The Denial of Death: The Nexus of Unfreedom

This is the next post in my series of marginal commentaries on The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker.

If this is the first time you have seen a post on The Denial of Death, here are the links to the previous posts in the series:

The first; the second; the third; the fourth.

Also, in summary, Becker's primary assertion is that the knowledge that we are creatures whose fate is to die is too much for us to bear; therefore, we do one of two things: either we attempt to be causa sui, as it were self-caused - that is, we try to make our own immortality project - or, either when the former project fails or from the start because of our lack of courage, we allow ourselves to be swallowed up in the cultural norms for heroism and immortality. For Becker the problem of the knowledge of existence and of death is a problem of heroism.

Before I begin the marginal commentary, let it be said that Becker has come up with some impressive chapter headings: that for this chapter (the seventh) is 'The Spell Cast by Persons - The Nexus of Unfreedom'; another good one is that for the fourth chapter, 'Human Character as a Vital Lie'. I guess those are really the only two that stand out on their own, but 'The Psychoanalyst Kierkegaard' stands out, too.

The focus of this chapter is to move from a focus on the individual and existential to the social and heroic. Becker examines group psychology as it relates to his central thesis. Groups, for Becker (and others in the psychoanalytic school), exist primarily to enable magical thinking among their members to stave off the knowledge of their own impotence in the face of death, and the means by which this is largely accomplished is transference (the importance of transference to this chapter is such that it deserved its own label).

While I would say that this is an absurdly reductive account of the purpose of groups, there is probably some truth to it; say, rather, that the various social, psychological, and existential phenomena which account for the functioning of groups intermix. But it is notable that as examples of groups which follow this pattern, Becker more or less confines himself to the National Socialists and the Manson family. He would probably say, if confronted with a group that has done inarguably more good than harm, that the results of the group's efforts do not contradict his theory as to what groups do vis à vis courage, cowardice, heroism, and the vital lie of human existence.

Anyway, on we go. Becker begins:
For ages men have reproached themselves for their folly - that they gave their loyalty to this one or that, that they believed so blindly and obeyed so willingly. When men snap out of a spell that has very nearly destroyed them and muse on it, it doesn't seem to make sense. How can a mature man be so fascinated, and why? ... On the surface... [it] seems enough [to say that] men worship and fear power and so give their loyalty to those who dispense it.
But this touches only the surface and is besides too practical. Men don't become slaves out of mere calculating self-interest; the slavishness is in the soul, as Gorky complained. The thing that has to be explained in human relations is precisely the fascination of the person [italics original] who holds or symbolizes power. ...
Imagine a scientific theory that could explain human slavishness by getting at its nexus; imagine that after ages of laments about human folly men would at last understand exactly why they were so fatally fascinated; imagine being able to detail the precise causes of personal thralldom as coldly and objectively as a chemist separates elements. When you imagine all these things you will realize better than ever the world-historical importance of psychoanalysis, which alone revealed this mystery. [pp. 127-8] On the one hand, Becker has a point that human slavishness is indeed 'in the soul', and that what 'has be to explained in human relations is' as he says 'precisely the fascination of the person who holds or symbolizes power'. And, as we shall see, his explanation (however reductive, as I complained above) does have a great deal to say about the nature of fascination of this sort, much of it convincing. Yet I take issue with Becker's assertion that psychoanalysis 'alone revealed' the 'mystery' of 'human slavishness'. Just as C. S. Lewis in The Discarded Image pointed out that the idea of the 'laws of gravity' was as much, if not more, anthropomorphic than the 'kindly enclyning' it replaced, to the effect that having a more sophisticated and conceptual vocabulary with respect to a certain subject does not mean that we understand it better than our predecessors, so too is Becker's appraisal of psychoanalysis with respect to group psychology and transference out of line. In the first place, his analogy of an aspect of human experience with chemical reduction breaks down straightaway, and so is unsuitable: comprehending human experience is nothing like reducing a complex chemical to the elements of which it is composed. Admittedly all analogies break down if you press them beyond a certain point, but most work up to that point; this one does not even do that. Moreover, it is obviously only by virtue of 'revealing this mystery' that psychoanalysis has 'world-historical importance', for the evidence from the behaviour of psychoanalysts themselves and from our own behaviour, despite the fact that the insights about human nature are presumably available to all, suggests that it has not changed how we behave very effectively, if it is supposed to allow us to do something about our innate slavishness.

