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The Birth and Death of Meaning: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Problem of Man (1962)
2 ed., New York: The Free Press. 1971. ISBN 978-0029021903.
- We have become victims of our own art. We touch people on the outsides of their bodies, and they us, but we cannot get at their insides and cannot reveal our insides to them. This is one of the great tragedies of our interiority—it is utterly personal and unrevealable. Often we want to say something unusually intimate to a spouse, a parent, a friend, communicate something of how we are really feeling about a sunset, who we really feel we are—only to fall strangely and miserably flat. Once in a great while we succeed, sometimes more with one person, less or never with others. But the occasional breakthrough only proves the rule. You reach out with a disclosure, fail, and fall back bitterly into yourself.
- p. 27
The Denial of Death (1973)
New York: The Free Press. 1975. ISBN 978-0029023105.
- The man of knowledge in our time is bowed down under a burden he never imagined he would ever have: the overproduction of truth that cannot be consumed.
- Preface, p. x
- Our heroic projects that are aimed at destroying evil have the paradoxical effect of bringing more evil into the world. Human conflicts are life and death struggles—my gods against your gods, my immortality project against your immortality project. The root of humanly caused evil is not man’s animal nature, not territorial aggression, or innate selfishness, but our need to gain self-esteem, deny our mortality, and achieve a heroic self-image.
- In childhood we see the struggle for self-esteem at its least disguised. The child is unashamed about what he needs and wants most. His whole organism shouts the claims of his natural narcissism. And this claim can make childhood hellish for the adults concerned, especially when there are several children competing at once for the prerogatives of limitless self-extension, what we might call “cosmic significance.” The term is not meant to be taken lightly, because this is where our discussion is leading. We like to speak casually about “sibling rivalry,” as though it were some kind of byproduct of growing up, a bit of competitiveness and selfishness of children who have been spoiled, who haven’t yet grown into a generous social nature. But it is too all-absorbing and relentless to be an aberration, it expresses the heart of the creature: the desire to stand out, to be the one in creation. When you combine natural narcissism with the basic need for self-esteem, you create a creature who has to feel himself an object of primary value: first in the universe, representing in himself all of life. This is the reason for the daily and usually excruciating struggle with siblings: the child cannot allow himself to be second-best or devalued, much less left out. “You gave him the biggest piece of candy!” “You gave him more juice!” “Here’s a little more, then.” “Now she’s got more juice than me!” “You let her light the fire in the fireplace and not me.” “Okay, you light a piece of paper.” “But this piece of paper is smaller than the one she lit.” And so on and on. An animal who gets his feeling of worth symbolically has to minutely compare himself to those around him, to make sure he doesn’t come off second-best. Sibling rivalry is a critical problem that reflects the basic human condition: it is not that children are vicious, selfish, or domineering. It is that they so openly express man’s tragic destiny: he must desperately justify himself as an object of primary value in the universe; he must stand out, be a hero, make the biggest possible contribution to world life, show that he counts more than anything or anyone else.
- Introduction: Human Nature and the Heroic
- When we appreciate how natural it is for man to strive to be a hero, how deeply it goes in his evolutionary and organismic constitution, how openly he shows it as a child, then it is all the more curious how ignorant most of us are, consciously, of what we really want and need. In our culture anyway, especially in modern times, the heroic seems too big for us, or we too small for it. Tell a young man that he is entitled to be a hero and he will blush. We disguise our struggle by piling up figures in a bank book to reflect privately our sense of heroic worth. Or by having only a little better home in the neighborhood, a bigger car, brighter children. But underneath throbs the ache of cosmic specialness, no matter how we mask it in concerns of smaller scope. Occasionally someone admits that he takes his heroism seriously, which gives most of us a chill, as did U.S. Congressman Mendel Rivers, who fed appropriations to the military machine and said he was the most powerful man since Julius Caesar. We may shudder at the crassness of earthly heroism, of both Caesar and his imitators, but the fault is not theirs, it is in the way society sets up its hero system and in the people it allows to fill its roles. The urge to heroism is natural, and to admit it honest. For everyone to admit it would probably release such pent-up force as to be devastating to societies as they now are.
- Introduction: Human Nature and the Heroic
- "[C]ivilized" society is a hopeful belief and protest that science, money and goods make man count for more than any other animal. In this sense everything that man does is religious and heroic, and yet in danger of being fictitious and fallible.
- Introduction: Human Nature and the Heroic, p. 5
- [M]an cuts out for himself a manageable world: he throws himself into action uncritically, unthinkingly. He accepts the cultural programming that turns his nose where he is supposed to look; he doesn't bite the world off in one piece as a giant would, but in small manageable pieces, as a beaver does. He uses all kinds of techniques, which we call the "character defenses": he learns not to expose himself, not to stand out; he learns to embed himself in other-power, both of concrete persons and of things and cultural commands; the result is that he comes to exist in the imagined infallibility of the world around him. He doesn't have to have fears when his feet are solidly mired and his life mapped out in a ready-made maze. All he has to do is to plunge ahead in a compulsive style of drivenness in the "ways of the world" that the child learns and in which he lives later as a kind of grim equanimity.
