The Neuroses of Normalcy


Ernest Becker’s “Heroism” and Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Bad Faith” functioning in concert reveal an unsettling truth: Everything about human character is a symptom of neurotic repression that is too often undiscussed and not reflected upon. Looking at these two authors together, their arguments indicate how human character is fundamentally inauthentic, a result of symbolic cultural cues all aimed at immortality. A lot of Becker and Sartre’s analyses focus on how individuals grapple with the paradox between their narcissism and subjection to other people, and thus fashion “identities” that provide a foundation of meaning/significance to their lives: Becker calls this Heroism. Since everyone does this, no one notices it. The problem is that people tend to use this foundation of identity, not as a springboard for freedom, but as a shield from their radical freedom as human beings: Becker calls this the Jonah Syndrome. They fall into cultural roles that prescribe the parameters of what acceptable behavior and identity is; they don’t properly take freedom on board: Sartre calls this Bad Faith. Both authors point to the fact that humans are paralyzed–both by the prospect of their own death’s imminence, and their simultaneous, existential condemnment to freedom. Through these lenses, it becomes clear that both the drives to heroism, and bad faith, are neurotic. Both authors offer us some solutions and escape routes from these neuroses. Here arises our question: Are these authors, in fact, providing viable alternatives to human neuroses?

Drawing on William James, Becker describes the whole world–society–as a “theatre” for heroism, a stage to perform our cultural roles. From an early age, society dictates an array of cultural cues that function symbolically and, thus, an individual’s sense of worth begins to be constituted symbolically as well. But human consciousness is ontologically always “for-itself,” to use Sartre’s vocabulary. That is, the very condition of human experience is an explicit awareness of itself. This self-awareness is what Becker describes as “cosmic specialness” or, in a word, “narcissism.” The heroic narrative is a product of the narcissistic urge in humans, to stand out, be recognized, and seek validation. But, at the same time, individuals have to reconcile their narcissism with their dependence on society to feed them their very sense of worth. This is what Sartre calls “mitsein,” or being-with-others. Thus, we begin to see the tension between one’s hopeless absorption with oneself and the fundamental need for external endorsement by others. In order for these urges to harmoniously coexist, the individual takes society’s symbolic cues and fashions an “identity”. This identity is what Becker wants to call “heroism.” Heroism provides individuals with significance in their lives by “carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice that reflects human value;” they have something to aim at with their efforts. Sartre builds on this with a discussion of chronology: “But if the chronological order is continuous, it could not “symbolize” with the order of identity, for the continuous is not compatible with the identical.” In other words, buying into heroism, as Becker argues, requires this continuous participation in cultural projects such that one “can be fed limitlessly in the domain of symbols and so into immortality.” The heroic narrative quickly becomes problematic, however, for when faced with one’s own future death, this leads to repression. Every cultural project, according to Becker, reinforces Sartre’s “for-itself” quality of human consciousness, and further buries the immanence of their personal impending mortality. Sartre would seem to reply that everyone is operating through repression and, because of that, no one notices: “To be sure, [repression] appears to cut the bond which unites the reflected-on to the reflective…But this is only in order to recover subsequently the affirmation of identity and to affirm concerning this in-itself that ‘I am it.’” In other words, identities flounder to reassert one’s control over oneself and the world. Again, returning to Becker, the world is a “theatre”; this implies performance, or falseness. No aspect of human character, seen through these lenses, approaches authenticity.

