CONFRONTING CROWDS AND POWER: 6. The Survivor (The Survivor in Primitive Belief)

18 April 2013


To change the world, we must not only solve our problems; we must also solve our pleasures.

Introduction & Disclaimer

This is the thirty-fifth entry in a series that ambitiously addresses, section by section over the course of a year+ Canetti’s  Crowds and Power [1] and the fourth to address Part 6 (The Survivor), which Canetti breaks up into several sections.  Here I cover sections 8, “The Survivor in Primitive Belief” [2]

As a partial framing, it has become clear that Canetti’s sense of what a survivor is may be equated with people tending toward or clinically expressing what today is called narcissistic personality disorder; these traits include (and it will be helpful to keep this in mind while reading through the following):

Reacting to criticism with anger, shame, or humiliation; taking advantage of others to reach own goals; exaggerating own importance, achievements, and talents; imagining unrealistic fantasies of success, beauty, power, intelligence, or romance; requiring constant attention and positive reinforcement from others; becoming jealous easily; lacking empathy and disregarding the feelings of others; being obsessed with self; pursuing mainly selfish goals; trouble keeping healthy relationships; becoming easily hurt and rejected; setting goals that are unrealistic; wanting “the best” of everything; appearing unemotional. In addition to these symptoms, the person may also display dominance, arrogance, show superiority, and seek power. … Narcissists have such an elevated sense of self-worth that they value themselves as inherently better than others. However, they have a fragile self-esteem and cannot handle criticism, and will often try to compensate for this inner fragility by belittling or disparaging others in an attempt to validate their own self-worth. It is this sadistic tendency that is characteristic of narcissism as opposed to other psychological conditions affecting level of self-worth (from here).

Although individuals with NPD are often ambitious and capable, the inability to tolerate setbacks, disagreements or criticism, along with lack of empathy, make it difficult for such individuals to work cooperatively with others or to maintain long-term professional achievements. With narcissistic personality disorder, the individual’s self-perceived fantastic grandiosity, often coupled with a hypomanic mood, is typically not commensurate with his or her real accomplishments (from here). Other people are either manipulated as an extension of one’s own self, who serve the sole role of giving “admiration and approval” or they are seen as worthless (because they cannot collude with the narcissist’s grandiosity) (from here).

The Survivor in Primitive Belief

The Survivor as Sociopath

In advance, I confess a certain dread about what Canetti will dish up here. I also must point out again that in order to make his point, he has to venture back hundreds or thousands of years to find the context that makes his remarks have even the slightest semblance of sense. This approach amounts to rooting around to find even the smallest character defect in a person, and then shouting, “Ha! See! Rotten to the core.”[3]

To assert that all men are rapists may be more politically galvanizing and thus useful for activism than all men, given the wrong conditions, may commit acts of rape, but as a basis for social policy (as opposed to a basis for the dialogue that we need to have, for example, about rape culture), it fails in adequacy. And so selectively cherry-picking examples from the anthropological record to assert that all cultures commit atrocities as opposed to asserting that some cultures, given the wrong conditions, commit atrocities—or more simply that all humans are bad (and so can never create anything like a good culture) rather than some humans, given the wrong conditions, act badly—may be more politically galvanizing toward whatever dialogue needs to be conducted about the matter, but as a basis for a social policy, or even as the Weltanschauung of an individual, it fails in adequacy. In particular, insofar as all people in some configuration recognize the values of fairness, empathy, recognition, an cooperation, to assert that all men are rapists or all humans are bad goes against all four principles at once: (1) it is unfair, because it assumes every character defect in a person; (2) it is a misrecognition, because it substitutes one’s own prejudicial conclusion for whatever one actually sees of a person; (3) it undoes cooperation, because other people are then approached with an at best grudging assent to association; (4) it is uncompassionate (non-empathetic), because it grants no possibility of anything but judgmental understanding for all acts that a person does, good and bad. Just as original sin is rooted in (schizophrenic) paranoia—because the voices in my head tell me that all people are always bad, even when they seem not to be—this sort of Weltanschauung affines with narcissism, or radical sociopathic egotism.

