A historical analysis of guilt, pride, and primitive economics (an excerpt from the book “Escape From Evil”)

Today I’m transcribing from Ernest Becker’s book Escape From Evil (1975), beginning on page 28:

How could traders, missionaries, and administrators understand something that often eluded anthropologists themselves: that primitive man did not act out of economic principles, that the process of freely giving and receiving was embedded in a much larger, much more important cosmology, that since the white man had destroyed the old gods and replaced them, he had to give freely just as the gods had done. Primitive life was openly immersed in debt, in obligation to the invisible powers, the ancestors, the dead souls; the group lived partly by drawing its powers from the non-living. Unlike us, primitives knew the truth of man’s relation to nature: nature gives freely of its bounty to man—this was the miracle for which to be grateful and beholden and give to the gods of nature in return. Whatever one received was already a gift, and so to keep things in balance one had to give in return—to one another and, by offerings, to the spirits. The gods existed in order to receive gifts. This helps us understand why primitive society seems so “masochistic” to us in its willing submission to nature and to dead spirits. It had found the perfect formula for keeping things in balance:

In the archaic consciousness the sense of indebtedness exists together with the illusion that the debt is payable; the gods exist to make the debt payable. Hence the archaic economy is embedded in religion, limited by the religious framework, and mitigated by the consolations of religion—above all, removal of indebtedness and guilt.5

And this explains too the thing that has puzzled thinkers since the beginning of the study of man: why weren’t natives content to live in the primitive “paradise,” why couldn’t man simply relax and consume nature’s bounty, why was he driven from the very beginning to develop a surplus beyond basic human needs? The answer is that primitive man created an economic surplus so that he would have something to give to the gods; the giving of the surplus was an offering to the gods who controlled the entire economy of nature in the first place, and so man needed to give precisely in order to keep himself immersed in the cosmology of obligation and expiation. The ceremonial destruction of mountains of precious food was just that: a ceremonial religious act. The painstaking fabrication of charms or the dangerous hunting down of rare objects like whale’s teeth represented the sweat of one’s brow for the most vital motive man knew: to keep the cycle of power moving from the invisible to the visible world. When man gives, “the stream of life continues to flow,” as Van der Leeuw so beautifully summed it up in his classic study of primitive ideas.In order to understand this, we have to abandon our own notions of what a gift is. It is not a bribe by one who is a stranger to you and simply wants to “get in good” with you, or by a loved one who wants to draw close to you or even selflessly give you pleasure.

Economics as Power

In the first place, for the primitive the gift was a part of the stream of nature’s bounty. Many people today think that the primitive saw the world more under the aspect of miracle and awe than we do, and so he appreciated elemental things more than we do. In order to recapture this way of looking at nature, we moderns usually have to experience a breakdown and rebirth into naive perception. So, for example, when Hamann was asked what Christianity meant to him, he said it was a search for the elements of bread and wine. But we don’t need to romanticize about the primitive (whether truly or not) in order to understand his valuation of nature’s bounty. We saw that the main organismic motive was self-perpetuation; it is logical that when self-perpetuation became a conscious problem at the level of man he naturally tended to value those things that gave him the power to endure, those things that incorporated the sun’s energy and that gave warmth and life. Food is a sacred element because it gives the power of life. The original sacrifice is always food because this is what one wants from the gods as the basis for life. “Give us our daily bread. . . .” Furthermore, if food contains power, it is always more than itself, more than a physical thing: it has a mysterious inner essence of spirit. Milk is the essence of the cow, shark’s teeth are the essence of the shark’s vitality and murderousness, etc. So when primitive man gave these things as gifts, he did not give a dead thing, a mere object as it appears to us—but a piece of life, of spirit, even a part of himself because he was immersed in the stream of life. The gifts had mana power, the strength of supernatural life.

This is what made the bond and allowed the stream to flow between giver and receiver: to give and then to counter-give kept the motion going, preserved the cycle of power. This is how we are to understand the potlatch giving and oneupmanship, the destruction of quantities of goods: the eternal flux of power in the broad stream of life was generated by the greatest possible expenditure; when man wanted that stream to flow as bountifully as possible.It then became hard to distinguish who gave and who received, since all were bathed in the power of the movement: everyone participated in the powers that were opened up—the giver, the community, the gods. “I give you power so that you may have power.” The more you give, the more everyone gets.

