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Authors: Ernest Becker

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The body, then, is one’s animal fate that has to be struggled against in some ways. At the same time, it offers experiences and sensations, concrete pleasure that the inner symbolic world lacks. No wonder man is impaled on the horns of sexual problems, why Freud saw that sex was so prominent in human life—especially in the neurotic conflicts of his patients. Sex is an inevitable component of man’s confusion over the meaning of his life, a meaning split hopelessly into two realms—symbols (freedom) and body (fate). No wonder, too, that most of us never abandon entirely the early attem
pts of the child to use the body and its appendages as a fortress or a machine to magically coerce the world. We try to get metaphysical answers out of the body that the body—as a material thing—cannot possibly give. We try to answer the transcendent mystery of creation by experiences in one, partial, physical product of that creation. This is why the mystique of sex is so widely practiced—say, in traditional France—and at the same time
is so disillusioning. It is comfortingly infantile in its indulgence and its pleasure, yet so self-defeating of real awareness and growth, if the person is using it to try to answer metaphysical questions. It then becomes a lie about reality, a screen against full consciousness.
If the adult reduces the problem of life to the area of sexuality, he repeats the fetishization of the child who focusses the problem of the mother upon her genitals. Sex then becomes a screen for terror, a fetishization of full consciousness about the real problem of life.

But this discussion doesn’t exhaust the reasons that sex is so prominent a part of the confusions of life. Sex is also a positive way of working on one’s personal freedom project. After all, it is one of the few areas of real privacy that a person has in an existence that is almost wholly social, entirely shaped by the parents and society. In this sense, sex as a project represents a retreat from the standardizations and monopolizations of the social world. No wonder people dedicate themselves so all-consumingly to it, often from childhood on in the form of secret masturbations that represe
nt a protest and a triumph of the personal self. As we will see in Part II of this book, Rank goes so far as to say that this use of sex explains all sexual conflicts in the individual—“from masturbation to the most varied perversions.”
The person attempts to use his sex in an entirely individual way in order to
it and relieve it of its determinism. It is as though one tried to transcend the body by depriving it entirely of its given character, to make sport and new invention in place of what nature “intended.” The “perversions” of children certainly show this very clearly: they ar
e the true artists of the body, using it as clay to assert their symbolic mastery. Freud saw this and recorded it as “polymorphous perversity”—which is one way of talking about it. But he seems not to have realized that this kind of play is already a very serious attempt to transcend determinism, not merely an animal search for a variety of body-zone pleasures.

By the time the child grows up, the inverted search for a personal existence through perversity gets set in an individual mold, and it becomes more secret. It has to be secret because the community won’t stand for the attempt by people to wholly individualize themselves.
If there is going to be a victory over human incompleteness and limitation, it has to be a social project and not an individu
al one. Society wants to be the one to decide how people are to transcend death; it will tolerate the
project only if it fits into the standard social project. Otherwise there is the alarm of “Anarchy!” This is one of the reasons for bigotry and censorship of all kinds over personal morality: people fear that the standard morality will be undermined—another way of saying that they fear they will no longer be able to control life and death. A person is said to be “socialized” precisely when he accepts to “sublimate” the body-sexual character of his Oedipal project.
Now these euphemisms
mean usually that he accepts to work on becoming the father of himself by abandoning his own project and by giving it over to “The Fathers.” The castration complex has done its work, and one submits to “social reality”; he can now deflate his own desires and claims and can play it safe in the world of the powerful elders. He can even give his body over to the tribe, the state, the embracing magical umbrella of the elders and their symbols; that way it will no longer be a dangerous negation for him. But there is no real difference between a childish impossibility and an adult one; the only
thing that the person achieves is a practiced self-deceit—what we call the “mature” character.