Canetti begins by talking about how mana accrues to people and objects who slay; amongst the Marquesa, “by killing his opponent the survivor becomes stronger and the addition of mana makes him capable of new victories” (251). The problem continues to be the bare assertion of killing another with survival. Why is it, if killing per se yields the sorts of effects of survival Canetti insists upon, do we not more regularly slaughter children? Why go to all the trouble of killing an armed adult, if killing itself is all it takes to be a survivor? Canetti, confused in the midst of his own argument, insists that “the physical presence of the enemy, first alive and then dead, is essential” (251), and then says immediately after, “There must have been fighting, and killing, and the personal act of killing is crucial” (251). Here is the confusion in a nutshell.

In terms of the basic coherence (or incoherence) Canetti provides here, we cannot lose sight of that other form of survivor: the soldier with shellshock, battle fatigue, operational exhaustion, or post-traumatic stress disorder. These are people who by and large personally killed or certainly were proximate to or witnessed it, and they do not come away from the event full of themselves like Canetti suggests. Nor are these survivors in the sense usually encountered in survivor’s guilt, those who have lived through a catastrophe while losing others, haunted by the question, “Why me?”

So, setting aside those other survivors, we can return to Canetti’s muddled point: on the one hand mere killing is enough, but he then insists that fighting is necessary. The latter necessarily presupposes some kind of at least seeming equality between the fighters. Canetti is veering toward the topos of the hero, and will turn to it in a moment, but one may still say that a hero is no hero who does not have a worthy opponent. There was a much hyped MMA fight where a rather well-known boxer was getting into the cage with a veteran MMA fighter, and the whole event was surrounded by something of a pissing match between fans of boxing, who claimed MMA was illegitimate or at least not so worthy as boxing itself, while the MMA fans denounced such disciplinary chauvinism as puffery. And when the fight finally started, within 20 seconds, the boxer had been laid out, defeated. Self-evidently, this was a grossly mismatched fight after all, but that realization after the fact does not diminish the veteran MMA fighter’s victory, especially not in the eyes of his loyalists.

So in this case, there was certainly fighting—notwithstanding, of course, the possible fraud involved since this is a paid form of entertainment—but if the same veteran fighter were to smash the face of an 8-year-old boy with a stick, or an unarmed opponent, then the miasma of heroism would far less likely accrue in the minds of onlookers and would likely gratify the ego of the fighter only were he something like a sociopath. There was a time when I pissed someone off to the point that he wanted to fight me, and I told him, “Beat on me all you want, I won’t fight back.” To my good fortune, the annoyed man was more of a hero than a narcissist, because the thought of engaging in a physical struggle where the other person refused to fight back smacked of dishonor to him, and instead of persisting in his insistence on fighting me, he backed off. A bully or a sadist, of course, would have delighted in my announcement—I’m not pretending they wouldn’t, but their sense of bullying and sadism as a basis for their self-aggrandizement as a “survivor” obviously resembles (if it is not actually) psychopathy.

And that is the pivot Canetti indulges here. In insisting, “There must have been fighting, and killing, and the personal act of killing is crucial” (250), this demands the appearance, at least at the outset of the fight, of some variety of “equality” between the combatants, even if that equality amounts to nothing more than a willingness to get in the ring. It might be, in such a context, that an 8-year-old who takes it upon himself to act like a man and grab a spear constitutes enough of someone “choosing to be in the ring” that mana might accrue to the man who kills him. But where Canetti’s emphasis is merely “the physical presence of the enemy, first alive and then dead, is essential” (251), then any variety of slaughter will do: that budding psychopaths often begin by torturing and killing helpless animals shows the roots of what Canetti describes here.

In other words, his conception of the survivor continuously leaves out this fact of relative equality in the cases he cites. To survive in the sense that Canetti means here, there must have been some likely chance of not surviving, but he neglects this point or conflates them at times, as the above two adjacent sentences above display. This seems to be what allows him to declare someone a survivor where there was no such contention—the sperm that makes it to the egg, for instance, has nothing of any equality about it. This is such a good bad example by Canetti, because the success of the sperm is almost completely independent of the sperm itself—the flailing of its tail might just as readily, in the convection of fluids involved, power the sperm in the wrong as the right direction. But also, notwithstanding the curlicues and whorls of whatever fluid path is traveled toward the egg by the whole wad of cum, wherever the “front” (in the sense of a storm front) of the mass is at any moment is precisely what constitutes the privileged position—a position the sperm had no part in achieving. If we pretend for a moment this involves a straight line from the glans to the ovum, then the sperm that is first out is “automatically” the winner; there’s an image of social privilege for you, the child born to a Brahmin family, to Bill Gates or Warren Buffet or the King of Saudi Arabia. That’s no survivor at all, though nothing stops privilege from puffing itself up, from weeping crocodile tears that they need to survive (and act like they do) because everyone else is out to get them, and other paranoid or narcissistic fantasies.

