Maybe I’m not frightened enough yet

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Ernest Becker, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Denial of Death (Simon & Schuster, 1973), placed humankind’s horror of death at the center of psychology and culture. Becker’s framework is Freudian. In Denial of Death, he sought to extend Freud’s currency into the late Twentieth Century by replacing Freud’s reliance on instincts as drivers for human experience with keenly felt terror at the certainty that each of us will cease to exist.

Becker believed that humans are especially burdened. In the reach of our thoughts, in their ability to range through time and space, we are as gods. Yet, Becker notes, we are gods who shit. Our consciousness is tethered to the earth through the creaturely horror that is the human foot. (Becker, for whatever reason, seemed to suffer a particular aversion to feet…) We are creatures cursed to know ourselves as creatures, to understand our finitude, and to recognize our inadequacy with respect to nature as it actually exists:

“…a creation in which the routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart with teeth of all types — biting, grinding flesh, plant stalks, bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence into one’s own organization, and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue… a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures… a vast pit of fertilizer.”

Confronted with this unpalatable reality, the fact of our creatureliness in a universe that does not value creatures, we accede to religions, meld to cultural norms, or vest ourselves in leaders and movements that imbue us with a sense of meaning and notions of immortality. This, if I understand, is transference writ large.

More, we find ways narrow our perception — this is repression — to shut out the horror. Our very characters are filters that we construct to manage terror of death and mask the grandeur and hopelessness of creation.

And there is certainly truth to this!

Surely, our religious and cultural projects are mechanisms we’ve created to generate meaning that we can adopt as our own and so avert our eyes from horror. We are all neurotic, in Becker’s view, and a certain quotient of neurosis is indispensable and good.

I can buy in to Becker’s framework.  In the ways in which we humans think, do, and feel, death — or as Becker broadens it, our “creatureliness” — is surely a major driver. I do, however, have a few quibbles.

First, while the framework makes sense, the details make me dizzy. Every time I engage thought with Freudian parentage, I’m made impatient by its self-consciously narrative character. The endless nonsense around “castration anxiety” and the fetishization of the “primal scream” are cases in point. I am not offended by these notions, I am not undermined by them, I am not resistant to them or scandalized by them — I am bored by them. They are fin de siecle Eurocentric fancy. Honestly, who could take this folderol seriously?! It’s sad that suffering people ever did.

Second, I’m mildly miffed by Becker’s treatment of homosexuality as a perversion. Denial of Death was published in 1973, the year that the American Psychiatric Association dropped its definition of homosexuality as a mental illness in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The Stonewall Riots occurred five years earlier, in 1969. I get tired of easy use of descriptors like “homophobic” but damn, Ernst… Interestingly, Becker goes to lengths to deny the authenticity of homoerotic urges that Freud likely experienced toward Jung. For all Becker’s psychoanalytic yada yada and claims to deep understanding of lived experience, this is an unquestioningly conventional and heteronormative view.

Third, well, gender. Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex, published in 1949. Betty Frieden’s Feminist Mystique, published in 1963. Or Mary Wollstonecraft, for God’s sake. Denial of Death’s treatment of gender goes further than simply lazily using male pronouns at every instance. Therapists are assumed to be male. Patients are assumed to be male. Problems between the genders are problems that men have with women. I understand that 1973 was early in the over-long arc of America’s engagement with the notion that women are human, but might we not have expected better in a book so honored, by a thinker like this?

Fourth, I’d argue that Becker didn’t dwell closely enough on our creatureliness. We are subject to a chauvinism of self-consciousness. Irritate a microorganism and that animalcule will hie itself away from the source of that irritation. That is the basic creaturely tendency toward self-preservation as expressed by a being with say, cilia. Point a weapon at a human being and that human will experience fear and seek to escape or mollify. That is the basic creaturely tendency toward self-preservation as expressed by a being with the evolutionary innovation of self-consciousness. We are not gods who shit, we are creatures doing creaturely things. We are less special — much less special — than we want to think.