Human Character as a Vital Lie

Take stock of those around you and you will …
hear them talk in precise terms about themselves
and their surroundings, which would seem to
point to them having ideas on the matter. But
start to analyse those ideas and you will find that
they hardly reflect in any way the reality to which
they appear to refer, and if you go deeper you
will discover that there is not even an attempt to
adjust the ideas to this reality. Quite the contrary:
through these notions the individual is trying to
cut off any personal vision of reality, of his own
very life. For life is at the start a cha
os in which
one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is
frightened at finding himself face to face with
this terrible reality, and tries to cover it over with
a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It
does not worry him that his “ideas” are not true,
he uses them as trenches for the defense of his
existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality.


The problem of anality and the castration complex already takes us a long way toward answering the question that intrigues us all: if the basic quality of heroism is genuine courage, why are so few people truly courageous? Why is it so rare to see a man who can stand on his own feet? Even the great Carlyle, who frightened many people, proclaimed that he stood on his father as
on a stone pillar buried in the ground under him. The unspoken implication is that if he stood on his own feet alone, the ground would cave in under him. This question goes right to the heart of the human condition, and we shall be attacking it from many sides all through this book. I once wrote
that I thought the reason man was so naturally cowardly was that he felt he had no authority; and the reason he had no authority was in the very nature of the way the human animal is shaped: all our meanings are built into us from the outside, from our dealings with others. This is what gives us a “self”
and a superego. Our whole world of right and wrong, good and bad, our name, precisely who we are, is grafted into us; and we never feel we have authority to offer things on our own. How could we?—I argued—since we feel ourselves in many ways guilty and beholden to others, a lesser creation of theirs, indebted to them for our very birth.

But this is only part of the story—the most superficial and obvious part. There are deeper reasons for our lack of courage, and if we are going to understand man we have to dig for them. The psychologist Abraham Maslow had the keenest sense for significant ideas, and shortly before his recent untimely death he began to attack the problem of the fear of standing alone.
Maslow used a broad humanistic perspective in his work, and he liked to talk about concepts like “actualizing one’s potential” and one’s “full humanness.” He saw these as natural developmental urges and wondered what
holds them up, what blocks them. He answered the question in existential language, using terms like the “fear of one’s own greatness” and the “evasion of one’s destiny.” This approach throws a new light on the problem of courage. In his words :

We fear our highest possibility (as well as our lowest ones). We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments… . We enjoy and even thrill to the godlike possibilities we see in ourselves in such peak moments. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe and fear before these very same possibilities.

Maslow used an apt term for this evasion of growth, this fear of realizing one’s own fullest powers. He called it the “Jonah Syndrome.” He understood the syndrome as the evasion of the full intensity of life:

We are just not strong enough to endure more!
It is just too shaking and wearing. So often people in … ecstatic moments say, “It’s too much,” or “I can’t stand it,” or “I could die”… . Delirious happiness cannot be borne for long. Our organisms are just too weak for any large doses of greatness… .

The Jonah Syndrome, then, seen from this basic point of view, is “partly a justified fear of being torn apart, of losing control, of being shattered and disintegrated, even of being killed by the experience.” And the result of this syndrome is what we would expect a weak organism to do: to cut back the full intensity of life:

For some people this evasion of one’s own growth, setting low levels of aspiration, the fear of doing what one is capable of doing, voluntary self-crippling, pseudo-stupidity, mock-humility are in fact defenses against grandiosity …

It all boils down to a simple lack of strength to bear the superlative, to open oneself to the totality of experience—an idea that was well appreciated by William James and more recently was developed in phenomenological terms in the classic work of Rudolf Otto. Otto talked about the terror of the world, the feeling of overwhelming awe, wonder, and fear in the face of creation—the miracle of it, the
mysterium tremendum et fascinosum
of each single thing, of the fact that there are things at all.
What Otto did was to get descriptively at man’s natural feeling of inferiority in the face of the
massive transcendence of creation; his real
creature feeling
before the crushing and negating miracle
of Being. We now understand how a phenomenology of religious experience ties into psychology: right at the point of the problem of courage.

