Ernest Becker 4: Nah, we don’t REALLY die, do we?

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.

Ernest Becker 1: Of mouths, digestive tracts and anuses…

So, for the next 30 days (probably more) at the rate of one quote per day, I’m going to go through Ernest Becker’s Escape From Evil (EFE) drawing out quotes I feel are particularly powerful.  Becker’s widow and her publisher published EFE in 1975 a year after Becker’s death from cancer in a Vancouver hospital.  I consider EFE to be one of the 5 non-fiction books that has had the greatest impact on me.  I’ve read hundreds, if not thousands, of books and many have moved me, but not many to the extent that this book has.  Sometime, I’ll discuss the other four, but for now, it’s Becker I want to deal with.

My plan is to start on page 1 and go through the book until I get to page 170, the last page of text, pulling out quotes that strike me as particularly interesting and that will contribute to your understanding of his work.  Of course there is no substitute for reading Becker’s books for yourself.  I’m doing this in the expectation that you might just be curious enough with what I do here to get the book and read it.

Becker is described as a cultural anthropologist, but he’s much more than that, in my opinion.  He’s a master storyteller, a psychologist, sociologist, economist, historian and critic and anthropologist all rolled into one.  He’s a consummate inter-disciplinarian.  EFE is about the contradictions, guilt, violence, love and anxieties that plague us all.  He starts his book with an analysis of our ‘animality’ and our ingenuity.  This is the quote I’ve chosen for today.  It starts on page 1:

“Man is an animal…Whatever else he is, is built on this…The only certain thing we know about this planet is that it is a theater for crawling life, organismic life, and at least we know what organisms are and what they are trying to do.

At its most elemental level the human organism, like crawling life, has a mouth, digestive tract, and anus, a skin to keep it intact, and appendages with which to acquire food.  Existence, for all organismic life, is a constant struggle to feed – a struggle to incorporate whatever other organisms that can fit into their mouths and press down their gullets without choking.  Seen in these stark terms, life in this planet is a gory spectacle, a science-fiction nightmare in which digestive tracts fitted with teeth at one end are tearing away at whatever flesh they can reach, and at the other end are piling up the fuming waste excrement as they move along in search of more flesh. I think this is why the epoch of the dinosaurs exerts such a strong fascination on us: it is an epic food orgy with king-size actors who convey unmistakably what organisms are dedicated to.  Sensitive souls have reacted with shock to the elemental drama of life on this planet, and one of the reasons Darwin so shocked his time – and still bothers ours – is that he showed this bone-crushing, blood-drinking drama in all of its elementality and necessity: Life cannot go on without the mutual devouring of organisms.  If the living spectacle of all that he had organismically incorporated in order to stay alive, he might well feel horrified by the living energy he had ingested.  The horizon of a gourmet, or even the average person, would be taken up with hundreds of chickens, flocks of lambs and sheep, a small herd of steers, sties full of pigs, and rivers of fish.  The din alone would be deafening.  To paraphrase Elias Canetti, each organism raises it’s head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.”

The problem with Becker’s work is that every sentence is packed with meaning and must itself be digested and incorporated into a string of understanding linking the whole argument in the book.  Obviously I can’t reproduce the whole book here, as much as I’d like to.  So I must be content with snippets which together I hope will paint a decent picture of Becker’s arguments.  As I said before, there is no substitute for reading Becker’s work itself although I would recommend starting with EFE and moving back in time, if you wish, to his penultimate book, The Denial of Death, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize and even earlier works.

Throughout this mini writing and publishing marathon, I propose to italicize the quotes I take from Becker’s EFE and leave my own commentary in normal text.  If you come into this series part way through, you might want to consider starting with this first post and reading subsequent posts in order.  I number them for your convenience.  They will make much more sense to you read this way than any other way.