Finally, there are the staggering gulfs between on the one hand that within this book that is significant, valuable, and true — one-hundred percent of which I summarized in the first few paragraphs, above — and the book’s girth and the honor it received. Avantlamort.com is a blog that focusses on death, in the hope that, during whatever time remains to me, I can better understand and perhaps even achieve a modicum of peace with my personal end. Certainly, engaging in such a venture ought at the least make me jealous of my minutes. Yet I devoted quite a lot of them to this mostly boring, often silly, and generally useless book.

My bruh Andy Burke argues that, upon finding such a book in one’s hands, one ought to toss it in the donation pile and move on the next, hopefully more worthy book. I think Andy is probably correct about that, but I have a hard time doing it.

Maybe I’m not frightened enough yet.

Sources:

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, Simon and Schuster, 1973.

Literary (mostly) Deathucopia

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Dearest Death-Peeps…

Over the last week I looked to my Facebook demimonde to crowd-source a sort of a bibliography of the dead.  Specifically, I asked my universe of FB friends to list their best-loved death scenes.  My initial intent was to hew to the world of fiction but, unsurprisingly, they ignored this stricture and submitted noteworthy extinguishments from across the range of genres.  These included, obviously, drama (who ever slew his characters with more gusto than the Bard?!) and, conspicuously, poetry — read Out, Out if you long to feel an icepick in your heart.

This list is far from complete!  So grow it, please.  Post your favorite instances of death-on-the-page in the Comments section, and I will update the Deathucopia accordingly.  I will, I want to note, impose a certain quality control.  Thus, Stephen King made the list but by a narrower margin than, say, Thomas Mann.  Stephenie Meyer (suggested by one FB friend) didn’t make the cut at all.  I am not diminishing popular fiction or denying that deaths plotted by writers like Meyer are not moving.  I’m just assembling a certain sort of list, a set delimited by minimal (and possibly idiosyncratic) aesthetic criteria, and Meyer does not quite make it over the hump.  I might be being an asshole here — I admit that I’ve never read the Twilight novels.

Incidentally, I promised that my next post would revolve around Ernst Becker’s Denial of Death, and a post on that topic is forthcoming.  I’m behind because I’m experiencing the book as a bit of a slog.  Yes, of course all of this Freudian hypothesizing contains its quotient of truth, but a broken clock, as they say, is right twice a day.  The arbitrariness of it though, often makes me roll my eyes so hard that I think I’ve sprained something inside my skull…

Fiction (Characters and/or Titles)

Prince Andrei (War and Peace, Tolstoy)
Gustav von Aschenbach (Death in Venice, Mann)
Beloved (Beloved, Toni Morrison)
Boromir (LoTR, Tolkien)
Emma Bovary (Madam Bovary, Flaubert)
Addie Bundren (As I Lay Dying, Faulkner)
Catherine, Edgar, and Heathcliff (Withering Heights, Emily Emily Brontë)
Chekhov (Errand, Carver)
Désirée and baby (maybe) (Désirée’s Baby, Chopin, also pretty much all of Chopin’s oeuvre)
The father (The Road, McCarthy)
Fortunato (The Cask of Amontillado, Poe)
Gage (Pet Sematary, King)
Helen, Mrs. Reed, Rochester’s wife (Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë)
Ivan Ilyich (The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy)
Jacob’s Room (Woolf)
Jesus (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Saramago)
Robert Jordan (For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway)
Anna Karenina (Anna Karenina, Tolstoy)
Louise Mallard (The Story of an Hour, Chopin — ditto Chopin comments, above)
Owen Meany (A Prayer for Owen Meany, Irving)
Multiple Characters (Jude the Obscure, Hardy)
Myrtle and Gatsby (The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald)
Lee Scoresby and Hester (His Dark Materials, Pullman)
Rennie (The End of the Road, Barth)
Kid Sampson (Catch 22, Heller)
Septimus (Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf)
Several (Frankenstein, Shelley)
Several (Great Expectations, Dickens)
Sometimes a Great Notion (Kesey)
Stephen Hero (James Joyce)
Tessie (The Lottery, Jackson)
Virgins (The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides)
Granny Weatherall (The Jilting of Granny Weatherall, Porter)