We might say that the child is a “natural” coward: he cannot have the strength to support the terror of creation. The world as it
, creation out of the void, things as they are, things as they are not, are too much for us to be able to stand. Or, better: they
would be
too much for us to bear without crumbling in a faint, trembling like a leaf, standing in a trance
in response
to the movement, colors, and odors of the world. I say “would be” because most of us—by the time we leave childhood—have repressed our vision of the primary miraculousness of creation. We have closed it off
, changed it, and no longer perceive the world as it is to raw experience. Sometimes we may recapture this world by remembering some striking childhood perceptions, how suffused they were in emotion and wonder—how a favorite grandfather looked, or one’s first love in his early teens. We change these heavily emotional perceptions precisely because we need to move about in the world with some kind of equanimity, some kind of strength and directness; we can’t keep gaping with our heart in our mouth, greedily sucking up with our eyes everything great and powerful that strikes us. The great boon of repre
ssion is that it makes it possible to live decisively in an overwhelmingly miraculous and incomprehensible world, a world so full of beauty, majesty, and terror that if animals perceived it all they would be paralyzed to act.

But nature has protected the lower animal by endowing them with instincts. An instinct is a programmed perception that calls into play a programmed reaction. It is very simple. Animals are not moved by what they cannot react to. They live in a tiny world, a sliver of reality, one neuro-chemical program that keeps them walking behind their nose and shuts out everything else. But look at man, the impossible creature! Here nature seems to have thrown caution to the winds along with the programmed instincts. She created an animal who has no defense against full perception of the extern
al world, an animal completely open to experience. Not only in front of his nose, in his
but in many other
. He can relate not only to animals in his own species, but in some ways to all other species. He can contemplate not only what is edible for him, but everything that grows. He not only lives in this moment, but expands his inner self to yesterday, his curiosity to centuri
es ago, his fears to five billion years from now when the sun will cool, his hopes to an eternity from now. He lives not only on a tiny territory, nor even on an entire planet, but in a galaxy, in a universe, and in dimensions beyond visible universes. It is appalling, the burden that man bears, the
burden. As we saw in the last chapter, man can’t even take his own body for granted as can other animals. It is not just hind feet, a tail that he drags, that are just “there,” limbs to be; used and taken for granted or chewed off when caught in a trap and when they give pain and
prevent movement. Man’s body is a
to him that has to be explained. Not only his body is strange, but also its inner landscape, the memories and dreams. Man’s very insides—his self—are foreign to him. He doesn’t know who he is, why he was born, what he is doing on the planet, what he is supposed to do, what he can expect. His own existence is incomprehensible to him, a miracle just like the rest of creation, closer to him, right near his pounding heart, but for that reason all the more strange. Each thing is a problem, and man can shut out nothing. As Maslow has well said, “It is precisel
y the godlike in ourselves that we are ambivalent about, fascinated by and fearful of, motivated to and defensive against. This is one aspect of the basic human predicament, that we are simultaneously worms and gods.”
There it is again: gods with anuses.

The historic value of Freud’s work is that it came to grips with the peculiar animal that man was, the animal that was not programmed by instincts to close off perception and assure automatic equanimity and forceful action. Man had to invent and create out of himself the limitations of perception and the equanimity to live on this planet. And so the core of psychodynamics, the formation of the human character, is a study in human self-limitation and in the terrifying costs of that limitation. The hostility to psychoanalysis in the past, today, and in the future, will always b
e a hostility against admitting that man lives by lying to himself about himself and about his world, and that character, to follow Ferenczi and Brown, is a vital lie. I particularly like the way Maslow has summed up this contribution of Freudian thought:

Freud’s greatest discover, the one which lies at the root of psychodynamics, is that
great cause of much psychological illness is the fear of knowledge of oneself—of one’s emotions, impulses, memorie
s, capacities, potentialities, of one’s destiny. We have discovered that fear of knowledge of oneself is very often isomorphic with, and parallel with, fear of the outside world.

