Tuesday, October 9, 2007

In Response to Torben’s “Worn Out Metaphors” Post and Scott’s Comment About It

So...I’m hoping if you’re reading this you have already read Torben’s “Worn Out Metaphors” Post and Scott’s Comment on it, because this post is in response to them...or was sparked by them. I would’ve just put this as an additional comment on that same post but it was becoming to long, with too many links, and to complex...so I’m having it as it’s own post.


That is all incredibly interesting! I didn't make this connection (which I'll get into in a minute) until just now...after reading Scott's comment about Torben’s post.

Why in the hell would we want to move away from the body toward abstract images and metaphors anyway? Scott's mother referring to bowel movements as “bee-em’s”, and the George Carlin post, in the context of our discussion on Nietzsche and “worn out metaphors” reminded me of an amazing book that I read a few years ago called "The Denial of Death" by Ernest Becker. The book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1974 (after Becker's death). Becker's main goal was to point to the work of psychoanalyst Otto Rank, who studied closely with Sigmund Freud. After several years of working together, Rank was rejected by Freud over some trivial disagreement. Rank pretty much disappeared after that, but wrote many amazing books that are now being rediscovered. Rank's book "Art and Artist" is pointed to over and over in “The Denial of Death”. Becker also constantly refers to several Kierkegaard books and passages and also Norman O. Brown's book "Life Against Death".

Anyway, how does this tie into Torben’s last post and Scott’s comment on it? Our body is constantly decomposing. It is rotting, aging, decaying and slowly dying. These bodily processes (especially "bee-em's"/shitting), according to many psychoanalysts, subconsciously remind us of our own death...of our mortality. Many psychoanalysts talk about the concept of anality. Becker also talks about anality and makes a very interesting connection that is helpful to us in this discussion. I grabbed this quote quickly, offhand, in an online review of Becker's book... it helps see anality in the way that Becker sees it relating to our behavior: "...anality is viewed as an attempt to deny the possibility of accident or death, to insist on our separation from nature..." (from the California Literary Review). Trivializing and moving away from the reality our natural bodily processes helps distance ourselves from the sometimes depressing fact that our bodies are slowly dying.

So shitting reminds us of our temporary nature and how we are like all other organisms on the earth...we will eventually decay and die and return to our simpler parts that make up what we are through natural processes. But us humans have this weird thing that other organisms don’t have...a sense of irony (telling jokes), a deep cognition, an articulate language that allows us to conceptualize infinity, to think into the future, reflect on the past and relate it all to the present. As Becker points out, this makes us both god-like and worm-like..."this is the human condition", he says.

Again, why in the hell would we want to move away from the body in the way that Plato is encouraging us to and in the way that Nietzsche is telling us to avoid falling into? Moving away from the thing/the body helps us cope with our grim human condition, a way of dealing with our existence, a way of being in the world. The psychoanalysts that I mentioned would obviously say that we want to move from the thing/the body because it is our body that is the reminder of our demise...and we don't want to think about that shit! (ha...where's Alex to out-pun me?) They also point out that, as humans, we are obsessed with our youth (look at any advertisement), obsessed with defying death and the aging process, etc. We build pyramids to preserve and ensure our eternal life. Becker equates all of our creations/buildings/artwork with the building of pyramids...the thirst to be important, to be seen, thought of, to be eternally remembered...including his desire "to write the great book". We create symbols that are supposed to communicate who we are and what our existence means, we create ideologies and religions and we are willing to defend them and fight wars over them, we want to dominate, we want to outlast the other, we want to leave our mark, we want to be remembered. As we have seen in the class, the symbols and the language always (necessarily) fail to do exactly what we want it to do.

My good friend Greg Bennick co-produced a highly praised documentary with a guy named Patrick Shen called “Flight From Death: The Quest For Immortality” (Greg was here at UVSC screening it about year and a half ago). “Flight From Death” completely focuses on Becker’s book and the current research and application of Becker’s ideas about defying death, symbols, language, identification as individuals/countries, violence in defense those symbols and identification, etc. (Very interesting, highly recommended).

Hopefully you all are following my line of thinking...maybe you’d have to see “Flight From Death”, or read “The Denial of Death” to follow...or maybe I’m not making any sense at all???

