Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

Life is funny, you know? Six pages into the very next book I pick up after reading American Pastoral by Philip Roth, and I run across the following diagnosis.

The crisis of modern society is precisely that the youth no longer feel heroic in the plan for action that their culture has set up. They don’t believe it is empirically true to the problems of their lives and times.

Yeah. Tell that to the Swede, and he might have a better understanding of why Merry did the things she did.

But The Denial of Death is only partly about the heroic struggle that each generation must define for itself. In its totality, Becker’s work is really about the existential paradox that plagues man’s conscious mind.

Man has a symbolic identity that brings him sharply out of nature. He is a symbolic self, a creature with a name, a life history. He is a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity, who can place himself imaginatively at a point in space and contemplate bemusedly his own planet. This immense expansion, this dexterity, this ethereality, this self-consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god in nature, as the Renaissance thinkers knew.

Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways -- the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with.

Indeed. So terrifying, in fact, that Becker, in this Pulitzer Prize-winning work, will go on to claim and describe how this existential paradox, and our denial of it, forms quite nearly the whole of human psychology.

To deny the reality of our own deaths, to give ourselves the feeling that we control our lives and our deaths, we construct what Becker calls a vital lie.

We called one’s life style a vital lie, and now we can understand better why we said it was vital: it is a necessary and basic dishonesty about oneself and one’s whole situation. This revelation is what the Freudian revolution in thought really ends up in and is the basic reason that we still strain against Freud. We don’t want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not really control our own lives. We don’t want to admit that we do not stand alone, that we always rely on something that transcends us, some system of ideas and powers in which we are embedded and which support us. This power is not always obvious. It need not be overtly a god or openly a stronger person, but it can be the power of an all-absorbing activity, a passion, a dedication to a game, a way of life, that like a comfortable web keeps a person buoyed up and ignorant of himself, of the fact that he does not rest on his own center. All of us are driven to be supported in a self-forgetful way, ignorant of what energies we really draw on, of the kind of lie we have fashioned in order to live securely and serenely. Augustine was a master analyst of this, as were Kierkegaard, Scheler, and Tillich in our day. They saw that man could strut and boast all he wanted, but that he really drew his “courage to be” from a god, a string of sexual conquests, a Big Brother, a flag, the proletariat, and the fetish of money and the size of a bank balance.

Powerful stuff here. Becker is stripping everything down to its basic essence, and he’s doing a pretty good job of it. Because this lie, as vital as it is, is also something we rebel against, instinctively if not consciously understanding that it is a lie, and that its artificial trappings are exactly that, incapable of helping us truly come to grips with our existential paradox.

The defenses that form a person’s character support a grand illusion, and when we grasp this we can understand the full drivenness of man. He is driven away from himself, from self-knowledge, self-reflection. He is driven toward things that support the lie of his character, his automatic equanimity. But he is also drawn precisely toward those things that make him anxious, as a way of skirting them masterfully, testing himself against them, controlling them by defying them. As Kierkegaard taught us, anxiety lures us on, becomes the spur to much of our energetic activity: we flirt with our own growth, but also dishonestly. This explains much of the friction in our lives. We enter symbiotic relationships in order to get the security we need, in order to get relief from our anxieties, our aloneness and helplessness; but these relationships also bind us, they enslave us even further because they support the lie we have fashioned. So we strain against them to be more free. The irony is that we do this straining uncritically, in a struggle within our own armor, as it were; and so we increase our drivenness, the second-hand quality of our struggle for freedom. Even in our flirtations with anxiety we are unconscious of our motives. We seek stress, we push our own limits, but we do it with our screen against despair and not with despair itself. We do it with the stock market, with sports cars, with atomic missiles, with the success ladder in the corporation or the competition in the university. We do it in the prison of a dialogue with our own little family, by marrying against their wishes or choosing a way of life because they frown on it, and so on. Hence the complicated and second-hand quality of our entire drivenness. Even in our passions we are nursery children playing with toys that represent the real world. Even when these toys crash and cost us our lives or our sanity, we are cheated of the consolation that we were in the real world instead of the playpen of our fantasies. We still did not meet our doom on our own manly terms, in contest with objective reality. It is fateful and ironic how the lie we need in order to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours.