This feeling of expenditure as power is not strange to us moderns either. We want to keep our goods moving with the same obsessive dedication—cars, refrigerators, homes, money. We feel that there is health and strength in the world if the economy moves, if there is a frenzy of buying and trading on the stock market, activity in the banks; and this is not only because the movement of goods piles up money in the bank, but actually reflects, I think, the sense of trust and security that the magical free-enterprise powers are working for us so long as we continue to buy, sell, and move goods. The Soviets are experiencing the same thing: the sense of exhilaration and self-celebration in the movement of production and consumption of goods. Like the primitive, modern man feels that he can prosper only if he shows that he already has power. Yet of course in its one-dimensionality this is a caricature on the primitive potlatch, as most of modern power ideology is; it has no anchor in the invisible world, in the deference to the gods. Primitive man gave to the gods. Hocart sees this as the origin of trade: the fact that one group made offerings to the gods of their kinsmen and vice versa. This led to the exchange of different stuffs between different groups, and in it we see the direct motive of the creation of a surplus for exchange. The exchange of offerings was always a kind of contest—who could give the most to the gods of their kinsmen. We can see what this did for a person: it gave him a contest in which he could be victorious if his offerings of surplus exceeded those of the other clan. In a word, it gave him cosmic heroism, the distinction of releasing the most power in nature for the benefit of all. He was a hero in the eyes not only of the gods but also of men; he earned social honor, “the right to crow.”8 He was a “big power” man. Thus we can see in gift giving and potlatch the continuation of the triumph of the hunter, but now in the creation and distribution of one’s own fabricated surplus. Róheim very aptly called this state of things “narcissistic capitalism”: the equation of wealth with magic power.9   And so all this seemingly useless surplus, dangerously and painstakingly wrought, yields the highest usage of all in terms of power. Man, the animal who knows he is not safe here, who needs continued affirmation of his powers, is the one animal who is implacably driven to work beyond animal needs precisely because he is not a secure animal. The origin of human drivenness is religious because man experiences creatureliness; the amassing of surplus, then, goes to the very heart of human motivation, the urge to stand out as a hero, to transcend the limitations of the human condition and achieve victory over impotence and finitude.

We see, too, as Brown says, that in the strict utilitarian sense in which we understand the term, primitive “work” cannot be economic; for instance, our “common ownership” and “collective enterprise” in which the person is a “partner” do not do justice to the multidimensionality of the primitive world. Primitive man worked so that he could win a contest in which the offering was made to the gods; he got spiritual merit for his labors. I suppose early Calvinism was an echo of this performance for the eyes of men and the gods, but without the continual giving, the redistribution of the most precious goods. “Big men” in primitive society were those who gave away the most, had nothing for themselves. Sometimes a chief would even offer his own life to appease an injured party in a quarrel; his role was often nothing else than to be a vehicle for the smooth flow of life in the tribe. (The resemblance to historical Calvinism ends abruptly at this kind of performance for spiritual merit.) This reveals a central fact about social life: primitive man immersed himself in a network of social obligations for psychological reasons. Just as Rank said, man has to have a core psychological motive for being in the group in the first place, otherwise he would not be a group-living animal. Or as Brown, who likes to call a spade a spade, put it, “man entered social organization in order to share guilt. Social organization . . . is a structure of shared guilt . . . a symbolic mutual confession of guilt.”10 And so in one sweep we can understand how primitive economics is inexorably sacred, communal, and yet psychologically motivated at the same time.

The Nature of Guilt

But this kind of picture risks putting primitive man even further beyond our comprehension, even though it seems logically to explain what he was doing. The problem is in the key motive, guilt. Unless we have a correct feeling for what guilt is, what the experience of it means, the sacred nature of primitive economics may escape us. We may even prefer our illusionless “economic man” to the “pitiful” primitives—and this result will entirely undo Brown’s thesis. But he himself is in some measure to blame. He draws partly on Nietzsche and Freud, and some of their scorn of guilt as a weakness seems to have rubbed off on him. Even more seriously, by his own admission he does not have any theory of the nature of guilt (“Whatever the ultimate explanation of guilt may be . . . “)11 even though he bases his whole argument on it. When he does offer one explanation, he makes of guilt a simple reflex of the repression of enjoyment—something for which he has already so well castigated Freud in discussing the problem of anality: “The repression of full enjoyment in the present inevitably releases aggression against those ancestors out of love of whom the repression was instituted. Aggression against those simultaneously loved is guilt.”12