Canetti then goes on to describe specifically the “survivor in primitive belief” by citing mythology and fiction. It’s just a wee bit amazing that he takes no account of the fact that these examples are stories told about things, rather than uncovering actual evidence of the phenomenology of survival in lived human experience. One also has to say that, insofar as he enters fully into the topos of the hero, that the relevance of these stories to his notion of survival verges on zero. In one story (from Fiji), a boy proves himself to his divine father by wiping out heaps of his enemies—this has nothing to do with survival, even in the narcissistic sense. We can wonder what the telos of the story is, whether it enjoins courage in young men, establishes the legitimacy to rule of any (mortals) who claim descent from the Sky-King, grounds the cultural chauvinism of the Sky-King people over against whoever has been defeated (by a mere boy, no less), gratifies the human tendency to like David and Goliath type stories, serves as an entertaining way to pass the time while sitting around the communal campfire—or all of the above, or something else. What is easily the most bizarre in Canetti’s resort to this as evidence about the character of the survivor is that the story could not have any other outcome; that is, if “in reality” this boy had attacked the Sky-King’s enemies and got annihilated, there would be no myth to record the event (except as a cautionary tale of some sort).

In other words, narratively it is a foregone conclusion that the boy will triumph, and that’s a very unintentional piece of illustration on Canetti’s part. To be more precise, he is attempting to illustrate the topos of the hero but instead he has illustrated the topos of the sociopath—because, from the standpoint of the story’s narrator, there is never any actual equality of combatants. It may be a boy, but he might as well be killing infants. Since the purpose of the tale is likely toward some cultural aim (e.g., legitimating a line of rulers, enjoining courage in young warriors, &c), this foregone conclusion is not problem at all; as a claim that it illustrates the lived, real-world experience of survival, however, it is ensconced utterly in the psychopathic, killing-per-se-gratifies-my-ego mode.

Meanwhile, Canetti ventures deeper into the topos of the hero: “The hero takes pity on his people, sets out quite alone and, in face of great dangers, slays the monster with his own hands. (255). One might simply remember that Gilgamesh didn’t kill anything to retrieve the herb of immortality. The hero is not the one who kills, but the one who does the difficult deed (it often been much simpler just to kill someone than to deal with them as a human being); even a late hero like Heracles—late at least in his Greek incarnation—doesn’t merely murder things, but in one of his labors does something as prosaic as cleaning out some stables. He’s still a hero for doing so.

The Hero: Sociopath and Not

About the story of the hero that we (human beings) tell ourselves, Eliade (1996/1958)[4] notes, “we can state with confidence that man’s desire to place himself naturally and permanently in a sacred place, in the ‘centre of the world’, was easier to satisfy in the framework of the older societies than in the civilizations that have come since” (383, emphasis added). The practical consequence of this ability to be placed at the center was accessibility to the sacred in all of its manifestations, whether for good or for ill. Since then, in the civilizations that have come since, there has been a progressive reduction of the everyday individual’s access to the sacred; here is certainly one of the very roots of scarcity—the first type manufactured. On this view, I proposes a continuum of worldviews that hold the sacred as

  • immediately accessible to anyone
  • accessible only to select (elect) types of individuals, i.e., heroes or priests, who can access the difficult places like under the sea, the underworld, or the realms of spirits
  • already owned or guarded by an existing power so that theft or the killing of the guard by a select or elect individual becomes necessary for access
  • obtaining merely from the destruction of the guarding force, typically conceptualized as a monster[5]

A difficulty of history is that it pollutes our view of the past. To see an example of the first class of access to the sacred, the worldview that anyone observing anything out of the ordinary might be said to have accessed the sacred—noticing the appearance of an albino bison, for instance, or the birth of a hermaphroditic child, &c,—becomes challenging. Thinking of concrete examples, the appearance of the burning bush to Moses seems of this type–an out of hte blue manifestation of the extraordinary that presumably anyone might have encountered and seen–except that Moses is not, and never was, construed to be any mere anybody. YHVH doesn’t appear just to anybody—not even in the case of Adam and Eve—but rather only those who are already limned with divine election. In the same way, visionary shamanism is not something that just happens to anyone,[6] even as the Protestant impulse during the Reformation rested on the notion that anyone could receive divine inspiration. Buddhism specifically rejected the necessity of priests and declared anyone could reach enlightenment. The Bhagavad-Gita stated that salvation was available even to the unsalvageable. The limiting factor in the case of Judeochristianity—as also part of the pervasive rejection of mysticism in historical Christianity—being that one properly speaking could find inspiration only from the authority of scripture.

