For those of you in the Comox Valley area who are not averse to getting up on a Sunday morning, I’ll be speaking at this forum this Sunday. The details are on the website. I’ll be talking about morality and poverty among other things. I have 20 minutes like the other presenters…but for those of you who know me, I could go on for hours! Should be an informative morning…which you could then follow up with lunch somewhere like the Atlas Cafe or the Wandering Moose in Cumberland!
Now, this is worth re-posting! What do we have to fear most? Being average?
In Greek myth, humankind started out as exclusively male. The gods created men, mortal beings, but in the age of gold, their mortality was scarcely given any thought because men always died peacefully, in their sleep, with no pain and suffering and it didn’t end there for them. After death they became pure spirit ‘daemons’ who are essentially given the task of ‘dispensing wealth to men according to individual merit.’ (Ferry 2014, 146) That’s not a bad gig, really, not unlike how classical economists see the ‘invisible hand’ of the market. These were invisible daemons doing the same job.
Pandora is the first woman. She is Zeus’ creation and is given something by every god. Of course, she’s drop-dead gorgeous but she also comes with a lot of, let us say, unsavory characteristics. Without going into detail, Prometheus, the creator of men (males only at this point) has pissed off Zeus because he’s been trying to help his creation with getting on with the job of creating civilization. (What really pissed Zeus off was that Prometheus had stolen fire from Olympus and given it to man so that he could now cook his food…a very civilized thing indeed). Up to this point, still in the golden age, men are living a pretty cool, decent life. But because of the internecine pissing contests between the gods, things start going sideways for humans. It comes to pass that Pandora seduces Epimetheus, Prometheus’ hapless brother at which point all hell breaks loose (which is what Zeus wanted in the first place). Mankind is cast from the golden age into the age of iron, forced to feed himself, etc., and because of the nasty contents of Pandora’s box (pain, fear, old age, death) doomed to lead a miserable life with nothing but hope for succor. (Hope being the only thing not to escape from Pandora’s box.)
So, the point of all of this is that it’s at this stage in the development of the cosmos that men are now born from sexual intercourse between men and women. Pandora gives birth to other women and that’s it for man. Sex is where it’s at now. We come to be born, as it were, between shit and piss and the rest is history.
What I find interesting here as much as anything is the similarity of this account of the origins of people on this planet with the one offered by Christianity. The details are obviously very different, but the principles are the same and so are the results. As the story goes, God creates man who is pure and spiritual, living in the Garden of Eden, the golden age. Almost as an afterthought, God creates woman and she seduces the pretty dumb male and is punished for his stupidity by having to work for a living and by having to put up with woman who is never satisfied and reminds him of death every day.
Because this is the whole point and the tragedy of the relations between the sexes since forever. Woman is associated with the body, temptation and death. Men are associated with purity, spirit and life. Women successfully seduced the stupid men and now we all pay the price of mortality. How’s that for blaming half the world’s population for what came out of Pandora’s box. Unfortunately, our world is still driven by these old stupid ideas. Are we ever going to get over this crap and actually start real human history? Of course, it’s much more complicated than this, but this is an important dimension of the issue especially when laid next to our incessant warlike behaviour and our drive for puffing ourselves up and smiting our ‘enemies.’ Dumb species we are. Just plain dumb. This is not to say that every man is a stupid mysogenist. The fact is that our cultures are fundamentally mysogenistic. Individuals can be better than that, but our lives are governed to a great extent by mysogenistic principles and practices. Hard to escape. I know some men and women who have. For me, that’s grounds for optimism and for what little there is left in Pandora’s Box. More later (of course).
Barbarian Status of Women, Part 2: Women as Weak and Unclean.
