The Denial of Death: Existential Dualism and You

First, some housekeeping: the links to my previous posts on Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death are here and here. You do not have to read these in order, of course; but you may find it helpful. Also note the 'profanity' label; Becker uses some straightforward words from time to time, and as his use of them often illustrates what he is trying to say, I'll be quoting him.

The third chapter of The Denial of Death (entitled 'The Recasting of Some Basic Psychoanalytic Ideas') focusses on key psychoanalytic concepts, some of which you may be familiar with, including the Oedipus complex and anality. Becker re-casts these concepts, moving them from out of the Freudian framework of sexuality (since for Becker sexuality is not the basic anxiety) and, following Norman O. Brown (from whose work Becker draws upon heavily in this chapter), putting them in a more existential framework.

In case you are wondering, I have been more or less commenting upon the book marginally as I read it. So after two chapters of Becker arguing about the importance of the fear (or terror) of death, it came as a bit of surprise to me when he seems to change course in the third chapter and argue, or so it seems to me, for something behind even the terror of death. Perhaps he returns to it later in the book.

A summary of Becker's argument in this chapter follows after the break; for now, suffice it to say that I find what he has to say here less convincing than what he had to say in the first two chapters.

To summarise: Becker wishes to argue that humans are creatures with, in effect, two mutually contradictory parts; one symbolic, one material (or animal). In other words, Becker is in part an existential dualist, or at least that is how I understand him to be, given what he writes in this chapter. As I am neither convinced by the psychoanalytic world-view, nor by existentialism, nor by the kind of body-mind(?) dualism which Becker appears to argue for, I am having difficulty accepting that there is truth to what Becker has to say here. But I will suspend judgment (unless, as is the case here, I can't help myself) as I comment upon his setting of key Freudian ideas into his existential framework. Before I get going, it must be said that his apparent success at doing so seems to suggest that he has got something; on the other hand, it may also just be that it is easy for the ideas generated by one man's reductive approach to human psycho-social life to be appropriated by another's.

I will organise my citations from (and accompanying commentary about) this chapter of The Denial of Death along the same lines as Becker does.

Man's Existential Dilemma
Becker writes:

We always knew that there was something peculiar about man... that characterized him and set him apart from the other animals. An odd thing, it seems to me, for someone who relies on the evidence of Darwinian evolutionary theory to say. ... For ages, when philosophers talked about the core of man they referred to it as his "essence," something fixed in his nature... some special quality or substance. But nothing like it was ever found; man's peculiarity still remained a dilemma. The reason it was never found, as Erich Fromm put it... was that there was no essence, that the essence of man is really his paradoxical nature [italics original], the fact that he is half animal and half symbolic. ...
     We might call this existential paradox the condition of individuality within finitude [italics original]. Man has a symbolic identity that brings him sharply out of nature. He is a symbolic self, a creature with a name, a life history. He is a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about... infinity[.] ...
     Yet, at the same time... man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body ... . His body is a material fleshly casing that is alien to him in many ways ... . Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with. [Here Becker makes the point that what distinguishes us from other animals is that we, unlike they, have this paradoxical nature.] ...
     ... I believe that those who speculate that a full apprehension of man's condition would drive him insane are right, quite literally right. ... I think that such events [as babies being born with gills and tails] illustrate the meaning of Pascal's chilling reflection: "Men are so necessarily mad that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness." Necessarily [italics original] because the existential dualism makes an impossible situation, an excruciating dilemma. Mad [ditto] because, as we shall see, everything that man does in his symbolic world is an attempt to deny and overcome his grotesque fate. He literally drives himself into a blind obliviousness [by various means which are] so far removed from the reality of his situation that they are forms of madness[.] ... "Character-traits," said Sandor Ferenczi... "are secret psychoses." ... Erich Fromm wondered why most people did not become insane in the face of the existential contradiction between a symbolic self, that seems to give man infinite worth in a timeless scheme of things, and a body that is worth abut 98¢. How to reconcile the two?
     In order to understand the weight of the dualism of the human condition, we have to know that the child can't really handle either end of it. ... The child is overwhelmed by experiences of the dualism of the self and the body from both areas, since he can be master of neither. He is not a confident social self, adept manipulator of symbolic categories of words [&c.]... [n]or is he a functioning adult animal... . In both halves of his experience he is dispossessed... .
     In this way we realize... that what we call the child's character is a modus vivendi [italics original] achieved after the most unequal struggle any animal has to go through.... . The victory in this kind of battle is truly Pyrrhic: character is a face that one sets to the world, but it hides an inner defeat. The child emerges with a name, a family, a play-world in a neighborhood, all clearly cut out for him. But his insides are full of nightmarish memories of impossible battles, terrifying anxieties of blood, pain, aloneness, darkness; mixed with limitless desires, sensations of unspeakable beauty, majesty, awe, mystery; and fantasies and hallucinations of mixtures between the two, the impossible attempt to compromise between bodies and symbols. ...
     So we see that the two dimensions of human existence - the body and the self - can never be reconciled seamlessly, which explains the second half of Pascal's reflection: "not to be mad would amount to another form of madness." ... We might say that psychoanalysis revealed to us the complex penalties of denying the truth of man's condition, what we might call the costs of pretending not to be mad [italics original]. [pp. 25-30] Dualism, then. Becker argues that that which is peculiarly human is to be trapped in the inescapable dilemma of being at once a symbolic self and a body, of possessing of one's self infinity trapped within a finite bag of flesh fated to die. Notice, also, Becker's emphasis on 'individuality'. For Becker the human animal is fundamentally individual. Of particular interest to me are Becker's brief notes on 'character'; character is here described as the outward face we show to the rest of the world, a face which ultimately conceals the madness within. This undermines the notion of virtue as an expression of character. A thought: having read this section, I may have an appreciation for the writings of someone like H. P. Lovecraft, whose work looks, on this view, like a fictional act of displacement by means of symbolising the inescapable insanity which Becker argues realisation (or else the inability to repress awareness) of our existential dilemma brings as omnipotent, alien, hostile beings who lurk in other dimensions, waiting to awaken and devour this world, who cannot be comprehended, the cognisance of whom brings only madness. Bringing things back to the fear of death which Becker so emphasised, I suppose it could be said that it is death which so clarifies the human existential dilemma (as Becker indeed points out, when he writes '[Man] has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.') I will withhold judgment for now, and instead state that this appears to be the central datum of life for Becker, upon which the rest of the book will build. I could be wrong, but that's what seems to me to be the case.
So much for the existential dilemma of humankind. The rest of the chapter consists of demonstrating that this existential dilemma is essential to humanity by showing how well psychoanalytic concepts relate to it.

