The Denial of Death: Human Character as a Vital Lie

First, here are the links to the previous posts on The Denial of Death:

Styx in Denial
The Terror of Death
Existential Dualism and You

Second, note the label on this post of 'profanity'.

Third, this post, which will cover the fourth chapter of the book (the title of which being whence I got the title of my post: 'Human Character as a Vital Lie'), will be the last I write on The Denial of Death for a while. It is a lot of work to comment upon a book of this nature, and the posts have been getting longer and longer as I have been going along. We could all use a break from so heavy a subject; on the other hand, it is quite appropriate for Holy Week.

Another reason why I will be stopping my posts of marginal commentary on Becker's work for now is that the two chapters following the fourth are explorations of the work of Kierkegaard and of Freud, respectively, and Becker looks at these two thinkers to see how the former confirms and the latter is outdone by the reinterpretation of psychoanalysis in existential terms.

On with the show. Following is commentary upon Becker's elucidation of what it means for human character to be a 'vital lie'.

Becker writes:
The problem of anality and the castration complex already takes us a long way toward answering the question that intrigues us all: if the basic quality of heroism is genuine courage, why are so few people truly courageous? [p. 47] This is a fair question, and although at first glance it doesn't seem to have much to do with Becker's argument for the terror of death as being pervasive and innate to humankind and as being the driving force of heroism, you know that he's going to work it in there somehow.
Becker explores this curious problem (perhaps it is a paradox) by looking at the work of Abraham Maslow (he of the famous 'hierarchy of needs'). To answer the question raised at the beginning of the chapter, we must consider the 'Jonah Syndrome':

[Maslow] understood the syndrome as the evasion of the full intensity of life:

We are just not strong enough to endure more! It is just too shaking and wearing, So often people in ... ecstatic moments say, "It's too much," or "I can't stand it," or "I could die". ... Delirious happiness cannot be borne for long. Our organisms are just too weak for any large doses of greatness. ... [ellipses author's; italics probably original]

