The Denial of Death: Becker's Heroes

In my series on The Denial of Death, I did not comment on those chapters of the book which focussed on Becker's analysis of individual writers (namely, Søren Kierkegaard or Freud), because they constituted supporting arguments for Becker's thesis, rather than continuing his analysis of human motivation and behaviour.

In this latest post on The Denial of Death, however, I am going to look at Becker's treatment of psychoanalyst Otto Rank, a disciple of Freud, whom Becker lionised in the introduction to the work. In this chapter (entitled 'Otto Rank and the Closure of Psychoanalysis on Kierkegaard'), Becker appropriates Rank's work with respect to his own project of discovering how (he says) we try to fulfill our most basic desires. This chapter has a lot to say about what kind of loci Becker argues are appropriate for transference in order to secure the kind of 'creative projection' and 'life-enhancing illusion' which, as we saw at the end of the last chapter, were, Becker claimed, necessary for human flourishing. I am, therefore, going to comment upon it. It also has a lot to say about what aren't suitable objects of transference. I should mention that Becker refers frequently to Kierkegaard in this chapter, but since he doesn't cite his work, I don't have much to say about Becker's use of him. In any case Becker doesn't really have much to say about Kierkegaard, as we shall see.

On we go.
Becker summarises what he believes the 'religious solution' of Christianity to the problem of heroism achieved, and then begins his discussion in earnest of the attempt by humans to use other means to achieve true Agape or Eros (as he defined them in the previous chapter).
One of the first ways [of merging with some higher, self-absorbing meaning once the religious solution no longer seemed credible] that occurred to him, as Rank saw, was the "romantic solution": he fixed his urge to cosmic heroism onto another person [italics original] in the form of a love object. ... The love partner becomes the divine ideal within which to fulfill one's life. ... Spirituality, which once referred to another dimension of things, is now brought down to earth and given form in another individual human being. Salvation is no longer referred to an abstraction like God but can be sought "in the beatification of the other." We could call this "transference beatification." ...
In case we are inclined to forget how deified the romantic love object is, the popular songs continually remind us. They tell us that the lover is the "springtime," the "angel-glow," with eyes "like stars," that the experience of love will be "divine," "like heaven" itself, and so on and on[.] ... These songs reflect the hunger for real experience, a serious emotional yearning on the part of the creature. The point is that if the love object is divine perfection, then one's own self is elevated by joining one's destiny to it. ... Modern man fulfills his urge to self-expansion in the love object just as it was once fulfilled in God[.] ... No wonder Rank could conclude that the love relationship of modern man is a religious problem. [pp. 160-1] Omitted is an aside by Becker noting how this 'romantic solution' predates the modern era; he names some famous lovers of the past. The discussion eerily reminds me of C. S. Lewis's discussion of the allegorical love poetry of mediaeval Europe in The Allegory of Love. For (on Becker's view), that poetry would have likewise been an expression of the 'romantic solution' to the problem (or perhaps dilemma) of heroism. And Becker does have a point with his reference to pop songs; more than a few that I've heard compare their subject to a heavenly being or wonder whether the subject has descended immediately from heaven. Case in point: the hit eighties pop song 'I'm Your Venus' (covered by Bananarama). Meanwhile, it is odd that Becker should so approve of the theological insight of Kierkegaard (as he does in this chapter and did earlier in the book), as well as that of Paul Tillich and of Augustine, both of whom he also refers to in this chapter, given his statement that God is 'an abstraction'. I can't speak for Tillich, but I know that for Augustine, and I doubt that for Kierkegaard, God is anything but an abstraction. We shall see that Becker has more to say that confirms, I think, that God, for him, need not be real (in any sense); I might be reading him wrongly and I think I'm getting ahead of myself, but it seems to me that for Becker, it is not necessary to prove whether God exists or not; 'God' is just the sort of 'life-enhancing illusion' we need to square the circle, to satiate the two contradictory motives at heart.
