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Escape From Evil
by Ernest Becker




 
To: ALL Date: 12/24 From: VRCH78A ALLEN CROCKER Time: 1:46 AM ESCAPE FROM EVIL by Ernest Becker With this note what we might regard as the "first phase" of the "Slow Motion Reading Group", i.e. discussion of the books from the first list, comes to its long-delayed con- clusion. A year and three-quarters ago, I pledged to read and post on every selection from that list and am now making good on that promise. (For some time I've thought we should drop the "slo-mo" adjective, as it was meant to describe an operating scheme that we've abandoned. But I can see why you folks might think that, in the Conductor's case, the phrase "slow-motion" is all too appropriate.) I'll be back soon with a look back at the entire list and a reflection or two on the experience (for "soon" read "hopefully before the end of 1996"). ESCAPE FROM EVIL, as the only non-fiction title from List 1, is very much the "odd book out"; since CRs, at least as far as what they like to discuss in detail, seem to be fiction readers, it's no surprise that EFE would receive scant attention here. I left it until last myself both because I believed it would not generate much dis- cussion here, and because my interest in the general realms with which it deals -- anthropology/sociology/social psych- ology -- has always been feeble at best. However, since the book deals, in a most thought-provoking way, with the kind of Big Questions that many of our correspondents love to ponder, I hope I can persuade at least a few of you to give EFE a try. I had not previously heard of Ernest Becker (1924-1974) until EFE was added to the reading list, and all I can tell you now is that according to a paragraph on the back cover he was "a distinguished social theorist and a popular teacher of anthropology, sociology and social psychology." Though EB himself was unknown to me, I did, at least know of his Pulitzer Prize-winning THE DENIAL OF DEATH. As Becker puts it in EFE's preface, "In THE DENIAL OF DEATH I argued that man's innate and all-encompassing fear of death drives him to attempt to transcend death through cul- turally standardized hero systems and symbols. In this book I attempt to show that man's natural and inevitable urge to deny mortality and achieve a heroic self-image are the root causes of human evil." EFE was EB's final work, a summation of his thought on the human condition in which he tries to show that a true "science of man" can and must take account of the most vicious side of human behavior. In the book's epigraph he quotes Thomas Hardy: "If a way to the better there be, it lies in taking a full look at the worst." And brother, in the course of this book's mere 170 pages, does he ever do so. The essentials of EB's thesis are about as follows: man is a paradoxical creature in essence, wanting out of his animal nature to go on living, but tragically posessed of the knowledge of the inevitability of death. There thus exists a fundamental urge to in some way cheat death by the getting of "immortality power" -- becoming a part of some greater thing believed invulnerable to extinction. Primi- tive man solved the problem by way of sacrifices to the gods of the harvest, hunt and so forth -- by creating the illusion that he could share in the creation of life. When advances in knowledge of the way the world works rendered this approoach non-viable, man turned to such strategies as accumulation of wealth and submission to authority, from local tribal shaman to the modern nation-state. One can not help but give deep consideration to a line of argument that, persuasively in my mind, shows that the human sacri- fice of the Aztecs and the wholesale slaughter of the Holocaust spring from precisely the same basic motives. Continued.... =============== Reply 1 of Note 69 =================  
To: VRCH78A ALLEN CROCKER Date: 12/24 From: VRCH78A ALLEN CROCKER Time: 2:10 AM ESCAPE FROM EVIL, continued: In a way this book is inappropriately titled; it would be more accurate to call it AN INQUIRY INTO THE ANATOMY OF HUMAN CUSSEDNESS. How to overcome our own evil nature is a thing that Becker admits he has no clue about, but though pessimistic, he still refuses to despair. From the book's final chapter: It seems to me this leaves a margin for reason in the affairs of men. If men kill out of animal fears, then conceivably fears can always be examined and calmed; but if men kill out of lust, then butchery is a fatality for all time. The writer Elie Wiesel, who survived a Nazi concentration camp, summed it all up in a wistful remark during a TV interview: "Man is not human." But it is one thing to say that man is not human because he is a vicious animal, and another to say that it is because he is a frightened creature who tries to secure a victory over his limitations. I hope the foregoing suffices to get some of you to give ESCAPE FROM EVIL a try; not only does it have the potential to change the way you look at the human predic- ament, but it does so relatively painlessly: in addition to being short, the book is (to me anyway) accessible, blessedly free of the curse of "academese." Dealing as it does with subjects we've often dealt with, I think we could profit from giving it at least some fraction of the discussion we've devoted to most the other books from the list. I'll be here to talk about it when anyone wants to! Allen =============== Reply 2 of Note 69 =================  