Drama (Characters and/or Titles)

Cyrano (Cyrano, Rostand)
The Dresser (Harwood)
I Never Sang for My Father (Anderson)
Jessie (‘night, Mother, Norman)
Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman, Miller)
Maude (Harold and Maude, Higgins)
Multiple Characters (Hamlet, Shakespeare)
Multiple Characters, but especially Lear (King Lear, Shakespeare)
The Star-Crossed Luvvers (R&J, Shakespeare)
Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me (McGuinness)
Dylan Thomas (Dylan, Michaels)
Vikings (Metcalf)
W;t (Edson)
The Whale (Hunter)

Poetry (Characters and/or Titles)

The Anonymous Soldier (Dulce et Decorum est, Owen)
Another Anonymous Soldier (The Rear-Guard, Sassoon)
The Ball Turret Gunner (The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, Jarrell)
The Boy (Out, Out, Frost)
The Brother (Midterm Break, Heaney)
The Burning Girl (Song of Napalm, Wiegl)
Richard Cory (Richard Cory, Robinson)
The Fisherman (Casualty, Heaney)
The Foe (The Man He Killed, Hardy)
Arthur Henry Hallam (In Memorium: A.H.H., Tennyson)
The Irish Airman (An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, Yeats)
John Brown’s Body (Benét)
The Lady (The Lady of Shalott, Tennyson)
The Narrator (Because I Could Not Stop for Death, Dickinson, plus plenty more of Dickinson)
The Narrator (sort of) (Ode to a Nightingale, Keats)
The Narrator and Many More (A Death-Bed, Kipling)
Soldiers (Break of Day in the Trenches, Rosenberg)
To Autumn (Keats)
Unnamed (The Remarkable Objectivity of Your Old Friends, Rector)
Without (Hall)
Charles Thomas Wooldridge (The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Wilde)

Nonfiction (Characters and/or Titles)

Clutter Family (In Cold Blood, Capote)
Gary Gilmore (Shot in the Heart, Gilmore)
Christopher McCandless (Into the Wild, Krakauer)

Religious

Jesus (various writers)

Philosophy

God (Nietzsche)
Socrates (Phaedo, Plato)

Eight Times I Didn’t Manage to Die — Eight Times I Do Manage to Deny

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You would think I’d be more practiced at accepting Death, as many times as Death has breathed in my ear. This is not braggadocio — I never served in the military, never wrestled hungry ‘gators, never scaled Everest. Nobody addresses me with raffish nicknames like “Knuckles” or “Danger” or “Crash.”

Yet Death has made herself no stranger during my stint on Planet Earth. From my teens to my mid-twenties, I was a blackout drinker — and driver — so it’s a given that Death rode shotgun dozens, if not hundreds, of times that I sat behind the wheel but don’t recall.

But the times I played footsie with Death that I do remember seem frequent, or at least they do to me —

I am thirteen and for the first time in my nascent drinking career have access to a full bottle of Canadian whiskey. I pour pretty much all of it into my 115-pound frame. A few hours later, a doctor tells my parents I’m unlikely to survive the night, thanks to acute alcohol poisoning. Against expectations, I wake the next morning, afflicted with a brain-melting hangover, but alive.

I am sixteen and hanging at a curbside haunt with fellow badass wannabes. A carload of drunken mountain kids stops to give us shit, hoping to pick a fight. We josh them along, and I lean to light a cigarette. When I look up, I’m alone. I turn toward the hillbillies to find myself looking into the barrel of a revolver. No one speaks. Slowly, the gun holder returns the weapon to the car. Slowly, the car pulls away.

I am seventeen, swimming in a mountain lake, significantly stoned. Enough so that I feel immersed in a TV test pattern — everything is transient and coarse-grained. I entered the water on a whim without stripping off my shirt, which clings to me, clammy and constraining. Fettered, I try to pull it off and become entangled. I struggle, ineffectually treading water. I bob and begin to sink. Death, I realize, skinny-dips at my shoulder. Scared lucid, I redouble my effort and the shirt comes free. Death slips beneath the surface, swims to the deep alone.

