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Reflections on Becker's "The Denial of Death"
A classic that has timeless insights into contemporary cultural decadence.
In order to truly, authentically live, one has to confront the reality of death head-on; to find meaning in something beyond them, something transcendental, yet that also provides a tether to the worldly. That is the ‘causa sui’ project and message at the heart of Ernest Becker’s 1973 Pulitzer Prize work entitled “The Denial of Death.” I had been meaning to explore this book for some time at the prodding of my father, but hesitated given his remarks that the book drew heavily on Freudian content (over time, however, I have come to appreciate Freud greatly, but not as a psychological scientist; rather as a cultural sociologist). I am glad I finally decided to read it. Indeed, as I discuss below, I was quite surprised at its relevance to the sociocultural anomie and fragmentation we are living through, as well as its direct connection to another intellectual whose work I was intimately familiar with: Philip Rieff. Even in 1973, Becker, like Rieff whom he praises for his wisdom and insight, saw the complications of moving away from religion; more specifically, moving away from a notion of ‘the sacred’ or ‘transcendent.’
The central premise running throughout the course of The Denial of Death can be boiled down to the nostrum that one’s failure to confront the reality of death is at the root of their individual emotional (and spiritual) developmental maladaptation or personal psychopathology. Becker, drawing on the work of other scholars and intellectuals, namely Otto Rank and Soreen Kierkegaard, draws a direct link between the failure to confront the reality of our human mortality with a failure to adaptively engage one’s causa sui project. A Latin term denoting something generated within oneself, Becker, drawing on Freud primarily, presented the concept in the context of an immortality vessel, whereby an individual could create meaning, or continue to create symbolic ‘heroic’ meaning, beyond their earthly mortality. In the parlance of modern-day psychology, we might equate the causa sui project with character development, culminating in a distinct character personality.
A healthy character personality in an individual is one that is balanced in its secure sense of self. That is, a flexibility and openness to experience allows for a relatively balanced movement between: (1) a repression of natural biological instinct, that draws upon cultural myth, including religious myth, to creatively play at developing one’s unique character or ‘heroism’ serving to transcend their earthly existence; and (2) unrepression or recognition that one still is of earthly animal nature, mortal, who returns to detritus and dung; who defecates.
“…And yet this, after all, is the quintessential meaning of anality: it is the protest of all of man’s cultural contrivances as anal magic to prove that of all animals he alone leads a charmed life because of the splendor of what he can imagine and fashion, what he can symbolically spin out of his anus.”
Reframed in the parlance of evolutionary-grounded contemporary Bowlby-Ainsworth attachment theory, this amounts to a balance of security with a trusted caregiver and exploration of the environment.
“Now we can see how the problem of neurosis can be laid out along the lines of the twin ontological motives: on the one hand, one merges with the world around him and becomes too much a part of it and so loses his claim to life. On the other hand, one cuts oneself off from the world in order to make one’s own complete claim and so loses the ability to live and act in the world on its terms. As Rank put it, some individuals are unable to separate and others are unable to unite. the ideal of course is to find some balance between the two motives, such as characterize the better adjusted person; he is at ease with both.”
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Becker’s view of the true causa sui project and one’s failure to find an adaptive balance between the biological and the symbolic facets of their human existence in the context of the project, provides the foundation on which he develops his views on the development of mental illness, including neurosis, depression, schizophrenia, sexual disorders and more broadly personality psychopathology in his description of ‘sensitive types.’ Becker never departs from an arcane, Freudian and existential psychiatric view of one’s mental health, determined largely if not wholly by the social environment (though he does not discount “Freudian instinct”) and is bereft of any insight from evolutionary biology and genetics (perhaps understandable given the time he was writing). Nonetheless, Becker’s linkage of the causa sui project with mental health and psychological functioning is highly insightful for contemporary discourse concerning why internalizing (e.g., depression) and related mental illness and personality psychopathology, including elevated anxiety and neuroticism track more strongly with radical left progressivism and unrestrained liberalism? Consider for a moment that insight into this query can be extracted from the below passages (text in brackets added for additional contemporary clarity).
"We can also better understand how cultural forces conspire to produce menopausal depression in any society that lies to the person about the stages of life, that has no provision in its world-view for the mourning of ones creatureliness [biological nature], and that does not provide some kind of larger heroic design [shared narrative] into which to resign oneself securely, as we will see."
"What links all the perversions is the inability to be a responsible human animal."
and gender identity ideology pseudoscience:
"If there is a limit to what man can be, we now also must conclude that there is a limit to even what religious therapy can do for him. But the psychotherapeutic religionists are claiming just the opposite: that the life force can miraculously emerge from nature, can transcend the body it uses as a vehicle, and can break the bounds of human character. They claim that man as he now is can be merely a vehicle for the emergence of something totally new, a vehicle than can be transcended by a new form of human life. Many of the leading figures in modern thought slip into some such mystique, some eschatology of immanence in which the insides of nature will erupt into a new being."
“At heart, children are Picasso’s protesting the arbitrariness of external forms and affirming the priority of the inner spirit.”
And why COVID lockdowns were inimical to individual and societal functioning:
“…And what we call ‘cultural routine’ is a similar license: the proletariat demands the obsession of work in order to keep from going crazy…The daily madness of these jobs is a repeated vaccination against the madness of the asylum.”
