Archive for the ‘The Humanities’ Category


A Call for Readings

June 2, 2013
"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

One of the best things about working with Becker in the classroom is that it provides such a great resource for continually seeing him anew through the eyes of students. They bring a fresh world of experience to the eternal dilemma Becker raises. My own teaching practice has gradually shifted away from explaining Becker  toward  allowing the students to respond to their initial exposure to Becker. Actually engaging a discrete,  distinct component of Becker’s thought in a direct and powerful way can open the door for student to follow up, not just intellectually, but existentially. This post is concerned with using Becker in the classroom and will conclude with a request that you suggest readings from the Becker canon that can be used effectively. Socratic method is the vehicle I am experimenting with and a brief word about the technique is in order. I am new to the formal technique myself and realize many colleagues may be more experienced, and so I welcome input on that front  as well.

Socratic method has as its goal the exercise of the mind in the pursuit of understanding. The purpose is not to come up with a final correct answer, but rather to engage a multi-layered idea, one open to interpretation and resistant to pat answers. How perfect. The entire sweep of Becker’s illuminating work is to ask the next question and avoid the easy out, and therefore it is genuinely compatible with the Socratic goal. For those of you familiar with Robert Pirsig’s Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, this is approaching Becker in pursuit of The Good, rather than The True. Dialogue, rather than debate, is the vehicle for in-class conversation and this allows the idea in question to be held like a jewel to the light, the different facets on display. The endorphin rush of a great conversation or moment of insight can “set the hook” for further work with Becker in the classroom; “Hey class, remember that conversation we had a while back?”

The key to a good Socratic dialogue is the selection of the specific reading, piece of art or music to be worked with. Length can be from a couple lines to a couple paragraphs. The reading should be open to interpretation with layers of meaning to be explored. The topic should be broad and of existential significance, that is, something the students care about. Something that really challenges or moves people is best.  As examples, I’ve used the Edwin Arlington Robinson poem “Richard Cory” and entry  #49 from the James Carse book Finite And Infinite Games. One great way to judge a given reading for its utility is to see if you can ask a really good question of the text. Does the text raise more questions than it answers?  A question that you yourself struggle with would be best of all.

So would you consider reviewing your mental catalogue of favorite Becker passages and sending them to me in the comments section? I’m most familiar with Denial of Death and Escape From Evil, but anything at all is fine— and that includes Kierkegaard, Rank, and Leichty. I am very hopeful that we can generate a decent handful of readings that we can use to introduce Becker to a broader audience. Thanks in advance for your insight and assistance.


Reading Ernest Becker in 2011

August 1, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

Recently a person contacted me to say that he had read Ernest Becker’s 1974 book, The Denial of Death, and felt that it was more or less entirely worthless because what Becker wrote about homosexuality was outdated and wrong. I have heard similar strong criticisms of Becker’s work because he failed to directly criticize patriarchy and his language follows the style of using male pronouns. We do, of course, always have to be willing to criticize (that is, read critically) authors of earlier times. But I am not sure it is fair or just (or good scholarship) to dismiss an author because he or she reflects in specific instances the standards and assumptions of his or her own time rather than out own. I have no idea what the standards and assumptions will be 50 or 100 years from now, but I am sure that my current writing will violate something. I hope the readers of the future, if they be kind enough then to still read anything I have written, will do so with grace and a critical eye. Anyway, here is what I wrote in reply to this gentleman:

“I am sympathetic with you for what you went through in coming to terms with your sexual orientation during a time [1970s] in which homosexuality was still extremely taboo in this country. I have heard personal stories about this struggle from a number of close friends. I can only say that I respect you for what you went through and for bearing the brunt of the social prejudices, opening the doors so that it is at least somewhat easier for the current generation of adolescents and young adults.

You are, of course, absolutely correct that Ernest Becker was a human being, a man of his time, and despite his insights into certain aspects of the human situation, his thinking in a number of areas was not particularly progressive. It would be a tragic mistake to approach any of Becker’s texts as some sort of fixed scriptural cannon from which only pearls of truth and wisdom magically emerge. His texts also are only all too human.

Therefore, we can and must simply jettison and ignore what Becker wrote about particular religious, social and political issues of his time, including especially his few statements about women and homosexuality (which, while not particularly progressive to our ears, were actually much less patriarchal and homophobic than much of what was in the literature of that time.) That said, many of us have found key aspects of Becker’s work (most specifically, the death anxiety thesis) that continue to be very useful in constructing a more liberated ethic and philosophy in our time. It helps us understand at a deep level the ins and outs of human motivation, both at an individual and collective level. It lends itself well to explicating dynamics of transference, idolization, scapegoating, alienation, disgust, and many more, tying these various dynamics together and showing that they spring from a common source.

That hermeneutic continues to keep Becker’s work fresh. For example, while what Becker wrote about homosexuality fairly well followed the standard line of established psychoanalytic theory of the 1960s, might it not be that the death anxiety thesis does contribute to understanding some of the key human dynamics involved in the social ostracism of sexual minorities during the 1970s (and, unfortunately, ongoing into our own time, though hopefully that prejudicial ostracism is abating)?

Perhaps, given your experience with Becker’s text 40 years ago it is impossible to approach this work with anything but contempt. That is certainly understandable. At the same time, as said, many of us have found the death anxiety thesis to be of continuing value, and that by standing on Becker’s shoulders (so to speak) we can see much farther than Becker ever could or than we could without him.”