The Denial of Death: Styx in Denial

Is the title of this post a clever riverine pun with regard to the book I will be commenting upon? And am I allowed to use 'riverine' in this fashion? You decide!

This is going to be a post of marginal commentary on a book which is, apparently, one of the most influential of the twentieth century, at least in terms of psychology. Since I want to be able to comment in depth, I will be looking at this book over the course of a number of posts, rather than try to get everything in all in one go.

The book in question is The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker. The book won the Pullitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1974, which, as it happens, is the year Dr. Becker died: he won the award for the book posthumously. What a coincidence, eh? And my 'Canadianism' leads me to another interesting fact: Dr. Becker taught at Simon Fraser University (in Burnaby, B.C.; the school's diminutive is, happily, 'SFU').

Why did I choose this book? It was recommended to me to read during CPE, as I came to acknowledge that I have a certain amount of anxiety about death. Who doesn't? I think it will help me get through the book if I have a forum to write about it as I go along. I'm not sure what I am going to learn from it, but it should be an interesting read.

I probably won't write posts about every part of the book; we shall see. The edition I shall be quoting from or referring to is the paperback edition published by the Free Press in 1973.

Introduction: Human Nature and the Heroic
In the introduction to The Denial of Death, Becker's thesis is that the 'idea of heroism [italics original]' is a 'vital truth'; that is, it is a '[concept that helps] men understand their dilemma', a '[truth that helps] men get a grip on what is happening to them, that tells them where the problems really are. [p. 1]' (Becker wrote in a time of greater etymological exactitude, although perhaps of less intellectual kindess also; if you like, substitute 'person' or 'people' for 'man' and 'men'.)