So it can be difficult to still see the first type in its “raw” form. In Spencer and Gillen’s (1904) report on myth traditions amongst the First Peoples of Australia, the sacred occurs with complete spontaneity all over the place; divine ancestors arise up out of the ground as a matter of course, walk about the country leaving spirit-children behind so that rocks spring up to mark the spot, and then the ancestors die and sink back into the ground, yet another a rock or stream or hill or other geographic feature rising to mark the spot. Such stories were the collective possessions of older men in a tribal group and no doubt could be added to more or less at whim, so there is some limitation to access going on here as well.At one point, Spencer and Gillen (1904) describe how a younger man, i.e., not one of the oldest men, proposes an innovation to a given rite. This is a piece of individual access, but it till gets only temporarily accepted by the older men and is vetted for a while–whether it went on to become  permanent addition to the ceremonial canon Spencer and Gillen were not still around to determine. And, of course, even here it is only a man of a certain age who could even propose such a change in the first place; younger men, children, and women would not even be considered.

In contrast to this form of access to the sacred, Gilgamesh exemplifies the second type. With the advent of settled, intensive agricultural civilization (it seems), much of the world was psychically enclosed in human imagination, but there were still places—the wilds, or (in the US from the eighteenth-century onward) the frontier—where a hero might go and simply “stumble across” the sacred just as human beings could in the more distant historical past or (for instance) in parts of more or less contemporary Australia. The shaman is the quintessential (spiritual) voyager to such sacred places, and it is significant and no coincidence that shamanistic traditions are far older than the kind of geographically oriented “quests to difficult places” such as the one Gilgamesh undertakes.

By later historical periods (i.e., from the first millennium BCE onward), with “all” of the world heavily occupied by various empires and established powers, the world has become even more enclosed; there are fewer and fewer wilds–that is, for those peoples who subsequently wrote down their histories and didn’t consider “the wilds” to be something worth paying attention to as much–so then access to the sacred must proceed by theft from those established powers. The Greek stories of Perseus, Theseus, Bellerophon, Jason and the Argonauts, &c, exemplify this. This view of the sacred takes for granted that everything sacred has already been hoarded—or that the most readily available or worthy examples of the sacred are those already held by someone (the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Sumerians, &c). The world itself per se is no longer sacred, but rather the Powers that have civilized it.

In Canetti’s example of the Jivaro headhunters—assuming the ethnography isn’t bogus—the fact that a tsantsa (a shrunken head) must be made from a human being is related to this third form. It is not enough to make a sacred object out of, say, a jaguar or a python; it must be a human being. So too do the Greek myths, particularly in the descent into the Underworld that each hero undertakes, can we see the acknowledgment of a preexisting and established power (in this case Gaia or Woman). Whether the hero goes into the underworld to steal—as Orpheus more or less does, unsuccessfully—or simply to demonstrate his capacity to go there and return (thus demonstrating his non-subjection to the principle of death or the powers that rule the underworld), the acknowledgment of a preexisting power is implicit in the narrative. Similarly, inasmuch as archaeology and so forth has since discovered that every one of Zeus’ mortal consorts (the mothers of all of the Greek heroes) were Earth Goddesses of local cultures ostensibly, factually, or braggingly absorbed by later Greek culture, here again is an acknowledged theft, if it wasn’t also rape. At what point Woman got denigrated from Goddess to mortal may be difficult to nail down exactly, but the acknowledgment of a preexisting power (the Great Goddess) is still carried even in these late patriarchal stories. In the same way, YHVH claiming to demonstrate his power over the Womb of Creation in the first chapter of Genesis similarly, but only very obliquely, acknowledges the Goddess (the female principle of creation) out of which he springs. In all of these late examples—and in the same way that Beowulf first kills the Goddesses consort, conceptualized as a monster Grendel, and then a figure of the Goddess herself, as She, the destruction of the monster, as the minotaur, the chimera, i.e., the champion or consort of the Goddess, &c., is the prelude to getting entangled in a fugue (and feud) with the goddess herself, as Medusa, &c. Whether the point of all of this is to accrue mana–as Canetti insists–we might remember more saliently that these are stories being told, whose main purpose seems to be to demonstrate the superiority of the storytelling culture over the storytold culture.