I am nineteen, stoned still, careening along a back road in my friend’s VW. These roads are criss-crossed by railroad tracks, most lacking protective booms, the expectation being that drivers will slow, look, and listen. We don’t do any of these things. We rattle across the tracks and the car explodes with light, bright as the sun. There is roaring, too. By the time I turn to look, a freight train already bisects the road.

I’m in my thirties, my marriage disintegrating. To clear my head, I’m riding a vintage BMW through the Colorado Rockies. In Durango, summer heat has boiled a scum of oil from the tarmac. I brake for a traffic light and it’s as if I’ve ridden onto ball-bearings. The bike yaws left then right then goes down in a spray of sparks and sheared metal. I tumble into the intersection along with it. For no reason that’s discernible, cross traffic doesn’t mash me into the pavement.

A few years later, I’m a decade sober, and nearly dying less frequently. I am healthy, hard and trim, a serious bicyclist. A difficulty swallowing leads me to the doctor, which leads to a biopsy and a diagnosis — esophageal cancer, a malignancy that exterminates all but 13% of its sufferers within five years. My treatment is so poisonous that it nearly kills me. Weeks pass, then months, then years. I find myself in that ridiculously lucky thirteen percent.

I’m in my forties, on a cross-country motorcycle trip. In Indiana, I ride into a deluge so vicious that I can’t see a car’s length ahead of me. I’m clocking over sixty, terrified to slow lest a truck crush me from the rear, terrified to remain at speed lest I smack into a car slowed by the rain. So I ease sideways, trying to feel my tires crossing onto the berm, hoping I don’t plow into some driver who, smarter than I am, has already pulled off the road.

I’m in my fifties, and I’ve swapped motorcycles for bicycles altogether. Zooming south on Halsted in Chicago, I’m cut off by a city bus. I fly over the handlebars and impact the pavement face-first. My elbow crumbles, my teeth are knocked loose, and a bone chip splinters from my chin. Somehow, I don’t wind up beneath the bus’s wheels. My elbow, after surgery, looks like the joint of an arthropod. My chin is oddly shaped. But I am not dead.

If we start the clock at age thirteen and count only events I can remember, (overly) simple statistics argue that I get cozy with Death every six years. Given this frequency, how can I live — as I do! — as if Death doesn’t lurk someplace near? How can I possess the psychology of Ivan Ilyich, sure that Death is a condition that afflicts others but is ontologically incapable of attaching to me?

Perhaps we must live this way. Perhaps I must live this way. Were it not for an ability to deny Death, I’m not certain I could have dragged myself to cancer treatment, submitted to the accelerator, the scalpel, the needle. It was too painful, too sick-making to accept that it might be useless, to boot.

We forget, as a species, the historically recent scourge of tuberculosis. Yet Chekhov wrote masterworks, tended to patients, transacted love affairs as the bacillus sapped his life away. Ditto Orwell. Ditto countless others. Were they morally hardier than we are? Were they braver? Or did they share our capacity for denial, our ability to look away, lest Death incinerate our vision?

Can we live without the balm of denial?

This is the irony — I’m not convinced I can sanely let denial go. Yet I’m certain that, at the end, denial will insure my final hours are plagued by astonishment and resentment, terror and regret.

What is one — what am I — to do?

In my next post, I’ll engage Denial of Death by Ernest Becker.

Searching. Searching.

Revised comments policy: Okay, it occurs to me that refusal to respond may be lazy and ungenerous. So respond I will. Except in matters pertaining to Yahweh, Allah, Jesus, Vishnu, or their kin. Discussions pertaining to matters religious are never discussions, properly construed — they are back-and-forth yammering, and anyone with a proper sense of life’s preciousness has no time to yammer.

Sources

For the esophageal cancer survival curve, see http://www.aboutcancer.com/esoph2.htm

Jeffrey Meyers, Orwell, Wintry Conscience of a Generation, W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Donald Rayfield, Anton Chekhov: A Life, Henry Holt & Co., 1998.

