ERNEST BECKER and the “denial of death”


     Ernest Becker wrote two major books which he considered companion volumes, The Denial of Death ’73 and Escape from Evil ’74 (posthumous).  Becker uses the denial of death as the integrating / organizing notion for all of what follows in both books … mysticism, myopia, mayhem and madness, … But I believe his vision is lacking vertically because there is no metaphysical dimension.  From the cosmo-ontological point of view (mine), I claim the denial of death (DoD) is a subordinate routine to the drive to survive (DTS) which is, in turn, the living, organic, manifestation of the “congenital self-embrace” of existence — material energy.  What I’m after is to identify the most fundamental dynamisms that propel our activities and compel our assent.  And they are, foundationally for me, cosmo-ontologi­cal — structurally more basic and therefore embracive and explanatory of psycho-socio-anthropologi­cal phenomena like the DoD.   Yes, … I am talking about the NATURE OF REALITY, which is “being,” “existence,” … material energy. 

      So I think I am operating at a level below Becker — but we are still in sync.  What’s different, and it’s critical, is that for me the DoD “nests” within a “sacred” context.  For it’s a derivative of the DTS in us, which is the primary manifestation of material energy’s existential self-embrace.  That self-embrace ― that material energy is existence itself and impels everything made of it to exist and to keep on existing ― is the source of the dynamic creativity responsible for all the species of living things and the coherent identities of non-living things in the universe.  It is also the constituent matrix in which all things subsist and perdure.  It is on display as “emergence,” the bio-cosmological phenomenon that so fascinates evolutionary theorists like Stuart Kaufman today (At Home in the Universe ’89, Reinventing the Sacred ’08).  “Emergence” reveals a creativity in matter, a hylozoism if you will, that is not adequately addressed by Cartesian reductionism … much less by the dualist “essences” of the scholastics.  There is a new appreciation of the potentialities of matter that go well beyond the limits that traditional philosophy has assumed.

     Once you perceive the universe of material energy as a creative self-sustaining and self-elaborating project — then death becomes comprehensible, if not acceptable — an integral part of the constant re-cycling of matter’s energy that has brought us life and consciousness as we now know it.  The 4½ thousands of millions of years of biotic construction on earth were not a linear development.  It was a process that was cyclical and re-cyclical.  It was the repetitive re-use of the same materials in a spiralling exploration of new possibilities — built always on an intimate, closely sequenced continuity with the immediate past.  This sequenced continuity meant that death was essential to the recyling and micro-detailed natural selection necessary for the evolution of species.  The only reason we are here — that I am able to write these words and you to read them — is that astronomically countless organisms have died as an integral part of the bio-devlop­men­­tal project that produced the present moment in not only that it is but what we are as a species.  At the most speculative level at least, death loses its sting when it is perceived as essential to the evolutionary project of the universe.  Dying is one of the principal ways every organism contributes to the project.  We are no different.  We can choose to be willing participants in this Sacred Project …

      But by “sacred” I don’t mean to imply a “purpose” introduced by “intelligent design.”  The resident, apparently limitless creativity of matter is what is Sacred.  You have to love it, whatever it is … it made us possible.  It made everything possible.  And once you love it … the way you love the Mother whose very cells and blood were used by your DNA to elaborate you, … you’re at home, for you are eternally immersed in it.  There is no other world.  The solution is embracing, … no, better, allowing oneself to be embraced by, this real world.  Creative Matter makes this world sacred, because it has allowed me to exist.  I have no trouble calling it “divine.” 

     (After all, what is “divine”?  Paul said it was “that in which we live and move and have our being.”  Will that work?)

      At this juncture, then, there is no disguising the fact that my attitude toward the sacred has an affective dimension that comes out of the years of formation in my religious tradition. When I say “love” in this regard, it means that my “relationship” to material energy has been transformed by religious metaphor (myth?) into the homologue of a Parent.  (If I refuse to let it be assimilated to the word “God,” it’s because I believe that particular word has been rendered totally useless by the eons of the anthropomorphic mystifications of our religious history.  “God,” if we use it as we have received it, cannot conflate with what I’m talking about.  Hence I call it simply, “the Sacred.”  But, as far as I am concerned, Paul’s definition still stands.)  This permits a trust and a thansgiving toward material energy that I have called “ecstatic.”  It permits me, with my affective-contem­plative abilities conditioned by both evolution and cultural formation, to relate to my Maternal “Parent” as I am at this point in time.  But I am not mystified in this, because at no point do I imagine any element of this sacred symbiosis in which we live and move and have our being, to be anything other than what science can observe, scrutinize and measure, including the source elements themselves, Maternal material energy.  There is no supernatural reality.  There is no other world.  We are talking about a reality exclusively made up of the phenomena produced by the “passive” Maternal self-disposi­tion, the kenosis, the self-emptying, the utter availability of material energy.  All reality is natural; and all of nature is creatively self-elabora­ting because it uses (is) the energy of existence.  It is thoroughly sacred.  (A scholastic like Aquinas might have said that we are not distinguishable from “God” materially, only formally).