Becker goes on to summarise some of the work of the psychologist Ferenczi on the similarity between group behaviour, children, and hypnosis, and Freud's own work on group psychology, before dealing with developments in group psychology that move beyond Freud's own work:
One of the weaknesses of Freud's theory [of group dynamics] was that he was too fond of his own phylogenetic myth of the "primal horde," [his] attempt to reconstruct the earliest beginnings of society. ... It was Redl, in his important essay, who showed that... in all groups there was what he called a "central person" who held the group together due to certain of his qualities. This shift of emphasis... allows us to make more subtle analyses of the real dynamics of groups.
For example, Freud found that the leader allows us to express forbidden impulses and secret wishes. Redl saw that in some groups there is indeed what he perfectly calls the "infectiousness of the unconflicted person." ... Redl [showed] how important the leader was [in other groups] by the simple fact that it was he who performed the "initiatory act" when no one else had the daring to do it. Redl calls this beautifully the "magic of the initiatory act."... [A]ccording to its logic only the one who first commits [say] murder is the murderer; all the others are followers. Freud has said in Totem and Taboo that acts that are illegal for the individual can be justified if the whole group shares responsibility for them. But they can be justified in another way: the one who initiates the act takes upon himself both the risk and the guilt. The result is truly magic: each member of the group can repeat the act without guilt. They are not responsible, only the leader is. Redl calls this, aptly, "priority magic." But is does something even more than relieve guilt: it actually transforms the fact [italics original] of murder. This crucial point initiates us directly into the phenomenology of group transformation of the everyday world. If one murders without guilt, and in imitation of the hero who runs the risk, why then it is no longer murder: it is "holy aggression... [."]
[All this] allows us to understand ... [that group behaviour is the result of] the magical heroic transformation [italics original] of the world and of oneself. This is the illusion that man craves, as Freud said, and makes the central person so effective as a vehicle for group emotion. [pp. 134-6] I will be going into some of the more insightful points of this discussion when I continue quoting Becker's analysis of Redl's work. Meanwhile, Becker, following Freud and Redl, does not, at least here, consider or mention that the same dynamics and phenomena of group behaviour can be put to good as well as evil; the same group dynamics that allow us to kill without feeling guilty (so long as someone else has 'started it') are those which strengthen us to work with others for a good cause. At least, that what seems to be the case to me. Also, despite Becker's praise of Redl's terminology - all this 'magic' - it seems a bit absurd to me to describe a dynamic operating entirely at levels of being utterly beneath that of the conscious as 'magical', when 'magic' strictly speaking is the conscious and deliberate manipulation of forces via symbolic, nonphysical means. (To be fair, as we shall see, Becker refers to this in a way.)