This, of course, Canetti forgets or ignores as he rattles off myths as if they demonstrate “primitive belief in survival” but all of this context by me is to place a hard limit on generalizing about the hero motif.  The already late patriarchal sexism (visible in the biblical narrative as well–yet just another sign of the times) makes the hero motif necessarily into the destruction of the Goddess by a hero. In the myth Canetti cites, where a boy clubs a bunch of other men, we see that heroism need not be connected to misogyny, &c. But as Gilgamesh further shows, it needn’t be associated with killing at all. So the conflation of the hero and the survivor—particularly in the narcissistic and sociopathic variety Canetti dwells on—is not necessary either. In fact, Canetti reiterates a long myth in which a man rides around in the belly of a massive snake that keeps killing thousands of other humans—ultimately freeing himself by cutting his way out—and then insists, “A hero is a man who survives again and again by means of killing” (257). This is exactly the opposite sense of the myth he has just recounted, in which he refers to the one-time snake-killer as a hero, i.e., the hero “is, as it were, an innocent hero, for none of the corpses are of his killing (257). The confusion is thick here: the hero survives by killing, yet here is a hero not responsible for the plural killings, an innocent hero.[7]

Catastrophic Survivors: Sociopathic or Not

It at last dawns on Canetti—or he finally admits—that “the survivor need not always be a hero” (257), but again, the example he cites is a myth. Significantly, the survivor is a socially highly placed person, a medicine man—like Noah, he has the gift of prophecy, &c, like Josephus he is accorded socially significant rank. Due to this elect position, he seizes the daughter of the King-Vulture and demands she turn into a woman. Canetti does not continue to analyze the myth at this point, but this masculine command issued to a woman is assented to—yet another (story about the) “demonstration” of masculine magic over feminine magic—and presumably the survivor’s rape of this woman (likely called in the myth his wedding to her) makes the medicine man the (mythological) patriarch of whatever local tribal line is being genealogized. And, as Canetti insists, nothing is a more wholesome embodiment of the survivor than a patriarch. Moreover, “It is remarkable how many tribes all over the world attribute their origin to one couple which alone remains alive after some great catastrophe” (258).

Of these catastrophic survivors, “whilst he lived amongst his fellows he may not have distinguished himself particularly; he was one man like many others. But then suddenly he is entirely alone … Humanity begins again with him and is built on him alone. If he had not had the courage to start again by himself it would not exist at all” (259). Probably the more remarkable thing in this seemingly pathos-ridden passage is the complete non-acknowledgment of the patriarch’s (necessary) wife. There can be no founding line, obviously, without her; humanity is hardly “built on him alone”. Disgusting.[8] But beyond this, Canetti once again disingenuously ignores that these are stories, most probably told by men to men (if the Australian tribes are any example). More than this, however: these are not merely stories in this sense.

The great joy of an apocalypse is that it wipes everything out. Science fiction and narratives about utopia frequently resort to an apocalypse, because how one gets from the current operating order of now to, say, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek universe is, precisely, the problem we have yet to solve as human beings. Thomas Moore simply put his utopia on an undiscovered island; later writers of utopia put it in heaven, on other planets, in the distant past (Atlantis)—this is just a way of avoiding the problem of wiping the slate clean to make room for the social order proposed by the utopia. In the case of the wandering catastrophe survivor that Canetti is pointing to, the catastrophe means the survivor can make up any story about his past. Josephus made sure everyone in the cave was dead—no witnesses, and so he could say whatever he wanted to justify his betrayal of his city and people. Abram is some dubious dirt-bag from Ur, but he’s a “survivor”—claiming to be chased off by a king who wants to kill him, that’s how important he (is claiming to be). And of course, in these sorts of founding myths that Canetti draws attention to, it’s exactly this “stranger from nowhere,” who gets to make up any story he wants about himself, and there are no witnesses anywhere who can fact-check it. Thus, Noah the homophobic, alcoholic, racist can be credited with piety … by his descendants who are politically interested in continuing his shittiness upon others.&c.

