read them with a different eye. I was looking specifically for a direct mention of women, or rather of how a woman might experience the creation of immortality-projects and such things. Actually, I found precious little, and it was disappointing.
In terms of bartering with the gods and creating institutions that are there to deny death and promise immortality, women are nowhere to be seen. Men are the priests, men are the leaders, men are everywhere. Women are nowhere. Granted, it’s complicated and to a large extent men took the bulk of the power in society and have since the beginning as best we can guess, although there is some interesting speculation otherwise.
To me, the interesting question is this: in a species that reproduces sexually, both male and female are required to make babies. There is no inherent reason why males should have all the social power and women have so little. So, why and how did men ever get and hold so much social power? That is the question I will address in my next post. There’s no way I can answer it definitively, but I can make an educated stab at it using all the power of research that I can muster. By the way, I’m not suggesting that women are powerless. In fact, in some ways, women are more powerful than men. It is in the realm of the spiritual and in terms of the creation and sustenance of immortality projects that my interests lie. Many women have written about the inferior status of women. I will address some of their thoughts in upcoming posts.
Another disappointment for me in re-reading Becker, something I hadn’t really paid enough attention to before is his insistence that our immortality projects are now secular. According to him, we’ve moved beyond the magic and promises of religion but our new ‘gods’, money and the nation-state cannot promise us immortality. That is a basic lie although they don’t hesitate in pushing that idea. Nation-states have sold themselves as important sources of meaning in our lives, meaning that seems to be worth dying for given the evidence from the carnage of the wars of the 20th Century. Max Weber, the German sociologist, argued that we live in a demystified world. I think that magical thinking is still very powerful in the world today. We are terrified of death and are willing to attach ourselves to whatever scheme we find plausible enough to lead the way into immortality. In many instances, those schemes are passed down through the generations, but new schemes pop up all the time outside of family and often in opposition to traditional familial values.
The following I’ve already posted here but I’m posting it again because I have just completed a fictional account of a few days in the lives of oblate priests in what is now Manitoba and Saskatchewan in 1851. I wrote it in French for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to re-acquaint myself intimately with my first language and second, I wanted to write in the language of the people who are the subject of my piece. A few moments ago I submitted this fictional piece to the Cedric Literary Awards. We’ll see how I do. I have no illusions about this, but I will never get published unless I submit material and for some, probably masochistic reason, I want to get published. Oh, I have been published before, but research reports, essays, dissertations and the like don’t count in my present world.
If you read French, you may soon be able to read my story. If not, oh well.
Here is the blog post from some time ago now:
Deep down, are we all racist and xenophobic?
In my last two posts I wrote about a book by Dom Benoit published in 1904 about the Catholic missions in the mid 19th Century in the Canadian West. The book is a biography of Msg. Taché, second archbishop of St. Boniface (1853-1894).
Was I unfair in singling them out for a special call-out for being racist?
It’s pretty obvious that the missionaries understood that the indigenous peoples of the area were human, but that they were significantly different from themselves, especially in the fact that they weren’t ‘children of God.’ The derogatory manner in which they describe indigenous peoples, especially plains peoples, would immediately label them racist in most people’s books.
Their mission’s objective was to make ‘savages’ into ‘children of God’. They may have thought they had accomplished that by baptizing as many as possible, but that apparently still didn’t make them equal to white folk in the eyes of Canadian governments, all of which had institutionally racist practices and values regarding indigenous people. There is no doubt that Sir John A. Macdonald’s government was racist to the core. It’s hard not to conclude that most Canadian governments over the decades, both federal and provincial have been racist. Their policies prove it, the Indian Act proves it, all their actions prove it.
So, along with the missionaries of the mid 19th Century, are they special in their racism? Are governments racist, along with a few bad individuals, or are we all racist, deep down? Some of us may deny it vehemently, but the impetus, the imperative, the drive to characterize ‘other’ groups of people and their institutions as inferior or undeserving because of some national or group trait is pervasive. Can we avoid being racist and xenophobic? Can we avoid labelling groups (gender, age, colour, etc.) and nations with sweeping generalizations that deny human individuality and capacity for free thought?