To start, I include here a sample of Thorstein Veblen’s writing to give you a sense of what it would be like to read a more substantial piece of his work, like his book The Place of Science in Modern Civilization. Of course, this long quote is relevant to what I want to pursue in this post, that is, the general cultural institutional perception of women as weak and unclean, associated with the earth, dirt, blood, the night and death. After all, Gaia, the first of the gods in Greek mythology was female, she was the earth. [She wasn’t personified as later Greek gods were, but she is a god helping to bring order into a chaotic universe.] Veblen doesn’t go in all of these directions, but others do, including the Freudians. We’ll have a little visit with them today too. Now for Veblen:
In such a community [of barbarians] the standards of merit and propriety rest on an invidious distinction between those who are capable fighters and those who are not. Infirmity, that is to say incapacity for exploit, is looked down upon. One of the early consequences of this deprecation of infirmity is a tabu on women and on women’s employments. In the apprehension of the archaic, animistic barbarian, infirmity is infectious. The infection may work its mischievous effect both by sympathetic influence and by transfusion. Therefore it is well for the able-bodied man who is mindful of his virility to shun all undue contact and conversation with the weaker sex and to avoid all contamination with the employments that are characteristic of the sex. Even the habitual food of women should not be eaten by men, lest their force be thereby impaired. The injunction against womanly employments and foods and against intercourse with women applies with especial rigor during the season of preparation for any work of manly exploit, such as a great hunt or a warlike raid, or induction into some manly dignity or society or mystery. Illustrations of this seasonal tabu abound in the early history of all peoples that have had a warlike or barbarian past. The women, their occupations, their food and clothing, their habitual place in the house or village, and in extreme cases even their speech, become ceremonially unclean to the men. This imputation of ceremonial uncleanness on the ground of their infirmity has lasted on in the later culture as a sense of the unworthiness or Levitical inadequacy of women ; so that even now we feel the impropriety of women taking rank with men, or representing the community in any relation that calls for dignity and ritual competency ; as for instance, in priestly or diplomatic offices, or even in representative civil offices, and likewise, and for a like reason, in such offices of domestic and body servants as are of a seriously ceremonial character ‚ footmen, butlers, etc.
Veblen, then, in his odd style, explains that women are considered lesser than men because they can’t fight. What they do around the house is fine, but the really important stuff, like hunting and protecting the group, is the purview of men and that type of activity becomes entrenched as the value standard by which to judge all action. So, men, powerful men, manly men, become the standard by which to judge all of humankind.
Veblen’s explanation, then, remains at the level of performance. The tabu on women is a result of their ‘infirmity’, their inability to pursue the hunt and to fight. Because this ‘infirmity’ is infectious, men must avoid women, especially at certain times of the year and when women’s infirmity is most obvious during their time of her ‘customary impurity’ otherwise they risk losing their prowess. There have been obvious residual instances of this proscription when it’s been made clear to professional athletes by coaches and others interested in winning. So I googled: Is it ok to have sex before a high level athletic competition? There were enough ‘hits’ to suggest that its still on people’s minds, mindless though that is. After all when the French refer to orgasm as ‘la petite mort’ what they are referring to is the overwhelming bodily release of tension and semi-immobilization that comes with it. One dies a little upon ejaculation. At least that’s my interpretation and I’m sticking by it. Others have suggested that ejaculation and orgasm give up a little of a man’s ‘life’ every time it happens. I don’t think so, but it does bring up the notion that bodily functions in general, especially those that involve orifices, ejaculates, evacuations and such are subtle little reminders of our mortality. Why else do Catholic priests and others vow to be chaste? Why else would people (men, that is) in certain societies wear butt plugs? Well, both practices deny the body and its downright nasty habit of getting ill, diseased and eventually dead. Men can delude themselves into thinking that if they just abstain from bodily stuff and stick to the symbolic, spiritual side of life then they can live eternally. Yeah, right.
Next class, we visit the Freudians via Norman O. Brown and Ernest Becker. It might be fun later to look at Greek philosophy and myths to get a sense of how they see this stuff.
As I promised a few posts ago, here’s what I consider to be my immortality-project. Before reading Luc Ferry the other day, I had no idea that my immortality-project has been around for a long time. In fact, the Greek poets and philosophers came up with the idea probably 7,000 years ago. It goes something like this: we are star stuff. Every atom that makes up my body at the moment has always been around in the universe. We think of ourselves as individuals, but we’re more like a link in a process. First we are born. But what exactly does that mean? Well, it means that our mommies had sex with our daddies, egg met sperm cell and voilà. Of course, that’s just the start of it. All the time, mommy is eating and transforming the cells of plants and other animals into cells for herself and the fetus growing inside of her. (She is also breathing, of course, another way of ingesting molecules.) In this process, organisms (a particular organization of atoms and molecules) are constantly processing matter, exchanging atoms and molecules and creating energy in the process. When I poop, that stuff doesn’t just disappear down the toilet into oblivion. It gets used up by other organisms as their own building blocks. (Not always as we intend, of course.) We eat, we poop, we breathe as do all other animals in one way or another. Even plants transform cellular material found in the soil into leaves, fruit, seeds and then, when they’re finished with the leaves, seeds, fruit, etc., they return them to the ground so that they can then be used themselves as building blocks for other plants. I feel a little pedantic writing this, but I don’t think many people give it a second thought.