The Jonah Syndrome, then... is "partly a justified fear of being torn apart, of losing control, of being shattered and disintegrated, even of being killed by the experience." And the result of this syndrome is what we would expect a weak organism to do: to cut back the full intensity of life[.]
... It all boils down to a simple lack of strength to bear the superlative, to open oneself to the totality of experience[.] [pp. 48-9] In support of this and leading up to his eventual assertion that experiencing the full intensity of life requires facing the horror of our existential dilemma, Becker goes on to refer to an author whom I quite like (and would like to read more of), Rudolf Otto, whose The Idea of the Holy is an influential book. But it would be redundant if I were to quote Becker's use of Otto here. At any rate, the 'Jonah Syndrome' postulated by Maslow does seem to provide, in part, an answer to Becker's initial question.
Becker goes on to write:
The world as it is [italics original], creation out of the void, things as they are, things as they are not, are too much for us to be able to stand. Or, better, they would be [ditto] too much for us to bear... . I say "would be" because most of us - by the time we leave childhood - have repressed our vision of the primary miraculousness of creation. ... The great boon of repression is that it makes it possible to live decisively in an overwhelmingly miraculous and incomprehensible world, a world so full of beauty, majesty, and terror that if animals perceived it all they would be paralyzed to act. [p. 50] A shift from the existential dilemma identified in ch. 2 and built upon in ch. 3. Now the world itself qua itself is a source of dread for us. And of course Becker's mention of repression means that neither he nor, I presume, other psychoanalysts (at least those following Becker) will take seriously the claim that people do not feel such dread. Say, rather, that the existential burden which Becker argues we all carry is now heavier. On top of having to face death, on top of the dualistic split between symbolic self and body, has been put the fact of the awefulness (in the sense of 'filling observers with awe') of the world.
Becker continues:
[L]ook at man, the impossible creature! ... He not only lives in this moment, but expands his inner self to yesterday, his curiosity to centuries ago... his hopes to an eternity from now. He lives not only on a tiny territory, nor even on an entire planet, but in... a universe, and in dimensions beyond visible universes. This MUST be a reference to Lovecraft, am I right? It is appalling, the burden that man bears, the experiential [italics original] burden. As we saw in the last chapter, man can't even take his own body for granted ... . ... Man's body is a problem [ditto] to him that has to be explained. Not only his body is strange, but also its inner landscape, the memories and dreams. ... His own existence is incomprehensible to him, a miracle just like the rest of creation, closer to him, right near his pounding heart, but for that reason all the more strange. Each thing is a problem, and man can shut out nothing. As Maslow has well said, "... This is one aspect of the basic human predicament, that we are simultaneously worms and gods." There it is again: gods with anuses. [pp. 50-1] There it is again, indeed. Becker reiterates his point. We are bewildered, Becker claims, by what appears to be the paradoxical combination of meaning and non-meaning. Becker also explicitly ties the existential dilemma to this new burden of life.
So, what then do people do to try to get out of this? Becker explains:
Man had to invent and create out of himself the limitations of perception and the equanimity to live on this planet. And so the core of psychodynamics, the formation of the human character, is a study in human self-limitation and in the terrifying costs of that limitation. The hostility to psychoanalysis in the past, today, and in the future, will always be a hostility against admitting that man lives by lying to himself about himself and about his world, and that character, to follow Ferenczi and Brown, is a vital lie.
     ... The individual has to repress globally [italics original], from the entire spectrum of his experience, if he wants to feel a warm sense of inner value and basic security. ... [M]an, poor denuded creature, has to build and earn inner value and security. [pp. 51-2] Becker goes on to list, on p. 52, all of the things that he claims that we have to repress in order to acquire this sense of inner value and security. Mostly it amounts to the repression of self-awareness, of consciousness of the existential dilemma to which Becker has referred throughout and of the experiential burden which he brings up in this chapter. So the limitations of perception are created via repression, according to Becker, and there are 'terrifying costs' to repressing our perceptions of what we and the world are (for Becker) really like.
Becker summarises our experience of the existential dilemma and the experiential burden thus:
[W]e now know that the human animal is characterized by two great fears... the fear of life and the fear of death. ... [Heidegger] argued that the basic anxiety of man is anxiety about [italics original] being-in-the-world, as well as anxiety of [ditto] being-in-the-world. That is, both fear of death and fear of life, of experience and individuation. [p. 53] On pp. 53-4, Becker describes how these fears is experienced. At any rate, Becker has expanded the number of primal fears from one to two: not only are we afraid of death, we are afraid of the very life itself, because we cannot cope with it.
He goes on to write:
The child's character, his style of life, is his way of using the power of others, the support of the things and the ideas of his culture, to banish from his awareness the actual fact of his natural impotence. Not only his impotence to avoid death, but his impotence to stand alone, firmly rooted in his own powers. ... [W]e understand that if the child were to give in to the overpowering character of reality and experience he would not be able to act with the kind of equanimity we need in our non-instinctive world. So one of the first things a child has to do is to learn to "abandon ecstasy," to do without awe, to leave fear and trembling behind. Only then can he act with a certain oblivious self-confidence, when he has naturalized his world. We say "naturalized" but we mean unnaturalized, falsified, with... the despair of the human condition hidden... . This despair he avoids by building defenses; and these defenses allow him to feel a basic sense of self-worth, of meaningfulness, of power. They allow him to feel that he controls [italics original] his life and his death, that he really does live and act as a willful and free individual, that he has a unique and self-fashioned identity, that he is somebody [ditto] - not just a trembling accident germinated on a hothouse planet that [Thomas] Carlyle for all time called a "hall of doom." We called one's life style a vital lie, and now we can understand better why we said it was vital: it is a necessary [ditto] and basic dishonesty about oneself and one's whole situation. ...  We don't want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not really control our own lives. ... All of us are driven to be supported in a self-forgetful way, ignorant of what energies we really draw on, of the kind of lie we have fashioned in order to live securely and serenely. ...