The short answer is that I think we can, but it takes a lot of effort and thought. It means letting go of a lot of ‘isms’ some of which we love dearly, like patriotism.
If we believe that our society, our way of life is the greatest thing on earth, it makes it difficult to just accept others as they are and not to try to convince them, by ideology or coercion, that they should change. The Catholic missionaries of the Canadian West obviously thought that their religious beliefs and practices were the only ones that could lead to salvation, that is to eternal life in the presence of God. It seems to me that they would feel a holy obligation to try to ‘convert’ as many ‘savages’ as possible to save them from being condemned to an eternity in pergatory or hell. One could argue that their drive to ‘save’ the indigenous people is no different from a compulsion we might have to pull someone out of the way of a speeding train in order to save their lives. It’s just something ya gotta do.
So, yes, if we feel we have the only road to heaven, or to salvation, the good life, prosperity or whatever you might want to call it, it’s hard not to want to share it or conversely, to prove to others that ours is a superior way by kicking their asses just to prove it. If, however, we can express some humility in the face of the diversity of human (and other) life on this planet, we can begin to overcome prejudice and ignorance. It’s not easy and it’s not even likely to happen on any scale until the structural and historical conditions in place currently on the planet that make prejudice and ignorance possible and even inevitable are still dominant.
If you ever get a chance, watch a 2003 documentary film called Flight From Death: The Quest for Immortality. It does a beautiful job in visually summarizing my argument above. You can do that, or you can rummage around the archives on my blog to find references to Ernest Becker’s work Escape From Evil. The film is based on his work.
I left off my last post writing that I would consider what we could do about incidents like the one that shook Paris to the core on November 13th,
Pundits and commentators all over television and the web are suggesting possibilities for putting an end to extremist violence from bombing Syria to hell, killing all Muslims, getting more spiritual and following the word of God, thinking positive thoughts, getting at the Saudis for funding the Islamic State, and that’s only for starters. These kinds of events bring out the most outrageous ideas in us. Most ideas about doing away with extremist violence are fear-based to be sure, and they invariably target ‘the other’ and hardly ever involve changing our own ideas or behaviours.
Frankly, I don’t think that there is currently any way of stopping extremist violence regardless of where it arises and who the perpetrators might be.
The violence that was unleashed in Paris last Friday was an expression of deep-seated contradictions and conditions in our very own social relations, relations that are now evident all over the world. In our rush to secure our continued prosperity we accept that our governments need to protect the institutions and organizations we’ve come to recognize as the underpinnings of our prosperity, that is business and private accumulation of wealth. This has been true for centuries. There is no need to recite the litany of violence and carnage that litters our history. The underlying conditions that accounted for the slaughter of French Protestants and peasant riots in the 16th Century have not materially changed. Before the rise to dominance of capitalist productive relations in Europe the wane of the social relations around what we call the Middle Ages produced disruption and dislocations unprecedented previously, especially when combined with the terrible consequences of the Black Death in the middle of the 15th Century. Actually, the Jews were considered responsible for the plague in some quarters and ‘large groups of them were massacred.’* Eventually people were torn away from the land they had occupied for centuries and forced into labour in cities, a process that escalated tremendously after the mid-18th Century. No, mass murder and destruction in human society are not new. Ironically, as Ernest Becker points out in Escape from Evil, most murderous rampages in history were perpetrated by people with the intention of eliminating evil, that is whatever they considered might hinder the prosperity and health they determine is their birthright.