Much of what Becker writes concerning the relation between one’s relative success or failure in the development of their personal causa sui project and their mental health reduces to the need for one to have a personal fulcrum that orients some transcendental possibility; that enables their unique ‘heroism’.
“Man feels inferior precisely when he lacks ‘true inner values in the personality,’ when he is merely a reflex of something next to him and has no steadying inner gyroscope, no centering in himself.”
Becker contrasts two potential fulcrums that have served this purpose. The first being classical religion (i.e., Judaeo-Christianity), which even in 1973 at the time of his writing he observed was waning due to cultural secularism, and the second that of psychotherapy movement signified by the transference figure of the psychotherapist. In Rieffian terms “The Triumph of the Therapeutic.” One can not be but struck by the relevance of this discussion to the social anomie, secularism, cultural fragmentation, and loss of meaning among Millennials in our contemporary post-religious culture that is a topic of regular cultural commentary permeating discourse in mainstream media outlets and on social media.
“As now there was no religious cosmology into which to fit such a denial [of denying creatureliness], one grabbed onto a partner. Man reached for a ‘thou’ when the world-view of the great religious community overseen by God died. Modern man’s dependency on the love partner, then, is a result of the loss of spiritual ideologies, just as is his dependency on his parents or his psychotherapist. He needs somebody, some ‘individual ideology of justification’ to replace the declining ‘collective ideologies’.”
"This is a logical fate for the utterly helpless person: the more you fear death and the emptier you are, the more you people your world with omnipotent father-figures, extra-magical helpers."
"Modern man needs a 'thou' to whom to turn to for spiritual and moral dependence, and as God was in eclipse, the therapist has had to replace Him--just as the lover and the parents did."
"Modern men equally do not realize it, and so they sell their souls to consumer capitalism or consumer communism or replace their souls--as Rank said--with psychology. Psychotherapy is such a growing vogue today because people want to know why they are unhappy in hedonism and look for the faults within themselves."
In the above passages, Becker is presciently depicting modern-day therapy and anxiety culture; “a cultural ethos of care, an obsession of managing the emotional lives of everyone” in the words of Freddie DeBoer. Christopher Lasch similarly talked of the ‘ideology of compassion’ in his well-known book The Revolt of the Elites. The problem, however, that Becker, Rieff, and others were cognizant of is that the therapist only worsens the situation for the analysand if there is not a coherent identity in the patient in the first place to adapatively manage full unrepression and liberation from cultural and religious narratives or myths that serve to allow most to construct develop their own ‘heroism.’
Because religious ritual and cultural narrative is the social agent that allows for repression/unrepression and that without it the masses would not be able to confront the meaninglessness of earthly existence, some personal ‘faith’ was necessary, although Becker stops short of fully endorsing a reliance on faith alone, even if it was of the Kierkegaardian persuasion—that is, not blind adherence to religious ideology, but a more personal spiritual faith of awe and wonder. Rather, as Becker notes, it was inevitable that psychology, in the form of the psychotherapeutic relationship, would merge with religion; that is, both were needed to live a fully authentic life that permitted secure-base exploration of one’s ventures from biological man to symbolic, or ‘conscious’ man and back again.
“The fusion of psychology and religion is thus not only logical, it is necessary if the religion is to work. There is no way of standing on one’s own center without outside support, only now this support is made to seem to come from the inside.”
"Rieff's point is the classical one: that in order to have a truly human existence, there must be limits; and what we call culture or the superego sets such limits. Culture is a compromise with life that makes human life possible."
"What the anthropologists call 'cultural relativity' is thus the relativity of hero-systems the world over. But each cultural system is a dramatization of earthly heroics; each system cuts roles for performances of various degrees of heroism..."
"Neurosis is the contriving of private obsessional ritual to replace the socially-agreed one now lost by the demise of traditional society. The customs and myths of traditional society provided a whole interpretation of the meaning of life, ready-made for the individual; all he had to do was to accept living it as true. The modern neurotic must do just this if he is to be 'cured'; he must welcome a living illusion."
"If there is going to be a victory over human incompleteness and limitation, it must be a social project and not an individual one."
“How do we know—with Rilke—that our part of the meaning of the universe might not be a rhythm in sorrow.”
In the final analysis Becker emphasizes one’s individual creativity and creative potential in their causa sui project. In doing so, he echoes other giants in psychology and psychiatry, including the famous British pediatrician Donald Woods Winnicott who also highlighted the role of creativity at both the individual and cultural levels. Becker notes:
"To live is to play at the meaning of life."
Given Becker’s deep dive into the topic of death and immortality1, one’s development of their causa sui project, and the eventual awarding of a Pulitzer for the book—indeed, that it has influenced many thinkers since its publication decades ago and maintains such penetrating insight into a social and cultural malaise that seems to only worsen—it is somewhat ironic that he died in 1974 shortly after completing it. He had been diagnosed with colon cancer in 1972. Certainly judging by his own standards, Becker seems to have been successful in the development and completion of his own causa sui project.
Serendipitously, Charles C. W. Cooke recently interviewed author and journalist Lionel Shriver on episode 38 his podcast. Their penetrating discussion focused on death and immortality, using her recent National Review piece on the topic as a point of departure. Shriver, author of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005, is someone who certainly is convincing in giving the impression that she has successfully undertaken her own causa sui project. I highly recommend listening to the discussion.