Once upon a time, there lived a king named Erysichthon, who ruled over Thessaly. This king was as arrogant as his daughter was wise, and one day, without her consent, he rallied his subjects to desecrate the sacred grove of Demeter (Ceres) — the Goddess of Plenty, the Goddess of Harvest — where they came upon an ancient oak. The ancient oak warns him of the retribution which will surely fall upon the King upon its death, but Erysichthon does not care. He brutally hacks the oak to death to show his invincibility, prove his impiety, and to demonstrate the foolishness of his subjects’ faith.
The nymphs of the grove travel to Mount Olympus to ask Demeter for revenge; the Goddess consents. For every power, there must be its opposite, so she sends the nymph away to find Hunger, the Goddess of Lack. Upon receiving the message from the nymph, Hunger glides into Erysichthon’s sleeping quarters and breathes herself onto him in his slumber, infiltrating his veins with everlasting ravenousness. The next day and every day thereafter, Erysichthon wakes to an insatiable hunger — the more he eats, the hungrier he feels — until finally, he eats away all of his wealth and kingdom. Nothing is left but the clothes on his back and Mestra, his daughter.
Erysichthon sells Mestra to slavery for the price of a meal, but Mestra escapes the bondages of slavery with a little help from the Gods and Goddesses of Olympus, who grant her the gift of shape-shifting into any creature at will. When her father finds out about her new ability, he exploits it by selling Mestra over and over again in exchange for money to feed himself, but no amount is ever enough. One day, in a feeding frenzy, he accidentally bites his own finger and feels a mild satisfaction, so he bites another finger, then another, then the thumb, until nothing of him is left. Erysichthon devours himself.
This myth, recounted by Ovid in Metamorphoses over 2,000 years ago, is as relevant today as it was then. It exposes humanity’s distancing from and disavowal of nature, of humanity’s need for infinite growth (a myth powered by Capitalism), how dissenters (represented by Mestra) fall prey to perpetuating and sanctioning this myth through their passivity, and how our insatiable appetite for more ultimately leads to our self-destruction.
On one of our typical morning coffee walks, Jeff and I were discussing his new essay in which he refers to chronic disease as the “Black Death” of modernity with its ability to decimate 70% of the current population in the US, though at a slower rate. Jeff went on to describe his thinking around how historically, what killed us drove us, and how today, in modern society, what drives us is instead killing us.
The more I thought about this concept, the more I came back to how what kills us continues to drive us, even today. The idea of what drives us (i.e — profit, growth, ambition) kills us, while true to an extent, is but an illusion — a thin veil layered atop the chasmic fear of death, annihilation, lack, which still underpin our very being.
A Psychoanalytic Perspective
Melanie Klein (1882–1960) was an influential figure in contemporary psychoanalysis whose name doesn’t get as much recognition as it should in popular psychology. Her theories and work, though built upon the foundation Freud had laid, ultimately departed from his in many respects, but in particular around infant and childhood development. She is one of the founding mothers of the Object-Relations perspective, from which attachment theory and other such theories have developed. I find the Kleinian school of thought as well as various other object-relations perspectives to be helpful lenses with which to examine humanity’s collective experience, progress and trajectory.
Kleinian theory believes we are driven by an instinctual fear of annihilation and abandonment; it is these inborn fears that binds us to our early caretakers. Our survival is dependent on an external object, the first of which, is represented by the mother’s breast. Due to the infant’s unmitigated affect (of pleasant and unpleasant sensations) and cognitive incapacity to recognize the mother’s breast as a part of a whole being separate from itself, it begins to “split off” its good experiences from its bad experiences. This is a defense mechanism, a way to protect “the good” from the contamination and total annihilation of “the bad.” One way in which “splitting” occurs in adult life is in romantic relationships, when during a fight, overwhelmed by anger and hurt, we dissociate the good qualities in our partner and see only the bad, such as how manipulative and selfish they are.
Other psychoanalytic perspectives have given rise to the concepts of a “false self” and a “true self,” which carry similarities to Freud’s superego, as expounded and expanded upon by A.H Almaas (see quote below). The emergence of a “false self” (per Donald W. Winnicott) and the existence of the superego (per Almaas) come from an introjection and internalization of values, beliefs, prejudices, feelings and patterns of behavior from our caretakers, community and culture.
As infants, children and adolescents, we intuitively pick up on and learn how we must be in order to secure attention and affection from those around us, thus ensuring our survival and avoiding annihilation. The difference is, as we mature into adults, we no longer need our parents, yet the internalization of their idiosyncrasies runs so deep within our consciousness that we, in essence and in a sense, become them. This is the core idea behind Winnicott’s “false self” and Almaas’ superego:
“So the instinct for survival, which translates into fear of annihilation or death, is the energy behind adaptation and hence, conditioning. The child finds himself in the situation of having to be what his environment (parents) dictates in order for him to survive…
Through the passage of time, the child adopts these beliefs and attitudes and internalizes them into his own identity. Through the process of introjection and identification, this happens and these ‘coercive agencies’ become a part of the internal structure of the child’s mind. Becoming like the parent acts as a way of having him and hence a defense against losing him…
The ego does not need this inner coercive agency (the parent) as it matures, but continues to act as if it does. No longer dependent on the parents, the ego, now being the structured part of the soul, really needs only knowledge, but it keeps behaving as though the superego’s rules and suppression are still necessary for survival…
The person, then, lives under the tyranny of his past, instead of being free to be present in the moment” (Almaas, 1992).