In Canetti’s next example, as soon as a male survivor sees a mother and daughter, he immediately “went and took hold of the girl” (260); no hello, no nothing except pure entitlement to rape. In a case of mass suicide by people of the Goat, the last man to suicide (a man of the Lion, but married to a woman of the Goat)  changes his mind, and saves himself and his wife, who protests being saved. The footnote to this episode runs: “this is why to this day the ‘Lions’ say to the ‘Goat’s, ‘It is we who saved you from extinction’”  (qtd in Canetti, 261);[9] so we see the Lion, lacking any witnesses (save for his wife), spinning his act into a boon for his putative allies, the Goats.

Lastly, Canetti cites a story where a lone survivor is sent home to tell his people of their crushing defeat; “In a war of extermination between two South American Indian tribes a single man of the defeated side was left alive by the enemy and sent back to his own people” (261). In which case, he was not the lone survivor, now was he? In addition, this story is told by this supposedly defeated side, because upon receiving word of the insult dealt to them by their enemies, they went after them and (supposedly) exterminated them completely. The story, told by those who bounced back, clearly has the moral: leave no survivors. The other, now-extinct tribe distinguished themselves not only in their barbarity, as cannibals, but also as idiots, in letting one survivor go. This funky math—of total annihilation of a group, followed by the unexpected appearance of more members of that group—may be seen in biblical mythology as well, where any number of non-Israelite various tribes are exterminated by Joshua’s invading forces—man, woman, and child, they are smitten—only to have more show up later. One immediately understands the rhetorical hyperbole involved, and yet Canetti seems to miss this, even as in the same sentence he writes the very contradiction itself: “a single man of the defeated side was left alive by the enemy and sent back to his own people” (261). Obviously what is meant is “a single man from some invading force (that was wiped out)” but the context Canetti attempts to invoke is of total destruction (even if we overlook the fact that the supposedly defeated side are the ones telling this story).

What’s To Be Learned

Canetti closes this chapter with, that single survivor “served both sides, friend and enemy alike. If we have the courage, there is an immense amount we can learn from his dual rôle” (262).

There’s nothing to be learned from that that’s worth learning or isn’t already known. What more is there to learn in rapists realizing they need to kill their victims, or child molesters determining they need to kill their victims, or commandants of POW camps determining they need to kill their victims? What is there to learn in empty braggadocio over the (arguably imaginary, but at a minimum, not present) dead, or people who are deemed worthy of complete immolation, a holocaust? When you look at the parents of Sandyhook being exploited by the current political order that requires for its perpetuation the very environment that created Sandyhook, what is there to be learned from their role as “survivors”? Their “transformation” from victim to hero is—on the side of the government—offensive; it is their deification as victims—the same one’s Lincoln waxes so superciliously about in his Gettysburg address[10]—and that leads to these kinds of stories[11] about being a victim.[12]


[1] All quotations are from Canetti, E. (1981). Crowds and Power (trans. Carol Stewart), 6th printing. New York: NY: Noonday Press. (paperback).

[2] The ongoing attempt of this heap is to get something out of Canetti’s book, and that of necessity means resorting to the classic sense of the essay, as an exploration, using Canetti’s book as a starting point. I can imagine that the essayistic aspect of this project can be demanding—of patience, time, &c. The point of showing an essay, entertainment value (if any) aside, is first and foremost not to be shy about showing the intellectual scaffolding of one’s exposition as much as possible. This showing, however cantankerous the exposition, affords the non-vanity of allowing others to witness all of the missteps, mistakes, false starts, and the like—not in the interest of merely providing a full record (though some essayists may do so out of vanity or mere thoroughness, scholarly drudgery, or self-involvement) but most so that readers may be exasperated enough by the essayist’s stupidities to correct his or her errors and thus contribute to our collective better human understanding of ourselves.

[3] Never mind that Canetti’s project proceeds by first declaring people primitive in order to locate their “barbarity” in sublimated or overt present forms.

[4] Eliade, M. (1996). Patterns in comparative religion. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

[5] I could disagree with myself that this constitutes a form of the acquisition of the sacred, and simply affects the accrual of prestige that comes with an acquisition of the sacred in the other forms.

[6] Eliade, M. (1972). Shamanism: archaic techniques of ecstasy. [Princeton, N.J.]: Princeton University Press.

[7] Canetti’s enthusiasm for this story of a man riding in the belly of the snake and continuously heaped by rotting bodies reaches an uncharacteristic pitch; he writes, the hero “is, as it were, an innocent hero, for none of the corpses are of his killing. But he is in the midst of the putrefaction and endures it. It does not strike him down; on the contrary, one could say it is this which keeps him upright. The concentration of this myth, where everything really important is enacted within the body of the snake, is completely authoritative; it is truth itself” (257).