This, then, is Becker’s basic thesis. We fear death. We construct a lie that keeps us from facing it. Then we rebel against the lie because it is a lie. And in doing so, we believe we are wrestling with our fear, but we are not. We have lived a life of struggle, not against the death we fear, but against the thing we have put in its place. Becker will go on to use this thesis to explain a variety of psychological phenomena. More interestingly to me, he also uses it to generate several fairly profound ideas.

Freud Shot the Right Gun at the Wrong Target

It is clear to us today, too, that Freud was wrong about the dogma, just as Jung and Adler knew right at the beginning. Man has no innate instincts of sexuality and aggression. Now we are seeing something more, the new Freud emerging in our time, that he was right in his dogged dedication to revealing man’s creatureliness. His emotional involvement was correct. It reflected the true intuitions of genius, even though the particular intellectual counterpart of that emotion -- the sexual theory -- proved to be wrong. Man’s body was “a curse of fate,” and culture was built upon repression -- not because man was a seeker only of sexuality, of pleasure, of life and expansiveness, as Freud thought, but because man was also primarily an avoider of death. Consciousness of death is the primary repression, not sexuality. As Rank unfolded in book after book, and as Brown has recently again argued, the new perspective on psychoanalysis is that its critical concept is the repression of death. This is what is creaturely about man, this is the repression on which culture is built, a repression unique to the self-conscious animal. Freud saw the curse and dedicated his life to revealing it with all the power at his command. But he ironically missed the precise scientific reason for the curse.

Two deep things going on here. First, the thought at the very end of this passage. What delicious irony that a thinker and trailblazer such as Sigmund Freud could come so close to true understanding of human psychology (assuming one agrees with Becker’s thesis), only to be foiled by the same kind of vital lie that must have kept all his patients on his couch. He saw that man’s world is built on a scaffolding of repression, but even he missed the thing that was ultimately being repressed.

And second, go back on read that sentence about this repression of death being unique to man as a self-conscious animal. If true, and if it is true that culture is built on the same repression, it certainly explains the abundance of human culture compared to the rest of the animal kingdom.

Becker’s work is like this. He’s offering a concept that keeps turning in on itself, and only expanding its application in the process.

Culture as a Handy Frame for Self-Actualization

As we saw in the previous chapter, people need a “beyond,” but they reach for the nearest one; this gives them the fulfillment they need but at the same time limits and enslaves them. You can look at the whole problem of a human life in this way. You can ask the question: What kind of beyond does this person try to expand in; and how much individuation does he achieve in it? Most people play it safe: they choose the beyond of standard transference objects like parents, the boss, or the leader; they accept the cultural definition of heroism and try to be a “good provider” or a “solid” citizen. In this way they earn their species immortality as an agent of procreation, or a collective or cultural immortality as part of a social group of some kind. Most people live this way, and I am hardly implying that there is anything false or unheroic about the standard cultural solution to the problems of men. It represents both the truth and the tragedy of man’s condition: the problem of the consecration of one’s life, the meaning of it, the natural surrender to something larger -- these driving needs that inevitably are resolved by what is nearest at hand.

There’s a lot of jargon in that one, but hopefully the point is clear. Culture, built on the scaffolding of man’s own repression, provides him with handy frames to imbue his short and brutish life with meaning and a kind of immortality -- species, collective, or cultural.

Society: The Double-Edged Sword That Keeps Madness At Bay

Sometimes, those cultural frames don’t just provide man with the narrative he needs to be his own hero. In many cases, they, and the societal imperatives that are built around them, are the things that keeps him from going stark, raving mad.

… the proletariat demands the obsession of work in order to keep from going crazy. I used to wonder how people could stand the really demonic activity of working behind those hellish ranges in hotel kitchens, the frantic whirl of waiting on a dozen tables at one time, the madness of the travel agent’s office at the height of the tourist season, or the torture of working with a jack-hammer all day on a hot summer street. The answer is so simple that it eludes us: the craziness of these activities is exactly that of the human condition. They are “right” for us because the alternative is natural desperation. The daily madness of these jobs is a repeated vaccination against the madness of the asylum. Look at the joy and eagerness with which workers return from vacation to their compulsive routines. They plunge into their work with equanimity and lightheartedness because it drowns out something more ominous. Men have to be protected from reality. All of which poses another gigantic problem to a sophisticated Marxism, namely: What is the nature of the obsessive denials of reality that a utopian society will provide to keep men from going mad?