In the absence of rational and reasonable explanations for ‘natural’ disasters or man-made ones like the recent massacres in Paris, Ankara, Beirut and elsewhere, people generally resort to fantasy or fantastical explanation. The veracity of claims of blame is a victim of the fear and loathing of ‘the other’, those sub-human beasts who dare to threaten our prosperity although with our economic imperialism, colonialism and the need for capital accumulation, we have felt perfectly justified in threatening theirs. Can we really believe that the population of Africa welcomed European conquerers during the partitioning of the African continent between 1873 and 1896 among European powers determined to make business safe for exploitation wherever it chooses to extract raw materials or exploit cheap labour? Can we not see the connection between our colonialist exploitation of peoples all over the world and their sometimes violent opposition to said exploitation? When and how do people think the countries of the Middie East were created and by whom?
I don’t know what motivated the gunmen and bombers who chose to terrorize Paris last Friday. One explanation I cannot accept is that they were mad or insane although I wouldn’t deny that in some cases there may have been elements of madness in their actions. Madness, according to many theorists among them Thomas Szasz and R.D. Laing, is socially constructed and is a label attached to people in certain contexts and situations where they ‘fail’ to conform to social norms like dissidents in the Soviet Union for instance.
I’m afraid that our individualistic explanations just don’t cut it when it comes to violence. What we are faced with in acts like those that occurred in Paris is the institutionalized acceptance of violence embedded in every aspect of our culture and social relations. We should not be surprised when we are faced with this kind of terror. In fact, I am surprised that it doesn’t happen more often.
No, I see no end to the murderous rampages that we experienced in Paris this past Friday, at least not until we completely revolutionize our social relations, especially those that create poverty and diminish people because of who they are, what they look like or believe or what ‘resources’ they may be sitting on. People will not be convinced by rational argument, either. They will react irrationally to any threat they perceive to themselves, their families, countries and the value systems that encompass them all. They define evil as anyone and anything that is ‘other’.
The only hope I have is that we may eventually come to think of evil as corporate concentration, environmental degradation and the impoverishment of vast numbers of people on this planet. I’m not holding my breath.
*This quote is from Norbert Elias’ book What is Sociology? (New York: Columbia University), page 26
This is the fourth post relating to the Ernest Becker Legacy conference held at SFU in early October. However,this last post relates only tangentially to the conference and more to a situation that arose after the opening talk by Sheldon Solomon on Friday evening, October 2nd.
After Solomon’s talk there was time to mingle and have a glass of wine. There were a number of familiar faces in the crowd, some from my time as a student and instructor at SFU during the 1970s and early 80s, some from the Ernest Becker Foundation and some conference attendees were my former students or acquaintances. One couple that stood out for me was a long retired professor in the Sociology and Anthropology Department at SFU and his wife. I hadn’t seen him in ages, but I recognized him immediately. I’ll leave his name out of this because it’s irrelevant and I would not want to embarrass him in the slightest. I remember taking one of his course and found him to be a competent enough teacher. He produced a number of monographs and I expect his research was much more important to him than his teaching, but that’s pure speculation on my part. I certainly have the utmost respect for him.
In any case, we soon found ourselves chatting over a glass of wine. I doubt if he remembered me although he said he did. It’s true that I was in the department for many years as an undergrad then as a grad student so it’s possible he did remember me. In any case, this conference was about Becker and I expected he wanted to talk to me about Becker’s work at SFU or about his own work. He didn’t. In fact, he seemed anxious for someone to listen to his complaint about Becker, to hear his story of how nasty a character Becker really was. I found this astounding because this conference was really a Becker love-in and not essentially a critical venue with regard to Becker’s work. Why would this esteemed, highly regarded professor, with a good publishing record of his own, bother to come to a conference to listen to nice things being said about a person he loathed?
As he recalled the story, it turns out that in the early 1970s when Becker was still active doing research and what not, he was keen on having as much time as possible to engage in study and writing. He was interested in getting some relief from teaching. This professor to which I’ve been referring was in some kind of administrative position at the time and Becker approached him with his plan for a reduced teaching load. Apparently that meeting did not go well and Becker, according to this professor, was rude and belligerent, to the point where the professor’s ego was severely threatened. He took this perceived attack on his ego very personally.
