It sometimes happens that one suddenly encounters a rash of references to some relatively obscure person, topic, or work. I don’t mean something or someone in current events, for that would be unsurprising. Nor do I mean something or someone obscure to people within a specialized field (art, music, history, one of the hard sciences, or what-have-you), for that truly would be weird. I mean the repeated mention on TV/radio talk shows, in magazines, and in journals within a short span of some lesser known impressionist painter, or epicurean philosopher, or silent film director, or medieval general – someone or something notable, to be sure, but not high in the present-day consciousness of the general public.
Such rashes could be coincidence. Or perhaps the references feed off each other as a writer or talking head uses something he or she just heard to make a new point. Then again, perhaps the references happen all the time, but the listener or reader suddenly becomes conscious of them for some random or personal reason. Maybe all three. However that may be, I’ve recently had the experience with regard to existential philosopher and psychologist Ernest Becker who published The Denial of Death in 1973 just before he died. Among psychologists and philosophers, Becker is anything but obscure. He won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for The Denial of Death, the key book of terror management theory. Among other folks, though, he is not a household name. Yet, for no obvious reason, he turned up in a dozen different articles I read in the past couple months. (This blog makes it a baker’s dozen.) So, proving that repetition sometimes works as an advertising method, I bought the book. It is a dense but rewarding read with sometimes startling insights on writers from Kierkegaard to Freud.
It long has been noted that, among all animals, only humans know intellectually that they will die. Others creatures may feel it in their bones as when a jackrabbit runs from a coyote (another way of saying they react instinctively to threats), but only we, so far as we know, conceptualize death. Becker, whose mind was focused by his own terminal illness, tells us that we spend most of our energies denying that terrible knowledge, developing civilization, art, religion, and neuroses in the process. In a sense there is little difference between an obsessive compulsive hand-washer and a prolific artist; both are engaged in an effort to deflect doom, the former in an essentially superstitious way (he feels something bad will happen if he doesn’t do the ritual) and the latter by creating something that will survive himself. Both attempts ultimately are futile – art may survive a long time but not forever. Like the world itself, it will vanish one day. The artist is more likely to be happy, though. Becker has a lot of respect for Freud and offers astute commentary on him, but he believes Freud erred in emphasizing sex rather than death as the fundamental human motivator. In short, Becker tells us reality is legitimately frightening, so we sublimate our fears into endeavors (many of them neurotic) that divert us from our sense of doom: whether building a family, designing bridges, or identifying with some ideological cause, we try to find a way somehow to survive ourselves. Becker offers no grand solution because none is possible, but he does offer some kindly advice on how to face one’s inevitable demise with dignity.
This is not the cheeriest of books, but I can see why it is a classic. As for his points of disagreement with Freud, by the way, my own opinion is that the mature Freud (not the younger one still finding his way), who did write of the Death Instinct as well as Eros, had the balance of motives closer to right – Becker might have been overly focused by the immediacy of his own personal end. Nonetheless, all of Becker’s remarks on psychoanalytic theory are thoughtful and worthwhile. Thumbs up.