I found this utterly fascinating to contemplate. The job of a well-functioning society is to provide its citizens with the “obsessive denials of reality” that keep them from going mad, from turning in on themselves and fatalistically revealing the repressed idea that they are going to die. Becker’s last question, about the challenges that any utopian society -- that is, any society without a multitude of activities that mimic the absurdities of the human condition -- is telling. It certainly explains the failure of most of the utopian attempts that we have witnessed in our history. And it also encapsulates a warning about the kind of absurdities that well-functioning societies should strive for.

… we have to ask who this average man is. He may avoid the psychiatric clinic, but somebody around him has to pay for it. We are reminded of those Roman portrait-busts that stuff our museums: to live in this tight-lipped style as an average good citizen must have created some daily hell. Of course we are not talking only about daily pettinesses and the small sadisms that are practised on family and friends. Even if the average man lives in a kind of obliviousness of anxiety, it is because he has erected a massive wall of repressions to hide the problem of life and death. His anality may protect him, but all through history it is the “normal, average men” who, like locusts, have laid waste to the world in order to forget themselves.

This is the challenge of our time, and perhaps of all time. Can our culture and society provide us with the obsessive denials of reality that we need, but do it in a way that causes no harm to others? In this simple narrative frame, it may be worthwhile to thank the often crass consumerism and consumption that seems all-encompassing. The heroes of those stories clearly make better global citizens than those whose stories are built on outgroup aggression and war.

But some people, of course, rebel against these cultural narratives.

The Artist and the Madman

Becker borrows heavily, with proper attribution, from a work by Otto Rank called Art and Artist, which seems to be some kind of psychological treatise on my favorite subject in fiction: the existential struggle of the artist. I immediately put in on my “to-read” list. Let’s dig in.

The key to the creative type is that he is separated out of the common pool of shared meanings. There is something in his life experience that makes him take in the world as a problem; as a result he has to make personal sense out of it. This holds true for all creative people to a greater or lesser extent, but it is especially obvious with the artist. Existence becomes a problem that needs an ideal answer; but when you no longer accept the collective solution to the problem of existence, the you must fashion your own. The work of art is, then, the ideal answer of the creative type to the problem of existence as he takes it in -- not only the existence of the external world, but especially his own: who he is as a painfully separate person with nothing shared to lean on. He has to answer the burden of his extreme individuation, his so painful isolation. He wants to know how to earn immortality as a result of his own unique gifts. His creative work is at the same time the expression of his heroism and the justification of it. It is his “private religion” -- as Rank put it. Its uniqueness gives him personal immortality; it is his own “beyond” and not that of others.

But the challenge facing the artist is more subtle and complex than simply fashioning a heroic gift outside the bounds of the collective ones determined by the society in which he is enmeshed.

No sooner have we said this than we can see the immense problem that it poses. How can one justify his own heroism? He would have to be as God. Now we see even further how guilt is inevitable for man: even as a creator he is a creature overwhelmed by the creative process itself. If you stick out of nature so much that you yourself have to create your own heroic justification, it is too much. This is how we understand something that seems illogical: that the more you develop as a distinctive free and critical human being, the more guilt you have. Your very work accuses you; it makes you feel inferior. What right do you have to play God? Especially if your work is great, absolutely new and different. You wonder where to get authority for introducing new meanings into the world, the strength to bear it. It all boils down to this: the work of art is the artist’s attempt to justify his heroism objectively, in the concrete creation. It is the testimonial to his absolute uniqueness and heroic transcendence. But the artist is still a creature and he can feel it more intensely than anyone else. In other words, he knows that the work is he, therefore “bad,” ephemeral, potentially meaningless -- unless justified from outside himself and outside itself.

It is this dilemma -- this starkly existential one -- that is unique to the artist, and which so often leads to madness. It is not just their inability to come to grips with the cultural soup in which they were born. It is their inability to create anything that truly transcends it.