Coming back to our discussion...now I’m thinking about Alex in class saying how he was, and will forever be, ‘a recovering Platonist’ and that ‘I (he) always need a good dose of Nietzsche to bring me back home (back to the body)’. Observe Torben’s diagram below. (I’m assuming that they are the same notes taken from what Scott was writing on the board in class on Monday.) Plato is pushing us away from the body, into thinking in images and metaphors and using them as tools...something we all do to cope with our human condition (the human condition as described by Ernest Becker). Nietzsche and Aristotle...and might I add the stuff that Alex read from William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”...are all pushing us back toward the body. (Blake: ...the body is not separae from the soul, the body is connected to energy, energy is eternal delight...etc.) This is an absolutely crucial reminder that we are temporary creatures, that we don’t dominate over the physical world. The physical world allows us to exist and we are only a part of it, it can easily annihilate us and we will, without doubt, return to it in death. Who knows if our thoughts, concepts, metaphors, symbols are at all important or if they live on into another form?

As Scott mentioned in class, both of these systems of thought are important for us worm-like/god-like humans. But a balance is necessary! Don’t become Goethe’s character Werther...trying to get so close to the thing/the body he blew his brains out because he couldn’t relate to anyone else, couldn’t not express the ‘thing in itself’, couldn’t use ‘the lie to tell the truth’. At the same time don’t get caught up in dead metaphors...they are only tools to help us think through and compare things, don’t believe the lies you use to tell the truth. I’m trying to think about what would happen to a person on the other extreme from Werther’s suicide...some sort of insanity or complete disconnection from the body (schizophrenia)...??? (If that is true, then it is ironic that Nietzsche went insane instead of killing himself!)

I see this balance as being extremely crucial to our personal mental health/well being as well as a world-wide health/societal well being. I think that this is pretty close what Ernest Becker concludes in “The Denial of Death”...I wonder if he read any Nietzsche or Plato.

What do you think?

P.S. - (I highly recommend "The Denial of Death". Also check out The Ernest Becker Foundation if you are interested.)


Torben B said...

Travis, this is a great addition to my post and Scott's comment. In fact, I'm hoping to present a paper at UCUR about death in film and the purging of existential death anxiety (which is largely founded in Becker's existential death anxiety theories). I thought that I might add just a bit, if you don't mind, to clarify what Becker believes.

Freud believed that "[...]when we express death anxiety it is only a cover story that conceals the real fear. For many years psychoanalysts spoke of thanatophobia as the expressed fear of death that serves as a disguise for the actual source of discomfort" (Kastenbaum 20). For Freud, we cannot really be anxious about death because we cannot truly conceive of our own death. He said: "[...]in the unconscious everyone of us is convinced of his own immortality" (Kastenbaum 20).

However, Becker takes the existential approach, which is an opposite approach from Freud. For him, "awareness of our mortality is the basic source of anxiety. Our fears may take many forms but can be traced back to our sense of vulnerability to death" (Kastenbaum 20). In fact, there is a term for what Carlin, Scott, and Travis are talking about called ontological confrontation, which is, the awareness that we are always acutely mortal. Becker would argue that "society's primary function is to help us all pretend that life will continue to go on and on. This is accomplished by a belief system that is supported with rituals and other practices that produce a sense of coherence, predictability, and meaning" (Kastenbaum 21). This "striving for immortality" inevitably includes symbol building, asserting beliefs, etc. Flight From Death, which Travis mentions, is a wonderful overview of some of Becker's main ideas.

Hmm...shit. It's not just shitting :) It seems that most "profane words" stem from the body. I bet Rikker could give us a great etymology of some of these words, and perhaps he will. I think the fixation with abstractions has a little to do with what we've all been saying. I also think it's important that we don't neglect religion's role in breaking from the body --- the transcendent spirit. Is the natural man really an enemy to God?

I could go on and on, and maybe I'll post a bit more after other people post, but for right now, I'll finish :) Great post Travis! This blog is so constructive!

Torben B said...

Here's the url to purchase the book I was citing:


Scott Abbott said...

It's amazing how an idea can change something you've known for a long time. Travis's thoughts about death and shitting took me right to the scene near the end of Herzog's "Kaspar Hauser," in which Kaspar Hauser is sitting in an outhouse when he is killed.

And, by the way, why do we say (not my mother) "no shit!"