Archive for March, 2012


Art and Death in Louisville, Kentucky

March 27, 2012

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

Perhaps this would have been more appropriately titled “Art, Death, and You,” because with this post I’d like to invite you to explore the 2012 Motherlodge Festival in Louisville. Motherlodge is the brainchild of professional drummer Ray Rizzo. In short, it is a semi-annual cultural exchange between the two cities where Ray splits residence, Louisville and New York. In the Spring, artists, musicians and actors based largely in New York travel to Louisville to share a bite of the Big Apple with Kentucky. In the Fall, Kentuckians reciprocate with a visit to New York. Now in its fourth year, the festival has improved and expanded every year. This year we want to do something new, which is to invite friends of the Ernest Becker Foundation to not only observe, but also participate in the process. Several of the scheduled events will have Beckerian themes. This is by design. As I’ve argued in previous posts, artists are the re-mythologizers of culture and a re-mythologization of death is a necessary component of getting past the denial that grips us. Recall how Becker explains that it is the artist who can confront the terror of mortality by transforming the anxiety through creativity.

The entire schedule for the festival is available at The schedule can be found under the heading Spring Motherlodge 2012. While the entire festival is wonderful, here are a few specific events that will be of particular interest to you:

  • Artist Jim Gavenus will create an opportunity to explore death through an exhibition of photographs of people at the moment of their passing.
  • Crawling Between Heaven and Hell is a retelling of Hamlet, but set in 1920s rural America. Themes of mortality, power, and denial flow through the entire work.
  • A long table discussion of Becker and death anxiety featuring members of the coroner’s office, a police officer involved with gang violence, members of the Joseph of Arimathea Society who provide burial services for the indigent, a hospice nurse, and others.

The long table discussion will allow participation through Facebook by members of EBF and we encourage you to post questions and comments to the live stream of the event. Here are directions for doing just that. The conversation will be at 3:30 EST on Saturday, March 31.

How to use Facebook chat while watching live Motherlodge shows. All for free!

1. Check out the schedule of live broadcasts listed below the player.

2. During a broadcast, click the Facebook “Check in & Chat” button on the right sidebar.

3. Log in with your Facebook info.

4. In the next window, write a message to invite your friends to chat and click the “Post to Wall” button.

5. You’re there! Enjoy the live broadcast and chat with other people watching online.

This Motherlodge Festival offers a great opportunity to bring artists together with academics, health care professionals, and others to create a richer and more creative dialog about Becker.  Two sets of communities are coming together. Artists are getting exposure from your viewing and participation and the artists are in turn being exposed to Becker and the EBF. This is a small start toward what the dreamer in me hopes will be an ever expanding conversation that produces concrete results. The door is open. Drop in.


Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas

March 20, 2012

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

With song titles such as Going Home, Amen, Come Healing, and Darkness, it is not surprising that Leonard Cohen’s new album, Old Ideas, resonates with themes that Ernest Becker addresses. Indeed, in a New York Times interview Cohen stated that the work is a reflection on mortality. With an able assist from lyricist Patrick Leonard, Cohen engages with central questions, confronts primal fears, and describes a life lived forward in a way that both gnaws at and comforts the listener.  Minimal arrangements coupled with a gravely monotone spoken-word delivery produce a drone that has the effect of hearing prolonged Tibetan chanting. You could easily miss gems like this from the song Banjo in which Cohen describes impending death: “It’s coming for me darling, no matter where I go. Its duty is to hurt me. My duty is to know.”  The duty to know? That sounds like the response of a person who has taken up the task of wrestling with unrepression: someone who has seen the future and refuses the seduction of denial. With this post I would like to explore the lyrics of a particular song, Going Home. Take time to consider these  lyrics.

