Saturday, June 25, 2016

Fear of Living and Fear of Dying

This is essentially a scrapbook for later use someday, an archive more than an essay (although I have tried to preserve the thread of the argument).  The scrapbook contains extracts of Ernst Becker’s ideas found in his book The Denial of Death (1973).  I urge the reader to peruse this book.

The Lie of Character

Becker draws upon Soren Kierkegaard’s analysis of the lies of character or repression that men adopt to lessen their anxiety in dealing with their surroundings.  From Chapter 5, The Psychologist Kierkegaard:

“The foundation stone for Kierkegaard’s view of man is the myth of the Fall, the ejection of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.  In this myth is contained, as we saw, the basic insight of psychology for all time: that man is a union of opposites, of self-consciousness and physical body.  Man emerged from the instinctive thoughtless action of the lower animals and came to reflect on his condition.  He was given a consciousness of is individuality and his art-divinity in creation, the beauty and uniqueness of his face and his name.  At the same time he was given the consciousness of the terror of the world and of his own death and decay.  This paradox is the really constant thing about man in all periods of history and society; it is thus the true “essence” of man, as Fromm said.”

“The fall into self-consciousness, the emergence from comfortable ignorance in nature, had one great penalty for man:  it gave him dread, or anxiety.  One does not find dread in the beast, says Kierkegaard, “precisely for the reason that by nature the beast is not qualified by spirit.”  For “spirit” read “self” or symbolic inner identity.  The beast has none.  It is ignorant, says Kierkegaard, therefore innocent; but man is a “synthesis of the soulish and bodily” and so experiences anxiety.  Again, for “soulish” we must read “self-conscious.”

“But the real focus of dread is not the ambiguity itself, it is the result of the judgment on man: that if Adam eats of the fruit of the tree of knowledge God tells him “Thou shalt surely die.”  In other words, the final terror of self-consciousness is the knowledge of one’s own death, which is the peculiar sentence on man alone in the animal kingdom.  This is the meaning of the Garden of Eden myth and the rediscovery of modern psychology: that death is man’s peculiar and greatest anxiety.”

“Kierkegaard’s whole understanding of man’s character is that it is a structure built up to avoid perception of the “terror, perdition, [and] annihilation [that] dwell next door to every man.”  He understood psychology the way the contemporary psychoanalyst does: that its task is to discover the strategies that a person uses to avoid anxiety.  What style does he use to function automatically and uncritically in the world, and how does this style cripple his true growth and freedom of action and choice?  Or, in words that almost Kierkegaard’s: how is a person being enslaved by his characterological lie about himself?”

“Kierkegaard understood that the lie of character is built up because the child needs to adjust to the world, to the parents, and to his own existential dilemmas.  It is built up before the child has a chance to learn about himself in an open or free way, and thus character defenses are automatic and unconscious.  The problem is that the child becomes dependent on them and comes to be encased in his own character armor, unable to see freely beyond his own prison or into himself, into the defenses he is using, the things that are determining his unfreedom.”

“Kierkegaard gives us some portrait sketches of the styles of denying possibility, or the lies of character – which is the same thing.  He is intent on describing what we today call “inauthentic” men, men who avoid developing their own uniqueness;  they follow out the styles of automatic and uncritical living in which they were conditioned as children.  They are “inauthentic” in that they do not belong to themselves, are not “their own” person, do not act from their own center, do not see reality on its terms; they are the one-dimensional men totally immersed in fictional games being played in their society, unable to transcend their social conditioning: the corporation men in the West, the bureaucrats in the East, the tribal men locked up in tradition – man everywhere who doesn’t understand what it means to think for himself and who, if he did, would shrink back at the idea of such audacity and exposure.”

“Why does man accept to live a trivial life?  Because of the danger of a full horizon of experience, of course.   This is the deeper motivation of philistinism, that it celebrates the triumph over possibility, over freedom.  Philistinism knows its real enemy:  freedom is dangerous.  If you follow it too willingly it threatens to pull you into the air; if you give it up too wholly, you become a prisoner of necessity.  The safest thing is to toe the mark of what is socially possible.”

“Kierkegaard is painting for us a broad and incredibly rich portrait of types of human failure, ways in which man succumbs to and is beaten by life and the world; beaten because he fails to face up to the existential truth of his situation – the truth that he is an inner symbolic self, which signifies a certain freedom, and that he is bound by a finite body, which limits that freedom.  The attempt to ignore either aspect of man’s situation, to repress possibility or to deny necessity, means that man will live a lie, fail to realize his true nature, be “the most pitiful of all things.”  But man is not always so lucky, he cannot always get by with just being pitiful.  If the lie that he attempts to live is too flaunting of reality, a man can lose everything during his lifetime – and this is precisely what we mean by psychosis: the complete and utter breakdown of the character structure.”