Thus Becker, following Otto Rank, postulates that with the decline of the 'religious solution' to the problem of coming to terms with our primal fears about life and death and our need for self-expansion, we increasingly turn, as he puts it, to 'what is nearest at hand' (p. 162). The problem with the 'romantic solution', however, is that, in the event, it doesn't work:
[W]e... know from experience that things don't work so smoothly or unambiguously [as we would like]. The reason is not far to seek: it is right at the heart of the paradox of the creature. Sex is of the body, and the body is of death. .... Eros and Thanatos are inseperable; death is the natural twin brother of sex. Let us linger on this for a moment because it is so central to the failure of romantic love as a solution to human problems... . When we say that sex and death are twins, we understand it on at least two levels. The first level is philosophical-biological. Animals who procreate, die. Their relatively short life span is somehow connected with their procreation. Nature conquers death not by creating eternal organisms but by making it possible for ephemeral ones to procreate. ...
But now the rub for man. If sex is a fulfillment of his role as an animal in the species, it reminds him that he is nothing himself but a link in the chain of being, exchangeable with any other and completely expendable in himself. Sex represents, then, species consciousness and, as such, the defeat of individuality, of personality. ... From the very beginning, then, the sexual act represents a double negation: by physical death and of distinctive personal gifts. This point is crucial because it explains why sexual taboos have been at the heart of human society since the very beginning. They affirm the triumph of human personality over animal sameness. With the complex codes for sexual self-denial, man was able to impose the cultural map for personal immortality over the animal body. ...
This explains why people chafe at sex, why they resent being reduced to the body, why sex to some degree terrifies them: it represents two levels of the negation of oneself. Resistance to sex is a resistance to fatality. [pp. 162-4] Somewhat annoyingly, Becker in this chapter keeps saying how brilliant Rank's insights are, without directly quoting them. For instance, in the last paragraph I quoted as part of this passage, Becker later writes: 'Here Rank has written some of his most brilliant lines.' Later on, he describes an argument by Rank about the inadequacy of current models of sex education as 'beautiful'; in neither case does he directly quote Rank's own words on the subject, although it is evident from his endnotes that he has done the research. So Becker's point is that Rank has shown that human sexuality is not at the bottom of human personality, as Freud believed, but that the universal fear of death is. It seems to me that Becker, following Rank, is claiming that sexuality in all its manifestations boils down to being one of two things: either, as the 'romantic solution', it is a form of transference, an attempt at making another person, the 'love partner', the locus of self-expansion; or, it is part of the larger cultural immortality project.
Becker has more to say about the failure of the romantic solution:
[T]he sexual partner does not and cannot represent a complete and lasting solution to the human dilemma. ... The romantic love "cosmology of two" may be an ingenious and creative attempt, but because it is still a continuation of the causa-sui project in this world, it is a lie that must fail. If the partner becomes God he can just as easily become the Devil; the reason is not far to seek. For one thing, one becomes bound [italics original] to the object in dependency. One needs it for self-justification. ... [O]ne's self-development is restricted by the object, absorbed by it. It is too narrow a fetishization of meaning, and one comes to resent it and chafe at it. If you find the ideal love and try to make it the sole judge of good and bad in yourself... you become simply the reflex of another person. You lose yourself in the other, just as obedient children lose themselves in the family. No wonder that dependency, whether of the god or of the slave in the relationship, carries with it so much underlying resentment. ... When you confuse personal love and cosmic heroism you are bound to fail in both spheres. The impossibility of the heroism undermines the love, even if it is real. As Rank so aptly says, this double failure is what produces the sense of utter despair that we see in modern man. It is impossible to get blood from a stone, to get spirituality from a physical being[.] [pp. 165-6] Whatever one makes of Becker's claims regarding our ultimate motivations (and, by extension, of Rank's claims for the same), his comments about dependency creating resentment ring true. In Edwin Friedman's book, Generation to Generation (which is about family systems and congregations), excessive dependency on family or congregational leaders generates anxiety and resentment. Put in Becker's terms, the 'god' needs the 'slaves', who in turn need the 'god'. But both become resentful if the demands of one or the other are excessive (because one or the other, lacking well-defined boundaries of self) to the point that one seeks to be absorbed by or absorb the other (psychically speaking).