This is one explanation of guilt that comes from psychoanalysis: the child in his boundless desires for gratification can’t help feeling love for those who respond to him; at the same time, when they inevitably frustrate him for his own good, he can’t help feeling hate and destructive impulses toward them, which puts him in an impossible bind. The bind is one kind of guilt, but only one aspect of the total bind of life which constitutes the immense burden of guilt on the human psyche.

One of the reasons guilt is so difficult to analyze is that it is itself “dumb.” It is a feeling of being blocked, limited, transcended, without knowing why. It is the peculiar experience of an organism which can apprehend a totality of things and not be able to move in relation to it. Man experiences this uniquely as a feeling of the crushing awesomeness of things and his helplessness in the face of them. This real guilt partly explains man’s willing subordinacy to his culture; after all, the world of men is even more dazzling and miraculous in its richness than the awesomeness of nature. Also, subordinacy comes naturally from man’s basic experiences of being nourished and cared for; it is a logical response to social altruism. Especially when one is sick or injured, he experiences the healing forces as coming from the superordinate cultural system of tools, medicines, and the hard-won skills of persons. An attitude of humble gratitude is a logical one to assume toward the forces that sustain one’s life; we see this very plainly in the learning and development of children.

Another reason that guilt is so diffuse is that it is many different things: there are many different binds in life. One can be in a bind in relation to one’s own development, can feel that one has not achieved all one should have. One can be in a bind in relation to one’s body, which is the guilt of anality: to feel bound and doomed by one’s physical appendages and orifices. Man also experiences guilt because he takes up space and has unintended effects on others—for example, when we hurt others without intending to, just by being what we are or by following our natural desires and appetites, not to mention when we hurt others physically by accident or thoughtlessness. This, of course, is part of the guilt of our bodies, which have effects that we do not intend in our inner selves. To use Rank’s happy phrase, this is the guilt we feel for being a “fate-creating” object.13 We feel guilt in relation to what weighs on us, a weight that we sense is more than we can handle, and so our wives and children are a burden of guilt because we cannot possibly foresee and handle all the accidents, sicknesses, etc., that can happen to them; we feel limited and bowed down, we can’t be as carefree and self-expansive as we would like, the world is too much with us.14

If we feel guilt when we have not developed our potential, we also are put into a bind by developing too much. Our own uniqueness becomes a burden to us; we “stick out” more than we can safely manage. Guilt makes sense in relation to evolution itself. Man is on the “cutting edge” of evolution; he is the animal whose development is not prefigured by instincts, and so he is open to becoming what he can. This means literally that each person is already somewhat “ahead of himself” simply by virtue of being human and not animal. No wonder people have almost universally feared the “evil eye” in traditional society: it expresses a natural and age-old reaction to making oneself too prominent, detaching oneself too much from the background of things. In traditional Jewish culture, for example, each time the speaker made a favorable remark about the health or achievement of someone dear to him, he immediately followed this remark with the invocation “Kein Ayin-Hara” (no evil eye), as if to say “may this good fortune and prominence not be undone by being too conspicuous.” Some individuals achieve an intensity of individuation in which they stick out so far that almost each day is an unbearable exposure. But even the average person in any society is already more of an individual than any animal can be; the testimonial to this is in the human face, which is the most individuated animal expression in nature. Faces fascinate us precisely because they are unique, because they stick out of nature and evolution as the most fully developed expression of the pushing of the life force in the intensity of its self-realization. We don’t understand why the life force is personalizing in this way, what it is trying to achieve; but we flatly know that it is personalizing because we have our heads and faces as empirical testimony, and as a burden of guilt. We might say that the development of life is life’s own burden.