Going Home
Leonard Cohen/Patrick Leonard

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He just doesn’t have the freedom
To refuse

He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man a vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tube

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
To where it’s better

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without the costume
That I wore

He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for the living with defeat

A cry above the suffering
A sacrifice recovering
But that isn’t what I need him to complete

I want to make him certain
That he doesn’t have a burden
That he doesn’t need a vision

That he only has permission
To do my instant bidding
That is to say what I have told him
To repeat

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

The presentation of self-consciousness is quite powerful, is it not? The third-person running commentary we carry on within ourselves from time to time serves as the vehicle for a view of the self that is by turns loathing and affirming. The self-conscious presentation of the self to the external world coexists with knowledge of the man behind the mask. We hear the existential cry for transcendence, “a cry above the suffering” that is dashed against the hard stone of reality. It is Cohen’s ability to bestride both psychic worlds that is so intriguing. It nicely reflects Tillich’s famous “courage to be.” Cohen’s description of himself as an “elaboration of a tube” nicely reflects the evolutionary process as well as what Becker describes as the horror of the natural world, the global cafeteria of food in/food out. And yet, this tube is not frozen. It is moving. It is going home. And it is going home consciously, “without the costume that I wore,” a clear reference to the vital lie of culture. The contrasting feelings of mortal resignation and freedom from cultural roles inhabit a liminal world, the world where the falling angel meets the rising ape. As with Becker, there is no apotheosis. At song’s end, he is still in his suit, although he no doubt inhabits it differently than when he first slipped it on. With Old Ideas, Leonard Cohen faces his mortality by fashioning something, making an offering, so to speak, and dropping it into the confusion.


Right Policy, Wrong Reasoning

March 13, 2012

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

Unlike Huffington Post commentator Sarah O’Leary ( I do not at all doubt the deep sincerity of the US Roman Catholic Bishops’ objections to the extension of birth control access among American women, nor their abhorrence at the thought that employers who share their convictions against such practices will be expected nevertheless to provide for it in their employee health insurance plans. The Bishops and others of similar conviction have every right to their views. They are right to object to policies of the Obama Administration that would make birth control measures readily accessible to American women. That said, I should add that in my view, the Bishops are very wrongheaded in their convictions. Yet they do us all a service to religiously patrol the borders of religious liberty.

Americans highly value religious liberty, and in general we support a “hands off” policy toward religious beliefs and practices. This approach is wise politically and theologically. However, this hands off approach is not absolute. There are numerous examples in which we desire and expect the State to intervene to protect our fellow citizens against the sincerely held convictions of a minority of religious believers.

Regardless of their sincerely held religious convictions, we do not allow parents to withhold standard necessary medical treatment from their children. We deem this unfair to those children, our fellow citizens. Regardless of sincerely held religious convictions (and plenty of biblical precedent) we do not sanction bigamous or polygamous marriage. We deem this unfair to the second and third wives and their children, our fellow citizens. In these and many other cases that could be cited, we desire and expect the State to intervene on behalf of the health and welfare of our fellow citizens, even though it means contravening the undoubtedly sincere convictions of a minority of religious believers.

Thus with clear studies indicating that women’s general health is significantly improved with regular access to effective birth control procedures, it is completely in line with our generally hands-off approach to religious liberty for the State, in the interest of protecting our fellow citizens’ health and welfare, to pursue a policy that maximally facilitates birth control access for any woman who wants it, even against the sincerely held convictions of a minority of religious believers.

But I would caution against dismissing this all as just so much politics. The religious liberty issue has merit, and needs to be examined closely whenever it arises. We do not want State authorities to simply presume they can act willy-nilly against the deeply held convictions of religious minorities. We should be grateful that the concern has been raised in this case as well.

The Obama administration could have handled this with more tact and diplomacy, and quite frankly, for a supposed Constitutional scholar, Obama’s own pronouncements on what does and does not constitute legitimate religious convictions betrays a woeful lack of deep understanding of the issues involved in the concept of Separation of Church and State. Nonetheless, their concrete policy is clearly the correct one, in line with the historical precedent of what we expect from the State, to protect the health and well-being of our fellow citizens.


Batman in Diapers

March 6, 2012

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

What we can’t think about:  People support the goals of Occupy Wall Street as long as nobody does anything.

You hear the complaint from all sides: people are fed up with abuses and injustice–why won’t they do anything about it?  The complaints label concerned but inert folks “sheeple.”  A recent post here showed that social science might see the sheepish inaction as an expression of underlying fears that open demonstrations such as OWS are a threat to law and order.   It’s OK to think protest, but to act on it rouses fears of blood in the streets.