Continuing the above thought:
[T]he "spell cast by persons" - as we have called it - is a very complex one, which includes many more things than meet the eye. In fact, it may include everything but a spell. Redl showed that groups use leaders [or 'central persons'] for several types of exculpation or relief of conflict, for love, or for even just the opposite - targets of aggressions and hate that pull the group together in a common bond. ... The important conclusion for us is that groups "use" the leader sometimes with little regard for him personally, but always with regard to fulfilling their own needs and urges. W. R. Bion... extended this thought even further... arguing that the leader is as much a creature of the group as they of him and that he loses his "individual distinctiveness" by being a leader, as they do by being followers. He has no more freedom to be himself than any other member of the group, precisely because he has to be a reflex of their assumptions in order to qualify for leadership in the first place.
... People use their leaders almost as an excuse. When they give in to the leader's commands they can always reserve the feeling that these commands are alien to them, that they are the leader's responsibility, that the terrible acts they are committing are in his name and not theirs. This, then, is another thing that makes people feel so guiltless... they can imagine themselves as temporary victims of the leader. ... It is all so neat, this usage of the leader; it reminds us of James Frazer's discovery that in the remote past tribes often used their kings as scapegoats who, when they no longer served the people's needs, were put to death. [pp. 136-7] So, as I said, Becker points out that this 'magic' can take many forms, not always with a spell (so to speak). The reference to James Frazer's discovery about kings-cum-scapegoats once again makes me think that Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld novels, has read The Denial of Death, for many times in his work he has referred to the 'king and the bean': the king is chosen because the bean is in his dish, and then, after some time, he is ritually sacrificed to ensure the vitality of the harvest (this differs from Becker's observation, but the number of ideas consonant between Becker and Pratchett and concepts expressed in similar language suggest that the latter has read the former). This discussion of the 'usage of the leader' makes me think of the riots in Vancouver following the seventh game of the Finals in the recent Stanley Cup play-offs. Mobs, of course, appear to be anything but led; but it may be said that in each small group of people, one person began the activity, thereby 'permitting' the others to join in, whether it was setting a car ablaze, smashing windows, stealing shoes (or what-have-you), or throwing detritus at the police. Nevertheless, it remains irritating to me that for Becker (following Redl, Freud, and others), the dynamic of groups is merely illustrative of evil. Notice also that a scapegoat can be, as it were, the 'leader' of a group, by being the 'central person' whose presence allows a group to form and carry out deeds which its members would have never done individually. Scapegoats, moreover, definitely qualify as 'leaders' whose 'individual distinctiveness' is lost because they have to be the 'reflex' of the group's assumptions 'in order to qualify for leadership in the first place.' So while it seems to me that Becker's discussion of group dynamics is incomplete, he does make some penetrating insights or introduce ideas that can be developed further.

Becker moves on from the basics of group dynamics to show how the transference which takes place in groups (from leader, or perhaps more accurately, 'central person' to followers, and vice versa) has broader, more existential applications.
From this discussion of transference we can see one great cause of the large-scale ravages that man makes on the world. He is not just a naturally and lustily destructive animal who lays waste around him because he feels omnipotent and impregnable. Rather, he is a trembling animal who pulls the world down around his shoulders as he clutches for protection and tries to affirm in a cowardly way his feeble powers. The qualities of the leader, then, and the problems of people fit together in a natural symbiosis. ... If we accent this natural symbiotic side of the problem of transference we come into the broadest understanding of it... .
... [I]t seems fairly conclusive that if you accent the terrors of external nature... then you are talking about the general human condition and no longer about specific erotic drives. [Becker has just been explaining the problems with Freud's view of transference as a manifestation of sexual or erotic desire]. We might say that the child would then seek merger with the parental omnipotence not out of desire but out of cowardice [italics original]. And now we are on a wholly new terrain. The fact that transference could lead to complete subjection proves not its "erotic character" but something quite different: its "truthful" character, we might say. ... [T]ransference is fundamentally a problem with courage [ditto]. ... [I]t is the immortality motive and not the sexual one that must bear the larger burden of our explanation of human passion. What does this crucial shift of emphasis mean for our understanding of transference? [pp. 139-142] I have omitted, due to considerations of space, a lengthy footnote by Becker (it spans a whole page! Exciting, I know) in which he discusses the fact that the practice of the National Socialists to implicate people in their crimes (in order to draw them to commit more and worse crimes) is identical, in conception if not in scale, to the kind of initiation practiced by gangs. It is, as we know, common practice in gang for initiates to have to commit a crime in order to become part of the group. Anyway, Becker at last, and unsurprisingly, links transference with his thesis. Transference, on his view, is explicable if you see it as a response to fears about death and life, as we shall see.