Becker notes that it is impossible for someone who faces the same dilemma as we to be the solution to that dilemma; thus the need for God, sort of:
The thing that makes God the perfect spiritual object is precisely that he is abstract - as Hegel saw. He is not a concrete individuality, and so He does not limit our development by His own personal will and needs. When we look for the "perfect" human object we are looking for someone who allows us to express our will completely, without any frustration or false notes. We want an object that reflects a truly ideal image of ourselves. But no human object can do this: humans have wills and counterwills of their own... . God's greatness and power is something that we can nourish ourselves in, without its being compromised in any way by the happenings of this world. No human partner can offer this assurance because the partner is real. However much we may idealize and idolize him, he inevitably reflects earthly decay and imperfection. And as he is our ideal measure of value, this imperfection falls back upon us. If your partner is your "All" then any shortcoming in him becomes a major threat to you. [italics original]
If a woman... falls short of our own... needs in any of a thousand ways, then all the investment we have made in her is undermined. ... "She lessens = I die." This is the reason for so much bitterness, shortness of temper and recrimination in our daily family lives. We get back a reflection from our loved objects that is less than the grandeur and perfection that we need to nourish ourselves. We feel diminished by their human shortcomings. ... For this reason, too, we often attack loved ones and try to bring them down to size. We see that our gods have clay feet, and so we must hack away at them in order to save ourselves... . In this sense, the deflation of the over-invested partner... is a creative act that is necessary to correct the lie that we have been living, to reaffirm our own inner freedom of growth that transcends the particlar object and is not bound to it. [pp. 166-7] I am not sure that it is necessary to postulate the failure of the 'romantic solution' (or the existential dilemma per se which Becker has outlined) to explain the 'bitterness, shortness of temper and recrimination', which are, of course, very real phenomena. And it seems somewhat vicious to say that cutting our loved ones down to size is somehow creative; I am not sure that one is really 'transcending' a particular object if one must 'deflate' it. On the other hand, one could say that in adolescence, teens are engaged in the psychological process of extricating themselves from their over-investment in their parents; the more over-invested they were in their parents as children, the more rebellious they are as teens and the more vituperative their 'sauce'. But that is not necessarily an accurate psychological picture of adolescence. In any case, as we saw above, for Becker, God does not really need to have anything to do with Christian revelation. The Hegelian God, I presume (at least from Becker's comment here), can be an abstraction whose sole raison d'être is to be the best possible 'transference object'; he (we might as well say 'It') need not have any recognisable qualities whatsoever. Indeed it would seem that for Becker, the less 'personal' God is, the better. Becker might protest that, in fact, there is no reason why those who wish to can't imagine God to be like as he is depicted in Scripture, on his view; but that is just it: if the Christian doctrines about God are to have any meaningful content, then characteristics such as God's love, mercy, and justice, must needs be real, not merely qualities agreed-upon by the culture so that the cultural immortality project can function. I think there is something to be said about how problematic it is to make one's 'love partner' the object of all one's hopes and dreams. One's relationships are fatally compromised when the 'love-object' fails to meet such all-consuming needs. It seems to be a suitable explanation for the phenomenon of wealthy older men who acquire a 'collection' of trophy wives, women who are really nothing more than status symbols, and who, once they become too old and homely, are discarded and replaced (unlike, say, status symbols with more enduring superficial beauty, such as vintage automobiles). Obviously such a phenomenon is vicious, but it is explicable, and this concept of Becker's does offer one probable explanation.
As you might imagine, the failure of the 'romantic solution' results in added difficulty:
Rank saw too... that the spiritual burdens of the modern love relationship were so great and impossible on both partners that they reacted by completely despiritualizing or depersonalizing the relationship. The result is the Playboy mystique: over-emphasis on the body as a purely sensual object. If I can't have an ideal that fulfills my life, then at least I can have guilt-free sex - so modern man seems to reason. But we can quickly conclude how self-defeating this solution is because it brings us right back to the dreaded equation of sex with inferiority and death, with service to the species and the negation of one's personality, the real symbolic heroism. No wonder the sexual mystique is such a shallow creed. It has to be practised by those who have despaired of cosmic heroism, who have narrowed their meanings down to the body and to this world alone. ...