- The Terror of Death, p. 23
- 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 Recasting of Some Basic Psychoanalytic ideas, p. 26
- Freud never abandoned his views because they were correct in their elemental suggestiveness about the human condition—but not quite in the sense that he thought, or rather, not in the framework which he offered. Today we realize that all the talk about blood and excrement, sex and guilt, is true not because of urges to patricide and incest and fears of actual physical castration, but because all these things reflect man’s horror of his own basic animal condition, a condition that he cannot—especially as a child—understand and a condition that—as an adult—he cannot accept. The guilt that he feels over bodily processes and urges is “pure” guilt: guilt as inhibition, as determinism, as smallness and boundness. It grows out of the constraint of the basic animal condition, the incomprehensible mystery of the body and the world.
- The Recasting of Some Basic Psychoanalytic ideas, p. 29
- At first the child is amused by his anus and feces, and gaily inserts his finger into the orifice, smelling it, smearing feces on the walls, playing games of touching objects with his anus, and the like. This is a universal form of play that does the serious work of all play: it reflects the discovery and exercise of natural bodily functions; it masters an area of strangeness; it establishes power and control over the deterministic laws of the natural world; and it does all this with symbols and fancy. With anal play the child is already becoming a philosopher of the human condition. But like all philosophers he is still bound by it, and his main task in life becomes the denial of what the anus represents: that in fact, he is nothing but body so far as nature is concerned. Nature’s values are bodily values, human values are mental values, and though they take the loftiest flights they are built upon excrement, impossible without it, always brought back to it. As Montaigne put it, on the highest throne in the world man sits on his arse. Usually this epigram makes people laugh because it seems to reclaim the world from artificial pride and snobbery and to bring things back to egalitarian values. But if we push the observation even further and say men sit not only on their arse, but over a warm and fuming pile of their own excrement—the joke is no longer funny. The tragedy of man’s dualism, his ludicrous situation, becomes too real. The anus and its incomprehensible, repulsive product represents not only physical determinism and boundness, but the fate as well of all that is physical: decay and death.
- The Recasting of Some Basic Psychoanalytic Ideas
- In order to understand the weight of the dualism of the human condition, we have to know that the child can’t really handle either end of it. The most characteristic thing about him is that he is precocious or premature; his world piles up on him and he piles up on himself. He has right from the beginning an exquisite sensory system that rapidly develops to take in all the sensations of his world with an extreme finesse. Add to it the quick development of language and the sense of self and pile it all upon a helpless infant body trying vainly to grab the world correctly and safely. The result is ludicrous. The child is overwhelmed by experiences of the dualism of the self and the body from both areas, since he can be master of neither. He is not a confident social self, adept manipulator of symbolic categories of words, thoughts, names, or places,—or especially of time, that great mystery for him; he doesn’t even know what a clock is. Nor is he a functioning adult animal who can work and procreate, do the serious things he sees happening around him: he can’t “do like father” in any way. He is a prodigy in limbo. In both halves of his experience he is dispossessed, yet impressions keep pouring in on him and sensations keep welling up within him, flooding his body. He has to make some kind of sense out of them, establish some kind of ascendancy over them. Will it be thoughts over body, or body over thoughts? Not so easy. There can be no clearcut victory or straightforward solution of the existential dilemma he is in. It is his problem right from the beginning almost of his life, yet he is only a child to handle it. Children feel hounded by symbols they don’t understand the need of, verbal demands that seem picayune, and rules and codes that call them away from their pleasure in the straightforward expression of their natural energies. And when they try to master the body, pretend it isn’t there, act “like a little man,” the body suddenly overwhelms them, submerges them in vomit or excrement—and the child breaks down in desperate tears over his melted pretense at being a purely symbolic animal. Often the child deliberately soils himself or continues to wet the bed, to protest against the imposition of artificial symbolic rules: he seems to be saying that: the body is his primary reality and that he wants to remain in the simpler physical Eden and not be thrown out into the world of “right and wrong.”
- The Recasting of Some Basic Psychoanalytic Ideas
- [We are] gods with anuses.
- Human Character as a Vital Lie, p. 51
- It is fateful and ironic how the lie we need in order to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours.
- Human Character as a Vital Lie, p. 56
- The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.
- Human Character as a Vital Lie, p. 66
- [N]ature 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 external world, an animal completely open to experience. Not only in front of his nose, in his umwelt, but in many other umwelten. 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 centuries 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 experiential 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 problem 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 precisely 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.