The Meaning of Anality
First, Becker looks at anality, a Freudian and psychoanalytic concept which, following Brown, he re-casts as existential:

[T]he basic key to the problem of anality is that it reflects the dualism of man's condition - his self and his body. ... [Anal play] is a universal form of play that does the serious work of all play: it reflects the disvoery and exercise of natural bodily functions; it masters an area of strangeness; it establishes power and control over the deterministic laws of the natural world; and it does all this with symbols and fancy. Becker does account for play, then, to a certain extent, the lack of which I noted in the previous post on the terror of death. With anal play the child is already becoming a philosopher of the human condition. But like all philosophers he is still bound by it, and his main task in life becomes the denial of what the anus represents: that in fact, he is nothing but [italics original] body so far as nature is concerned. Nature's values are bodily values, human values are mental values, and though they take the loftiest flights they are built upon excrement, impossible without it, always brought back to it. As Montaigne put it, on the highest throne in the world man sits on his arse. Becker seems to rather like Montaigne, if only to outdo him. .... [I]f we push the observation even further and say men sit... over a warm and fuming pile of their own excrement - the joke is no longer funny. The tragedy of man's dualism... becomes too real. The anus and its incomprehensible, repulsive product represents... the fate... of all that is physical: decay and death.
     We now understand that what psychoanalysts have called "anality" or anal character traits are really forms of the universal protest against accident and death. ... To say that someone is "anal" means that someone is trying extra-hard to protect himself against the accidents of life and danger of death, trying to use the symbols of culture as a sure means of triumph over natural mystery, trying to pass himself off as anything but an animal. ...
     Anality explains why men yearn for freedom from contradictions and ambiguities, why they like their symbols pure, their Truth with a capital "T." ...
     The upsetting thing about anality is that it reveals that all culture, all man's creative life-ways, are in some basic part of them a fabricated protest against natural reality, a denial of the truth of the human condition, and an attempt to forget the pathetic creature that man is. ... [Consider] anality in [the work of] Jonathan Swift. The ultimate horror for Swift was the fact that the sublime, the beautiful, and the divine are inextricable from basic animal functions. ... In on of Swift's poems a young man explains the grotesque contradictions that is [sic] tearing him apart:

Nor wonder how I lost my Wits;
Oh! Caelia, Caelia, Caelia shits!