The first aspect of transference which Becker explores is that of 'fetish control'; that is, the 'transference' of the uncontrollable power perceived in the external world onto some particular object or person as a means of 'controlling' that power because it has been localised. But let's let Becker explain this in his own words.
If transference relates to cowardice we can understand why it goes all the way back to childhood; it reflects the whole of the child's attempts to create an environment that will give him safety and satisfaction; he learns to act and to perceive his environment in such a way that he banishes anxiety from it. But now the fatality of transference: when you set up your perception-action world to eliminate what is basic to it (anxiety), then you fundamentally falsify it. This is why psychoanalysts have always understood transference as a regressive phenomenon, uncritical, wishful, a matter of automatic control [italics original] of one's world. ...
... [T]ransference is not a matter of unusual cowardice but rather of the basic problems of an organismic life, problems of power and control: the strength to oppose reality and keep it ordered for our own organismic expansion and fulfillment.
What is more natural than choosing a person with whom to establish this dialogue with nature? ... This is how we understand the function of even the "negative" or "hate" transference: it helps us to fix ourselves in the world... . We can establish our basic organismic footing with hate as well as by submission. ... We need a concrete object for our control and we get one in whatever way we can. In the absence of persons for our dialogue of control we can even use our own body as a transference object... . The pains we feel, the illnesses that are real or imaginary give us something to relate to, keep us from slipping out of the world, from bogging down in the desperation of complete loneliness and emptiness. In a word, illness is an object. We transfer to our own body as if it were a friend on whom we can lean for strength or an enemy who threatens us with danger. At least it makes us feel real and gives us a little purchase on our fate.
From all this we can already draw one important conclusion: that transference is a form of fetishism, a form of narrow control that anchors our own problems. We take our helplessness, our guilt, our conflicts, and we fix them to a spot in the environment. We can create any locus [italics original] at all for projecting our cares onto the world... . Our own cares are the thing; and if we look at the basic problems of human slavishness it is always them that we see. [pp. 142-4] So for Becker, transference is a mechanism (if you will) by which we establish control after a fashion over the external world in order to alleviate our anxiety. It is important to keep in mind that 'fetishism' as Becker here discusses it refers not only to sexual fetishes (which would, in his view, be a subset of the kind of fetishism he is talking about), but, as he has explained, the transference of 'our own cares' onto another person, place, or thing, in order to establish control. The use of one's own body as a fetish, the object of transference, in this sense has some explanatory power, for it provides insight into those songs whose narrator talks about pain being a way of confirming you exist; for example, Nine Inch Nails' 'Hurt', or 'Iris' by the Goo Goo Dolls (which includes the line, 'Yeah you bleed just to know you're alive'). To move back to Becker's broader discussion of transference, on his view one could infer that the (so far as I can tell) universal behaviours of children to have imaginary friends and favourite stuffed toys are a form of transference as fetish control. I don't remember having either, myself, but, significantly, I do have a twin brother - what more natural thing for him to be my 'fetish' (in Becker's broader, existential sense) and I his? I am not convinced that the scope of Becker's assertions about what transference is for (i.e., having to do with the existential dilemma he claims drives us), but I can see that there is certainly some truth to the idea that transference is applied in order to make sense of the world.