What I’m saying here is that the ‘stuff’ that makes up my body at the moment or that’s ‘passed through’ in the last 67 years or so has always been around and always will be. Oh, when I die, my consciousness will pass on and that’s probably not a bad thing, but the rest of ‘me’ will just get used up making other things. So, we’re all immortal in a real sense of the word. Of course many of us aren’t satisfied with that. We want more. We want it all. We want to live on forever and we’re willing to listen to anyone or any set of cultural institutions that promise us that.
Escape 29: Can psychology do it?
My, my, this is a tough question for all of those people who would want science to provide prescriptions for future behaviour or for the amelioration of the human condition. Can psychology do it? Becker writes:
We can talk for a century about what causes human aggression; we can try to find the springs in animal instincts, or we can try to find them in bottled-up hatreds due to frustration or in some kind of miscarried experiences of early years, of poor child handling and training. All these would be true, but still trivial because men kill out of joy, in the experience of expansive transcendence over evil. If men kill out of heroic joy, what direction do we program for improvements in human nature? What are we going to improve if men work evil out of the impulse to righteousness and goodness?
if men are aggressive in order to expand life, if aggression in the service of life is man’s highest creative act?
Doesn’t look too promising does it? Not only that, Becker reflects on the idea that crazy, twisted people don’t do anywhere near as much damage to life as idealistic leaders. Leaders, no matter how screwed up they are, are still for people an ‘expression of the widespread urge to heroic transcendence.’ (p. 156)
Today we are living the grotesque spectacle of the poisoning of the earth by the nineteenth-century hero system of unrestrained material production. This is perhaps the greatest and most pervasive evil to have emerged in all of history, and it may even eventually defeat all of mankind. Still, there are no ‘twisted’ people whom we can hold responsible for this.
Well, I’m thinking there may be the odd ‘twisted’ bastard out there in the ranks of the world’s ‘leaders.’ I’m thinking Dick Cheney might qualify. If nothing else he and people like him, including Stephen Harper, are prepared to sacrifice anything including the viability of the only home they have, the earth. That’s twisted in my mind. Freud admitted himself that ‘there is no dependable line between normal and abnormal in affairs of the human world.’ (p. 156) WFT. So is there any hope for psychology, real psychology? I don’t really know. Not sure exactly what hope would look like. Becker was not convinced that the ‘psychical’ sciences could offer much in the way of advice to the human race.
Still, Becker notes, that Freud, no matter how cynical he got, always trusted psychoanalysis. In the end he believed in it as anyone believes in their particular hero system. That’s probably true of a lot of psychologists.
Well, the simple answer to the question in the title of this blog is no. How does psychology deal with problems of ‘cosmic heroism?’ So, now we come to the end of this Becker marathon. Tomorrow, in my last post in this series, I see what Becker has to say again about The Science of Man.
Escape 28: What is the heroic society?
So, I’ve come to the last chapter of Ernest Becker’s Escape from Evil in this series of posts I’ve come to refer to as my Becker marathon. In this post and the last 2 to follow in the next couple of days, I work through this last chapter called Retrospect and Conclusion: What is the Heroic Society? It’s divided into 4 sections, History, Psychology, The Science of Man and the Conclusion [to this last chapter] Today, I take on his section on History, tomorrow, the section on Psychology and on the last day, this Thursday, The Science of Man and the Conclusion.
In this last chapter, it’s clear to me that Becker is grasping at straws. He has produced this mind-boggling analysis of what drives us and has driven us throughout history, our fear of death and our fear of life. Now what? How are we to suddenly lose our fear of death and put down the weapons we’ve used in their increasingly terrifying effectiveness in our determination to eliminate evil on the planet in the form of the ‘other’? We’ll get to his final thoughts on this in the last post in this series, but for now, History.