Exploring this inauthenticity further might help appreciate the severity of the problem Becker and Sartre are driving at. Becker introduces the concept of the “Jonah Syndrome,” which is, succinctly, “an evasion of the full intensity of life.” In other words, the Jonah Syndrome is the path of least resistance, or a tendency towards familiarity and safety. The combination of Heroism and the Jonah Syndrome produces, what Sartre calls, “Bad Faith,” which is “a lie to oneself” that “explicitly exercises a regulatory control over all attitudes” (48). Bad Faith is, in essence, a state of living that deprives an agent of their freedom. There is a strong tendency among individuals to regress to the mean, or, in other words, to defer to their culturally dictated, self-assigned identities as a script for future action and possibility. For Sartre, identity is continuous; it is always in the process. Regarding Bad Faith, we can see Becker’s Jonah Syndrome in individual “defenses against grandiosity,” but also in a “fear of being torn apart, of losing control, of being shattered and disintegrated, even of being killed by [an] experience.” Sartre argues that this self-limiting takes place in all realms of human lives; one apprehends one’s role in society and acts accordingly so as not to risk their Heroism, the very thing the Jonah Syndrome attempts to preserve. One projects the consequences of an action onto one’s future self, and judges whether or not that future is something desirable, something one can handle. Becker might respond that heroic identities and the Jonah Syndrome are at the root of Bad Faith. Heroism, to use Sartrean terms, confuses one’s “facticity” and one’s “transcendence.” In other words, Heroism is a way of making concrete qualities that one ascribes to oneself. The consequence of solidifying the heroic narrative is that, in doing so, one simultaneously denies one’s ability to transcend those qualities. For example, a self-ascribed quality of “shyness” governs one’s behavior in situations where one might not otherwise be shy. Here, we return to the problem of Bad Faith. Sartre’s problem with Bad Faith is that it “asserts two mutually contradictory principles, that one is free and that one is not free.” Returning to our example, the self-ascribed shy person confines their freedom, which is to be seen in contradiction with their very nature as a human being. There is no innate “shyness” to any individual, only the renewed affirmation of, and commitment to, that shy quality. The ubiquity of Heroism in society produces individuals who are unreflective of their internal contradictions. They unthinkingly truncate their own future possibilities, which is a result of being with others: Culture, above all, prescribes. But this prescription is largely illusory, Becker and Sartre both argue. As we’ve seen, all cultural projects are aimed at immortality which, as all human history reveals, is impossible.

We see, through Sartre, that people don’t properly take their freedom on board; they confine themselves to cultural roles which place a false limit on their possibilities. Through Becker, we see how people tend to use their identity as shield from their freedom, not as a way to capitalize on their freedom; their identities–and, thus, their perspectives for possibilities–are predicated on falsehoods and illusions. Between Becker’s “Jonah Syndrome” and Sartre’s “Bad Faith,” the existential dilemma they are diagnosing is beginning to take shape. The question for us then emerges: How aware are we of this? It is likely that Sartre & Becker would share the response: We are not at all aware of this. If individuals understood, to the core of their being, the kind of inauthenticity which colors their everyday lives, then they would abandon their cultural projects and heroic identities.

There is evidently some connection Becker and Sartre are making between our attitudes of repression, both for our death anxiety and fear of freedom. The common quality between Bad Faith, Heroism, and the Jonah Syndrome is that they are neurotic. Becker writes that the neurotic “hides the full ambiguity of one’s life.” This is definitively reflective of Sartre’s Bad Faith.

Bad Faith is “essentially irrational” in that it lies about the conditions of one’s life situation and the fact that one is able to, at any time, change one’s life projects, identity, and values. It is a neurotic function because one wants to be bereft of freedom, one wants to “protect [oneself] from this freedom so limitless [which] threatens the very bounds of personality.” Drawing on Freud, Becker writes that “Character-traits are, so to speak, secret psychoses.” The real problem arises, however, in that without character traits, a “full and open psychosis” emerges. This obviously implies that these “secret psychoses” are a necessary lie. Sartre writes that Bad Faith, understood as a neurosis, is what allows for the very “normal aspect of life for a very great number of people.” We seem to have reached a bind. Becker adds more nuance to the problem: To enjoy one’s “full humanness” means a fundamental, primary “mis-adjustment to the world.” In other words, if one is to approach authenticity, then it seems one will never be at home in the world. Authenticity seems to be an admirable quality, a virtue, even. Becker writes that, to escape this neurosis of inauthenticity, one would be freeing oneself of something “restricting and illusory…only to come face to face with something even more awful: genuine despair.” Thus, one would be miserable if one were to tear off the blindfold of the universal human neurosis. It seems humanity is condemned to Bad Faith and Heroism. The very fabric of our society is dependent upon the perpetuation of this, seemingly necessary, illusion. Becker writes that character has been fashioned for “the precise purpose of putting it between [oneself] and the facts of life,” which “allows [one] to ignore incongruities, to nourish [oneself] on impossibilities, to thrive on blindness.” Sartre clarifies the problem further, “Our embarrassment then appears extreme since we can neither reject nor comprehend Bad Faith. To escape from these difficulties people gladly have recourse to the unconscious.” In other words, as soon as individuals rid themselves of Bad Faith, they face the full and terrifying extent of their freedom and, as Becker might add, the inexorability of the very thing they are repressing: Death. This makes it compellingly tempting to return home to one’s heroic narrative, to one’s identity, where things are familiar and safe; one has welcomed back the Jonah Syndrome. To face this ambiguity–one’s radical freedom and death anxiety–is something most people never have the courage to attempt. Humanity is constantly, to borrow Sartre’s words, “in surveillance” of themselves. But those who dare to approach that cognitive boundary of ambiguity seem to be doing something admirable. Yet, Becker seems to predict that these individuals will replace the “socially-agreed” neurosis with their own “private obsessional ritual.” Humanity, then, seems entropically bound to their own, natural, neuroses.