[8] In another example Canetti cites, two striking things occur. For the first part of the narrative, the last human alive is referred to as a man, but once he espies a mother and her very young daughter, the story refers to him as a youth–this linguistic age regression is a nice detail in the original story. Meanwhile, having wandered, the man sees two bears—and intends to shoot and eat them. “He arrived, and saw that they were not bears, but women. He saw one older one, and the other one a girl. He thought: ‘I am glad to see people. Let me take that woman to be my wife.” Then he went an took hold of the girl” (260). It seems hardly incidental that the survivor grants himself the liberty to kill and eat these two bears as his first thought—this is, incidentally, the first mention of him eating anything. But then, when they turn out to be women, the liberty extends to literally “taking” one as a wife—no discussion, no, “Hullo there.” &c. As at least one ironic and amusing tweak on this, in Bradbury’s (1958)** Martian Chronicles, a survivor of an apocalypse wanders about seeking another human being—and when he does finally find one, she turns out to be insufferable to him; Bernadette Peters’ performance as Genevieve Seltzer in the (1980) TV mini-series is riotous and delightful.

** Bradbury, R. (1958). The Martian chronicles. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

[9] From Smith, EW, and Dale, AM (1920). Mass suicide among the Ba-Ila in EW Smith and AM Dale The Ila-speaking peoples of Northern Rhodesia (vol. 1). London: Macmillan.

[10] Recall he said: “But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” And this is immediately followed by: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here,” (see here), which is, of course, exactly the opposite of what has happened. Such is the usefulness of victims to the state—Sandyhook and 9/11 being two of the more vivid examples. By contrast, the 22 suicides by US soldiers per day can’t be put to any such use.

[11] Of which I have to say (and said) this:

First, in principle, deifying the person in the center presupposes that the person is actually there. Who decides who is “suffering”. Do I get to put myself in the center of a ring when i walk down the street and treat everyone accordingly? And who decides the hierarchy of outer rings. My ex-wife considers herself to be an immediate family member; my wife objects. Who mediates that? The assumption is that these hierarchies are stable (that’s the minor sin) an enforceable (that’s the major sin). And what if, on a ring larger than me, there is child: do I get to dump out on the child just because they’re on an outer ring? bullshit. Are there people on an outer ring equally in a position like a child, i.e., not prepared to handle dumping? Or even yet more saliently, if I am someone banished to the fifth ring of significance, then why does that license someone on the inside to dump on ME, when I am being defined, from the outset, as someone peripheral. This whole set-up accomplishes nothing except to make the victim into an untouchable, sacrosanct oracle. ¶ Second, it also mandates only a certain kind of response (i.e., comfort in, dump out). When I am suffering, what I WANT is advice; I don’t want to be told things’ll be fine or whatever. but this merely autobiographical point is all to say that if we’re going to offer comfort, then comfort should be of the type desired (by the sufferer), and similarly that one’s ability to dump (which tacitly makes you a sufferer on an outer level) can be met by someone who wants to hear, i.e., who can provide “comfort” in the necessary mode. This might mean giving advice, slapping you to get your attention, who knows. The only way we can know is absolutely positively NOT by ASSUMING some pre-scripted course of action, like this article demands. ¶ When I say I’m sad, and someone says “I’m sorry,” I understand that they are trying to be sympathetic, but in point of fact, what they are doing is (1) engaging in a cultural convention because it’s culturally accepted to be “safe” or (2) they’re giving a response that makes THEM feel good, either because they did something nice (offered me sympathy) or made themselves less uncomfortable (by deflecting my imposition of telling you I’m sad). Notice, this article is all about what a person can say so as to say right, i.e., feel good. ¶ The original friend, who said, “This isn’t only about you” was 1000% right. This whole ring theory demonstrates tacitly that it is not only about the sufferer, otherwise the hierarchy couldn’t be fashioned at all. Sickness and death are the very stuff out of which communities are forged–dealing with these things. It’s most assuredly not only about the sufferer, and making them the untouchable holy center of a hierarchy (a rule by the sacred) shatters the importance of community by turning it into pure individualism. Something that is obviously going to be very popular in our neoliberal, hyperindividualistic culture (in the US).

[12] Just as Canetti has been spinning yarns for us about yarns spun about victims.


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