To: VRCH78A ALLEN CROCKER Date: 12/24 From: WSRF10B SHERRY KELLER Time: 8:48 AM Dear Allen, You've really made a strong case to read this. It sounds intriguing. I'm in the process of reading BLEAK HOUSE now with CC and that things is loooonnnng. Dale has read it, Steve has read it. So I know there's someone out there to discuss it with. After Christmas when things calm down a bit, I will try to give it a go. Sherry saying MERRY CHRISTMAS to all =============== Reply 3 of Note 69 =================  
To: VRCH78A ALLEN CROCKER Date: 12/25 From: SEZG73A STEVE WARBASSE Time: 9:58 AM Your compulsiveness has served you well here, Allen, by leading you to read this book purely and simply because it was on the list. I found it thought provoking, and along with my reading of THE WHITE HOTEL, it lead me to go out and purchase a used Freud to knock around in a little. Actually, I know Dale has read it. He and I and another CR (I am ashamed to say I can't remember who) had a little thread going on it some months ago). Perhaps you could find that in the archives. In the meantime, although I have lent my copy out, I do have some notes that I took around here somewhere. (Can you believe that? Are you impressed?) You are certainly right about this book being "the odd one out" in a sense. On the other hand I thought that it fit in very well with THE WHITE HOTEL, Dales's Scott Peck thread, Dale's article in THE OXFORD AMERICAN about evil, and even THE SHINING, SHINING PATH in a way. * * * I have just checked the bb archives myself, and I honestly don't think the search engine is working properly right now. Couldn't find anything of ours, let alone this thread, which I certainly know exists out there. Perhaps you will have more luck. Meanwhile, I will see if I can find my notes. Be back later. Steve =============== Reply 4 of Note 69 =================  
To: SEZG73A STEVE WARBASSE Date: 12/26 From: KDEX08B RUTH BAVETTA Time: 1:50 PM Glad you stuck with it and did this one Allen. I looked for it in the library, but no wonder I didn't find it. I looked under NOVELS. Now I've been set straight I'm going to check again. Ruth  
To: SEZG73A STEVE WARBASSE Date: 01/04 From: VRCH78A ALLEN CROCKER Time: 1:23 AM Sherry and Ruth: I think that if my notes piqued your interest in ESCAPE FROM EVIL, it will turn out to be a book that you'll find accessible and interesting. I'd like very much to know what your reactions to it are. Steve: I don't recall any dialogue on EFE ever developing here, apart from a single note that Dale posted as an aside in a tangentialy-related thread a few months back. I can e-mail that note to you or anyone else who wants a mem- ory refresher. Doing some background reading on Freud is getting into the spirit of things, but EFE is such a remarkably syn- thetic book, building on the work of so many of earlier figures in a number of fields, that you have quite a job ahead of you if you really want to learn enough to grasp every nuance of Becker's argument. I was a bit uneasy, reading his citations left and right of all these author- ities I'd never heard of, knowing that I'd simply have to take his word on what he was saying. Just a bit uneasy, though, because the reader of EFE can't help feeling he's in good hands, such is the breadth and depth of EB's knowledge of his subject. Since EFE first appeared over 20 years ago, I've been wondering what's been done by way of anyone building on his thesis, or what the critical reaction of his colleagues in the field may have been. I'd be very interested in seeing an analysis by a qualified critic, since I'm woefully inadequate to that task myself. Certainly, this is a book one would like to see having wide influence. Becker's ambition in tackling the problem of human evil, and what seems to me to be his success in that endeavor, might be best described with one of EB's favorite adjectives: heroic. Allen =============== Reply 2 of Note 4 =================  