The reason I bring this up is not to pass judgment on Becker or on the professor in question. It’s to point out how long a slight to the ego can affect us, how long we can carry it around and allow it to sour our thoughts. I’m talking about a period of at least 40 years between when this professor felt slighted by Becker and his recounting it to me (although any willing ear would have done) at a conference dedicated to Becker’s legacy as if it had all happened just last week. Why?
Well, for one explanation we can turn to Becker’s own work. In Escape from Evil, Becker makes it clear that any attack on our ego can mean that we fail to qualify for immortality, that somehow we are unworthy of eternal life. An attack on our individual egos or on our collective egos as embedded in our social and cultural institutions can result in diminishment and reduced qualification for the meaning in life we so desperately seek. This is not doing Becker’s argument justice, so I would suggest reading Becker yourself to get the full story if you wish.
However, the power of an attack on the ego can be devastating, as I think I illustrated here especially if it’s left unresolved. Furthermore, I don’t think that this situation is idiosyncratic. The kind of reaction I’ve illustrated here to being threatened resides deep in our unconscious minds and leaves us unsettled, cautious and wary, as individuals and as societies. In other posts on this blog I’ve addressed the issue of how we defend our egos by linguistic means, by the use of the indefinite ‘you’. I’ll be writing more about the ‘indefinite you’ again soon.
As promised this is the third post of my ruminations about the Becker conference.
[A sad aside: I took my time with this post because my trusty MacBook Pro that I bought in early 2011 decided life was not worth living anymore and pulled the plug on itself. So what to do? Buy another computer of course. Maybe later. What I did instead was pull the hard drive out of it and put it in its own stand-alone case. Now I can boot it from Carolyn’s computer just like it was my own aside from a few little glitches. It’s very slow though because it has to run through a USB port, We’ll fix that by increasing the ram in Carolyn’s computer and get it a new battery while we’re at it. Now Carolyn and I have to share a computer, sort of. I’m actually typing this on an old PowerBook G4 I had in my studio for pulling up photos for painting. It can’t handle a lot of new software including Chrome and Firefox, but it’s better than nothing and I can get my mail and do this. So that’s good. It won’t be good for the Cumberland Forest Society’s Trivia Night in a couple of weeks – I’m the quiz master and we need to drive a projector with new software. For that we’ll need my (ah..Carolyn’s) MacBook Pro with its new ram and battery. I actually amazed myself by how much I grieved over the loss of my computer. Thankfully, I was able to salvage it’s brain even if I had to let its heart go.]
I’ll restrict my comments here to the presentation by Andrew Feldmár. It was on Sunday morning, the last presentation of the conference. To be honest, I was a little hung over at the time but that was probably appropriate given the content of the presentation. So Feldmár was a very popular professor in the psychology department at SFU for many years. He was there when I was first a student at SFU in 1972. I didn’t take any courses from him. I was kind of anti-psychology at the time. I’m much less so now. In fact, even at the time I read a lot of psychology and psycho-analytical writing. Still, it was generally reading on the critical side. I understand that psychology has its place in the world, but my perspective and that of a lot of my fellow grad students was that psychology’s focus on the individual was an ideological bow to the individualism characteristic of capitalism, the basic target of our collective criticism. Even more, we considered psychiatry, specifically, as an extension of the police in modern society, persecuting anyone not ‘towing the line’ of modern capitalist institutions. Feldmár shared our critique of psychiatry although I didn’t know that at the time.
