Saturday, December 19, 2009

Awe & Dread



Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it.

His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.

It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with. The lower animals are, of course, spared this painful contradiction, as they lack a symbolic identity and the self-consciousness that goes with it. They merely act and move reflexively as they are driven by their instincts. If they pause at all, it is only a physical pause; inside they are anonymous, and even their faces have no name. They live in a world without time, pulsating, as it were, in a state of dumb being. The knowledge of death is reflective and conceptual, and animals are spared it. They live and they disappear with the same thoughtlessness: a few minutes of fear, a few seconds of anguish, and it is over. But to live a whole lifetime with the fate of death haunting one's dreams and even the most sun-filled days—that's something else.

Sartre has called man a "useless passion" because he is so hopelessly bungled, so deluded about his true condition. He wants to be a god with only the equipment of an animal, and so he thrives on fantasies. As Ortega so well put it in the epigraph we have used for this chapter, man uses his ideas for the defense of his existence, to frighten away reality. This is a serious game, the defense of one's existence—how take it away from people and leave them joyous?

The man with the clear head is the man who frees himself from those fantastic "ideas" [the characterological lie about reality] and looks life in the face, realizes that everything in it is problematic, and feels him­self lost. And this is the simple truth—that to live is to feel oneself lost —he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life. These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost, is without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality.

Ernest Becker Fragments


"Humans erected cultural symbols which do not decay to quiet their fear of their ultimate end. Wanting nothing less than eternal prosperity, man from the very beginning could not live with the prospect of death...Everything cultural is fabricated and given meaning by the human mind, a meaning that was not given by physical nature."

"When you get a person to look at the sun as it bakes down on the daily carnage taking place on earth, the ridiculous accidents, the utter fragility of life, the power­lessness of those he thought most powerful—what comfort can you give him from a psychotherapeutic point of view?" --Ernest Becker

"Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom. "
Soren Kierkegaard


[T]he analysis of disgust and shame...shows us that human beings typically have a problematic relationship to their mortality and animality, and that this problematic relationship causes not just inner tension, but also aggression toward others. If ideals of respect and reciprocity are to have a chance of prevailing, they must contend against the forces of narcissism and misanthropy that these emotions so frequently involve.

-Hiding from Humanity by Martha Nussbaum

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Look at that dot



photo from the Cassini spacecraft shows the mighty planet Saturn, and if you look very closely between its wing-like rings, a faint pinprick of light. That tiny dot is Earth bustling with life as we know it. The image is the second ever taken of our world from deep space. The first, captured by the Voyager spacecraft in 1990, stunned many people, including the famous astronomer Carl Sagan who called our seemingly miniscule planet a "pale blue dot" and "the only home we've ever known."




Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

-Carl Sagan