Unsurprisingly Becker ties transference more closely to his existential dilemma. First he considers it with respect to the fear of life which he earlier elucidated:
[F]ascination is a reflex of the fatality of the human condition; and... the human condition is just too much for an animal to take; it is overwhelming. It is on this aspect of the problem of transference that I now want to dwell. ...
We have seen in several different contexts how Rank's [Otto Rank, on whose work Becker's is based] system of thought rests on the fact of human fear, the fear of life and death. Here I want to accent how global or total this fear is. ... It is the fear of childhood, the fear of emerging into the universe, of realizing one's own independent individuality, one's own living and experiencing. As Rank said, "The adult may have fear of death or fear of sex, the child has a fear of life itself." ... It is what Rank meant when he talked about the "trauma of birth" as being the paradigm for all other traumas of emergence. It is logical: if the universe is fundamentally and globally terrifying to the natural perceptions of the young human animal, how can he dare to emerge into it with confidence? Only by relieving it of its terror.
This is how we can understand the essence of transference: as a taming of terror. Realistically the universe contains overwhelming power. Beyond ourselves we sense chaos. We can't really do much about this unbelievable power, except for one thing: we can endow certain persons with it. The child takes natural awe and terror and focusses them on individual beings, which allows him to find the power and the horror all in one place instead of diffused throughout a chaotic universe. ... By this means, the child can control his fate. As ultimately power over life and death, the child can now safely emerge in relation to the transference object. ... For this reason... transference is not an "emotional mistake" but the experience of the other as one's whole world [italics original] - just as the home actually is, for the child, his whole world.
This totality of the transference object also helps explain its ambivalence. In some complex ways the child has to fight against the power of the parents in their awesome miraculousness. They are just as overwhelming as the background of nature from which they emerge. ...
No wonder Freud could say that transference was a "universal phenomenon of the human mind" that "dominates the whole of each person's relation to his human environment." ... We don't have to talk only about neurotics but about the hunger and passion of everyone for a localized stimulus [italics original] that takes the place of the whole word. We might better say that transference proves that everyone is neurotic, as it is a universal distortion of reality by the artificial fixation of it. ...
Remember we said the transference... [proved] a certain "truthfulness" about the terror of man's condition. The schizophrenic's extreme transference helps us to understand this statement too. After all, one of the reasons that his world is so terrifying is that he sees it in many ways unblurred by repression. And so he sees, too, the human transference object in all of its awe and splendor... . The human face is really an awesome primary miracle... . We may remember that as children there were those we did not dare talk to, or even look at... [.] [The] fear of looking the transference object full in the face... is... the fear of the reality of the intense focalization of natural wonder and power; the fear of being overwhelmed by the truth of the universe as it exists, as that truth is focussed in one human face. [pp. 144-8] Becker is moving away from group dynamics, although I suppose one may infer that one of the things that makes a leader of a group the leader is that he or she is the 'transference object' for the other members of the group. In my citation of his discussion of transference as a way of coping with the universal fear of life, I omitted reference to the fact that the parents can be negative as well as positive objects of transference, hence, Becker mentions, the phenomenon of people who blame their parents for all of the ills which they have suffered (as he puts it, it is a way of pretending that there is no terror or evil in the world, only our parents). I was intrigued by his comment that there were people whom, when we were little, we could not look in the face. I don't remember as a child that there was anyone I could not do that to, but I am prepared to grant the possibility. Interestingly, I have noticed that nearly everyone whose hand I shake when they are leaving church does not look me in the eye, whereas I have been much more conscious about only looking directly at people whom I am speaking to in the line. I think Becker actually raises the problem later on about transference objects themselves becoming (so to speak) 'too hot to handle'; just as euphemisms of dirty words themselves become dirty, so too do objects to which one has transferred the terror of the natural world become too terrifying to be present to, necessitating further transference. One may claim, I suppose, that in adulthood we are able to function so ably because we have so many secondary and tertiary objects of transference (be they people, places or things) that the terror of the world is diluted or watered down, as it were. Of course this requires granting that Becker is right to name a primal 'fear of life' as part of the universal human condition.