To: VRCH78A ALLEN CROCKER Date: 01/04 From: GJFH50B KATHARINE HIGGINS Time: 9:47 PM Allen, Back in August, I believe Dale and perhaps Maria Bustillos discussed Escape from Evil in a few notes which so interested me that I asked my son to try to find a copy of the book and mail it out to me in Michigan where I was on vacation. In late August and early September Steve Warbasse and I exchanged some thoughts on the book. It was a very stimulating and ultimately very depressing book, and is certainly worth another look. Perhaps it should go to the LIST or was it on the list? I am not sure who first introduced the discussion. Katy Higgins =============== Reply 3 of Note 4 =================  
To: VRCH78A ALLEN CROCKER Date: 01/06 From: SEZG73A STEVE WARBASSE Time: 9:40 AM You don't recall any dialogue concerning EFE, Allen, because that dialogue didn't take place here, I myself now realize. I have searched diskettes and have been able to find only one note--my own to Dale of August 8, which follows: PRODIGY(R) interactive personal service 01/01 01:23 PM Board: BOOKS & WRITING Topic: BOOKS/FICTION Subject: FEARLESS READER To: MXDD10A Dale Short Date: 8/8/96 From: SEZG73A Steve Warbasse Time: 11:12AM ET Well, it is time for me to eat some crow again. I have always harbored this confident and superior scorn for the "science" of Sociology. (Even yet, I cannot resist putting the word science in quotation marks.) It appears now that this scorn was born of sheer ignorance. ESCAPE FROM EVIL offers a viable model or system for explaining a good many things that I have pondered in the past with complete mystification while at the same time confident in my intuition that something profound--something more than meets the eye--was going on. If one assumes for the sake of argument that the primary human motive is self-perpetuation; and if one assumes likewise that this motive has traditionally manifested itself consistently since the primitive society in the two-fold phenomenon of heroism (e.g., the acquisition of power over death) and expiation (e.g., sacrifice); and if one discards the artificial and meaningless distinction between the sacred and the secular in all cultures, then things such as the Inquisition, the holocaust, Stalinism, Moaism, consumer capitalism, and war generally start to make perfect sense. Perfect sense. These societal features perfectly serve the individual member of society's deepest needs. Can't help but also ponder the applicability of these ideas to so many things that have been under discussion by the Constant and Fearless ones in the recent past, most particularly religion and, seemingly unrelatedly, the novel THE WHITE HOTEL. In ESCAPE FROM EVIL we have a little book of 170 odd pages that is dense indeed. Damned near every sentence forces one to pause, sit back, and reflect. I can't help but wonder how such a book can lapse into obscurity and fall out of print. I have tried to maintain a healthy skepticism concerning its premises, but find that I am unable to rebut any of its premises based on my own limited experiences and observations. With two chapters to go, I am drawing down to the conclusions to which I look forward with bated breath. So how DO we satisfy man's basic need for the illusion of immortality while at the same time avoiding the rampant evil that he perpetrates? Your pal. =============== Reply 4 of Note 4 =================  
To: GJFH50B KATHARINE HIGGINS Date: 01/06 From: SEZG73A STEVE WARBASSE Time: 9:40 AM I do well remember our exchange, Katy. Most particularly, I believe we discussed the admittedly troubling passage at the very end of the book, which seemed to indicate some admiration of Soviet communism. Allen, I have lent this book out and do not have it immediately at hand. However, did you also notice this passage? It was jarring, coming as it did toward the end, and seemed quite out of sync with the rest of the text. Steve =============== Reply 5 of Note 4 =================  
To: SEZG73A STEVE WARBASSE Date: 01/06 From: ZRAK98A ROBERT AVERY Time: 9:02 PM Warbasse, Damn you, Wild Man, for whetting my appetite for that which, apparently, I can't partake! Sounds as if EFE is something I could really delve into. Tell me the author's name again, and I'll see if I can find it in my favorite little bookstore in D.C. Bob in Tennessee, awaiting the ice man to cometh =============== Reply 6 of Note 4 =================  
