Thursday, February 2, 2012

Ernest Becker - Escape from Evil


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 they can fit into their mouths and press down their gullets without choking. Seen in these stark terms, life on 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.

Life cannot go on without the mutual devouring of organisms. If at the end of each person’s life he were to be presented with the living spectacle of all the 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 its head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.

Beyond the toothsome joy of consuming other organisms is the warm contentment of simply continuing to exist -- continuing to experience physical stimuli, to sense one’s inner pulsations and musculature, to delight in the pleasures that nerves transmit. Once the organism is satiated, this becomes its frantic all-consuming task, to hold onto life at any cost . . . . this absolute dedication to Eros, to perseverance, is universal among organisms and is the essence of life on this earth.

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. [Herein we have the origins of civilization] As soon as you have symbols you have artificial self-transcendence via culture. Everything cultural is fabricated and given meaning by the mind, a meaning that was not given by physical nature . . . . [but] 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 . . . . men must now hold for dear life onto the self-transcending meanings of the society in which they live . . . a new kind of instability and anxiety are created.

In seeking to avoid evil [(death)], man is responsible for bringing more evil into the world than organisms could ever do merely by 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.

Ernest Becker from his book Escape from Evil

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