When you narrow your meanings down to this world you are still looking for the absolute, for the supreme self-transcending power, mystery, and majesty. Only now you must find it in the things of this world. The romantic lover seeks it in the deep interiority of the woman, in her natural mystery. He looks for her to be a source of wisdom, of sure intuition, a bottomless well of continually renewed strength. The sensualist seeks the absolute no longer in the woman, who is a mere thing that one works on. He must then find the absolute in himself, in the vitality that the woman arouses and unleashes. This is why virility becomes such a predominant problem for him - it is his absolute self-justification in this world. ...
... The great lesson of Rank's depreciation of sexuality was not that he played down physical love and sexuality, but that he saw - like Augustine and Kierkegaard - that man cannot fashion an absolute from within his condition, that cosmic heroism must transcend human relationships. [pp. 168-9] Becker makes a number of good points in this section, it seems to me. Whether one accepts Becker's central premise or not, it is true that once we reduce the meaning of life to sensual experience (of any kind, not just of sexuality), our perceptions become so distorted so that others become not a 'you', another person, but an 'it', a 'mere thing that one works on', as Becker puts it. Think of the men for whom women are worth little more than as eventual notches on a bed-post; they must obtain as many sexual conquests as they can, for otherwise it is they who are 'nothing'. And the relationship between sex and death, at least symbolically, is real; many euphemisms for sexual activity are the same as those related to violence and death, as Rawson's Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk demonstrates (I imagine a more scholarly and precise account can be found). Meanwhile, the sleazy and joyless nature of pornography (the Playboy mystique) is explicable as a narrowing-down of human meaning to almost nothing, for Becker's point is that for the sensualist everything ends in death and decay, deny it though he will. Finally, as to the last point Becker makes which I quoted in this section, while I think is true that the ultimate meaning of our lives must 'transcend human relationships', I also believe that living a fulfilling life in connection with our ultimate meaning is expressed through the medium of our human relationships. If we can't express that meaning among those whom we see face-to-face, how can we expect to be able to express it in the presence of God?
Becker at last reviews one final alternative to the 'religious solution':
[P]ersonal heroism through individuation is a very daring venture because it separates the person out of comfortable "beyonds." [I.e., collective and ready-made immortality projects in which a person can opt to participate] It takes a strength and courage the average man doesn't have and couldn't even understand... . The most terrifying burden of the creature is to be isolated, which is what happens in individuation... . This move exposes the person to the sense of being completely crushed and annihilated because he sticks out so much, has to carry so much in himself. These are the risks when the person begins to fashion consciously and critically his own framework of heroic self-reference.
Here is precisely the definition of the artist type, or the creative type generally. We have crossed a threshold into a new type of response to man's situation. ... [Most of the remainder of the paragraph is an acknowledgement of Becker's debt to Otto Rank on this subject and praise of Rank's genius.]
The key to the creative type is that he is separated out of the common pool of shared meanings. There is something in his life experience that makes him take in the world as a problem [italics original]; as a result he has to make personal sense out of it. .... Existence becomes a problem that needs an ideal answer; but when you no longer accept the collective solution to the problem of existence, then you must fashion your own. The work of art is, then, the ideal answer of the creative type to the problem of existence as he takes it in - not only the existence of the external world, but especially his own: who he is as a painfully separate person with nothing shared to lean on. ... He wants to know how to earn immortality as a result of his own unique gifts. His creative work is at the same time the expression of his heroism and the justification of it. It is his "private religion" - as Rank put it. Its uniqueness gives him personal immortality; it is his own "beyond" and not that of others.
No sooner have we said this than we can see the immense problem that it poses. How can one justify his own heroism? He would have to be as God. Now we see even further how guilt is inevitable for man: even as a creator he is a creature overwhelmed by the creative process itself. ... It all boils down to this: the work of art is the artist's attempt to justify his heroism objectively, in the concrete creation. It is the testimonial to his absolute uniqueness and heroic transcendence. But the artist is still a creature and he can feel it more intensely than anyone else. ...
