Don’t Fear the Reaper pt. 2

In this book there is a lot of ridiculous and wrong stuff, and given my background, I’m usually attracted to controversy and wrongness rather than rightness, which is unfortunate sometimes, but I’ll do some right stuff and then talk wrongness.

So briefly, there are some interesting things that this book gets right, or at least is on the right track. One of these points is that each person gets their personality as manifestations of unconscious psychological conflicts, mainly involving a fear of death or a helplessness in the face of nature’s immensity. I don’t think its right to say that all our personality traits come from a fear of death, but I think there is something to Becker’s idea that our fear of death is mainly CONCEPTUAL. Animals do not fear death, cannot fear death, because they lack the concept of “death.” Sure, animals will struggle to swim if they are drowning and will fight back if attacked, but during these attempts at survival, their is no fear or dread, as when someone inside a submarine finds out that the ballast tanks will not work and thinks to themselves “I’m going to die.”

The thought of Becker and his buddies is that this conceptual realization cannot be focused on for two long, otherwise it can lead to despair or paralysis. Nietzsche, who is rarely quoted by Becker, but who basically wrote all the ideas in this book about one hundred years before Becker, said famously, something like “if you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you.” The same idea is in place here. So, to avoid confronting this realization over and over in its starkness, we create various ways to mediate reality. You could say that we need a condom between us and reality because we can’t handle direct contact with the knowledge that we will die and all of existence cares nothing for us (David Foster Wallace anyone. His writings on despair are TEXTBOOKS examples of how deep these feelings can run for people who refuse to deceive themselves). If there are female readers, then I’m sorry for the use of a metaphor that relies heavily on male experience; I think the idea comes through though right?

Our response then, according to Becker and others, must be one of self-deception. We must lie to ourselves about various facets of reality, and those lies crop up as allegiance to our boss, to our families, or to our “fatherland” (a fascinating name given Freud’s discussion of the role of the father in development). We tell ourselves all sorts of myths about what makes a life good and bad, or happy or not, and these are expressions of our collective attempt to mold reality into something acceptable and manageable so that we aren’t left contemplating our complete insignificance in a scientific universe composed of blocks of matter and cold space.

I have complaints about what I’ve just said (e.g., why is everything a fear of death. That’s like, so pessimistic dude. Why aren’t we overwhelmed with the miracle of life? People like Heidegger, Nietzsche and apparently obsessed with death, but people like Hannah Arendt stress humankind’s ability to begin, and to start again.)

So the book goes on to try and explain every psychological happening in terms of our need to grapple with our ability to REPRESENT and COGNIZE our finitude and eventual expiration.

This is a silly strategy in many places, and you can how the theory must be stretched to ridiculous levels in order to make things work.

One example where things get really out of hand is the section on fetishes. Psychoanalysts have a fetish for fetishes, and try to analyze them forever.

So in a nutshell, the explanation on offer is that fetishes are how people take the pure human body, which represents decay, finitude and animalness, and dress it up with HUMAN, CULTURAL trappings. The fetish allows us to repress our fear of our own bodies because we are no longer dealing with pure meat, pure flesh. Instead, we are engaged in a cultural act which makes the world safe for the conceptual, cognizing human.

Here’s Becker

This is why, I think, the shoe is the most common fetish. It is the closest thing to the body and yet is not the body, and it is associated with what almost always strikes fetishists as the most ugly thing: the despised foot with its calloused toes and yellowed toenails. The foot is the absolute and unmitigated testimonial to our degraded animality, to the incongruity between our proud rich, lively, infinitely trascendent, free inner spirit and our earth-bound body.

But this pretty much contradicts what Becker says earlier about non fetishistic sex (is there such a thing?) There he says that “using someone’s body” is never a long term solution to our fear of death because taking joy in our pure animalness always brings back the realization that we are “only human” (as Nietzsche said “human, all too human”). Thus, we, as a culture, renounce pure sex in favor of “love” which is a cultural product. Again, I’m not endorsing any of this, but reporting what this guy says. But if regular sex is a defective way of putting off the death-realization, then why do fetishes succeed where promiscuity fails? In other words, does fantasizing about someone’s shoes or whatever really evade the essential issue that there is A FOOT underneath? Doesn’t seem like it, but fetishes don’t, in the end, push us back into hopelessness our vulnerable situation, they are, according to Becker, ways out of this feeling.

There is also a much less convoluted, more recent explanation, which is that the part of the brain connected to genitalia is close the part of the brain connected to the feet. So there is crosstalk between the two areas. Ever heard of a “toe curling” orgasm? Yea, that might be why. The explanation here is just an arbitrary physical fact and nothing to do with the way the feet somehow embody humanity’s existential situation.

Then, Becker goes on to try to link his account of fetishes to other larger historical themes by quoting, uncritically, a man named Waite, who wrote “Hitler gained sexual satisfaction by having a young woman — as much younger than he as his mother was younger than his father — squat over him to urinate or defecate on his head.”

Now this is just bad history. I could find no serious scholar who believes this story, and its origin comes from a report prepared by allied intelligence during WWII that apparently included RUMORS about this spread by generals under Hitler’s command. To cite such suspect testimony uncritically, especially when no seriously scholar seems to have substantiated this, seems to be pretty bad scholarship.

Anyway, more stuff coming in the future about this book possibly. I’m almost done, but this last section on fetishes is, well, killing me.


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