In fact, Feldmár worked with one of the most famous critics of psychiatry, R.D. Laing, who worked in Britain and conducted a lot of experiments on the ontology of schizophrenia and other ‘mental illnesses’. Laing was a most impressive guy who virtually pissed off the entire body of psychiatry at the time. I’ve recently been re-reading his The Divided Self and continue to be impressed by his work. Of course, his ‘colleagues’ considered him a brash, arrogant rebel. All the more reason I would read his work. Laing as well as Thomas Szasz and others more recent like Peter Breggin argue that schizophrenia arises in certain individuals because of a confluence of genetic/biological predispositions and family dynamics. They argue that families and ‘society’ create schizophrenia and that it is not a disease per se, but is a dynamic set of relationships that become intolerable to the ‘patient’, In other words, families create schizophrenics, not an idea very popular with the families of schizophrenics. To be clear, Laing and Szasz did not feel that the families of schizophrenics were in any way malevolent, except in the sense that the people with the power in the family, generally the parents, would stand on very strict behavioural parameters for their children not allowing their children to develop their own sense of self and self-determination. Asking the parents of schizophrenics why they thought their children became ‘ill’, they determined that to a large extent, the parents felt that they had absolutely no responsibility for it arguing that they had provided their children with all the best life could offer them including love and acceptance.
In fact, the situation in the family, Laing finds, is highly complex, and is founded on a series of contradictory behaviours expected of the children by their parents. So how would Laing endeavour to ‘cure’ schizophrenia? Well, Laing used LSD very successfully to ‘shake up’ the patient in a way that allowed them to see their situation from a different perspective. A recent CBC Ideas program notes that using LSD in therapy resulted in a 50 to 90% success rate for certain ‘problems’ such as alcoholism and other mental illnesses. Andrew Feldmár, in his talk, discussed the use of psychedelic drugs in therapy and how successful it’s been in Laing’s experience and his own. Of course the ‘establishment’ opposition to the use of psychedelic drugs pretty much made the practice illegal and illegitimate although there’s been somewhat of a revival lately. Feldmár is a large part of this revival in his current work and hearing about it firsthand was amazing to say the least.
However, I don’t believe that Feldmár’s presentation lived up to its title, A Laingian/Psychedelic/Therapeutic Perspective on “The Denial of Death”. I don’t recall Feldmár talking a lot about Becker although Becker definitely leaned heavily on Laing and Szasz in the psychological aspects of his work. I would have appreciated a more direct outline of how Becker uses Laing and Szasz in his work. Becker never mentions psychedelics and therapy that I know of. I have to go back and look as some of his earlier works. I’ve focussed much more on Becker’s later works, The Denial of Death and Escape From Evil, for my own purposes. Like I said, I was a little hung over on Sunday morning, October 4th, when Feldmár made his presentation. If I’m misrepresenting him in any way here, I’d be happy to hear about it.
By the way, I’ve decided to write one more post on this topic. It’s not about the conference directly, but about an interaction I had with an old professor of mine and one of Becker’s colleagues at SFU. That will come next week.
In my last post I mentioned some of the conference speakers, among them Sheldon Solomon and Jack Martin. I quite enjoyed both of their talks which together summarized Ernest Becker’s thought and his biography. To generalize beyond caution, I dare say that every one of us is an ever changing individual confluence of experiences, actions, achievements, ideas, values, etc., bounded by a sac of flesh and bone and wrapped in a social weave of interdependencies. Solomon and Martin ‘gave’ us the confluence that was Ernest Becker in as much complexity as was possible in a short time.* Of course, the conference title implied that Ernest Becker’s legacy would be the focus of discussion. In Becker’s case the legacy in question refers to the range of ways and means his ideas have informed those of others who have followed him. It’s what he left behind for others to use and build upon. That’s a staggering amount of information, ideas and insights to put it mildly.