I linger on these ontological thoughts for a very good reason: they tell us what is bothering us deep down. If your face is the most individual part of nature, and if its sticking out is a burden to you because you are an embodiment of the cutting edge of evolution and are no longer safely tucked into the background of nature—if this is so, then it follows that it is dangerous to have a head. And I think mankind has always recognized this implicitly, especially on primitive levels of experience. I believe Levin is right when he says that “it is a crime to own a head” in society; historically societies have not tolerated too much individuation, especially on primitive levels. And Levin may even have something when he adds that this is the simplest explanation of head-hunting.15 Well, there can be no one explanation for the widespread passion for head-hunting;16 but probably the underlying thing that the various forms of head-taking have in common is that the head is prized as a trophy precisely because it is the most personal part, the one that juts most prominently out of nature. In some sense, too, head-hunting may be a way of projecting onto others one’s own guilt for sticking out so much, so that their heads are taken as scapegoats to atone for the guilt. It is as if to say, “This will teach you to stick out so blatantly.” Certainly we feel something of this in societies in which decapitation as punishment was practiced and the heads were publicly displayed. This was a destruction of individuality at its most intensive point, and so a vindication of the pool of faces of the community whose laws had been transgressed. If we extend these thoughts one logical step, we can understand a basic psychoanalytic idea that otherwise seems ridiculous: “in the eyes of culture, to live is a crime.”17 In other words, to live is to stick out, to go beyond safe limits; hence it is to court danger, to be a locus of the possibility of disaster for the group.

If we take all this into view, we should find more palatable to our understanding what Brown meant when he said that social organization was a structure of shared guilt, a symbolic mutual confession of it. Mankind has so many things that put it into a bind that it simply cannot stand them unless it expiates them in some way. Each person cannot stand his own emergence and the many ways in which his organism is dumbly baffled from within and transcended from without. Each person would literally be pulled off his feet and blown away or would gnaw away his own insides with acid anxiety if he did not tuck himself back into something. This is why the main general characteristic of guilt is that it must be shared: man cannot stand alone. And this is precisely what Brown means when he says, “Archaic man gives because he wants to lose; the psychology is . . . self-sacrificial . . . what the giver wants to lose is guilt.”18  Or, metaphorically, “In the gift complex dependence on the mother is acknowledged, and then overcome by mothering others.”19 Society, in other words, is a dramatization of dependence and an exercise in mutual safety by the one animal in evolution who had to figure out a way of appeasing himself as well as nature. We can conclude that primitives were more honest about these things—about guilt and debt—because they were more realistic about man’s desperate situation vis–à–vis nature. Primitive man embedded social life in a sacred matrix not necessarily because he was more fearful or masochistic than men in later epochs, but because he saw reality more clearly in some basic ways.20

Once we acknowledge this, we have to be careful not to make too much of it. I mean that group living through the motive of guilt is not all humble and self-effacing. As we saw in our consideration of gift giving, not only expiation but the blatant affirmation of power is a primary impetus behind it. If guilt is the experience of fear and powerlessness, then immersing oneself in a group is one way of actively defeating it: groups alone can make big surplus, can generate extravagant power in the form of large harvests, the capture of dangerous animals and many of them, the manufacture of splendid and intricate items based on sophisticated techniques, etc. From the beginning of time the group has represented big power, big victory, much life.

Heroism and Repentance: The Two Sides of Man

If we thus look at both sides of the picture of guilt, we can see that primitive man allocated to himself the two things that man needs most: the experience of prestige and power that constitutes man a hero, and the experience of expiation that relieves him of the guilt of being human. The gift complex took care of both these things superlatively. Man worked for economic surplus of some kind in order to have something to give. In other words, he achieved heroism and expiation at the same time, like the dutiful son who brings home his paper-route earnings and puts them in the family coffer. He protruded out of nature and tucked himself in with the very same gesture, a gesture of heroism-expiation. Man needs self-esteem more than anything; he wants to be a cosmic hero, contributing with his energies to nothing less than the greatness and pleasure of the gods themselves. At the same time this risks inflating him to proportions he cannot stand: he becomes too much like the gods themselves, and he must renounce this dangerous power. Not to do so is to be unbalanced, to run the great sin of hubris as the Greeks understood it. Hubris means forgetting where the real source of power lies and imagining that it is in oneself.

Okay, stopping there on page 37.

[All emphases his.]

Interesting stuff to ponder on.

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