And what is this fear, but a fear of the reality of creation in relation to our powers and possibilities:

In general this kind of fear is defensive, in the sense that it is a protection of our self-esteem, of our love and respect for ourselves. We tend to be afraid of any knowledge that could cause us to despise ourselves or to make us feel inferior, weak, worthless, evil, shameful. We protect ourselves and our ideal image of ourselves by repression and similar defenses, which are essentially techniques by which we avoid becoming conscious of unpleasant or dangerous truths.

The individual has to repress
from the entire spectrum of his experience, if he wants to feel a warm sense of inner value and basic security. This sense of value and support is something that nature gives to each animal by the automatic instinctive programming and in the pulsating of the vital processes. But man, poor denuded creature, has to build and earn inner value and security. He must repress his smallness in the adult world, his failures to live up to adult commands and codes. He must repress his own feelings of physical and moral inadequacy, not only the inadeq
uacy of his good intentions but also his guilt and his evil intensions: the death wishes and hatreds that result from being frustrated and blocked by the adults. He must repress his parents’ inadequacy, their anxieties and terrors, because these make it difficult for him to feel secure and strong. He must repress his own anality, his compromising bodily functions that spell his mortality, his fundamental expendability in nature. And with all this, and more that we leave unsaid, he must repress the primary awesomeness of the external world.

In his later years Freud evidently came to realize, as Adler had earlier, that the thing that really bothers the child is the nature of his world, not so much his own inner drives. He talked less about the power of the Oedipus complex and more about “human perplexity and helplessness in the face of nature’s dreaded forces,” “the terrors of nature,” “the painful riddle of death,” “
our anxiety in the face of life’s dangers,” and “the great necessities of fate, against which there is no remedy.”
And when it came to the central problem of anxiety, he no longer talked—as he had in his early work—about the child’s being overwhelmed from within by his instinctual urges; instead, Freud’s formulations became existential. Anxiety was now seen largely as a matter of the reaction to global helplessness, abandonment, fate:

I therefore maintain that the fear of death is to be regarded as an analogue of the fear of castration, and that the situation to which the ego reacts is the state of being forsaken or deserted by the protecting superego—by the powers of destiny—which puts an end to security against every danger.

This formulation indicates a great broadening of perspective. Add to it a generation or two of psychoanalytic clinical work, and we have achieved a remarkably faithful understanding of what really bothers the child, how life is really too much for him, how he has to avoid too much thought, too much perception, too much
. And at the same time, how he has to avoid the death that rumbles behind and underneath every carefree activity, that looks over his shoulder as he plays. The result is that we now know that the human animal is characterized by two great fears that other animals are prote
cted from: the fear of life and the fear of death. In the science of man it was Otto Rank, above all, who brought these fears into prominence, based his whole system of thought on them, and showed how central they were to an understanding of man. At about the same time that Rank wrote, Heidegger brought these fears to the center of existential philosophy. He argued that the basic anxiety of man is anxiety
being-in-the-world, as well as anxiety
being-in-the-world. That is, both fear of death and fear of life, of experience and individuation.
Man is reluctant to move out into the ove
rwhelmingness of his world, the real dangers of it; he shrinks back from losing himself in the all-consuming appetites of others, from spinning out of control in the clutchings and clawings of men, beasts and machines. As an animal organism man senses the kind of planet he has been put down on, the nightmarish, demonic frenzy in which nature has unleashed billions of individu
al organismic appetites of all kinds—not to mention earthquakes, meteors, and hurricanes, which seem to have their own hellish appetites. Each thing, in order to deliciously expand, is forever gobbling up others. Appetites may be innocent because they are naturally given, but any organism caught in the myriad cross-purposes of this planet is a potential victim of this very innocence—and it shrinks away from life lest it lose its own. Life can suck one up, sap his energies, submerge him, take away his self-control, give so much new experience so quickly that he will burst; make him stick out
among others, emerge onto dangerous ground, load him up with new responsibilities which need great strength to bear, expose him to new contingencies, new chances. Above all there is the danger of a slip-up, an accident, a chance disease, and of course of death, the final sucking up, the total submergence and negation.

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