Dualism within the human being, beginning soon after birth — an excerpt from Ernest Becker’s book “The Denial of Death”

Time for some transcribing this afternoon, this time turning to Ernest Becker’s book The Denial of Death (1973), starting on page 28:

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 experiences 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 ascendency 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.”

In this way we realize directly and poignantly that what we call the child’s character is a modus vivendi achieved after the most unequal struggle any animal has to go through; a struggle that the child can never really understand because he doesn’t know what is happening to him, why he is responding as he does, or what is really at stake in the battle. The victory in this kind of battle is truly Pyrrhic: character is a face that one sets to the world, but it hides an inner defeat. The child emerges with a name, a family, a playworld in a neighborhood, all clearly cut out for him. But his insides are full of nightmarish memories of impossible battles, terrifying anxieties of blood, pain, aloneness, darkness; mixed with limitless desires, sensations of unspeakable beauty, majesty, awe, mystery; and fantasies and hallucinations of mixtures between the two, the impossible attempt to compromise between bodies and symbols. We shall see in a few pages how sexuality enters in with its very definite focus, to further confuse and complicate the child’s world. To grow up at all is to conceal the mass of internal scar tissue that throbs in our dreams.

So we see that the two dimensions of human existence—the body and the self—can never be reconciled seamlessly, which explains the second half of Pascal’s reflection: “not to be mad would amount to another form of madness.” Here Pascal proves that great students of human nature could see behind the masks of men long before scientific psychoanalysis. They lacked clinical documentation but they saw that the coolest repression, the most convincing equanimity, or the warmest self-satisfaction were accomplished lies both toward the world and to oneself. With the clinical documentation of psychoanalytic thought, we got a fairly comprehensive picture of human character styles—what we can now call “styles of madness” after Pascal. We might say that psychoanalysis revealed to us the complex penalties of denying the truth of man’s condition, what we might call the costs of pretending not to be mad. If we had to offer the briefest explanation of all the evil that men have wreaked upon themselves and upon their world since the beginnings of time right up until tomorrow, it would be not in terms of man’s animal heredity, his instincts and his evolution: it would be simply in the toll that his pretense of sanity takes, as he tries to deny his true condition. But more of this vital idea later.

The Meaning of Anality

A sensitive thinker in the age of Freud has had to live a tortured intellectual life—at least this is an autobiographical reflection. There seems to be so much truth in the Freudian world view, and at the same time so much of it seems so wrong-headed. The ambiguities of Freud’s legacy were not in the wrong ideas that he had, since it has been relatively easy to lay these aside; the problem has been in his brilliantly true insights, which were stated in a way that they fell just to one side of reality; and we needed an immense amount of work and clarification in order to bring the two into line. Actually what was needed was a framework into which to fit the corpus of psychoanalytic insight, so that the truth of it could emerge clearly and unambiguously, free of the nineteenth-century reductionism, instinctivism, and biologism that Freud fettered it with. This framework is the existential one; reinterpretations of Freud within an existential context give his insights their full scientific stature. This goal was recently achieved brilliantly by Norman O. Brown in his reinterpretation of the idea of “anality” and its central role in psychoanalytic theory; probably the main value of that book historically is that it has reclaimed the most esoteric and inverted of the Freudian ideas and has made them the property of the human sciences.

I am tempted to quote lavishly from the analytic riches of Brown’s book, but there is no point in repeating what he has already written. Let us just observe that the basic key to the problem of anality is that it reflects the dualism of man’s condition—his self and his body. Anality and its problems arise in childhood because it is then that the child already makes the alarming discovery that his body is strange and fallible and has a definite ascendancy over him by its demands and needs. Try as he may to take the greatest flights of fancy, he must always come back to it. Strangest and most degrading of all is the discovery that the body has, located in the lower rear and out of sight, a hole from which stinking smells emerge and even more, a stinking substance—most disagreeable in everyone else and eventually even to the child himself.

At first the child is amused by his anus and feces […]. 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.

We now understand that what psychoanalysts have called “anality” or anal character traits are really forms of the universal protest against accident and death. Seen in this way a large part of the most esoteric psychoanalytic corpus of insights achieves a new vitality and meaningfulness. To say that someone is “anal” means that someone is trying extra-hard to protect himself against the accidents of life and danger of death, trying to use the symbols of culture as a sure means of triumph over natural mystery, trying to pass himself off as anything but an animal. When we comb the anthropological literature we find that men everywhere have been anal in some basic levels of their cultural strivings; and we find that primitives have often shown the most unashamed anality of all. They have been more innocent about what their real problem is, and they have not well disguised their disguise, so to speak, over the fallibilities of the human condition. We read that men of the Chagga tribe wear an anal plug all their lives, pretending to have sealed up the anus and not to need to defecate. An obvious triumph over mere physicalness. Or take the widespread practice of segregating women in special huts during menstruation and all the various taboos surrounding menstruation: it is obvious that man seeks to control the mysterious processes of nature as they manifest themselves within his own body. The body cannot be allowed to have the ascendancy over him.

