I recently wrote of Erich Fromm’s contention that the human experience brings about alienation for each. Individuation compels the experience of disunion, and he delineates the process for both individuals and the human collective.
An individual answers the question of alienation by the degree of their* individuation–the degree that they’ve developed a “sense of separateness and individuality” from mother. He’s speaking of what Lacanians call the “mirror phase” wherein a child discovers their existence as an independent identity, detached from their life source. At this point, mother’s “physical presence…is not sufficient any more” and the child realizes the “need to overcome separateness in other ways.”
Fromm contrasts this individual experience of bridging the gulf with that of civilization as a collective. He adds that the human race answers the question of alienation by the degree that the collective emerges from its “primary bond” with nature.
“The more it separates itself from the natural world, the more intense becomes the need to find new ways of escaping separateness.”Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving
We can surmise that the infant’s primary bond with the mother is analogous to the communal bond of civilization to mother nature. The individuation of the child is, likewise, analogous to the separation of the human race from “the natural world.” The more estranged we become from nature, from our source, the more aware we are of our isolation.
It follows that collectively, humanity has attempted varied measures to re-establish this lost sense of unity.
Before partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve were like the animals. They felt no shame, for they had no sense of their separateness. This story, which is known by most as The Fall of Man, is a metaphor for the uniquely human experience of knowing. Unlike all the other species of the Animal Kingdom, we know we are divided. We understand our detachment, and this knowledge is the fuel that drives the engine of humanity. At the same time, this knowledge is the fuel that drives the engine of despair.
We are estranged–from mother, from mother nature, from source. We crave union, and we’ll stop at nothing to find something that satiates.
*When I was in school (because I am getting old) I was taught to use he/she or him/her when speaking generally about anonymous individuals in imperative statements. I have recently adopted the use of they/them in these circumstances, in honor of my nonbinary and gender fluid friends. For those of you who, like me, are “old school,” it may feel funny to read, but I feel it is important for us to adjust to the discomfort for the sake of diversity and inclusivity.*
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