Becker then relates transference to the fear with which he began the book, the primal fear of death:
If fear of life is one aspect of transference, its companion fear of death is right at hand. As the growing child becomes aware of death, he has a twofold reason for taking shelter in the powers of the transference object. The castration complex makes the body an object of horror, and it is now the transference object which carries the weight of the abandoned causa-sui project. The child uses him to assure his immortality. ...
This use of the transference object explains the urge to deification of the other, the constant placing of certain select persons on pedestals[.] We participate in their immortality, and so we create immortals. Man is always hungry... for material for his own immortalization. Groups need it too, which explains the constant hunger for heroes[.] ...
This aspect of group psychology explains something that otherwise staggers our imagination: have we been astonished by fantastic displays of grief on the part of whole peoples when one of their leaders dies? [pp. 148-9] Becker's discussion of this aspect of group psychology and some related phenomena goes on, but this is enough for my look at the topic. First, Becker brings his discussion of transference back to group dynamics. Certainly when one considers the outpouring of emotion at the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, one begins to wonder whether he doesn't have a point. Strange as it may seem, this interpretation of that phenomenon is also somewhat more charitable than those which were on offer at the time by many right-wing critics (at least those I read, which were commentators in the Ottawa Citizen). Of course, since, as Becker points out, the mourning which occurs upon the death of a leader in whom one has invested one's hopes of immortality is not so much a mourning for that leader as for one's self, and since the death of a leader often leads to seeking out scapegoats (say, in Diana's case, the Royal Family and the paparazzi), the phenomenon may be natural but it reveals many people to be selfish and vicious; nevertheless, it makes more sense, in my view, than the interpretation that (at Diana's death and the subsequent international mourning) people are now more vacuously sentimental or what-have-you. For in Becker's view the phenomenon of the mass outpouring of grief is the result of shock, terror and bewilderment upon the death of the leader who has become a transference object, and so is universal in time and space. The form in which the mourning for Diana took may have been sentimental, compared to the particular form in which similar outpourings of grief took at the deaths of leaders in ages past, but that there was a mass outpouring of mourning would (on Becker's argument) not be suprising.

