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