60. Avoiding the Oedipal Project
Ernest Becker, in his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973), argues that “the problem of heroics is the central one of human life, that it goes deeper into human nature than anything else because it is based on organismic narcissism and on the child’s need for self-esteem as the condition of his life. Society itself is a codified hero system, which means that society everywhere is a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning” (7). He goes on to claim that healthy self-development is intimately connected to an awareness of the heroics one is practicing and whether or not this heroics satisfies two “ontological motives”: the need to affirm oneself and the need to yield (251). Unfortunately most of us are shaped by what he calls the Oedipal Project “which is a flight from passivity, from obliteration, from contingency” (36). To exist is, of course, to be enmeshed in all sorts of relations that create dependencies and make us vulnerable. In the face of these relations we long to be self-born. Recall that Oedipus, in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, killed his father and married his mother. By marrying his mother Oedipus is, symbolically, his own father: he is a causa sui or a cause of himself. Such a being would, like God, be necessary, would avoid all contingency and dependency, and would be fully active with no passivity. Alas, existence breaks through and threatens our projects to be necessary and live forever. As a result, we engage in all kinds of destructive and even evil actions to hold contingency and death at bay. But if we can learn to stop denying death then we can learn to avoid the repressions, failures, and dangers of a life lived in accordance with the Oedipal Project. Indeed, we can learn to recognize our limits and be more humble. However, this need not turn us into pessimistic creatures who passively accept our fate. For this recognition of limits is consistent with a chastened heroism that can still bring significance in our lives. John Dewey, whose philosophical vision of experience also emphasized an active and passive dimension in all our efforts, captured this point beautifully in his book Experience and Nature (Dover, 1958):
“Men move between extremes. They conceive of themselves as gods, or feign a powerful and cunning god as an ally who bends the world to do their bidding and meet their wishes. Disillusionized, they disown the world that disappoints them; and hugging ideals to themselves as their own possession, stand in haughty aloofness apart from the hard course of events that pays so little heed to our hopes and aspirations. But a mind that has opened itself to experience and that has ripened through discipline knows its own littleness and impotencies; it knows that its wishes and acknowledgments are not final measures of the universe whether in knowledge or conduct, and hence are, in the end, transient. But it also knows that its juvenile assumption of power and achievement is not a dream to be wholly forgotten. It implies a unity with the universe that is to be preserved. The belief, and the effort of thought and struggle which it inspires are also the doing of the universe, and they in some way, however slight, carry the universe forward. A chastened sense of our importance, apprehension that it is not a yard-stick with which to measure the whole, is consistent with the belief that we and our endeavors are significant not only for themselves but in the whole” (419-420).
Dear Dwight, I am curios on your thoughts regarding the Oedipal Project.
I don’t think everyone denies death and I am not confident that society is essentially a codified heroic system. But I think Becker’s analysis applies to many, many people and really illuminates a great deal of human experience, motivation, fear, culture, institutions, etc. It certainly illuminated my life for the better and it is a wonderful thesis that I apply quite often. But like so many influential psychological perspectives, I think it needs to be supplemented with other considerations. Feel free to let me know what you think.