“Too much possibility is the attempt by the person to overvalue the powers of the symbolic self.  It reflects the attempt to exaggerate one half of the human dualism at the expense of the other.  In this sense, what we call schizophrenia is an attempt by the symbolic self to deny the limitations of the finite body; in doing so, the entire person is pulled off balance and destroyed.”

“If schizophrenic psychosis is on a continuum of a kind of normal inflation of inner fantasy, of symbolic possibility, then something similar should be true of depressive psychosis.  And so it is in the portrait that Kierkegaard paints.  Depressive psychosis is the extreme on the continuum of too much necessity, that is, too much finitude, too much limitation by the body and behaviors of the person in the real world, and not enough freedom of the inner self, of inner symbolic possibility.  This is how we understand depressive psychosis today: as a bogging down in the demands of others – family, job, the narrow horizon of daily duties.  In such a bogging down the individual does not feel or see that he has alternatives, cannot imagine any choices or alternate ways of life, cannot release himself from the network of obligations even though these obligations no longer give him a sense of self-esteem, of primary value, of being a heroic contributor to world life even by doing his daily family and job duties.”

“The depressed person is so afraid of being himself, so fearful of exerting his own individuality, of insisting on what might be his own meanings, his own conditions for living, that he seems literally stupid.  He cannot seem to understand the situation he is in, cannot see beyond his own fears, cannot grasp why he has bogged down.”

“Most people, of course, avoid the psychotic dead ends out of the existential dilemma.  They are fortunate enough to be able to stay on the middle ground of “philistinism.”  Breakdown occurs either because of too much possibility or too little; philistinism, as we observe earlier, knows its real enemy and tries to play it safe with freedom.”

“In other words, philistinism is what we would call ‘normal neurosis.’  Most men figure out how to live safely within the probabilities of a given set of social rules.  The Philistine trusts that by keeping himself at a low level of personal intensity he can avoid being pulled off balance by experience; philistinism works, as Kierkegaard said, by ‘tranquilizing itself with the trivial.’”

“Kierkegaard’s threefold typology does not exhaust the character of man.  He knows that all men are not so “immediate” or shallow, so automatically built into their culture, so securely embedded in things and in others, so trustingly a reflex of their world.  Also, comparatively few people end up on the psychotic extremes of the continuum of human defeat; some win a degree of self-realization without surrender to complete spiritlessness or slavery.  And here Kierkegaard’s analysis becomes the most telling: he is attempting to ferret people out of the lie of their lives whose lives do not look like a lie, who seem to succeed in being true, complete and authentic persons.

There is the type of man who has great contempt for “immediacy,” who tries to cultivate his interiority, base his pride on something deeper and inner, create a distance between himself and the average man.  Kierkegaard calls this type of man the ‘introvert.’  He is a little more concerned with what it means to be a person, with individuality and uniqueness.  He enjoys solitude and withdraws periodically to reflect, perhaps nurse ideas about his secret self, what it might be.  This, after all is said and done, is the only real problem of life, the only worthwhile preoccupation of man: What is one’s true talent, his secret gift, his authentic vocation?  In what way is one truly unique, and how can he express this uniqueness, give it form, dedicate it to something beyond himself?  How can the person take his private inner being, the great mystery that he feels at the heart of himself, his emotions, his yearnings and use them to live more distinctively, to enrich both himself and mankind with the peculiar quality of his talent?  In adolescence, most of us throb with this dilemma, expressing it either with words and thoughts or with simple dumb pain and longing.  But usually life sucks us up into standardized activities.  The social hero-system into which we are born marks out paths for our heroism, paths to which we conform, to which we shape ourselves so that we can please others, become what they expect us to be.  An instead of working our inner secret we gradually cover it over and forget it, while we become purely external men, playing successfully the standardized hero-game into which we happen to fall by accident, by family connection, by reflex patriotism, or by the simple need to eat and the urge to procreate.

I am not saying that Kierkegaard’s ‘introvert’ keeps this inner quest fully alive or conscious, only that it represents somewhat more of a dimly aware problem than it does with the swallowed-up immediate man.  Kierkegaard’s introvert feels that he is something different from the world, has something in himself that the world cannot reflect, cannot in its immediacy and shallowness appreciate; and so he holds himself somewhat apart from that world.  But not too much, not completely.  It would be so nice to be the self he wants to be, to realize his vocation, his authentic talent, but it is dangerous, it might upset his world completely.  He is after all, basically weak, in a position of compromise: not an immediate man, but not a real man either, even though he gives the appearance of it.”

