living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Gods with Anuses: The Vital Lie of Character

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This post is a continuation of a series in which I make use of the blogosphere to motivate my dissertation free-writing. For context, read the short summary of my work here. There you will also find a table of contents with links to all the posts in this series.


Thus far we have explored the ways that death is a special problem for the human animal. We have considered how natural narcissism and the quest for self-esteem constitute heroism as a reflex against our fear of death. And finally we witnessed some of the ways that religion and culture operate as hero-systems by providing their participants with predefined avenues for achieving their personal earthly-heroism and therefore a (questionable) form of maturity. It stands at the heart of Becker’s work to expose the immaturity of culture and religion for their inability to look at their own death denying strategies. In this final section on Becker we will move from the corporate to the individual. The question of maturity will be asked again, but this time with respect to human character formation. Becker will help us see the ambiguity of character, its possibilities and its limits.

Nature has protected lower animals, says Becker, by the provision of instinct. It is this neuro-chemical program that keeps animals “walking behind their noses,” while shutting everything else out. Humanity, however, is that “impossible creature” lacking instinct and thus exposed to the overwhelming immensity of reality. Yet the human animal is just as incapable of taking in all of reality as any other animal and thus we have a substitute for instinct: repression. Repression is a psychological narrowing down, focusing, and therefore shutting-out of reality. Becker especially likes Otto Rank’s characterization of it as the process of “partialization.” Repression is natural, for without it, humans would be too paralyzed to act. He characterizes it somewhat pessimistically as “a necessary and basic dishonesty about oneself and one’s whole situation.” Yet this “dishonesty” produces what “we call the well-adjusted [person],” someone who has the “capacity to partialize the world for comfortable action.”

Repression has a history. We are told that some form of it begins very early in childhood. In order to emerge into self-consciousness the child must move from the “primary miracle” of infant awareness to a more limited point of view. “So one of the first things that a child has to do is to learn to ‘abandon ecstasy,’ to do without awe, to leave fear and trembling behind. Only then can he act with a certain obliviousness self-confidence, when he has naturalized his world.” But when Becker says “naturalized” he means “unnaturalized, falsified, with the truth obscured, the despair of the human condition hidden, a despair that the child glimpses in his night terrors and daytime phobias and neuroses.”

Nick's Horrible Stinky Foot

Repression acts as a sort of compression filter. Both the highs of awesome wonder and the lows of despair and terror are dialed down to form a more stable equanimity. The particular style in which each individual accomplishes this act is what we call character. In this way our character is essentially defensive. It keeps the individual safe from too much life, too much thought, perception, and freedom, as well as from the fear of death.

It is difficult to pin down what Becker wants to make of the dynamics of character formation. He is quite clear that character is two things: It is vital and it is a lie. It is vital in the sense that it is necessary for human agency, yet it is a lie in the sense that our styles of repression (styles of madness, he will sometimes call them) illegitimately filter the world through our own self-protective image. He says of this that “It is fateful and ironic how the lie we need in order to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours.” This is a dramatic and evocative way of putting the matter, but (as is so often the case) what it gains in drama, it loses in clarity.

The main thrust of Becker’s effort to address the problem of human character is pessimistic in tone, hence all the talk of falsifying reality and living fearfully within the safety of our lies and illusions. If this was all Becker had to say on the matter, then the solution would be fairly straight-forward: to live in the fullness of human potential one would simply have to shed the “armor of character,” to live an unrepressed life. But this is not all that Becker has to say. In fact, he thinks that shedding the armor of character is the doorway not to new life, but to madness. “[I]t is not hard to reason out,” he says, “If character is a neurotic defense against despair and you shed that defense, you admit the full flood of despair, the full realization of the true human condition, what men are really afraid of, what they struggle against, and are driven toward and away from.”

What is to be taken from this? Is the implication that the only alternative to madness is living within the limits of character? Though Becker spends a great deal of time attempting to answer this question, he no more than hints at one of the most promising ways forward: growing in degrees of relative unrepression, moving from greater fearful self-restriction to less. More often than not, the matter is cast in a fairly all or nothing light; we are either liars or mad. But in one place he hints at a more complex understanding by nodding to Friedrich Perls’ construal of our character structure as consisting in four layers. This passage is worth quoting at length:

The first two layers are the everyday layers, the tactics that the child learns to get along in society by the facile use of words to win ready approval and to placate others and move them along with him: these are the glib, empty talk, ‘cliché,’ and role-playing layers. Many people live out their lives never getting underneath them. The third layer is a stiff one to penetrate: it is the ‘impasse’ that covers our feeling of being empty and lost, the very feeling that we try to banish in building up our character defenses. Underneath this layer is the forth and most baffling one: the ‘death’ or fear-of-death layer; and this, as we have seen, is the layer of our true and basic animal anxieties, the terror that we carry around in our secret heart. Only when we explode this forth layer, says Perls, do we get to the layer of what we might call our ‘authentic self’: what we really are without sham, without disguise, with defenses against fear.

As we have seen, Becker is very suspicious that anyone is capable of going through the process of psychological death and rebirth and thus ending up at their “authentic self.” As he says,

the worst is not the death, but the rebirth itself—there’s the rub. What does it mean ‘to be born again’ for man? It means for the first time to be subjected to the terrifying paradox of the human condition, since one must be born not as a god, but as a man, or as a god-worm, or a god who shits. Only this time without the neurotic shield that hides the full ambiguity of one’s life.

Is this a possibility for humanity? Or is the fear, both of life and of death, simply too much for us? Becker himself seems torn, but in the end he endorses Philip Rieff’s position against the advocates of unrepression (Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse). Here, in glaring contrast to his typical pessimism, Becker finally lands: “…repression is not falsification of the world,” he says, “it is ‘truth’—the only truth that man can know, because he cannot experience everything.” Maturity, then, “is the ability to see [limitation and possibility] in some kind of balance into which we can fit creatively.” As Rieff put it: “Character is the restrictive shaping of possibility.” Theologically, Becker is here advocating the acceptance of humanity’s status as creatures and not gods. Elsewhere he rightfully stresses our capacity to transcend our merely given environment in freedom, thought, and action against the depressive state of mind in which to be a creature is reduced to being merely an animal. Thus Becker’s anthropology cashes out a nature of humanity as made in the image of God (though the idea of a god who shits is so much more colorful and helpfully suggestive). Yet what Becker lacks is any clear answer to the question of whether the painful and often purely evil realities that flow from the limitations of our character can ever be addressed. Is there growth, or does the acceptance of Rieff’s position result in a sort of static stability? Next I will be introducing the work of psychologist Robert Kegan who’s most recent work provides a solidly affirmative answer to this question while also providing a helpful framework in which to place Becker’s penetrating analysis of the terror of death.

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Written by Alex

November 26, 2014 at 11:19 am

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