Most people who have used Becker’s work have focussed on this or that aspect of it. There’s too much of substance in Becker’s work spread over too many disciplines, making it close to a unified theory of social and biological life on a grand scale, to use the whole thing as a starting point for further analysis. We can gnaw away at the details and go from there, but it’s most difficult to follow Becker on the grand scale of things. A person would have to share his confluence of influences at the very least. I mean, he described his last book as a synthesis of Marx and Freud. Well, who is competent to judge whether or not he actually did that? Someone who at least shares his reading list and sees the world in ways that he did. Was he referring just to Marx and Freud or were these two names rallying terms for a huge number of writers and authorities that he also used? His Freud also included Rank, Jung (to a lesser extent), Adler, Brown, Jones and many others. His Marx included Frankfurt School types, the more humanistic Marxists like Fromm. In fact, I don’t see a lot of classical Marxism in Becker’s work so he must not have meant Marx, but Marx-ists. Becker’s confluence is complex and massive and hardly matches anyone else’s so I think that we literally cannot follow Becker in the entirety of his thought. In fact, a prerequisite for reasonable commentary on Becker’s overarching thought, I think, is a familiarity with the bulk of his reading list. You’ll need a few years to get through it. You’ll also need an openness to his interpretation.
I’ve already written that people have settled on aspects of Becker’s work to elaborate. It’s probably safer and necessary to do that in any case as I have just argued. So, we come to David Loy, a very nice man if I’ve ever met one, a Buddhist scholar, an activist one by all accounts. Google his name. He’s written a few books. His talk was interesting, but not so much for me because I just don’t easily go to ‘religious’ places in my thinking. Of course I’m probably doing Loy an injustice and I wouldn’t want to do that. Still, I probably wouldn’t read any of his work but I would love to sit and watch a beautiful sunset with him.
Larry Green was another of the conference speakers and a big part of the organizing crew. I have so much respect for all of the organizers and the participants in this conference and Larry is right up there. He earned my respect for whatever that’s worth (I have no illusions about the insignificant space I take up on this planet, so what would he do with my respect? I do not mean this in any kind of self-deprecating way.). He is a long time psychotherapist (44 years) and teaches the odd course at City University Canada. The blurb in the conference document states “His contribution will focus on alternatives to “in-group” identification as a source of ontological security.” That’s a tall order. Becker’s discussion of the moiety in Escape From Evil would be enough to scare me away from suggesting an alternative to how things have been organized socially on this planet for thousands of years with people dividing themselves into competing groups all the better to prove how wonderful and worthy a winning group is in its barter with the gods for immortality. For me, the problem is that Green is focussed on individual accommodation to life on this planet and not on the overall ontological issues around group formation and social conflict. But that’s not meant to be a criticism, just a problem for me…as a sociologist who taught Canadian history, French, Anthropology and Sociology at a freshman level. Notice, there’s no Psychology in there. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have the utmost respect for a number of psychologists, psychoanalysts and even psychiatrists (one even still living). I just don’t follow them around into theory very far. I’m too much of a social evolutionist and Marxist for that.
Speaking of Marxists, Brad Hornick was one of the speakers. He used his time to talk about his own life and what he thought was necessary for the creation of social change great enough to reverse the insane course we’re on destroying the planet as fast as we can. Becker, in the closing paragraphs of Escape From Evil mentioned that if we could come up with a new immortality project, say one that was aimed at climate change, that we could just change the course of history and maybe save ourselves in the process. I don’t think he was all that confident if would happen, but he threw that in as a possibility. Hornick argued that capitalism has to go in order for any positive advances can be made to this planet’s climate. Commodity fetishism is not going to allow us to easily let go of our obsession with possessing goods, so we have to get rid of commodity fetishism. Frankly, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for humanity, but Hornick isn’t giving up and I respect him for that. He’s a grad student at SFU in my old S&A department there. I wish him all the best. It’s a tough row he’s decided to hoe. I doubt if many people at the conference had any idea of what he was talking about but it may have challenged them a little and prodded them to think of how Becker’s work can be used to address some of the fundamental social issues of our time.
The last speaker I took in during the conference was Andrew Feldmár. I’ll save my comments on him for tomorrow. I’ll also discuss briefly a couple of other speakers not yet mentioned. Tomorrow it is.