“Introversion is impotence, but an impotence already self-conscious to a degree, and it can become troublesome.  It may lead to a chafing at one’s dependency on his family and his job, an ulcerous gnawing as a reaction to one’s embeddedness, a feeling of slavery in one’s safety.”

“And this brings us to our final type of man: the one who asserts himself out of defiance of his own weakness, who tries to be a god unto himself, the master of his fate, a self-created man.  He will not be merely the pawn of others, of society; he will not be a passive sufferer and secret dreamer, nursing his own inner flame in oblivion.”

“In our time we would have no trouble recognizing these forms of defiant self-creation.  We can see their effects so clearly on both personal and social levels.  We are witness to the new cult of sensuality that seems to be repeating the sexual naturalism of the ancient Roman world.  It is a living for the day alone, with a defiance of tomorrow; an immersion in the body and its immediate experiences and sensations, in the intensity of touch, swelling flesh, taste and smell.  Its aim is to deny one’s lack of control over events, his powerlessness, his vagueness as a person in a mechanical world spinning into decay and death.”

“If health is not ‘cultural normality,’ then it must refer to something else, must point beyond man’s usual situation, his habitual ideas.  Mental health, in a word, is not typical, but ideal-typical.  It is something far beyond man, something to be achieved, striven for, something that leads man beyond himself.  The ‘healthy’ person, the true individual, the self-realized soul, the ‘real’ man, is the one who has transcended himself.

How does one transcend himself: how does he open himself to new possibility?  By realizing the truth of his situation, b dispelling the lie of his character, by breaking his spirit out of its conditioned prison.”

“Kierkegaard’s torment was the direct result of seeing the world as it really is in relation to his situation as a creature.  The prison of one’s character is painstakingly built to deny one thing and one thing alone: one’s creatureliness.  The creatureliness is the terror.  Once admit that you are a defecating creature and you invite the primeval ocean of creature anxiety to flood over you.  But it is more than creature anxiety, it is also man’s anxiety, the anxiety that results from the human paradox that man is an animal who is conscious of his animal limitation.  Anxiety is the result of the perception of the truth of one’s condition.  What does it mean to be a self-conscious animal?  The idea is ludicrous, if it is not monstrous.”

“But now Kierkegaard seems to have led us into an impasse, an impossible situation.  He has told us that by realizing the truth of our condition we can transcend ourselves.  And on the other hand he tells us that the truth of our condition is our complete and abject creatureliness, which seems to push us down still further on the scale of self-realization, further away from any possibility of self-transcendence.  But this is only an apparent contradiction.  The flood of anxiety is not the end for man.  It is, rather, a “school” that provides man with the ultimate education, the final maturity.  It is a better teacher than reality, says Kierkegaard, because reality can be lied about, twisted, and tamed by tricks of cultural perception and repression.  But anxiety cannot be lied about.  Once you face up to it, it reveals the truth of your situation; and only by seeing that truth can you open a new possibility for yourself.”

“No mistake about it: the curriculum in the ‘school’ of anxiety is the unlearning of repression, of everything that the child taught himself to deny so that he could move about with a minimal nominal equanimity.  Kierkegaard is thus placed directly in the Augustinian-Lutheran tradition.  Education for man means facing up to his natural impotence and death.”

“And so the arrival at new possibility, at new reality, by the destruction of self through facing up to the anxiety of the terror of existence.  The self must be destroyed, brought down to nothing, in order for self-transcendence to begin.  Then the self can begin to relate itself to powers beyond itself.  It has to thrash around in its finitude, it has to ‘die,’ in order to question that finitude, in order to see beyond it.  To what?  Kierkegaarde answers: to infinitude, to absolute transcendence, to the Ultimate Power of Creation which made finite creatures.  Our modern understanding of psychodynamics confirms that this progression is very logical: if you admit that you are a creature, you accomplish one basic thing: you demolish all your unconscious power linkages or supports.”

“One goes through it all to arrive at faith, the faith that one’s very creatureliness has some meaning to a Creator; that despite one’s true insignificance, weakness, death, one’s existence has meaning in some ultimate sense because it exists within an eternal and infinite scheme of things brought about and maintained to some kind of design by some creative force.  Again and again throughout his writings Kierkegaard repeats the basic formula of faith: one is a creature who can do nothing, but one exists over against a living God for whom ‘everything is possible.’