... Excreting is the curse that threatens madness because it shows man his abject finitude... . But even more immediately, it represents man's utter bafflement at the sheer non-sense [italics original] of creation: to fashion the sublime miracle of the human face... to bring this nothing out of the void, and make it shine in noonday, to take such a miracle and put miracles again within it.... to do all this, and to combine it with an anus that shits!
     ... I have tried to recapture just a bit of the shock of a scientific and poetic discussion of the problem of anality, and if I have succeeded... we can understand what the existential paradox means: that what bothers [to put it lightly] people is really incongruity, life as it is [italics original]. [pp. 30-4] This whole section cries out for a certain amount of correction, in my view. But let's just look at what Becker is trying to get across. It is interesting that, at first, anal play is a means by which infants gain control over themselves and their world. As children awaken to their own finitude, Becker's assertion would be that they become disgusted by the orifice and its 'incomprehensible, repulsive product' because of what excrement, shit, represents. Anality, then, is for Becker the concrete expression of the human existential dilemma. It raises the question as to what extent our taboos against talking about shit (for example, once during a shipment day at work, I and my co-workers were talking about how disgusting it is to talk about bowel movements), or farting in public, and so on, are ways of protecting ourselves from this - assuming Becker's assertion as to the true meaning of anality is correct. Even if we do not grant all of Becker's premisses, it is worth acknowledging that our cultural taboos regarding bodily excretions are surely not only functional (that is, we do not keep them out of sight and hearing only because it 'wouldn't be polite' or for reasons of health and safety) but also bear a certain symbolic import. Consider the following example: I don't know how many of you will have seen the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but in it there are two minor characters, a newlywed husband and wife. The husband, a Christian, is sexually dysfunctional, and at one point complains how the same body parts we use in sex are the same we use to excrete bodily waste: 'Let me just say that if God was a city planner he would not put a playground next to a sewage system!' Of course, films such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, among many others (Becker mentions 2001: A Space Odyssey and Clockwork Orange by Stanley Kubrick, and Brewster McCloud by Robert Altman) take the opposite tack, of glorying in humankind's inability to escape our animal nature; but for Becker such an approach does not get us out of our dilemma. We can celebrate eating, drinking, sex, and excreting all we want, but tomorrow, we die.
The Oedipal Project
Becker next looks at the psychoanalytic concept of the Oedipus complex, which he, following Brown, re-casts as 'the Oedipal project':
[T]he Oedipus complex is not the narrowly sexual problem of lust and competitiveness that Freud made out in his early work. Rather, the Oedipus complex is the Oedipal project [italics original], a project that sums up the basic problem of the child's life: whether he will be a passive object of fate, an appendage of others, a plaything of the world or whether he will be an active center within himself - whether he will control his own destiny with his own powers or not. Look how that turned out for Oedipus.
     ... The Oedipal project is the flight from passivity, from obliteration, from contingency: the child wants to conquer death by becoming the father of himself, the creator and sustainer of his own life. Another term for this, which Becker cites from Brown (who himself borrows it from Spinoza), is causa sui - self-caused or being one's own cause. Given what we have already read of Becker, we can probably guess where he is going to go with this. We saw... that the child already has an idea of death by the age of three, but long before that he is already at work to fortify himself against vulnerability. ... [First] the child triumphantly controls his world by controlling the mother. ... [Then the child] discovers [his own body] and seeks to control it. His narcissitic project then becomes the mastery and the possession of the world through self-control.
     At each stage in the unfolding discovery of his world and the problems that it poses, the child is intent on shaping that world to his own aggrandizement. He has to keep the feeling that he has absolute power and conrol, and in order to do that he has to cultivate independence of some kind, the conviction that he is shaping his own life. ... The profound meaning of this is that there is no "perfect" way to bring up a child, since he "brings himself up" by trying to shape himself into an absolute controller of his own destiny. As this aim is impossible [there we have it!], each character is, deeply and in some way, fantastically unreal, fundamentally imperfect. As Ferenczi so well summed it up: "Character is from the point of view of the psychoanalyst a sort of abnormality, a kind of mechanization of a particular way of reaction, rather similar to an obsessional symptom." [pp. 35-7] The Oedipal project for Becker is tragic and unavoidable. Tragic because it is in the end impossible (and because unavoidable); unavoidable because it is the means by which children become selves, become someone other than the mother (elsewhere, as we shall see, Becker talks about the giving up of the Oedipal project as a kind of regression). Whatever its flaws, what I appreciate about this understanding of the Oedipus complex is that it moves beyond the Freudian understanding that we are all lusting for our parents of the opposite sex; we may still feel such a thing, but it is part of our Oedipal project, which may be expressed in other ways. It also gets away from the improbable idea of a racial memory of parricide. (Becker briefly discusses Freud's idea of the Oedipus complex on pp. 34-5.) At any rate the Oedipal project is doomed from the start and reinforces the notion that human character is a form of madness in response to the existential terror which we must all face - so Becker. Happy times!
Other Freudian Concepts in the Service of the Existential Dilemma
I won't go into as much detail, either citing or commenting marginally upon, the remaining psychoanalytic concepts which Becker discusses, but it is worth noting them; they are 'the castration complex', 'penis envy', and 'the primal scene' (respectively discussed on pp. 37-9, 39-42, 42-6).