Leonid Tolstoy and Mary Beard, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Peter Carson, translator, Liveright, 2013, 225 p.

Ivan Ilyich and Me

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Less than a year from my sixtieth birthday, I stand at a crossroads…

There is a notion to which thinkers about death are prey — namely, that morbidity’s exile from the homestead and banishment as an annihilator of the young allow us who live in the present to deny the brute fact of death. The falsity of this stance, we are told, condemns us to lives dogged by unresolved, unspoken terror.

But is this so? Or is it more so now than it was in the past? Were humans of our pre-antibiotic, pre-modern mortuary past more reconciled to personal annihilation, thanks to its nearness and ubiquity? In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leonid Tolstoy tells us otherwise.

Ivan Ilyich, in Tolstoy’s portrayal, is a jurist whose career has followed a satisfying if irregular trajectory. He evinces a priggish adoration for the law, a private love of power, shallow affection for family and friends, and a keen eye for advantage. Ensconced in an elegant, newly inhabited St. Petersburg apartment, Ilyich is pleased with his life and prospects.

Yet Tolstoy tells us this – Ivan Ilyich’s past life had been very simple and ordinary and very awful. For Tolstoy, the impoverishment of Ilyich’s experience is shown by its inadequacy as preparation for his life’s end.

As illness festers, Ilyich’s faith, largely ornamental, offers scant succor. Those who purport to care for him experience his decline as annoying and irrelevant. Ultimately, Ilyich recognizes that he has paid attention to the wrong things. He has, in short, lived a life of distraction, attending to the ephemeral, averting his eyes from the eternal.

In Ivan Ilyich, we gain entrée to a character whom most of us will find unlikeable. He is venal, and he is small. Yet we identify with him, as Tolstoy surely did. We all, each of us, pursue lives of distraction. We all gaze fixedly at the ephemeral, lest we inadvertently glance at the eternal. We all pay attention to the wrong things.

The temptation to distract ourselves from oblivion has always been near-irresistible. This problem is not peculiar to the Twentieth Century or to the Twenty-First. We humans have always averted our eyes from death.

Tolstoy certainly intended Ivan Ilyich as a caution. In telling readers where Ilyich, in life, failed to prepare for the inevitable, Tolstoy suggests that we readers might do otherwise…

Where I might do otherwise.

Less than a year from my sixtieth birthday, I stand at a crossroads — I am materially comfortable, I am healthy (as far as I know), I possess the resources to keep myself entertained. I could, with growing urgency, chase this pleasure and that, attend to this priority of the moment and that priority of the next, drown my sensibilities with food and fresh possessions. I could stay distracted till near my end.

But though I might strive to forget death, Death will not forbear to remember me.

When it does, I want not to face it as does Ilyich, awash in terror, screaming my throat bloody, screaming for days on end.

So I devote this blog to my preparation for death, which — for me — will arrive sometime between a few decades and, well, a few seconds from now. I have no reason to believe my death is imminent. I’m not sick… these are not the first pages of a cancer journal. These are simply my thoughts, fears, and struggles as I try to prepare for that momentous thing that all of us ultimately do.

Sources

Rosamund Bartlett, Tolstoy, A Russian Life, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, 2011, 544 p.

Simon Critchley, The Book of Dead Philosophers, Vintage Books, New York, 2009, 306 p.

Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons From The Crematory, W.W. Norton and Company, 2014, 272 p.

Leonid Tolstoy and Mary Beard, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Peter Carson, translator, Liveright, 2013, 225 p.

Comments policy: To focus in a mindful way on death is to remind yourself of the preciousness of life.  Scads of unproductive exchanges over the years over Facebook have convinced me that internet-based back-and-forth is a horrible waste of energy and — more important — time.  So do comment!  Only know that I won’t answer.  I will, however, read all comments, and I’ll think hard about them.  It’s possible that they’ll become the subject of a future post.  Thanks for understanding!