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.
My whole life has been a quest to know. I have always wanted to learn. And I have learned a great deal. The question is not a general question about learning. The question is whether or not I want to learn and to finally know the way through the loneliness of an unbalanced life. Finally is probably not the correct word because finality is an illusion.
I always knew that there was a connection between body and will or body and mind. I knew it but I needed to taste it, to hear it, make it mine in the fullness of my senses.
How to dissolve the power of social pressure? Now that’s another question entirely. Life outside of society is impossible but society is rife with ideological traps like the need for immortality and its hero systems for the denial of death. I know this. But I haven’t made it mine yet. It sits in the front of my brain and resists trickling down into the pores of my skin and the cells of my nether parts. It sits isolated – knowledge without absorption. I may know what’s good for me, but that’s not enough. I need the will to transcend knowledge into experience, into life. I need to bind knowledge to the rest of me.
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.
[This is a bit of an exploratory post. I have ideas here that I want to develop further, but rather than trying to refine them now to a publishable state, I’m putting them out there in a somewhat disjointed and unrefined state so that I can think about them further and get your comments on them if you are so inclined].
A couple of days ago I posted a comment here about an injury I suffered last Thursday evening to my ribcage after a bad fall resulting in a hospital visit and a great deal of pain to an area of my body that had already been traumatized by cancer surgery. Well, that personal story was just a way of leading into today’s post. Of course, everything about the report I made a couple of days ago was true. I’m still in a great deal of pain. I haven’t driven our vehicle since my injury and I’m not sure when I will be able to again. Maybe later this week sometime. The good news is that I do feel some improvement in my pain levels already and some improved mobility.
That said, there are many people with immobility issues that cannot look forward to any improvement whatsoever in their conditions. I feel temporarily humbled by my lack of mobility in a mobility driven world, but they must only feel permanently humbled and even humiliated. Someone I am acquainted with has muscular dystrophy. He’s my age, a little older actually. He lived a ‘normal’ life for decades before being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, but his mobility has continuously declined since his diagnosis. He is now confined to an electric wheelchair and a scooter that allows him a certain degree of mobility. He can even visit me in Cumberland from Courtenay (8K) although not in my home because it is not wheelchair accessible. There’s actually very few locations in the Comox Valley accessible to wheelchair bound people, homes or businesses. As an educated guess I would say that about 1% of Valley homes are wheelchair accessible. The big box stores are all accessible, but not many of the businesses along 5th Street or anywhere downtown are. I know other wheelchair bound people in the Comox Valley with varying degrees of immobility, but all have very mobile and agile minds. Of course, like the rest of us, not all wheelchair bound people have agile brains and some have difficulty communicating with ‘normal’ folks. I’ll get back to that in a bit.
My point is that we treat people immobilized by various kinds of physical ‘disabilities’, ‘abnormalities’, or whatever other qualification we might use in describing them, with a curious dismissiveness. We don’t take them seriously and don’t expect anything intelligent to come out of their mouthes. Mainly, we don’t address them at all and if we must, we’d rather do it through an intermediary, like a caregiver or companion. I use ‘we’ here because this is a generalized social reaction with few people being self-aware enough to realize what they are feeling and why they are feeling that way.
What I am arguing here is not that individuals in our society are insensitive or uncaring about people who are ‘differently-abled’ as they sometimes describe themselves, but that we have a very deep-seated fear of immobility because of its association with death and we are culturally programmed to shun it. If you think about it for a moment you’ll soon realize that we unconsciously equate mobility with freedom and wealth, immobility with death and confinement, either, for example, in a wheelchair or in prison. We punish people in our society by removing their mobility. We laud people who are mobile. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been asked since I retired from college teaching where I’ve travelled to (nowhere, actually) or what travel plans I have. Our obsession with mobility is virtually universal, goes a long way back and is deeply embedded in our cultural fabric.
Colin Turnbull in his 1960s ethnography of the BaMbuti tribe of the Ituri Forest in Central Africa described how the BMbuti had developed a system of describing how dead a person was. If a person was unable to speak because of a stroke or such ailment, that person would be described as partially dead. The greater the inability to keep up with the group, communicate and contribute to tribal life, the more dead a person was considered to be. There was always a danger that a person might be considered dead even though they still had a pulse. I can’t remember which anthropologist it was, writing at about the same time as Turnbull, who described in his notebooks a tribe in the New Guinea highlands that buried people alive because they had lost the ability to speak. For this tribe, he wrote, an inability to communicate verbally was a sure and certain sign that the person was dead. Burial would follow no matter how much movement was evident in the rest of the affected person’s body.
So, part of our common human cultural heritage seems to associate immobility and its various manifestations in individual human beings with death, the ultimate evil (in Ernest Becker’s words). It doesn’t seem to matter what part of the world we are from, what language we speak or what tribe we belong to. If we cannot speak, have various ailments that confine us to a wheelchair or we are somehow immobilized in body or mind, we are somehow lesser human beings no matter what other qualities we may have. If we are on crutches because of an injury caused during a hockey game we will face a wait-and-see attitude. If we are playing hockey again in a reasonable period of time all is forgiven but if we fail to get back to the game in a timely manner or are prone to injury and hence immobilized too frequently we will be considered a slacker and not really a good team player. Hero status goes to the player who plays on despite being injured, flaunting pain and immobility. If we are in a wheelchair with obvious mobility limitations there in no wait-and-see-attitude, there is just ostracism and sometimes revulsion.