Anality explains why men yearn for freedom from contradictions and ambiguities, why they like their symbols pure, their Truth with a capital “T.” On the other hand, when men really want to protest against artificialities, when they rebel against the symbolism of culture, they fall back on the physical. They call thoughts down to earth, mannerisms back to basic chemistry. A perfect example of this was in the recent “anal” film Brewster McCloud, where speeches, official badges, and shiny manufactured surfaces were pummeled from the sky with obliterating excrement. The message was one that the modern filmmakers are making with great daring: calling the world back from hypocrisy by stressing basic things about life and the body. Stanley Kubrick jarred audiences when he showed in 2001 how man stepped out into space like an ape dancing to schmaltzy Strauss waltz music; and again in A Clockwork Orange he showed how naturally and satisfyingly a man can murder and rape in tune with the heroic transcendence of Beethoven’s Ninth.

The upsetting thing about anality is that it reveals that all culture, all man’s creative life-ways, are in some basic part of them a fabricated protest against natural reality, a denial of the truth of the human condition, and an attempt to forget the pathetic creature that man is. One of the most stunning parts of Brown’s study was his presentation of anality in Jonathan Swift. The ultimate horror for Swift was the fact that the sublime, the beautiful, and the divine are inextricable from basic animal functions. In the head of the adoring male is the illusion that sublime beauty “is all head and wings, with no bottom to betray” it. In one of Swift’s poems a young man explains the grotesque contradiction that is tearing him apart:

Nor wonder how I lost my Wits;
Oh! Caelia, Caelia, Caelia shits!

In other words, in Swift’s mind there was an absolute contradiction “between the state of being in love and an awareness of the excremental function of the beloved.”

Erwin Straus, in his brilliant monograph on obsession, similarly earlier showed how repulsed Swift was by the animality of the body, by its dirt and decay. Straus pronounced a more clinical judgment on Swift’s disgust, seeing it as part of the typical obsessive’s worldview: “For all obsessives sex is severed from unification and procreation. . . . Through the . . . isolation of the genitals from the whole of the body, sexual functions are experienced as excretions and as decay.” This degree of fragmentation is extreme, but we all see the world through obsessive eyes at least part of the time and to some degree; and as Freud said, not only neurotics take exception to the fact that “we are born between urine and faeces.” In this horror of the incongruity of man Swift the poet gives more tormented voice to the dilemma that haunts us all, and it is worth summing it up one final time: Excreting is the curse that threatens madness because it shows man his abject finitude, his physicalness, the likely unreality of his hopes and dreams. But even more immediately, it represents man’s utter bafflement at the sheer non-sense of creation: to fashion the sublime miracle of the human face, the mysterium tremendum of radiant feminine beauty, the veritable goddesses that beautiful women are; to bring this out of nothing, out of the void, and make it shine in noonday; to take such a miracle and put miracles again within it, deep in the mystery of eyes that peer out—the eye that gave even the dry Darwin a chill: to do all this, and to combine it with an anus that shits! It is too much. Nature mocks us, and poets live in torture.

[Bold emphases mine]

We’ll stop there on page 34. The topic of the anal character and all that goes along with it is a rather odd and funny subject to me. Maybe growing up I didn’t thoroughly internalize some of these notions of cleanliness and the separation of animal functions from human ideals, and to be quite honest such complexes strike me as a fixation within bourgeois culture, as opposed to peasant culture, despite recognizing its emergence within many tribal cultures as well. Much of the literature produced and studied are products of learned persons belonging to classes above the common riffraff, so it is their ideas that wind up passing forward while unrecorded common experiences of the many are lost to antiquity. The reason I feel this way has a lot to do with what I was raised around and how people of lower class standing spoke so much more openly about bodily functions, even if they strove to project a civilized air in their own ways. In my experience, it is those striving to be the most civilized among us who concern themselves to such a great extent with compartmentalizing their animal natures separate from their human ideals. The key word here being “civilized,” a notion I ponder frequently.

But, that aside, such talk also forces me to reflect on the double-standards commonly held when it comes to assessing the character and value of women. It’s forever troubled me how common it is to expect, on one hand, for women to present ourselves as if untouched by the nastier sides of our animal natures when it comes to defecating and other bodily matters, as well as full expression of our sexuality; yet, on the other hand, we’re categorically deemed closer to animals than men, argued as evidenced by a lack of control over our emotions and, some would argue, a lesser inclination toward intellectual pursuits. The real problem with this schizoid set of expectations is it’s created the notion of woman as doll — pretty to look at, smell and touch, best to be controlled externally because we seem unable to “properly” control ourselves, while deemed morally above following our lusts in the same manner men often do. And when we fail at the role of doll or some similar ideal, we’re cast down into the designation of boorish tramp. To be viewed as civilized as a woman requires nearly complete negation of our animal natures, instincts (aside from the motherly instincts that continue to be valued) and drives to an even greater extent than that expected among supposedly properly civilized males. Which leads me to wonder if this “anal” fixation and the need to categorize, separate off, and compartmentalize isn’t, at bottom, more of a male preoccupation that was foisted upon womankind over time. Pure speculation there and nothing more, but it’s something I wonder about sometimes.

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One Response to Dualism within the human being, beginning soon after birth — an excerpt from Ernest Becker’s book “The Denial of Death”

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