Monday, November 26, 2012

Denial Of Death: I Can Haz Manual Plz?

Detail of Bruegel painting The Triumph of Death, via Wikimedia Commons here.
I kept hearing about this book, Denial of Death, written in 1973 by Ernest Becker.  I heard it was about the dread of death, and the influence this dread has on how people live.  I heard that it was about the way people deal with the reality of death, by committing themselves, in over-the-top ways, to certain kinds of ideas and projects.  I heard it spoke to the particular kind of anxiety associated with the fragility of being human, and the particular kind of depression associated with looking mortality clear in the eye. 

I heard these things and I thought:  this is the book for me.  I can never quite get death out of my mind.  I'm baffled by people who say death gives life meaning.  How can you have meaning -- how can you even have any fucking dignity -- knowing that this is the only time around, and there's only so many days, and when they're over you're a pile of bones and rotting flesh?  And nevermind yourself.  How can you live knowing your loved ones are in the same stupid situation? 

The only rational way to deal with the problem of death is to forget about it for a while.  Some people seem to find this forgetting relatively easy.  I don't know how these people got to be this way, or whether they're from another planet, or have some brain chip or piece of DNA that I am missing.  I see them sometimes, placidly shopping for kale or taking a long bike ride, and I wonder if we're the same species.  Because for me, the thought that today is today is always vividly linked with the thought that today I am one day closer to death.

Anyway, I heard these things about Denial of Death, and I went and bought a copy.  This book has some weird aspects.  Like, the idea that the man's experience is "the" experience is so deeply infused in the book that the question of any difference between men and women doesn't even come up.  Sometimes Becker says "A man experiences ..." and the next part is something like "a fear of mortality" and it's clear he's talking about all persons.  Other times he says "A man experiences ... " and the next part of the sentence is something like "his penis ..." and I'm like "Oh!  I thought we were talking about people in general."

The penis comes up because a lot of the book is about Freud and psychoanalysis.  Penis envy in this book is an actual thing to be taken seriously and grappled with.  This is another weird thing.  Obviously the book was written before we started listening to all the women who were saying "Penis?  Envy?  Hm, no, not so much."

But these are small things.  The book is definitely interesting and in a class by itself.  With respect to death, Becker puts the problem in the context of the double nature of human existence, a double-nature that has been a thorn in my side my adult whole life.  It's something like this:

Because of our animal nature and physical fragility, we are selfish -- we need to feel self-worth, to feel "secure in our self-esteem."  Because we are humans, and not merely animals, we live in a world in which self-worth is "constituted symbolically" -- and so we feel the need to stand out, to "make the biggest contribution possible to world life" -- to show that we matter the most.  We need to see ourselves as figures larger than life.

The problem is that at the end of the day, we're just "worm food."  We're finite beings, animals, mortal, part of nature, actually utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of things.  What we need to feel OK is contradicted by the reality we know to be true.     

Becker argues that humans generally deal with the dilemma of mortality through "immortality projects" -- causes and life-organization schemes in which we feel like we become part of something bigger than ourselves, something likely to last.  These "heroism projects" give us the sense that life has meaning. 

Religion used to structure the heroism projects for a lot of people.  But in the modern world, not so much, but we find substitutes, like having money or feeling superior to other people or being patriotic or whatever. 

As you can imagine, having your immortality project threatened sucks, and part of Becker's thesis is that horrible things like violence and war happen because people's immortality projects are threatened.  I don't know about whether that sort of sociological claim can be true. 

But the personal aspect really speaks to me.  Here's the Wikipedia summary of the idea:

"When someone is experiencing depression, their causa sui (or heroism project) is failing, and they are being consistently reminded of their mortality and insignificance as a result."
That's it!  I am constantly being reminded of my mortality and insignificance.  Does that mean my heroism project is breaking down?  What would I do about that?

Unfortunately, Becker doesn't give you a lot of answers. I don't want to join a cult or visit an ashram, and I certainly don't want to start believing in money or patriotism to form new hero projects.  How dumb would that be, to become a booster of the war-with-Iran just so you could deal with your own mortality without falling apart?

But then, you know, I don't really need to become unaware of mortality.  Maybe I don't need an "immortality project."  What I need is more like a mortality-distraction project.  I need the grown-ups' equivalent of mobile to hang above my bed:  oooh, look, shiny!  Or maybe I just need a set of stupid guidelines to follow.  Want to forget death?  DO:  call your friends on the phone.  DON'T:  spend quiet time thinking about the Big Questions. 

Conclusion:  I don't need Denial of Death, the psycho-social treatise on Important World Events.  I just need Denial of Death:  The Manual.  A simple how-to would suffice, thank you.


thefringthing said...

Part of this reminds me a bit of Aubrey de Grey's "pro-aging trance".

Patricia Marino said...

Interesting -- I had never seen that. Incidentally, "trance" is an excellent metaphor for this sort of thing. Wouldn't "Modern Trances" be a great title for something? Could someone write that up?