This all takes me back to wheelchair bound people, ‘mobile’ and agile brains. My friend with muscular dystrophy has a very active mind, is from a professional background, is community-minded and involved in various social groups and activities. He is articulate and fully capable of expressing himself. His scooter is quite impressive and commands respect, but even he has commented to me that on more than one occasion when he was in his wheelchair accompanied by one of his caregivers that a clerk or other frontline worker would address the caregiver rather than him even though it was his business that was being discussed. They often behaved as if he weren’t even present and, without asking him directly, would address his caretaker with:”…and would he like a drink with that?” He reported on these occasions of feeling somewhat humiliated and disrespected, even if it was just for a moment.
We seem unwilling to tolerate immobility in any of its manifestations. As noted above, we find physical immobility disconcerting and we feel uncomfortable around people in wheelchairs. People who are ‘mentally’ immobile are particularly scary for us because they cannot move a conversation forward in a predictable manner. We feel afraid or disdainful of people ‘talking to themselves’ while walking down the street. And while we are fine with immobility on vacations, lying around beaches reading novels, it must only be as a temporary interlude in a busy work schedule. We heap scorn on ‘lazy’ people. We find the immobility brought on by poverty particularly vexing and distasteful. We describe children and retired people as ‘unproductive’ because they fail to contribute to the forward mobility (growth) of the entire community. Combine any number of physical and mental immobilities and the disdain and fear we experience are compounded.
One mental struggle I’ve had for decades now is determining just how much of our fear of immobility is driven by our biological built in urge to avoid death like every other animal species and how much by culturally specific imperatives, including learning and education. It’s hard to dispute the idea that over our history on this planet (and even now) individuals might at any moment have had to flee a predator or fight for survival. The ‘fight or flight’ reaction would have been severely impaired by individual immobility. Obviously, anyone who was immobile for whatever reason might put a whole family or tribe in danger. The consequence of being immobilized by injury, hunger or any number of other conditions could be catastrophic. How many times in the movies have you seen a war scenario where there was great gnashing of teeth over whether to flee and leave behind a wounded colleague or endanger the whole group by dragging him along and slowing everybody down. Of course, if the wounded colleague was a hero he might just commit suicide, thereby releasing the group of its obligation to him and ensure the safety of the whole group.
There’s no denying that we are animals and have animal preoccupations around sex and survival. However, that doesn’t mean that our behaviours are forever destined to be driven by our animal natures. Ernest Becker argued that it’s our ingenuity and not our animal nature that has pushed us into perpetrating more evil on this planet than ever before. Is it our destiny to always fear immobility and death? Is it possible for us to ever develop cultural and moral principles and imperatives that strive to accept immobility and death rather than to fight them at every turn? Will we ever be at peace with the fact that we are a weak, vulnerable, finite animal that has limitations or are we driven inexorably to apotheosis and hubris? Will we ever treat each other with respect no matter what our level of mobility? I’m afraid I’m not very optimistic about our chances of answering any of these questions in the affirmative, at least not in the short term.
Ernest Becker 4: Nah, we don’t REALLY die, do we?
Alright, so Becker is keen on telling us that we are animals and our ‘animality’ must be considered in any analysis of what our place is on this planet. More than that he states that like all animals we want to continue to live. We crave life but know that it will end. But that just can’t be! We are such wonderful creatures, we’ve got these big brains and bodies that can give us such pleasure. Why we must be the most intelligent things in the universe! We can’t possibly die… Well, maybe, just maybe we don’t die. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Maybe our flesh and blood dies, but WE don’t. Yes, disease and death are the twin evils that we face, but maybe, just maybe, that’s just a part of what we are. Well…let’s let Becker speak now as gets to the point of his Introduction and of his book:
The reader has surely already seen the rub, and objected in his own mind that the symbolic denial of mortality is a figment of the imagination for flesh-and-blood organisms, that if man seeks to avoid evil and assure his eternal prosperity he is living a fantasy for which there is no scientific evidence so far. To which I would add that this would be all right if the fantasy were a harmless one. The fact is that self-transcendence via culture does not give man s simple and staightforward solution to the problem of death; the terror of death still rumbles underneath the cultural repression…What men have done is to shift the fear of death onto the higher level of cultural perpetuity; and this very triumph ushers in an ominous new problem. Since men must now hold for dear life onto the self-transcending meaning of the society in which they live, onto the immortality symbols which guarantee them indefinite duration of some kind, a new kind of instability and anxiety is created. And this anxiety is precisely what spills over into the affairs of men. In seeking to avoid evil [in the form of death and disease] man is responsible for bringing more evil in to the world than organisms could ever do merely be exercising their digestive tracts. It is man’s ingenuity, rather than his animal nature, that has given his fellow creatures such a bitter earthly fate. This is the main argument of my book…how man’s impossible hopes and desires have heaped evil in the world.
So there you have it. Some of you might consider this a little hyperbolic, but it’s nothing of the sort. Any casual student of history or anthropology will tell you that attempts by people to destroy others who threaten their immortality are the hallmark of our time on this planet. Just a hint to where we’re going with this from page 125 of EFE: Each society is a hero system which promises victory over evil and death.
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.