Last night I read in “The Shorter Writings of Ernest Becker” (thanks to Dan for putting these shorter pieces together) Becker’s talk on Perls, and though Becker does praise Perls, he thinks Perls has limitations, “important” ones, the most glaring one (hard to overlook if you are a Beckerian) being that Perls overlooked “the haunting anxieties of the human condition.” In short, Becker says that the therapy Perls insists on is essentially worthless in answering the major questions of the human condition–and you know what those problems are as well as I.
I like this short “essay” on Perls. It certainly adumbrates ideas that will be further explored in Denial, one of which is the idea of character as the lie to help us avoid the existential dilemma: “. . .underneath everything that is at stake in human life, the thing that is really at stake is the problem of terror of this planet.” It’s meet, I think, to recall that when Becker gave this speech,1970, a lot of people thought that the culture was on the verge of solving the woes of the human condition; that is, paradise, an unrepressed, and anxiety-free life was possible–through a new way of looking at the world, or, if you will, through a special kind of therapy. All the best therapy can do, as Becker tells us, is strip away one’s lies and leave one exposed to the almost unbearable terror of existence. For me at least, Becker’s analogy of the person in analysis with the member of AA is an effective one. Both present a new kind of awareness, but it’s hardly a panacea; it’s dark place, where one truly understand that one “has been in effect kicked out of paradise,” that one has finally “come to see the conditions of life on this planet as they really are.” Becker intimates that the best one can hope for is to find oneself a little less “driven.” He does more than intimate; he flatly says it, unambiguously and bluntly. Life is always the problem with living, And of course the person who has ripped away the lie of character sees this truth clearer than anyone else. Is the truth its own comfort? It might be. Still, under the best conditions, the most aware human being is desperately lost, profoundly ignorant, and, at times, terrified by the mystery of both his or her existence and his or her inexorable, unavoidable death.
As far as the existential dilemma is concerned, there is no magic bullet. I think it is to Becker’s great credit that in the late 60s and early 70s he saw through a lot of the nonsense being bruited about, the notion that it was somehow possible for people to avoid or solve the vexations of life, its inherent miseries. The messiahs of this era cried out in praise of the body, that we should be polymorphously perverse, unrepressed in our sexual activity. Rejecting reason and restraint, these voices celebrated the flesh. Becker flatly states we cannot have sex without guilt—and the reason why, of course, is that sex, gild it how you will, is of the body, and the body is corruptible flesh.
Becker in some ways reminds me of Emily Dickinson (a far-fetched comparison to be sure). Dickinson once looked out the window of her home and as she watched the people of Amherst traverse the streets, walking and riding in wagons, she turned to her brother, Austin, and asked without any irony: “How do those people live without thinking?” What she was asking was “How do they carry on with all the terror in the world?” Well, they lied to themselves. Dickinson couldn’t lie to herself. She instinctively saw the truth of the human condition. Her ego was strong enough for her to live with the truth.
But here’s the point: the truth did not solve her problems, somehow lift her above the common struggling of what it means to be human. Her truth provided her no paradise. With no lies to sustain her, she was left to face the hard truth, and she did face the truth, with courage and genius. She no doubt, as Becker says, could “start looking at things a little more pristinely.” She possessed too, without a doubt, a “more authentic awareness.” But did she find the elusive answers to the riddle of life? No. Did she avoid suffering? No. She might have suffered more. In one poem she speaks of being put down into life, as if it were a room without doors. Despair is not to be avoided; it is to be dealt with. I think Becker is right: life is untenable from the beginning. It is an examination for which no answers exist.
We are still stuck on the fundamental question: why is there something rather than nothing? The other day I sat at my kitchen table and read an article about the immensity of the universe, the billions and billons of stars in the billions and billions of galaxies. I looked out the kitchen window and saw the family’s fat cat, Hillary, lying on the sidewalk. She lay upon her back, her ample belly exposed to the sun, and while she lay supine there, she moved her front paws as if trying to seize the impalpable and incorporeal air itself. The image of a self-conscious creature watching the cat in the sun stunned me more than stories of infinity, of space stretching forever and forever. Good God, if there can be a grain of sand, there can be anything.