Having explored transference as a largely vicious phenomenon (i.e., as a psychological encouragement to cowardly and vicious behaviour), Becker goes on to explore in what ways it can actually be good:
...[T]ransference is a reflex of cowardice in the face of both life and death, but it is also a reflex of the urge to heroism and self-unfolding. ...
One thing that has always amazed man is his own inner yearning to be good, an inner sensitivity about the "way things ought to be[.]" ... We call this inner sensitivity "conscience." ...
... "[A]ll organisms like to 'feel good' about themselves." [This is a quote from another of Becker's works, The Structure of Evil.] They push themselves to maximise this feeling. ... When we get to the level of man... this process acquires its greatest interest. It is most intense in man and in him relatively undetermined - he can pulsate and expand both organismically and symbolically. This expansion takes the form of man's tremendous urge for a feeling of total "rightness" about himself and his world. ... Man is the only organism in nature fated to puzzle out what it actually means to feel "right."
But on top of this special burden nature has arranged it that it is impossible for man to feel "right" in any straightforward way. Here we have to introduce a paradox that seems to go right to the heart of organismic life and that is especially sharpened in man. The paradox takes the form of two motives or urges that seem to be part of creature consciousness and that point in two opposite directions. One the one hand the creature is impelled by a powerful desire... to merge himself with the rest of nature. On the other hand he wants to be unique, to stand out as something different and apart. The first motive - to merge and lose oneself in something larger - comes from man's horror of isolation[.] ... If he gives in to his natural feeling of cosmic dependence... it puts him at peace and at oneness, gives him a sense of self-expansion in a larger beyond, and so heightens his being, giving him truly a feeling of transcendent value. This is the Christian motive of Agape - the natural melding of created life in the "Creation-in-love" which transcends it. ...
...[Otto] Rank... connected psychoanalytic clinical insight with the basic ontological motives of the human creature ... and produced a group psychology that was really a psychology of the human condition. For one thing, we could see that what the psychoanalysts call "identification" is a natural urge to join in the overwhelming powers that transcend one. ... When one merges with the self-transcending parents or social group he is, in some real sense, trying to live in some larger expansiveness of meaning. We miss the complexity of heroism is we fail to understand this point[.] ... The urge to immortality is not a simple reflex of the death-anxiety but a reaching out by one's whole being toward life. ...
From this point of view too we understand the idea of God as a logical fulfillment of the Agape side of man's nature. ... [T]he idea of God has never been a simple reflex of superstitious and selfish fear... [but] an outgrowth of life-longing, a reaching out for a plenitude of meaning[.] ... It seems that the yielding element in heroic belongingness is inherent in the life force itself, one of the truly sublime mysteries of created life. ...
We have said it is impossible for man to feel "right" in any straightforward way, and now we can see why. He can expand his self-feeling not only by Agape merger but also by the other ontological motive Eros, the urge for more life, for exciting experience, for the development of the self-powers, for developing the uniqueness of the individual creature[.] ... Psychologically it is the urge for individuation: how do I realize my distinctive gifts, make my own contribution to the world through my own self-expansion?
Now we see what we might call the ontological or creature tragedy that is so peculiar to man: if he gives in to Agape he risks failing to develop himself[.] ... If he expands Eros too much he risks cutting himself off from natural dependency from duty to a larger creation[.] ...
Man thus has the absolute tension of the dualism. Individuation means that the human creature has to oppose itself to the rest of nature. It creates precisely the isolation that one can't stand - and yet needs in order to develop distinctively. It creates the difference that becomes such a burden[.]... This is natural [italics original] guilt. The person experiences this as "unworthiness" or "badness" and dumb inner dissatisfaction. ...
The problem becomes how to get rid of badness, of natural guilt, which is really a matter of reversing one's position vis-à-vis the universe. It is a matter of achieving size, importance, durability: how to be bigger and better than one really is. The whole basis of the urge to goodness is to be something that has value, that endures. ...
Do we wonder why one of man's chief characteristics is his tortured dissatisfaction with himself, his constant self-criticism? It is the only way he has to overcome the sense of hopeless limitation inherent in his real situation. Dictators, revivalists, and sadists know that people like to be lashed with accusations of their own basic unworthiness because it reflects how they truly feel about themselves. The sadist doesn't create a masochist; he finds him ready-made. Thus people are offered one way of overcoming unworthiness: the chance to idealize the self, to lift it onto truly heroic levels. ... [Man] criticizes himself because he falls short of the heroic ideals he needs to meet in order to be a really imposing creation.
You can see that man wants the impossible: He wants to lose his isolation and keep it at the same time. ... But this feat is impossible beause it belies the real tension of the dualism. One obviously can't have merger in the power of another thing and the development of one's own personal power at the same time, at any rate not without ambivalence and a degree of self-deception. But one can get around the problem in one way: one can, we might say, "control the glaringness of the contradiction." You can try to choose the fitting kind of beyond, the one in which you find it most natural to practice self-criticism and self-idealization. In other words, you try to kee your beyond safe. The fundamental use of transference, of what we could better call "transference heroics," is the practice of a safe heroism. [pp. 150-5] Despite Becker's emphasis on this (supposedly) positive aspect of transference, one feels like he is saying that, in essence, the problem of human meaning is insoluble and can be overcome only by a kind of cheat. And of course one has to accept Becker's assertion that we are driven ontologically by two opposing motives the resolution of which results in self-contradiction. On the one hand, Becker's view, that the 'idea of God' and 'Agape' are, in effect, only manifestations of the urge to merging one's being with all of creation, is repellent. On the other hand, I think he does have a point that self-criticism is not merely the result of how others have treated us. We are compelled to self-improvement, which is why there is a proliferation of self-help books and other such products (and, indeed, if this is a universal human trait it has been practiced long before the explosion of the 'self-help' movement, and so much of the criticism of the 'self-help' phenomenon is of the epiphenomenal form in which so essential a human behaviour presently takes, rather than the behaviour itself; in other words, critics of 'self-help' are in a way attacking a form of behaviour which they themselves practice). I should also mention that (in part of Becker's discussion which I omitted), he refers to the present 'sterility' of the human sciences and how they appear to him to be directed only toward the manipulation and negation of humankind, which, in a way, accords with what C. S. Lewis had to say about certain tendencies of the way children are taught in The Abolition of Man.