In Jung's terms... the work is the artist's own transference projection, and he knows that consciously and critically. Whatever he does he is stuck with himself, can't get securely outside and beyond himself. He is also stuck with the work of art itself. Like any material achievement it is visible, earthly, impermanent. ... In his greatest genius man is still mocked. No wonder that historically art and psychosis have had such an intimate relationship, that the road to creativity passes so close to the madhouse and often detours or ends there. ...
The whole thing boils down to this paradox: if you are going to be a hero then you must give a gift. If you are the average man you give your heroic gift to the society in which you live, and you give the gift that society specifies in advance. If you are an artist you fashion a peculiarly personal gift, the justification of your own heroic identity, which means that it is always aimed at least partly over the heads of your fellow men. After all, they can't grant the immortality of your personal soul. As Rank argued in the breathtaking [Becker does it again!] closing chapters of Art and Artist, there is no way for the artist to be at peace with his work or with the society that accepts it. The artist's gift is always to creation itself, to the ultimate meaning of life, to God. We should not be surprised that Rank was brought to exactly the same conclusion as Kierkegaard: that the only way out of human conflict is full renunciation, to give one's life as a gift to the highest powers. Absolution has to come from the absolute beyond. ... To renounce the world and oneself, to lay the meaning of it to the powers of creation, is the hardest thing for man to achieve... . ...
... [W]e can now see the real problem that genius has: how to develop a creative work with the full force of one's passion, a work that saves one's soul, and at the same time to renounce that very work because it cannot by itself give salvation. In the creative genius we see the need to combine the most intensive Eros of self-expression with the most complete Agape of self-surrender. It is almost too much to ask of men that they contrive to experience fully both these intensities of ontological striving. ...
Here Rank joins Kierkegaard in the belief that one should not stop and circumscribe his life with beyonds that are near at hand, or a bit further out, or created by oneself. One should reach for the highest beyond of religion[.]... Anything less is less than full development, even if it seems like weakness and compromise to the best thinkers. Nietzsche railed at the Judeo-Christian renunciatory morality; but as Rank said, he "overlooked the deep need in the human being for just that kind of morality... ." Rank goes so far as to say that the "need for a truly religious ideology... is inherent in human nature and its fulfillment is basic to any kind of social life." ... [For] Rank, [surrender to God] represents... the furthest reach of the self, the highest idealization man can achieve. It represents the fulfillment of the Agape love-expansion, the achievement of the truly creative type. ... In other words, the true heroic validation of one's life lies beyond sex, beyond the other, beyond private religion - all these are makeshifts that pull man down or that hem him in, leaving him torn with ambiguity. ...
Man is a "theological being," concludes Rank, and not a biological one. [pp. 171-5] So much, then, for the 'romantic,' 'sensualist,' and 'creative solutions'. None of them, for Becker as for Rank, are able to solve the problem of heroism as the answer to the twin primal fears (from which, it feels, we are moving further and further away). So, following Rank, Becker seems to endorse, as the only viable solution to the problem of heroism, the uttermost 'beyond': we are back to the religious solution. The societal immortality project does not go far enough in providing satisfaction and absolution for us. Although the 'creative solution' doesn't go far enough, it is interesting to note that it is the closest to the best solution, in Becker's estimation, and it seems to me that only 'creative types' of sufficient genius and capability of self-expression are, in Becker's view, really capable of a genuine 'religious solution', the kind of self-renunciation Becker calls for. Everyone else, in the end, is really accomodating themselves to the inferior cultural immortality project. In any case, while Becker's turn to religion, following Rank, seems like a welcome change, it is worth remembering what he has already written about what he takes God to be, or to be like, in this chapter. Moreover, the kind of renunciation about which he is talking does not, it seems to me, necessarily have to do with the stuff of daily Christian life. Remember, in the first place only a select few are capable, in Becker's view, of the kind of renunciation he is describing. Meanwhile living a life of loving service to God and neighbour surely involves participating in the affairs of life which can be characterised as part of the larger 'immortality project'; in other words, such a life would restrict our capacity to achieve the fullest self-development, which Becker argues is necessary for us to achieve if we are to actually solve the problem of heroism and the attendant fears which that heroism is an answer to. We shall soon see how the renewed religious solution will play out in Becker's system of fear, heroism, necessary lies, and creative projection.

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