His whole argument now becomes crystal clear, as the keystone of faith crowns the structure.  We can understand why anxiety ‘is the possibility of freedom,’ because anxiety demolishes ‘all finite aims,’ and the ‘man who is educated by possibility is educated in accordance with his infinity.’  Possibility leads nowhere if it does not lead to faith.  It is an intermediate stage between cultural conditioning, the lie of character, and the opening out of infinitude to which one can be related by faith.”

"If we put this whole progression in terms of our discussion of the possibilities of heroism, it goes like this:  Man breaks through the bounds of merely cultural heroism; he destroys the character lie that had him perform as a hero in the everyday social scheme of things; and by doing so he opens himself up to infinity, to the possibility of cosmic heroism, to the very service of God.  His life thereby acquires ultimate value in place of merely social and cultural, historical value.  He links his secret inner self, his authentic talent, his deepest feelings of uniqueness, his inner yearning for absolute significance, to the very ground of creation.”

The Hero and The Gift

From Chapter 8, Otto Rank and the Closure of Psychoanalysis on Kierkegaarde:

“The whole thing boils down to this paradox: if you are going to be a hero then you must give a gift.  If you the average man you give your heroic gift to the society in which you live, and you give the gift that society specifies in advance.  If you are an artist you fashion a peculiarly personal gift, the justification of your own heroic identity, which means that it is always aimed at least partly over the heads of your fellow men.  After all, they can’t grant the immortality of your personal soul.  As Rank argues in the breathtaking closing chapters of Art and Artist, there is no way for the artist to be at peace with his work or with society that accepts it.  The artist’s gift is always to creation itself, to the ultimate meaning of life, to God.  We should not be surprised that Rank was brought to exactly the same conclusion as Kierkegaard: that the only way out of human conflict is full renunciation, to give one’s life as a gift to the highest powers.  As Kierkegaard, Rank showed that this rule applied to the strongest, most heroic types – not to trembling and empty weaklings.  To renounce the world and oneself, to lay the meaning of it to the powers of creation, is the hardest thing for man to achieve – and so it is fitting that this task should fall to the strongest personality type, the one with the largest ego.  The great scientific world-shaker Newton was the same man who always carried the Bible under his arm.



Another perspective on the anxiety of isolation and defenses people create to conform peacefully with their surroundings was given by Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his sermon on Matthew 7:13-14:

Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

From Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Part 2:

"We are all of us so much slaves of 'the done thing.'  We come into a world full of traditions and habits and customs to which we tend to conform.  It is the easy and obvious things to do; and it is true to say of most of us that there is nothing we hate so much as being unusual or different.  There are exceptions of course, some who are eccentric by nature and others who affect eccentricity; but it is ture of the vast majority of us that we all like to be the same.  Children are like that.  They want their parents to be the same as other parents; they do not want anything unusual.  It is amazing to observe how people instinctively like to conform to pattern in custom, habit, and behaviour; and indeed, at times, it is even amusing.  We hear certain people objecting to the tendency in modern legislation to regimentation.  They voice their objections to it strongly, as they do their belief in individuality and freedom.  Yet they themselves are often just typical representatives of the particular section or group in which they have been brought up, or to which they like to belong.  You can tell almost at once the school or university they have attended; they conform to pattern.

We all tend to do this, with the result that one of the most difficult things that many people have to face when they become Christian is that it is going to involve them in being unusual and exceptional.  But it has to happen.  In other words, one of the first things that happens to a person who becomes alive to the message of the gospel of Christ is that he says to himself:  'Well; whatever may be happening to the majority, I myself am a living soul and I am responsible for my own life.'  'Every man shall bear his own burden.'  So when a man becomes a Christian he first begins to see himself as a separate unit in this great world.  Formerly he had lost his individuality and identity in the great crowd of people to whom he belonged; but now he stands alone.  He had been rushing madly with the crowd, but he suddenly halts.  That is always the first step in becoming a Christian.  And he realizes, furthermore, that if his soul, his eternal destiny, is to be made safe, he must not only stand for a moment in the surge of the crowd, he must separate himself from it.  He may find it difficult to extricate himself, but he must do it; and while the majority are going in one direction he must go in the other.  He leaves the crowd.  You cannot get a crowd through that turnstile all together, it only takes one person at a time.  It makes a man realize that he is a responsible being before God, his Judge Eternal.  The gate is strait and narrow, it brings me face to face with judgment, face to face with God, face to face with the question of like and my personal being, my soul and its eternal destiny."

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