John Berger is an old friend. I've never met the man other than in his writing. The Shape of a Pocket, back in 2003 was our introduction. I was tempted to write "our one-sided introduction," but that would insult the esteem in which I place the man's work. To engage John Berger's writing is simultaneously, to make it alive and active--to read an essay is to have the essay read you. Always insightful, there isn't much reason why you shouldn't interview your response right after reading anything Berger finds purpose in attending to in words.
Today I purchased Hold Everything Dear Dispatches on Survival and Resistance, meant to be a post-9/11 voiced analysis of terrorism and despair. The very first piece is titled Twelve Theses on the Economy of the Dead. The title is very much the description. The following is the twelfth theses:
12. How do the living live with the dead? Until the dehumanization of society by capitalism, all the living awaited the experience of the dead. It was their ultimate future. By themselves the living were incomplete. Thus living and dead were interdependent. Always. Only a uniquely modern form of egoism has broken this interdependence. With disastrous results for the living, who now think of the dead as eliminated.
Before continuing on, I would like to bring notice to the 75th passage in Ted Kaczynski's Industrial Society and its Future (more commonly referred to as, The Unabomber Manifesto). In it, Kaczynski suggests that due to the modern substitution of challenging biological activity in man, for biological activity that is either not challenging enough or unreasonably challenging to the point of near impossibility--modern man suffers from unfulfillment, as he cannot securely control his own life. This desirable possession of one's own life is what Kaczynski terms The Power Process. In brief, the power process is stifled by Industrial Society which simultaneously pampers its citizens while leaving them powerless against laws and moral codes which they must obey or observe harsh consequences. It is in passage 75 that Kazcynski ushers our attention to the interesting parallel between modern and primitive man; namely how primitive man--due to his experience of the power process, was better able to cope with death, while modern man is always in need of more time, wishing to prolong death, and seeking constant means to legacy and immortality.
75. In primitive societies life is a succession of stages. The needs and purposes of one stage having been fulfilled, there is no particular reluctance about passing on to the next stage. A young man goes through the power process by becoming a hunter, hunting not for sport or for the fulfillment but to get meat that is necessary for food...This phase having been successfully passed through, the young man has no reluctance about settling down to the responsibilities of raising a family. (In contrast, some modern people indefinitely postpone having children because they are too busy seeking some kind of "fulfillment". We suggest that the fulfillment they need is adequate experience of the power process--with real goals instead of the artificial goals of surrogate activities.) Again, having successfully raised his children, going through the power process of providing them with the physical necessities, the primitive man feels that his work is done and he is prepared to accept old age (if he survives that long) and death. Many modern people, on the other hand, are disturbed by the prospect of death, as is shown by the amount of effort they expend trying to maintain their physical condition, appearance and health. We argue that this due to unfulfillment resulting from the fact that they never put their physical powers to any use, have never gone through the power process using their bodies in a serious way. It is not the primitive man, who has used his body daily for practical purposes, who fears the deterioration of age, but the modern man, who has never had any practical use for his body beyond walking from his car to his house. It is the man whose need for the power process has been satisfied during his life who is best prepared to accept the end of that life.
Is unfulfillment part of our modern egoism? Included among the unfulfilled are artists, celebrities, scientists, and scholars, anyone who is obsessed with their work as a mean to find purpose in their life and perhaps leave behind an accomplishment that immortalizes them. Is our vanity based on fear? If so, it would appear that we have successfully fooled ourselves into believing that a longer, healthier life full of accomplishments and global experience is the key to a happy death (even though we'd rather avoid death altogether if we can help it). It is true that we view death as a disease that science could eventually cure. Yet, without an end, how could we ever complete a life? Is there a way to turn back to primitive life? Once the wheels turn forward I wouldn't think it logical to turn back; but what is a prospective possibility is the reintroduction of death as a part of life, a part not to be feared; but to accomplish this means to break free of certain restrictions placed by society's conformist control over the masses. However, breaking free should carefully not lead us back to primitive life, instead utilize an aspect of it to move us forward. The future should be a reintroduction of a past success, incorporated into the present to invest in a maximized possibility for a future.