     The fact that we do not appreciate things this way, in my opinion, is due to the eons of skewed cultural formation that has encouraged us to hate and run from death (life as it is) — on the basis of “world-views” that projected us into another world, rather than to look squarely at and surrender to the cyclical nature of organic life in this world of which we are proudly, ecstatically, an integral part.  So in that sense Becker is still valid within my world-view, but he doesn’t go far enough because he sees the problem but, for lack of a “big enough” vision, he cannot see the solution.  And it’s a “solution” that does not obviate or avoid death, it integrates it.

The DOD … a denial or a natural default?

      Now, I’m going to shift gears.

     I want to come at the DoD from another angle altogether.  Becker looks at it from the point of view of a social anthropologist.  In other words, he asks how does the denial of death function for social, cultural construction …

     I want to come at it from a individual phenomenological point of view as a preliminary to making a philosophical interpretation of it … in other words, I ask, how does the DoD function in my everyday life … and what does that tell me (if anything) about the nature of reality.

     When I approach it from this angle what do I see?  The DoD is not really a “denial,” in the sense of some active, conscious rejection or suppression or deflection.  In my experience, existence is simply taken for granted and even though I see things dying around me everyday, and I am constantly reminded that I will someday die … it takes the psychic equivalent of a sledge hammer to make me “realize” it.  And then, when that sledge hammer actually hits me and the absolute unrelenting inescapable reality of imminent death finally dominates my perception of the world, it immobilizes me.  I am unable to function.  I don’t want to work, I don’t want to get out of bed, I don’t want to eat, I don’t want to see anybody … The feeling is, “why do anything, … ever … because it’s all coming to an end.”  I’m not talking about the gut-wrenching grief of losing a loved one, that might be the source of it … I’m talking about a general pervasive awareness that derives from that — that life is meaningless because everything you do or build or accumulate is for nothing. 

     Now I suggest you can’t live like that … it’s unnatural, and pathological.  And in fact, as time passes, little by little … unless you’re hit with another sledge hammer … you come out of it, and you become once again capable of delayed gratification, future planning, larger projects than just the next meal etc. ― all the signs of normalcy and psychic health.  In other words, the DoD, if you want to call it that, takes over again … 

     So in my experience the DoD is a bit of a misnomer.  I’d rather use a different word.  Rather than “denial,” the ordinary everyday phenomenon that allows us to live and work (and create monuments, and wage wars etc.) is more like “forgetfulness” or “obliviousness” of death (OoD).  Then one can work and try to build something.  I don’t see that as pathological.  You can’t live without it.  Repression?  OK, I won’t argue.  The point is it works, and it really doesn’t “deny” death the way “the afterlife” does.

      In my scheme of things there is no “denial” because the normalcy and natrualness of the OoD is fully explained as the spontaneous acceptance of the permanent possession of material energy … that “I” am identified with existence because I am my body, an integral part of a material totality that is collectively elaborating itself.  I’m not talking about a metaphysical analysis; I’m talking about a spontaneous child’s trust in the solidity of existence and my integral part in it.  When death appears to shatter that connection, I have to think it through and come to the realization that my “ego” had somehow forgotten that it is “me.”  And that the “me” is my body (the totality of what I am, because there is no separable “soul”), and has been here with everything from the beginning of “time” and will be here to the end … if there is an end.  The “ego,” in other words, has to learn to re-identify itself with “me.”  (How the two got separated is, in my opinion, the real subject of Becker’s books.)  The “ego” has to accept itself for what it really is ― a human organism ― part of the re-cycling totality of material energy.

     On the other hand, if I live in a culture that interprets the death of the ego by denying it … i.e., claiming that the “ego” is an immortal “soul” which is really not “me,” and which goes on to live in another world, I also create an “explanation” for death … but it’s an explanation that gives the ego a false separate existence that splits me in half and alienates me from myself.  It extracts me from this world, makes me a stranger to my own body and an alien that doesn’t belong in the material universe.  My presence here as an organism becomes inexplicable ― even more, a punishment, an exile, a torture.  This “explanation” must sooner or later collapse because it is unsustainable.  And its collapse leaves me absolutely stranded, isolated, a meaningless cipher in a meaningless world.  It was the collapse of the traditional “world-view” that made Sartre nauseous.

     If there is rampant anomie, alienation, and schizophrenia in the modern world (not to mention religion-based genocide), in my opinion, it’s because of the collapse of the western cultural “solution” (… a “solution” that had to collapse because it was built on a false dualism: spirits and “another world”) spearheaded in the last 2000 years by the Greco-Roman philosophical and politically driven reinterpretation of the teachings of Jesus.



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