Obviously all three of these, which in Freud were sexual and self-referential, are re-cast by Becker (following Brown) as existential. That they continue to have significance with regard to that which is sexual or genital is because these latter aspects of life symbolise the existential dilemma.

Of the three, the most important, or so it seems to me, is the castration complex, so I think I will discuss it at some length. Becker returns to it in his discussion of the primal scene (which, in case you are wondering what it is, is the first time the child watches or somehow experiences his or her parents having sex). The castration complex complements the Oedipal project in Becker's scheme:
[T]he narcissistic project of self-creation, using the body as the primary base of operations, is doomed to failure. And the child finds it out: this [italics original] is how we understand the power and meaning of what is called the "castration complex"... [The problem is that] [t]he child cannot survive without [the mother], yet in order to get control of his own powers he has to get free of her. ... [T]he mother, by representing secure biological dependence, is also a fundamental threat. ...
     The fact is that the "horror of the mutilated creature" [that is, the child's horrified discovery that the mother does not have a penis] is contrived, but it is the child who contrives it. ... If the mother represents biological dependence, then the dependence can be fought against by focussing it on the fact of sexual differentiation [italics original]. If the child is to be truly causa sui, then he must aggressively defy the parents in some way... . [P]ut another way... the child "fetishizes" the mother's body as an object of global danger to himself. [pp. 38-9] The castration complex is male; whereas before it seemed that Becker used terms like 'man' and the masculine pronoun 'he' more generically, here women seem to be left out, even though one would think that they, too, have the same unavoidable and tragic commitment to the Oedipal project. It would appear that 'penis envy' (as Becker discusses it on pp. 39-40) is the feminine equivalent of the castration complex. Becker goes on to restore things to a universal standpoint:

Both the boy and the girl turn away from the mother as a sort of automatic reflex of their own needs for growth and independence. But the "horror, terror, contempt" they feel is... part of their own fantastic perception of a situation they can't stand. The situation is not only the biological dependency and physicalness represented by the mother, but also the terrible revelation of the problem of the child's own body. ... The horror of sexual differentiation is a horror of "biological fact" ... .
     And this, finally, is the hopeless terror of the castration complex [here Becker returns to it in his discussion of penis envy]... . It expresses the realization by the child that he is saddled with an impossible project; that the causa-sui pursuit on which he is launched cannot be achieved by body-sexual means [italics original], even by protesting a body different from the mother. The fortress of the body, the primary base for narcissistic operations against the world... crumbles like sand. This is the tragic dethroning of the child... that the castration complex represents. Once he used any bodily zone or appendage for his Oedipal project of self-generation; now, the very genitals themselves mock his self-sufficiency.
     This brings up the whole matter of why sexuality is such a universal problem. ... [S]exuality is inseperable from our existential paradox, the dualism of human nature. The person is both a self and a body, and from the beginning there is the confusion about where "he" really "is"[.] [pp. 40-1] Becker discusses the problem of human sexuality briefly on p. 42. At any rate, here Becker ties together the castration complex, the Oedipal project, and the existiential dilemma, as they apply to the individual body.
Finally, in his discussion of the primal scene, Becker returns to the castration complex yet again; the 'trauma of the primal scene' is that it contradicts the Oedipal project and is a cause of the castration complex:
The child uses his body as his causa-sui project; he only definitely abandons this project when he learns the impossibility of it. ... The thing that the parents represent most of all is the discouragement of the body as a causa-sui project; they represent the castration complex, disillusionment with the body, and the fear of it. Even more, they themselves are the living embodiment of the cultural world view that the child has to internalize in order for him to get out of his impasse with the body. ... [Becker lists a number of ways in which the primal scene functions to do this.] When we take all this together, we can see that the primal scene can truly be a trauma, not because the child can't get into the sexual act and express his own impulses but rather because the primal scene is itself a complex symbol combining the horror of the body, the betrayal of the cultural superego, and the absolute blockage of any action that the child can take in the situation or any straightforward understanding that he can have of it. It is the symbol of an anxious multiple bind.
[Becker next discusses the role of sex in the existential dilemma.] ... Sex is an inevitable component of man's confusion over the meaning of his life, a meaning split hopelessly into two realms - symbols (freedom) and body (fate). ... We try to get metaphysical answers out of the body that the body - as a material thing - cannot possibly give. We try to answer the transcendent mystery of creation by experiences in one, partial, physical product of that creation. This is why the mystique of sex is so widely practiced... and at the same time is so disillusioning. It is comfortably infantile in its indulgence and its pleasure, yet so self-defeating of real awareness and growth, if the person is using it to try to answer metaphysical questions. It then becomes a lie about reality, a screen against full consciousness. ... Sex then becomes a screen for terror[.]
     ... Sex is also a positive way of working on one's personal freedom project. ... [S]ex as a project represents a retreat from the standardizations and monopolizations of the social world. No wonder people dedicate themselves so all-consumingly to it, often from childhood on in the form of secret masturbations that represent a protest and a triumph of the personal self. ... The person attempts to use his sex in an entirely individual way in order to control [italics original] it and relieve it of its determinism. ...
     By the time the child grows up, the inverted search for a personal existence through perversity gets set in an individual mold, and it becomes more secret. It has to be secret because the community won't stand for the attempt by people to wholly individualize themselves. I question whether absolute 'individualisation' is either possible or desirable. If there is going to be a victory over human incompleteness and limitation, it has to be a social project and not an individual one. Society wants to be the one to decide how people are to transcend death; it will tolerate the causa-sui project only it it fits into the standard social project. ... A person is said to be "socialized" precisely when he accepts to "sublimate" the body-sexual character of his Oedipal project. Now these euphemisms mean usually that he accepts to work on becoming the father of himself by abandoning his own project and by giving it over to "The Fathers." The castration complex has done its work, and one submits to "social reality"; he can now deflate his own desires and claims and can play it safe in the world of the powerful elders. ... But there is no real difference between a childish impossibility and an adult one; the only thing that the person achieves is a practiced self-deceit - what we call the "mature" character. [pp. 43-6] I expect that what we should take from this, not that we haven't already seen this conclusion before, is that what is usually understood as 'character' is really (at least for Becker) and simply another mechanism to keep hidden and repressed the terror of life as it is. Since virtue and the virtuous character are primarily social, it would seem that for Becker the virtues are 'splendid lies' (as an aside, I was looking for the reference to the comment, supposedly by Augustine, regarding the pagan virtues as merely splendid vices, but it does not appear in any of his writings). Other thoughts: 1) Becker's brief discussion of sex is interesting. If we accept his assertion that 'socialisation' is a way of discouraging individual efforts at an Oedipal project, the completion of the castration complex by the handing over of the individual project to the control of society, so that my project becomes ours, sex is the last bastion in which the individual may 'individualise' his or her project. I have many points of disagreement with Becker's various claims, but it must be said that on his view, the highly charged and vituperative nature of much debate about sex is explained: if you are having sexual intercourse in an individuating manner, you are undermining society's role as guarantor that you are causa sui. However, another explanation may (or may not) be proffered which betters Becker's. 2) It appears that for Becker the castration complex is the process by which the individual's causa-sui project is gradually undermined (by various forces: a person's own body; the body of his or her mother; the 'trauma of the primal scene'; and so on) until it is seen to be impossible, at which point it is handed over to society and the social project becomes the individual's. Of course for Becker the social project is simply another layer of illusion, another screen against the existential horror in which we all live and move and have our being.
So much, then, for the remaining psychoanalytic concepts which Becker discusses.


  1. I'm surprised that Becker appears to posit an explicitly dualist matter/symbol existence for humans, given that he (as you note) is drawing on evolutionary theory as one of the planks of support for his hypothesis.

    The passage on character as a mask for madness (and your reference to HP Lovecraft) reminds me of some of the curious prose in one or two Terry Pratchett books (I am thinking particularly of the hiver's envy of humans in A Hat Full of Sky because of our supposed ability to numb whatever terrors of existence it, in its rather greater level of self- and universe-awareness, must confront continuously).

  2. One of my chief complaints about the book, although I have largely refrained from bringing it up, is that I don't see how Becker can sustain that sort of dualism. I don't believe it is ultimately true to human experience or existence, but I lack the knowledge to challenge it.

    I have noticed how some of this stuff has turned up in one way or another in Pratchett's works, and I suspect that he has either read Ernest Becker, or else other books by people who follow Becker's line of thought, even if they don't explicitly refer to him. Becker seems to belong, more or less, to the psycho-analytic school of psychology, so if Pratchett has read other psychoanalytic works, they would probably include similar ideas.


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