But all is not yet lost, for Becker and Sartre offer a few ways out of this aporia we have arrived at. Notably, Becker credits the rising normalcy of neuroses to the disappearance of religious life in modern, secular society. The illusions and heroic narratives of religion have been undermined, he writes, and thus individuals are condemned to fashion new illusions, ones built of science and reason and secular values. But these are entirely insufficient for quelling humanity’s existential dread. That is, the human condition is worse off without heroism. There have been two primary reactions society has had to religious decline, according to Becker: The Romantic Solution, and the Creative Solution. The former is a “transference beatification” upon the romantic partner, or lover; the individual finds “moral vindication in the other” where they once projected their yearnings and insecurities onto God. Hence, the ubiquity of romantically driven plots and pop songs in modern America. In short, Becker calls the conditions of romance and love in modern society a “religious problem.” Thus, no significant or lasting strides have been taken towards existential progress. The lover has now become one’s own immortality project–a “groping for the meaning of one’s life.” So, in terms of authenticity, it seems that individuals have merely redirected the existential problem onto a person–another transference object–instead of a God. Perhaps this problem is better understood in Sartrean terms: “bad faith is possible by virtue of a simple project…it is because so far as my being is concerned, there is no difference between being and non-being if I am cut off from my project.” Sartre’s analysis capitalizes on the faults of Becker’s Romantic Solution, for as soon as one dies, one’s immortality project ceases –it evaporates. By redirecting anxieties from the metaphysical, divine realm, they have been projected onto something even more ephemeral: Human beings. Not only are humans ephemeral, but they often fail to live up to the expectations set upon them by others. Their failings two fold: (1) Human beings are too complex to be objects to another’s wishes, and (2) all relationships end. The Romantic Solution can’t be what we’re looking for here.