Finally, Becker sums up transference as an 'urge to higher heroism':
We can now understand fully how wrong it would be to look at transference in a totally derogatory way when it fulfills such vital drives toward human wholeness. Man needs to infuse his life with value so that he can pronounce it "good." The transference-object is then a natural fetishization for man's highest yearnings and strivings. ... [Transference] is a form of creative fetishism, the establishment of a locus from which our lives can draw the powers they need and want. ... We live in utter darkness about who we are and why we are here, yet we know it [life] must have some meaning. What is more natural, then, than to take this unspeakable mystery and dispel it straightaway by addressing our performance of heroics to another human being, knowing thus daily whether this performance is good enough to earn us eternity. If it is bad, we know that it is bad by his reactions and so are able instantly to change it. ...
... Transference heroics gives man precisely what he needs: a certain degree of sharply defined individuality, a definite point of reference for his practice of goodness, and all within a certain secure level of safety and control.
If transference heroics were safe heroism we might think it demeaning. Heroism is by definition defiance of safety. But... [w]hat makes transference heroics demeaning is that the process is unconscious and reflexive, not fully in one's control. Psychoanalytic therapy directly addresses itself to this problem. Beyond that, the other person is man's fate and a natural one. He is forced to address his performance to qualify for goodness to his fellow creatures, as they form his most compelling and immediate [spiritual] environment[.]... Human beings are the only things that mediate meaning, which is to say that they give the only human meaning we can know. ... In terms of our earlier discussion we could say that the transference object contans its own natural awesomeness, its own miraculousness, which infects us with the significance of our [italics original] own lives if we give in to it. ...
No wonder too... that transference is a universal passion. It represents a natural attempt to be healed and to be whole, through heroic self-expansion in the "other." Transference represents the larger reality that one needs, which is why... [it]  represents psychotherapy[.]... People create the reality they need in order to discover themselves. ... If transference represents the natural heroic striving for a "beyond" that gives self-validation and if people need this validation in order to live, then the psychoanalytic view of transference as simply unreal projection is destroyed. Projection is necessary and desirable for self-fulfillment. ... [P]rojection is a necessary unburdening [ditto] of the individual; man cannot live closed upon himself and for himself. He must project the meaning of his life outward, the reason for it, even the blame for it. We did not create ourselves, but we are stuck with ourselves. Technically we say that transference is a distortion of reality. But now we see that this distortion has two dimensions: distortion due to the fear of life and death and distortion due to the heroic attempt to assure self-expansion and the intimiate connection of one's inner self to surrounding nature. ...
... If transference is a natural function of heroism, a necessary projection in order to stand death, life, and oneself, the question becomes: What is creative projection? What is life-enhancing illusion? [Italics original; pp. 155-8] Well, this must be where the assessment of The Denial of Death as 'optimistc' by the New York Times Book Review comes into play, for Becker has moved from an entirely negative assessment of transference as a phenomenon of group dynamics to a positive assessment of its role in the creation of heroism and the fulfillment of the human drive for self-expansion. However, some problems are, in my view, evident. In the first place, as always, there is the question as to whether Becker's premisses are correct. Transference is not necessary if you reject Becker's diagnosis of humanity as utterly afraid of life and death both. On the other hand, it is hard to see how transference can be a universal human phenomenon (which it is, so far as I know) unless you posit an underlying cause such as is of the sort which Becker proposes. Meanwhile, Becker has still not resolved the issue of group dynamics, for one could infer that they could be used to fulfill the needs and desires which Becker argues are natural and good; yet in his discussion of groups he displays them without exception (at least thus far) in a negative light. It is hard not to conclude from what he has had to say about groups so far that the project balancing self-expansion with self-merger is an individual one (which, at least with respect to the second part of the project, self-merger, is self-contradictory); moreover, as Becker himself claims, on his view transference heroics consists of addressing ourselves to other people. Interestingly, this does seem to explain the insatiable need of children to get the attention of grown-ups they love and, having got their attention, earn their approval by doing something skilfully - 'look at me, Dad, look what I'm doing'. And, at the last, Becker does not seem to be able to remove in me the feeling that this is all, in essence, a kind of fraud that we either unconsciously or (once we have understood it) consciously perpetrate, however much he claims that transference is both necessary and, when directed properly, desirable. His questions about what constitutes 'creative projection' and 'life-enhancing illusion' point out the direction he is going to take and what he is going to uncover.

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