About heroism, he writes:
[W]e like to be reminded that our central calling, our main task on this planet, is the heroic. [p. 1] So for Becker heroism is not only one 'vital idea' or truth essential to what it is to be human; as a concept it is the vital truth of the human condition. He has more to say about this in the introduction (and the rest of the book), so I won't comment further.
One of the key concepts for understanding man's urge to heroism is the idea of "narcissism." ... We should feel prepared, as Emerson once put it, to recreate the whole world out of ourselves even if no one else existed. The thought frightens us; we don't know how we could do it without others - yet at bottom the basic resource is there; we could suffice alone if need be, if we could trust ourselves as Emerson wanted. And if we don't feel this trust emotionally, still most of us would struggle to survive with all our powers[.] [p. 2] First, on a somewhat unrelated note, I wonder if 'narcissism' is really the right name for this aspect of the human psyche, since what Becker (and, I presume, Freud before him) describe as 'narcissism' is as much outward-looking as inward. In the myth, Narcissus was destroyed by his self-contemplation, whereas the 'narcissism' of which Becker writes is a source of power and activity for us. Fine, we're still self-absorbed as we engage with the outside world, but our activity cannot but be completely unlike that of Narcissus. Freud, I believe, is responsible for naming aspects of the human psyche after Greek myths; I wonder if what he calls narcissism is not a misnomer. Second, to address what Becker writes more directly, I disagree with his assessment of what our narcissism is ultimately able to bring us to do, which also means I disagree with Emerson. It is beyond our ability to recreate the world of ourselves; except, perhaps in a symbolic manner, which Becker undoubtedly covers. Moreover, most of the non-actual ways by which we are able to 'recreate' the world come to us from others. We simply cannot do it alone, no matter how elemental narcissism is to us.
On one aspect of narcissism as the motive for heroism, Becker writes:
In man a working level of narcissism is inseperable from self-esteem, from a basic sense of self-worth. ... [Man] is... a creature with a name who lives in a world of symbols and dreams and not merely matter. His sense of self-worth is constituted symbolically, his cherished narcissism feeds on symbols, on an abstract idea of his own worth, an idea composed of sounds, words, and images, in the air, in the mind, on paper. And this means that man's natural yearning for organismic activity, the pleasures of incorporation and expansion, can be fed limitlessly in the doman of symbols and so into immortality. The single organism can expand into dimensions of worlds and times without moving a physical limb; it can take eternity into itself even as it gaspingly dies. [p. 3] Narcissism is fundamental to human existence because it is not merely physical incorporation or expansion. The elemental organic processes of expansion and incorporation can occur, with respect to humans, at a symbolic level, and, because, unlike matter, the symbolic can be expanded into and incorporated indefinitely, there is no end to any given person's ability to fulfill (say) her narcissistic desires in the realm of the symbolic.
So narcissism propels heroism because it is the continuous process of expansion and incorporation in the realm of the symbolic; it is the activity (if I am reading Becker aright) by which we make meaning, which is the most distinct human activity. More:
When we appreciate how natural it is for man to strive to be a hero... then it is all the more curious how ignorant most of us are, consciously, of what we really want or need. In our culture anyway, especially in modern times, the heroic seems to big for us, or we too small for it. ... But underneath throbs the the ache of cosmic specialness, no matter how we mask it in concerns of smaller scope. ... The urge to heroism is natural, and to admit it honest. For everyone to admit it would probably release such pent-up force as to be devastating to societies as they now are.
The question that becomes then the most important one that man can put to himself is simply this: how conscious is he of what he is doing to earn his feeling of heroism? I suggested that if everyone honestly admitted his urge to be a hero it would be a devastating release of truth. It would make men demand that culture give them their due - a primary sense of human value as unique contributors to cosmic life. How would our modern societies contrive to satisfy such an honest demand, without being shaken to their foundations? Only those societies we today call "primitive" provided this feeling for their members. The minority groups in present-day industrial society who shout for freedom and human dignity are really clumsily asking that they be given a sense of primary heroism of which they have been cheated historically. This is why their insistent claims are so troublesome and upsetting: how do we do such an "unreasonable" thing within the ways in which society is now set up? "They are asking for the impossible" is the way we usually put our bafflement. [pp. 4-6] This reminds me of the heroic figures who and calls to heroism which emerge among peoples who are, or who have been, or who consider themselves, oppressed. Think of the prominence of the tales about the British Arthur following the Norman Conquest, for example, or consider Robin Hood. This urge to heroism drives all ideological conflict: I, and those of my party or people, have been denied, or risk being denied, our elemental right to express heroism by our foes; therefore we must be heroic by contradicting, by word or deed, the hero-system which our opponents foster.
Well, this is getting pretty heavy. Becker continues:

[T]o become conscious of what one is doing to earn his feeling of heroism is the main self-analytic problem of life. Everything painful and sobering in what psychoanalytic genius and religious genius have discovered about man revolves around the terror of admitting what one is doing to earn his self-esteem. ... If we were to peel away this massive disguise, the blocks of repression over human techniques for earning glory, we would arrive at potentially most liberating question of all, the main problem of human life: How empirically true [italics original] is the cultural hero system that sustains and drives men? ... What I have tried to do... is to suggest that the problem of heroics is the central one of human life, that it goes deeper into human nature than anything else ... . Society itself is a codified hero system, which means that society everywhere is a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning. ... [W]e must admit that we are dealing with the [italics original] universal human problem[.] [pp. 6-8] Given how many times he has repeated the idea, it is clear that for Becker, heroism is the sine qua non of human activity. Other organisms expand into the world and incorporate parts of it into themselves; heroism is unique to humans and is how we express and fulfill our narcissistic desires individually and corporately. To be human is to attempt heroism, and all human social life is a way of helping everyone fulfill (say) his need to feel heroic. Hopefully Becker expands on this and explains it as he goes along, because this is a very reductive view of what society does and provides. Elsewhere in the introduction Becker mentions that heroism relates to making meaning in the face of death and decay and, given the title of the book, we should expect that death and heroism are inextricably linked.
So there we have it. In the rest of the book, Becker is going to explore the relationship between the idea of heroism, which he considers to be the driving force of human activity and social life, and the fact of death.

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