In Jung’s terms -- that we noted previously -- the work is the artist’s own transference projection, and he knows that consciously and critically. Whatever he does he is stuck with himself, can’t get securely outside and beyond himself. He is also stuck with the work of art itself. Like any material achievement it is visible, earthly, impermanent. No matter how great it is, it still pales in some ways next to the transcending majesty of nature; and so it is ambiguous, hardly a solid immortality symbol. In his greatest genius man is still mocked. No wonder that historically art and psychosis have had such an intimate relationship, that the road to creativity passes so close to the madhouse and often detours or ends there. The artist and the madman are trapped by their own fabrications; they wallow in their own anality, in their protest that they really are something special in creation.

To me, this all seems to beg the ultimate question -- fraught with existential terror on both sides. Which are you? The average man or the artist? And what will be the heroic gift that gives meaning to your dualistic existence?

The whole thing boils down to this paradox: if you are going to be a hero then you must give a gift. If you are the average man you give your heroic gift to the society in which you live, and you give the gift that society specifies in advance. If you are an artist you fashion a peculiarly personal gift, the justification of your own heroic identity, which means that it is always aimed at least partly over the heads of your fellow men. After all, they can’t grant the immortality of your personal soul. As Rank argued in the breathtaking closing chapters of Art and Artist, there is no way for the artist to be at peace with his work or with the society that accepts it. The artist’s gift is always to creation itself, to the ultimate meaning of life, to God. We should not be surprised that Rank was brought to exactly the same conclusion as Kierkegaard: that the only way out of human conflict is full renunciation, to give one’s life as a gift to the highest powers. Absolution has to come from the absolute beyond. As Kierkegaard, Rank showed that this rule applied to the strongest, most heroic types -- not to trembling and empty weaklings. To renounce the world and oneself, to lay the meaning of it to the powers of creation, is the hardest thing for man to achieve -- and so it is fitting that this task should fall to the strongest personality type, the one with the largest ego. The great scientific world-shaker Newton was the same man who always carried the Bible under his arm.

The price of being an average man is ultimate anonymity. The price of being an artist is ultimate failure. Either way, one should make the choice with great care.

So What?

But how much of this choice is conscious? What happens when the artist -- or the average man, for that matter -- becomes self-aware of this psychology? Of his need to find a heroic gift in either the cultural patterns of his society or the cross-cultural currents of his own creativity? Does that remove any of the existential terror, or only serve to heighten it? Are we better off oblivious to the psychologies that we use to assuage our fear of our own deaths, or is there any solace to be found in understanding them?

After reading this illuminating study, I’d have to say I’m still unsure of how to answer that question. Becker, however, seems to say that it is an error to even ask it. Near the end of the book, he questions the very utility of this understanding, this “liberation through therapy,” certainly for the world, but even for the individual.

Even with numerous groups of really liberated people, at their best, we can’t imagine that the world will be any pleasanter or less tragic a place. It may even be worse in still unknown ways. As Tillich warned us, New Being, under the conditions and limitations of existence, will only bring into play new and sharper paradoxes, new tensions, and more painful disharmonies -- a “more intense demonism.” Reality is remorseless because gods do not walk upon the earth; and if men could become noble repositories of great gulfs of nonbeing, they would have even less peace than we oblivious and driven madmen have today.

Pessimistic enough for you? Wait. It gets worse.

Besides, can any ideal of therapeutic revolution touch the vast masses of this globe, the modern mechanical men in Russia, the near-billion sheeplike followers in China, the brutalized and ignorant populations of almost every continent? When one lives in the liberation atmosphere of Berkeley, California, or in the intoxications of small doses of unconstriction in a therapeutic group in one’s home town, one is living in a hothouse atmosphere that shuts out the reality of the rest of the planet, the way things really are in this world. It is this therapeutic megalomania that must quickly be seen through if we are not to be perfect fools. The empirical facts of the world will not fade away because one has analyzed his Oedipus complex, as Freud so well knew, or because one can make love with tenderness, as so many now believe. Forget it. In this sense again it is Freud’s somber pessimism, especially of his later writings such as Civilization and Its Discontents, that keeps him so contemporary. Men are doomed to live in an overwhelmingly tragic and demonic world.

And so, it seems, we have come full circle. Men are doomed to live in an overwhelmingly tragic and demonic world. Meaning, if any is to be found, comes in our heroic, but ultimately futile struggle against this painful fact. And awareness of the psychology behind the struggle only seems to heighten our sense of its futility.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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