In the opening three paragraphs of this chapter Becker notes the emptiness of a classical Marxist analysis for the ‘liberation’ of humankind, which it claims will come after capitalism has run its course. I don’t think Becker is correct in his analysis of Marx because the only foray into utopianism that Marx attempted was in his book The German Ideology and he regretted that for the rest of his life. After he got over his youthful enthusiasm and humanism, he sat in the British Museum and studied until he got bum boils and concluded that the only thing he could say for sure about the fall of capitalism was that there would be no more exploitation of labour by capital because capital will have virtually eliminated labour in successive waves of overproduction. Becker wants to see Marxism as a failed potential immortality ideology for the masses. So, what is to be done? [Yes, that’s the title of one of Lenin’s books]
Well, we now know a lot more about the psychodynamics of history. It’s…
From the outside a saga of tyranny, violence, coercion; from the inside, self-delusion and self-enslavement.
If we didn’t have transference, we wouldn’t be able to stand life. We localize our fear and terror, make it manageable all the while exchanging our freedom for life. We are sorry creatures indeed, because unlike other animals we have ‘made death conscious.’ (p.148) Evil is in anything that makes us sick, wounds us or even ‘deprives us of pleasure.’ (p.148)
The result is one of the great tragedies of human existence, what we might call the need to ‘fetishize evil,’ to locate the threat to life in some special places where it can be placated and controlled. It is tragic precisely because it is sometimes very arbitrary; men make fantasies about evil, see it in the wrong places, and destroy themselves and others by uselessly thrashing about.
We do this so much it’s quite pathetic, really. Note what the Ugandan government has just done. The Ministry of Ethics and Integrity there is charged with seeing gays and lesbians punished and outlawed. Several US states would do the same and some are actively pursuing action against gays and lesbians. They see gays and lesbians as threats to their values. Wow, they obviously have very weak and precarious values to see gays and lesbians as a threat to them. As Nietzsche concluded, ‘all moral categories are power categories; they are not about virtue in any abstract sense.’ (P. 149)
Purity, goodness, rightness – these are ways of keeping power intact so as to cheat death; the striving for perfection is a way of qualifying for extraspecial immunity not only in this world but in others to come. Hence all categories of dirt, filth, imperfection, and error are vulnerability categories, power problems.
You can see why Tea Party Republicans and their counterparts in Uganda are so intent on persecuting gays and lesbians. They are vulnerability categories in their world! They need to be eliminated. Of course, we all need to individuate ourselves, to feel that our lives are meaningful. What better way of showing that we are special and deserving of power and life is to dedicate ourselves to eliminating dirt, filth, imperfection and error? Now that’s a heroic thing to do.
In other words, man is fated, as William James saw, to consider this earth as a theatre for heroism, and his life a vehicle for heroic acts which aim precisely to transcend evil…To be a true hero is to triumph over disease, want, death.
Even better sometimes, to be a true hero is to lay down one’s life to secure the lives of others. Think here of Jesus and scores of other heroes in history who died to secure mankind…‘by their blood we are saved.’ (p.151)
Freud was very pessimistic about the future of humankind. For Freud we humans are doomed by our own instincts for evil. Becker doesn’t buy that. For him, we are born hunters so it may seem that we ‘enjoy the feeling of maximizing [our] organismic powers at the expense of the trapped and helpless prey.’ (p. 152)
The tragedy of evolution is that it created a limited animal with unlimited horizons. Many is the only animal that is not armed with the natural instinctive mechanisms of programming for shrinking his world down to a size that he can automatically act on…Men have to keep from going mad by biting off small pieces of reality which they can get some command over and some organismic satisfaction from.
The thing that feeds the great destructiveness of history is that men give their entire allegiance to their own group; and each group is a codified hero system. Which is another way of saying that societies are standardized systems of death denial; they give structure to the formulas for heroic transcendence. History can then be looked at as a succession of immortality ideologies, or as a mixture at any time of several of these ideologies.
And so it came to be that we could only become heroic by following orders. Oh, I’m really summarizing Becker here and doing him an injustice in the process, no doubt. He seems most comfortable when he is chastising our species in a sense for a history filled with greater and greater paradigms for death denial, ones that expect us to be heroes as individuals, all right, but by ‘following orders.’ This is as true for Christianity as it is for Capitalism. Follow orders and you will be saved. The word ‘orders’ here may seem a little harsh and arbitrary because this is not a military type order. It’s a prescription for salvation that does not tolerate defiance. In capitalist terms, the ‘order’ means to consume.
Now a new type of productive and scientific hero came into prominence, and we are still living this today. More cars produced by Detroit, higher stock market prices, more profits, more goods moving – all this equals more heroism. And with the French Revolution another type of modern hero was codified: the revolutionary hero who will bring an end to injustice and evil once and for all, by bringing into being a new utopian society perfect in its purity.