Collectively speaking, we are driven by the same fear of death and abandonment that drives us as individuals. Humanity’s first and only caretaker is Mother Nature. We came into being under the abundance and beauty of nature, but she was also omnipotent, harsh and unpredictable. She had, and still has, the power to annihilate and generate, and so we learned to adapt to her moods and rhythms.
Over time, her characteristics became ours; we became her. As Almaas writes: “Becoming like the parent acts as a way of having [her] and hence a defense against losing [her].” In other words, humanity has become the abundant and the beautiful. Humanity has also become the omnipotent, the harsh, and the unpredictable.
Today, we seem to be stuck in the trappings of adolescence — a period of overripe rebelliousness, grandiosity and individuation, a period in which we think we can outsmart and outpower nature with our newly established sense of omnipotence and independence. This is a period thrust with illusion, and we would be wise to awaken and acknowledge this.
We live under the tyranny of a recent past, of having internalized the moods and rhythms of a bygone Mother; (bygone because she is different today than she was 10,000 years ago). We move through the world as a collective “false self,” living in a world of plenty as though we were still living in the Stone Age, in a time of lack. In our becoming her, we now have the potential to destroy her.
What I see is how our fear of annihilation (particularly in the US) has split death off as bad and life as good. We can see this in the increase in interest and research around human longevity, in the viewpoint of aging as a disease needing to be cured, the proliferation of research and investments in AI as ways to secure our survival and to avoid annihilation.
We continue to live in a state of lack, even though the natural world has shared with us her abundance. (I believe most of our problems today is not due to a lack of resources but a problem with distribution.) We buy into the myth of infinite growth and progress as good because the opposite would mean infinite decay, destruction and annihilation. This fear continues to drive us, and what we have done is project our archaic, Stone Age fears onto our modern world.
Thanks to René Descartes, the Cartesian split has led the Western world into a paradigm of thinking in which mind is separate from matter, subjectifying the inner world of experience — the mind, and objectifying the external — the body, other beings, the natural world, the cosmos. This separation necessitates and justifies the subject to manipulate and exploit the object for its own survival and growth, and here we bear witness to the rise of industrialism and capitalism.
Another Kleinian concept I find useful here to better understand our present condition is the idea of projective identification, based off of Freud’s theory of psychological projection. In Freud’s projection, the ego defends itself by externalizing unwanted thoughts, feelings and motives onto an other. In Klein’s projective identification, parts of the self that cannot be consciously accessed are defensively projected into an other in order to invoke the thoughts, feelings and motives projected within that person.
“The recipient of the projection may suffer a loss of both identity and insight as they are caught up in and manipulated by the other person’s fantasy. He/she strives to find in the other, or to induce the other to become, the very embodiment of projection” (R.D Laing, 1969).
To extend the example of our adult romantic relationship from earlier, projective identification occurs when a partner who is consciously cut off from his own experiences of low self-esteem and insecurity projects doubt into their partner, causing their partner to question their own feelings, memories, perceptions and judgment, eventually leading to lowered self-esteem. In mainstream psychology, this is known as gaslighting.
Another example of this can be identified around race and racism, in which a white person may unconsciously project their own prejudices (in the form of fear or anger) into a black person, and given the injustice blacks have experienced and continue to experience in this country, this invokes anger within the black person, leading to the trope of the “angry black man/woman.”
Yet another example of this in the wild might be the projection of our own unconscious fears around helplessness and incompetence into a certain segment of the population, in particular those in poverty, in which we treat them as though they are helpless and incompetent through the policies we pass. This only perpetuates the problem and keeps our own myth of meritocracy alive.
To further extend the idea of projective identification and relate it back to humanity’s present condition, I believe we’ve defensively projected our collective fears of annihilation, abandonment and lack into the natural world, and have treated it as such — manipulating and depleting it of its natural richness and abundance, invoking in the planet the very characteristics and qualities we fear.
Fear begets fear. Scarcity begets scarcity.
It is still, as Jeff said to me during our morning walk, what kills us that drives us. The universe we live in is numinously alive and abundant, yet we’ve objectified it and treated it without virtue nor respect, hacking away at the very life force which sustains us. And now, we’re paying the price, just like Erysichthon.***
The fears which stem from our archaic conditioning — of annihilation, abandonment, lack — continue to plague us, and having unconsciously internalized Mother Nature’s qualities of omnipotence, harshness and unpredictability, we find our adolescent selves at a crossroads of both still needing her and proving our own autonomy. But her patience has been tested, and this will not be a zero-sum game.
In our attempts to overpower and outsmart Mother Nature in order to palliate the fragility of our existence and unpredictability of our own annihilation, we are fulfilling the very prophecy we’ve sought so hard to avoid. If we continue down this path, we too, like Erysichthon, will bring about our own demise.
***The story of Erysichthon is pregnant with meaning in that even Mestra, Erysichthon’s daughter, is not guiltless. Those of us who think we have not and do not contribute to the demise of our planet would be wise to reconsider, for Mestra, with her gifted ability from the Gods of Olympus, enables her father to continuously consume through her own passivity. Passivity is not benign; neutrality is an illusion. Even those of us who think we live a natural and harmonious life with nature cannot escape the extended reach of our systemic institutions.