To: ZRAK98A ROBERT AVERY Date: 01/07 From: SEZG73A STEVE WARBASSE Time: 7:20 PM Bob, the book is ESCAPE FROM EVIL by Ernest Becker. Betcher gonna have to special order it. I wish I could give you the publisher, but as I said, I have lent my copy out. Liberty Press out east, or something like that. Now normally this is not a book that I would have read in a million years, but you know how one thing leads to another. I had really enjoyed WHITE HOTEL, in which Freud plays a prominent part. Then Dale followed up THE SHINING, SHINING PATH with a couple of magazine articles about the nature of evil. Then this, and then that. Finally, I determined to read Becker's book on the recommendation of her-who-shall-go-unnamed-here in connection with the Slo-Mo Group Grope. Becker, as well as the authorities that he is fond of quoting, are more in disagreement with Freud than agreement. However, Freud is still the jumping off point. The upshot of all this is that I now own a nice used copy of THE BASIC WRITINGS OF SIGMUND FREUD (Modern Library Edition). These are basically long essays by the man, and in fact W.W. Norton & Company puts out paperback editions of each one separately. If you ever determine to give Freud a run, do one of his last pieces first, CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS. Intriguing stuff. On the other hand maybe you're already way the hell ahead of me on Freud. You certainly were on Durrell! (I'm closing in on the end of MONTOLIVE and will get back with you on it soon.) Your pal. =============== Reply 7 of Note 4 =================  
To: ZRAK98A ROBERT AVERY Date: 01/07 From: GJFH50B KATHARINE HIGGINS Time: 9:15 PM Bob, Becker, Ernest. ESCAPE FROM EVIL. Free Press, 1975. ISBN 0-02-902450-1 Paperback The Free Press is a division of Collier Macmillan. Sorry I can't come up with the price, probably around $14.95 in paperback. Extremely provocative relentlessly depressing. I hope you will post your thoughts. Katy Higgins =============== Reply 8 of Note 4 =================  
To: SEZG73A STEVE WARBASSE Date: 01/07 From: ZRAK98A ROBERT AVERY Time: 9:39 PM Warbasse, No, I've had only a slip of Freud... ...but one day, I'll come back to him. I am generally interested; just too much on the TBR list. Thanks for the info on EFE/Becker. Bob, waiting for the ice =============== Reply 9 of Note 4 =================  
To: GJFH50B KATHARINE HIGGINS Date: 01/07 From: ZRAK98A ROBERT AVERY Time: 9:43 PM Katharine, Thanks! That should make it easy to chase down; although your description of the book as relentlessly depressing did put me off a bit. Provocative, I do; depressing, I generally avoid - I'm a pretty upbeat type, and want to keep it that way! Bob A =============== Reply 10 of Note 4 =================  
To: GJFH50B KATHARINE HIGGINS Date: 01/07 From: SEZG73A STEVE WARBASSE Time: 11:28 PM Thank you, Katy. That's it. Nothing like a little hard, reliable information instead of the usual pub talk. Your pal. =============== Reply 11 of Note 4 =================  
To: SEZG73A STEVE WARBASSE Date: 01/09 From: VRCH78A ALLEN CROCKER Time: 11:45 PM Thanks for finding that old note, Steve; I pretty much have tunnel vision and miss most of what goes on with other subjects on the board. As far as the passage that you found jarring toward the end, I assume it's this one, the book's final paragraph: This is truly the great gain of post-Freudian thought; it gives us a merger of science and tragedy on a sophist- icated level, one where science does not drop out of the picture. We surely will never be able to do great things with our condition on this planet, but we can again throw something solid into the balance of irrationalism. When all is said and done about the failure of thought to influence man's fate, we have already witnessed great things in our time: Marxism has already had an enormous influence for human survival: it stopped Hitler in Russia, and it eliminated the gratuitous and age-old miseries of most numerous people on earth. We have no way of knowing what gain will come out of Freudian thought when it is finally assimilated in its tragic and true meanings. Perhaps it will introduce just that minute measure of reason to balance destruction. This seems to me not to be Becker approving of Marxism or Stalinism, but to acknowledge the enormous power it's had on human history -- and that all started with an idea in one man's head. For good or ill, Marx shows the immense potential that thought can have to influence events. So it would seem that we're not necessarily doomed to play out the roles that our own natures have cast us in: we can use our heads and, by understanding the realities of the dilemma we find ourselves in, work to make things better. Becker seems none to optimistic that mankind will in fact do this, but he doesn't think it impossible, either. I wouldn't say I found this a depressing book, though it's definitely sobering and unsettling. And dense, as noted above; plan on spending about three times as long reading it as you would for a fiction work of similar length. Considering that it may change the way you think about some fundamental issues, that extra time may be well invested. Allen

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
After receiving a Ph.D in Cultural Anthropology from Syracuse University, Dr. Ernest Becker (1924-1974) taught at the University of California at Berkeley, San Francisco State College, and Simon Fraser University, Canada. The Ernest Becker Foundation maintains a web site.

 
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