- Human Character as a Vital Lie
- What does it mean to be a self-conscious animal? The idea is ludicrous, if it is not monstrous. It means to know that one is food for worms. This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression—and with all this yet to die. It seems like a hoax, which is why one type of cultural man rebels openly against the idea of God. What kind of deity would create such complex and fancy worm food?
- The Psychoanalyst Kierkegaard, p. 87
- People create the reality they need in order to discover themselves.
- The Spell Cast by Persons—The Nexus of Unfreedom, p. 158
- The key to the creative type is that he is separated out of the common pool of shared meanings. There is something in his life experience that makes him take in the world as a problem; as a result he has to make personal sense out of it.
- Otto Rank and the Closure of Psychoanalysis on Kierkegaard, p. 171
- No wonder that historically art and psychosis have had such an intimate relationship, that the road to creativity passes so close to the madhouse and often detours or ends there.
- Otto Rank and the Closure of Psychoanalysis on Kierkegaard, p. 172
- The neurotic opts out of life because he is having trouble maintaining his illusions about it, which proves nothing less than,that life is possible only with illusions.
- The Present Outcome of Psychoanalysis, p. 189
- Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.
- The Present Outcome of Psychoanalysis, p. 196
- [A]ll religions fall far short of their own ideals.
- The Present Outcome of Psychoanalysis, p. 204
- Better guilt than the terrible burden of freedom and responsibility,; especially when the choice comes too late in life for one to be able to start over again.
- A General View of Mental Illness, p. 213
- When we are young we are often puzzled by the fact that each person we admire seems to have a different version of what life ought to be, what a good man is, how to live, and so on. If we are especially sensitive it seems more than puzzling, it is disheartening. What most people usually do is to follow one person's ideas and then another's, depending on who looms largest on one's horizon at the time. The one with the deepest voice, the strongest appearance, the most authority and success, is usually the one who gets our momentary allegiance; and we try to pattern our ideals after him. But as life goes on we get a perspective on this, and all these different versions of truth become a little pathetic. Each person thinks that he has the formula for triumphing over life's limitations and knows with authority what it means to be a man, and he usually tries to win a following for his particular patent. Today we know that people try so hard to win converts for their point of view because it is more than merely an outlook on life: it is an immortality formula.
- Psychology and Religion: What Is the Heroic Individual?, p. 255
- We saw that there really was no way to overcome the real dilemma of existence, the one of the mortal animal who at the same time is conscious of his mortality. A person spends years coming into his own, developing his talent, his unique gifts, perfecting his discriminations about the world, broadening and sharpening his appetite, learning to bear the disappointments of life, becoming mature, seasoned—finally a unique creature in nature, standing with some dignity and nobility and transcending the animal condition; no longer driven, no longer a complete reflex, not stamped out of any mold. And then the real tragedy, as André Malraux wrote in The Human Condition: that it takes sixty years of incredible suffering and effort to make such an individual, and then he is good only for dying. This painful paradox is not lost on the person himself—least of all himself. He feels agonizingly unique, and yet he knows that this doesn’t make any difference as far as ultimates are concerned. He has to go the way of the grasshopper, even though it takes longer.
- Psychology and Religion: What Is the Heroic Individual?
- What are we to make of a creation in which the routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart with teeth of all types—biting, grinding flesh, plant stalks, bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence into one's own organization, and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue. Everyone reaching out to incorporate others who are edible to him. The mosquitoes bloating themselves on blood, the maggots, the killer-bees attacking with a fury and a demonism, sharks continuing to tear and swallow while their own innards are being torn out—not to mention the daily dismemberment and slaughter in "natural" accidents of all types: an earthquake buries alive 70 thousand bodies in Peru, automobiles make a pyramid heap of over 50 thousand a year in the U.S. alone, a tidal wave washes over a quarter of a million in the Indian Ocean. Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures. The soberest conclusion that we could make about what has actually been taking place on the planet for about three billion years is that it is being turned into a vast pit of fertilizer. But the sun distracts our attention, always baking the blood dry, making things grow over it, and with its warmth giving the hope that comes with the organism's comfort and expansiveness.
- Psychology and Religion: What Is the Heroic Individual?, pp. 282–283
Escape from Evil (1975)
New York: The Free Press. 1976. ISBN 978-0029024508.
- I have reached far beyond my competence and have probably secured for good a reputation for flamboyant gestures. But the times still crowd me and give me no rest, and I see no way to avoid ambitious synthetic attempts; either we get some kind of grip on the accumulation of thought or we continue to wallow helplessly, to starve amidst plenty. So I gamble with science and write.
- Preface, p. xix
- 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.
- The Human Condition: Between Appetite and Ingenuity, p. 1
Quotes about Becker
- To say the least, Becker's account of Nature has little in common with Walt Disney. Mother Nature is a brutal bitch, red in tooth and claw, who destroys what she creates.
- Sam Keen, Foreword, The Denial of Death (1997), p. xii. ISBN 978-1416590347