Tonight I decided to read a portion of Ernest Becker’s book Escape From Evil (1975), and I will now transcribe that portion (since the audio quality didn’t turn out too good and I won’t claim to be great at reading aloud). Beginning on page 114 under the section titled “The Science of Man after Hitler”:
Burke recognized that guilt and expiation were fundamental categories of sociological explanation, and he proposed a simple formula: guilt must be canceled in society, and it is absolved by “victimage.” So universal and regular is the dynamic that Burke wondered “whether human society could possibly cohere without symbolic victims which the individual members of the group share in common.” He saw “the civic enactment of redemption through the sacrificial victim” as the center of man’s social motivation.32
Burke was led to the central idea of victimage and redemption through Greek tragedy and Christianity; he saw that this fundamentally religious notion is a basic characteristic of any social order. Again we are brought back to our initial point that all culture is in essence sacred—supernatural, as Rank put it. The miraculousness of creation is after all magnified in social life; it is contained in persons and given color, form, drama. The natural mystery of birth, growth, consciousness, and death is taken over by society; and as Duncan so well says, this interweaving of social form and natural terror becomes an inextricable mystification; the individual can only gape in awe and guilt.33 The religious guilt, then, is also a characteristic of so-called secular societies; and anyone who would lead a society must provide for some form of sacred absolution, regardless of the particular historical disguise that this absolution may wear. Otherwise society is not possible. In Burke’s generation it was above all Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini who understood this and acted on it.
If there is one thing that the tragic wars of our time have taught us, it is that the enemy has a ritual role to play, by means of which evil is redeemed. All “wars are conducted as ‘holy’ wars”34 in a double sense then—as a revelation of fate, a testing of divine favor, and as a means of purging evil from the world at the same time. This explains why we are dedicated to war precisely in its most horrifying aspects: it is a passion of human purgation. Nietzsche observed that “whoever is dissatisfied with himself is always ready to revenge himself therefore; we others will be his victims. . . .”35 But the irony is that men are always dissatisfied and guilty in small and large ways, and this is what drives them to a search for purity where all dissatisfaction can come to a head and be wiped away. Men try to qualify for eternalization by being clean and by cleansing the world around them of the evil, the dirty; in this way they show that they are on the side of purity, even if they themselves are impure. The striving for perfection reflects man’s effort to get some human grip on his eligibility for immortality. And he can only know if he is good if the authorities tell him so; this is why it is so vital for him emotionally to know whether he is liked or disliked, why he will do anything the group wants in order to meet its standards of “good”: his eternal life depends on it.36 Good and bad relate to strength and weakness, to self-perpetuation, to indefinite duration. And so we can understand that all ideology, as Rank said, is about one’s qualification for eternity; and so are all disputes about who really is dirty. The target of one’s righteous hatred is always called “dirt”; in our day the short-hairs call the long-hairs “filthy” and are called in turn “pigs.” Since everyone feels dissatisfied with himself (dirty), victimage is a universal human need. And the highest heroism is the stamping out of those who are tainted. The logic is terrifying. The psychoanalytic grouping of guilt, anality, and sadism is translatable in this way to the highest levels of human striving and to the age-old problem of good and evil.
From which we have to conclude that men have been the midwives of horror on this planet because this horror alone gave them peace of mind, made them “right” with the world. No wonder Nietzsche would talk about “the disease called man.”37 It seems perverse when we put it so blatantly, yet here is an animal who needs the spectacle of death in order to open himself to love. As Duncan put it:
. . . as we wound and kill our enemy in the field and slaughter his women and children in their homes, our love for each other deepens. We become comrades in arms; our hatred of each other is being purged in the sufferings of our enemy.38
And even more relentlessly:
We need to socialize in hate and death, as well as in joy and love. We do not know how to have friends without, at the same time, creating victims whom we must wound, torture, and kill. Our love rests on hate.39
If we talk again and shockingly about human baseness, it is not out of cynicism; it is only to better get some kind of factual purchase on our fate. We follow Freud in the belief that it is only illusions that we have to fear; and we follow Hardy—in our epigraph to this book—in holding that we have to take a full look at the worst in order to begin to get rid of illusion. Realism, even brutal, is not cynicism. As Duncan so passionately concluded his Nietzschean and Dostoevskian exposition of the terrifying dynamics of purity and love “. . . we cannot become humane until we understand our need to visit suffering and death on others . . . The sociology of our time must begin in [such an] anguished awareness . . .”40 It has already begun in the work of Burke, Duncan, Mumford, and Lifton; but its theoretical formulations were already plentifully contained in the neglected work of Rank. From the point of view of such a sociology, the great scientific problems of our time have been the successful and grand social cohesions, especially of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Burke and Duncan have amply described the religious horror drama of Germany under Hitler, where the dirty and evil Jews were purged from the world of Aryan purity by the Nazi priesthood.41 […]
Leaving off there and then picking back up on page 118:
It took Stalin’s purge trials to show us that the highest humanistic ideals of socialist revolutionaries also have to be played out in a religious drama of victimage and redemption—if one is to have a pure and cohesive socialist society at all.42 The Russians exiled religious expiation but could not exile their own human nature, and so they had to conjure up a secular caricature of religious expiation. And they are still doing it: the magician-priests who give absolution to the clean communist masses now wear the white coats of hospital psychiatrists who transform dirty dissident victims with the latest techniques of “secular” science. It is grotesque, but Burke had warned us to always watch for the “secular equivalents” of the theological formula of victimage and redemption; the scapegoat is not a ” ‘necessary illusion’ of savages, children, and the masses,”43 but now an achievement of the “most advanced” socialist society.
[Italicized emphases his. Bold mine.]
That’s what I decided to read aloud today, though I don’t know how well it will be understood without first reading his arguments and explanations leading up to that portion, but I thought it could stand alone on its own and at least perhaps entice others to consider reading the entire book for themselves. Click to read another excerpt posted from this book.
Thanks to the books of Ernest Becker and his frequent mentioning of the Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank, I recently decided to purchase one of the latter’s books titled Beyond Psychology and look forward to delving into it in due time.
For further reading on these and related subjects, you may want to look into Ernest Becker’s book The Denial of Death (considered a companion book to this one — see excerpts 1, 2, 3 and 4) and works produced by the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (which I’ve also transcribed bits of on here and intend to do more in the future).