That argument sounds reasonable.  But it’s an adult explanation. Let’s expand on that:

The basic problem is that we’re children.  As a species, we’re the neotenates: we start as helpless infants and grow up slowly, retaining childlike characteristics to the end.  As children we’re submissive, care-soliciting animals, curious, playfully exploratory.  It takes years before we realize that we kill and eat Piggy, Chickie, and the Moocow.   Our emergency demands often come out as tantrums, which signal loss of control and may frighten us as much as they do parents.  We’re socialized to fear and hate tantrums.  We grow into “adults.”

That’s “adults” in scare quotes.

“Adults” carefully control tantrums.  The most vicious outburst is war, which of course is highly ritualized and rationalized with lots of submissive saluting and obeying orders. It’s takes place in the “theater of war.”   Theatricality makes the tantrum adult. Hitler famously rehearsed his.  Right wing rant talkshows stage the climactic outburst that “knocks em dead.”  The invective, the humiliated opponent–it’s predictable and exciting.  And carefully arranged to have no consequences.  You can lie, you can fume, you can feel ten feet tall with righteous wrath.  But as in a Hollywood shootout, nobody gets killed and the avenged hero and his girl ride off into the sunset.

If you silently agree with those scruffy protesters, you’re an adult in your living room.  If you join them, you may feel you have safety pins holding up your underpants.  Lose your adult status and you lose self-esteem.  You lose yourself.  You face social death.

If you stay an “adult,” you can agree with Occupy themes such as the need to tax the rich more, and remain supremely right.  Nobody’s going to drag you off or pepper spray you.  Your boss won’t sack you.  Your self-esteem is intact. Contrast this with the Occupy protesters.  They’re a crowd, but you’re not bodily in it, so you don’t share that crowd energy that Canetti describes in Crowds and Power.  Worse, like any open protest, their behavior raises the specter of punishment.  The stern parental police and the adversarial One Percent make it clear that they’re always on the edge of cracking down on the kids and the Kid in you.

The threat isn’t just police violence either.  It’s also shame.  The protesters are mostly young.  And they’re acting young.  They’re not used to the world’s hypocrisy.  For them, horseshit is, well, horseshit.  They’re trying to humorous in some of their signs and get-ups.

The crackdown on the “kids” threatens not to break bones so much as self-esteem.  Pepper spray leaves you helpless and crying–like a squalling infant.  Mass arrests don’t threaten years in the gulag; rather they harass the unruly children, like being made to write “I won’t protest” 100 times on the blackboard.  The law takes your money and time and mixes you in the holding tank with lowlife miscreants.  It’s not a negotiation among citizens; it’s a spanking.

And then there’s the basic problem.  If you act on your protest, you’re no longer practically apart and neutral.  On the contrary, you’ve taken a position and any impasse that follows reminds you how helpless and insignificant you are.  In effect, you put yourself outside the community of everyday habit and now your exposed helplessness can feel like social death.  You say you’re part of the 99% but you feel like zero as the limousines leave you in the dust.

And the final turn of the screw is that it’s all visceral.  The behavior isn’t the outcome of a strategic plan or a syllogism.  It’s a gut feeling that you’ve stood up to be counted and somebody’s laughing at you.  Let’s face it, futility feels like death.

What it needs is courage and principle and the hide of a rhino.  Here’s a true story from January 2012:

A public employee in the richest town in Massachusetts is called to a construction site in town.  A retired Wall Street banker in his early 40s has bought three McMansions and had them torn down so he can build a proper McMansion for his family.  The town worker notices a building the size of a garden shed built of beautiful cut granite standing beside the demolition site.  When he inquires, he’s told that the new owner wants to build the new Super Mansion out of granite from a special quarry in Pennsylvania.  But to see how it would look, the owner’s had them build a custom granite garden shed first.  “And a good thing too.  Because the owner decided he didn’t much like it and wants it torn down too.”

Sorry, pal.  No guns in the saloon.