     The defenses that form a person's character support a grand illusion, and when we grasp this we can understand the full drivenness of man. He is driven away from himself, fom self-knowledge, self-reflection. He is driven toward things that support the lie of his character, his automatic equanimity. But he is also drawn precisely toward those things that make him anxious... . We seek stress, we push our own limits, but we do it with our screen against despair [ditto] and not with despair itself. ... Hence the complicated and second-hand quality of our entire drivenness. Even in our passions we are nursery children playing with toys that represent the real world. At this point a certain statement by Puddleglum the Marshwiggle begins to look like an appropriate response. Even when these toys crash and cost us our lives or our sanity, we are cheated of the consolation that we were in the real world ... . We still did not meet our doom... in contest with objective reality. It is fateful and ironic how the lie we need in order to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours. [pp. 54-6] For Becker the vital lie which is character compounds itself by lie upon lie. Once we rest secure in the illusion that we are strong in ourselves, we seek to test that strength, but it is never against what Becker claims is really out there. We test ourselves only against those things which help maintain the 'grand illusion', to use Becker's phrase. It is quite the conclusion that Becker comes to: our character, who we are, is built entirely from fantasy, from a lie, and it must needs be so; it cannot be otherwise: 'the lie we need in order to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours.'
If that's not enough, it turns out that facing and overcoming the 'grand illusion' isn't exactly going to result in singing happily to the birds:
It was not until the working out of modern psychoanalysis that we could understand... that the armor of character was so vital to us that to shed it meant to risk death and madness. ... If character is a neurotic defense against despair, and you shed that defense, you admit the full flood of despair, the full realization of the true human condition... . Freud summed it up beautifully when he... remarked that psychoanalysis cured the neurotic misery in order to introduce the patient to the common misery of life. Neurosis is another word for describing a complicated technique for avoiding misery, but reality is the misery. That is why... sages have insisted that to see reality one must die and be reborn. ... But it was not until scientific psychology that we could understand what was at stake... that man's character was a neurotic stuctre that went right to the heart of his humanness. ... [I]t is not easy [to die and be reborn] precisely because so much of one has to die.
     I haven't finished quoting this section of Becker's thought, but the next part (on p. 57) is a lengthy summary of the 'neurotic structure' (as conceived by Frederick Perls), what Becker would call our 'character armour', which consists of four layers (I guess of the psyche). To summarise: the first two Becker (following Perls, one presumes) calls 'everyday'; these are the mental layers in which we have our 'social character'. The third Becker calls an 'impasse', it is the cover for our feeling 'empty and lost'. The fourth and last layer of the neurotic structure is that of the fear of death. Beneath that, is what Becker, following Perls, calls the 'authentic self'.
     From this sketch of the complex ring of defenses that compose our character... we can get some idea of the difficult... process that psychological rebirth is. And... the worst is not the death, but the rebirth itself - there's the rub. What does it mean "to be born again" for man? It means for the first time to be subjected [italics original] to the terrifying paradox of the human condition, since one must be born not as a god, but as a man, or as a god-worm, or a god who shits. Only this time without the neurotic shield that hides the full ambiguity of one's life. And so we know that every authentic rebirth is a real ejection from paradise... . ... [I]t is impossible to stand up to the terror of one's condition without anxiety. [pp. 56-8] The schema of the 'neurotic structure' or 'character armour' as it is presented by Becker (based on that of Frederick Perls) seems to me to presuppose absolute aloneness and individuality as that which is authentically human. I question the extent to which they are right (although I am, admittedly, no psychoanalyst). Given that nobody actually lives outside of an indefinite number of social milieux (except, I suppose, castaways on desert islands), it seems improbable to me that at least part of our social self is not also part of who we 'truly' are. On the other hand, my own experience in CPE and an article, which I should post here or on Facebook, by a chaplain by the name of Hugh Walker confirms that one of the most fundamental feelings we share is loneliness (but it's better than drinking alone). Meanwhile, you might find it difficult to believe, but the New York Times Book Review describes The Denial of Death as - wait for it - 'optimistic', according to the excerpt on the back cover. I can only imagine that anything optimistic appears later in the book, because things are pretty grim right now. To be fair, as my series of posts on The Four Pages of the Sermon demonstrate, I myself in my sermons move from doom and gloom to hope and joy. But things are about as stark as they can possibly get: for Becker, the purpose of getting rid of the grand illusion, of the vital lie that is our character, is only so that we can face, alone and defenceless, the horror of our own condition and of the world around us.
The logical next step for Becker is to launch an attack on projects of self-realisation offered by other psychological schools:
[W]hat sense does it make to talk about "enjoying one's full humanness"... if [it] means the primary mis-adjustment [italics original] to the world? If you get rid of the four-layered neurotic shield, the armor that covers the characterological lie about life, how can you talk about "enjoying" this Pyrrhic victory? The person gives up something restrictive and illusory, it is true, but only to come face to face with something even more awful: genuine despair. ... When you get a person to emerge into life, away from... his automatic safety in the cloak of someone else's power, what joy can you promise him with the burden of his aloneness? ... It can't be overstressed, one final time, that to see the world as it really is is devastating and terrifying. It achieves the very result that the child has painfully built his character over the years to avoid... [i]t places a trembling animal at the mercy of the entire cosmos and the problem of the meaning of it. [pp. 58-60] Well, this makes sense if you grant that Becker has got it right. Efforts at self-realisation, if they are genuine, if they strip away the grand illusion, result in facing the stark, horrifying truth naked, defenceless, and alone. No grounds for enjoyment there. And, might I add, there is also the risk that any project of self-realisation shall simply become another Oedipal project. And I must admit that I hold the opinion that a lot of 'self-realisation' or 'self-actualisation' stuff out there is too 'soft'; that is, that it does not require us to admit to ourselves such unpleasant truths as are basic about us. (On the other hand, I would say, against Becker, that there are also pleasant truths basic to us.)
This is tangential, but I can't help myself:
Let us digress here for a moment in order to show that this view of character is not one put forth by morbid existentialists... [p. 60] Dare I ask, after all we've read, what Becker thinks would be morbid?!?
Finally, Becker's last word in this chapter on the result of stripping away the character armour (following a quotation from the poem "Diagnosis" by Marcia Lee Anderson. Anderson appears to be a rather obscure American poet whose main claim to fame is to have a poem of hers quoted in a much more famous book):
The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive. ... What exactly would it mean on this earth to be wholly unrepressed... ? It can only mean to be reborn into madnes. ... [T]he chilling reality behind this truth is even more upsetting, and there doesn't seem to be much that we can do with it or will ever be able to do with it: I mean that without [italics original] character-traits there has to be full and open psychosis. ... [Becker cites Anderson's poem and includes an editorial comment.] "Stripped of subtle complications [i.e., of all the character defenses - repression, denial, misperception of reality], who could regard the sun except with fear?" [p. 66] Not much to say about this. I mean, it is about as bleak as you can get. Becker's assertion is pretty much that if we were to know and feel the truth, we would all go mad. Well, that's a pleasant thought with which to leave you on Good Friday, so, cheers!


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