Becker’s Creative Solution maybe can salvage the situation in a way that the Romantic Solution failed to do. The creative solution is a way of making personal sense out of one’s own problems by channeling one’s anxiety in a creative, solution-aimed way. This certainly seems healthier than the religious or romantic solutions, but let’s look at it closer. One must fashion one’s own creative solution; there is no collective body to take direction from or pay deference to. The creative project–whether a career, a work of art, or even a college degree–becomes one’s own “private religion.” Again, this project is aimed at personal immortality; it has become, yet again, a religious problem. Sartre might reframe this problem in terms of Bad Faith: “Bad faith is possible only because sincerity is conscious of missing its goal inevitably, due to its very nature.” That is, at every step in the creative endeavour, there is an attempt to sincerely convey one’s own objects of consciousness. But there is a simultaneous consciousness of the fact that this goal will not solve one’s problems. Again, there is a mere redirection of existential anxiety. The neurosis has been cut down, only to sprout up somewhere else. The difference between the religious and romantic solutions on one hand, and the creative solution on the other, is that this work of art seeks to justify heroism objectively, in a concrete way. By fashioning something physical and demonstrable, one see one’s own frustrations in a different way. Yet, in Becker’s words, the problem with this is that “Your very work accuses you; it makes you feel inferior.” The creative endeavour births guilt that one’s work is bad, or even potentially meaningless. It feels inauthentic. Sartre’s might respond that this is because insincerity is always to be found in introspection. This creative endeavour was aimed at justifying oneself from outside oneself, but one is rapidly “trapped by [one’s] own fabrications. Again, this echoes Sartre’s testimony to the root of Bad Faith: A limiting of possibilities. The artist, in other words, has fashioned a fixed object to create meaning out of one’s problematic existence. But, in doing so, one has reduced the complexities of one’s life to their facticity. To understand this better, we might take Sartre’s view of introspection into account: “In introspection I try to determine exactly what I am, to make up my mind to be my true self without delay-even though it means consequently to set about searching for ways to change myself. Substitute the word “change” for “fashion”, here, and this is, in essence, the very aim of Becker’s creative solution. The creative solution aims to figure oneself out, to fix things in place, to deny one’s own possibility for transcendence. Neither “solution”, then, appears to really solve anything.

Sartre and Becker provide some optimistic conclusions about the human condition. We’ve seen the two “solutions” individuals have come up with in order to redirect existential anxiety, but Becker offers his own solution. He still seems to hold that Heroism is inescapable, but provides a consolation for this condemnment. Human beings, if they are to be sincere, have only one viable path in life: “to fashion something–an object or ourselves–and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force.” This is a lukewarm “solution”, given the severity of the aporia Sartre and Becker seem to have illustrated. It feels disingenuous in the face of all the implications human neuroses have on everyday life. But it attempts to put to bed the concerns about disingenuity, as well as the blind deferential neurosis most people live their lives under the illusion of. This “solution” doesn’t solve anything, but it prescribes a more genuine, human-oriented approach to the existential aporia he and Sartre have been outlining.

Sartre also thinks that sincerity is possible, but only when taken at its most severe level. The conditions for this can only be elucidated, and fully appreciated, by borrowing from Being and Nothingness at length:

“I can become sincere; this is what my duty and my effort to achieve sincerity imply. But we definitely establish that the original structure of “not being what one is” renders impossible in advance all movement toward being-in-itself or “being what one is.” And this impossibility is not hidden from consciousness; on the contrary, it is the very stuff of consciousness; it is the embarrassing constraint which we constantly experience; it is our very incapacity to recognize ourselves, to constitute ourselves as being what we are. It is this necessity which means that, as soon as we posit ourselves as a certain being, by a legitimate judgment, based on inner experience or correctly deduced from a priori or empirical premises, then by that very positing we surpass this being and that not toward another being but toward emptiness, toward nothing.”

In English, this simply means that Heroism, the Jonah Syndrome, and Bad Faith all share the same problem: They fix into place human nature and human consciousness. These three neuroses suffer from the tendency of the mind to latch onto objects; individuals want to fix on the objects of the mind and, thus, these three neuroses arise. A way out, for Sartre, is to keep in mind the one constant of the Universe: Change. To hell with the inflexibility of identity, Sartre insists, the only way to exercise full freedom is to understand that one is not bound to one’s past. An individual is not living fully and truly when they think they can’t stop smoking cigarettes, for example. Of course they can, Sartre wants to say. The more we’re inclined away from habituation of Heroism, the more we avoid our magnetism to the Jonah Syndrome and, thus, the pitfalls of Bad Faith. Sartre has successfully complemented Becker’s call to forging one’s own identity constantly and continually.

Thus, we arrive at some considerations: Do these authors successfully avoid the pitfalls of the very human characteristics they so emphatically criticize? How do we know which cultural illusion is best? Furthermore, have we fully put to bed the paralysis between freedom and death anxiety? Or, have we simply redirected these energies into mere physical objects? To answer these questions would require incessant inquiry and a continual study of human projects. But these authors have done a magnificent job of exploring the boundaries of the human psychological and existential conditions. Whether their proposed solutions are viable solutions remains to be seen.


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