The Denial of Death: Rank Neurosis

When last we left Ernest Becker and The Denial of Death, he had just finished going through the various 'solutions' we humans have arrived at to cope with what I think Becker would accept as being called the 'dualistic dilemma', or, to use one of his more colorful metaphors, the problem that we are 'gods with anuses'. Ironically, his chronicle of solutions begins with the fact that in the modern era we had rejected the 'religious solution', and ends with the insight - reached, apparently, much earlier by the psychoanalyst and former disciple of Freud, Otto Rank - that, all of the other 'solutions' having been tried and found wanting, we are back to the religious one.

Put another way, for those of you who, like me, have forgotten just what Becker says our major malfunction is, it is, first, that we have reached the point at which we are able to expand limitlessly in the world of symbols - we are able to achieve, if you like, symbolic immortality. And this should be a good thing, for it is the goal of organismic life to expand and to keep on expanding, and now humans have in a way achieved this goal. But, the problem is precisely that this immortality is just that - symbolic. In the end it doesn't matter however much our horizons and capacity to expand appear limitless, for we are embodied, and our bodies die, much, Becker claims, to our horror. But not only are we afraid of death, we are afraid of life, for the world in which our supposedly limitless expansion is to take place turns out to be hostile, devoid of meaning, a terror to behold (so Becker says).

We must, therefore, for Becker, find ways of 'controlling' the awesomeness and horrifying essence of reality; the problem is that all of these methods of control are, at root, lies. Something, nevertheless, according to Becker, has to be done, and the point which we reached in our study of The Denial of Death is, as I said, Becker's conviction, following Rank, that we are driven back to the 'religious solution' to the problem of the meaning of existence and the problem of death and immortality.

Becker's next step is to look at Rank's discussion of neurosis. We shall see where this leads.

Becker introduces his redaction of Rank's insight's on neurosis, and writes:
As a point of departure let us first sum up everything that neurosis covers and then take up one thing at a time to show how they all fit together. Neurosis has three interdependent aspects. In the first place it refers to people who are having trouble living with the truth of existence; it is universal in this sense because everybody has some trouble living with the truth of life and pays some vital ransom to that truth. In the second place, neurosis is private because each person fashions his own peculiar stylistic reaction to life. Finally, beyond both of these is perhaps the unique gift of Rank's work: that neurosis is also historical to a large extent, because all the traditional ideologies that disguised and absorbed it have fallen away and modern ideologies are just to thin to contain it. So we have modern man: increasingly slumping onto analysts' couches, making pilgrimages to psychological guru-centers and joining therapy groups, and filling larger and larger numbers of mental hospital beds. Let us look at each of these three aspects in more detail. [p. 177] The first two aspects of neurosis which Becker, following Rank, identifies follow, I think, from what he has already discussed (assuming his hypothesis about human existence is correct). I found this chapter of The Denial of Death to be quite insightful, whatever the value of Becker's ultimate conclusions. Of course I will be going into what I found insightful about it as we go along. The third aspect, 'that neurosis is... historical to a large extent', is, I think, debatable, although perhaps one has to go back to Otto Rank's work to find justification or amplification for it. It is this last aspect of neurosis that Becker claims is behind the predicament of 'modern man', that he is 'increasingly slumping onto analysts' couches, &c.'. With respect to this last aspect of neurosis, it is worth asking, is the greater frequency of neurosis observeable in the last few centuries due to the historical collapse of the 'traditional ideologies' which Becker claims upheld humankind? Is it due to the fact, perhaps, that generally we have a keener sense of what constitutes neurosis, based on research and data? Yet this also raises the spectre of observation affecting the phenomena being observed, something which, I think, is true not only at the level of quantum physics (which is the level at which the problem first arose; or more accurately, the level at which a problem which has been true at at least one other phenomenological level, that of the observation of the human, was first noticed and taken to be a problem), but at the level of human observation. Indeed, the longstanding question of 'appearance' versus 'reality' is the philosophical way of framing the phenomenon of change being introduced into a system by a so-called observer. We all intuit that 'what you see is not what you get', but our attempts at getting behind appearances to the underlying reality are often absorbed by the world of appearances. All too often what we take to be real, having convinced ourselves that we have pierced the veil of illusion, is simply another level of 'appearance'; reality as such continues to elude us. All this is to say is that it is hard to tell whether 'neurosis' (in its clinical form) is the result of historical circumstance, as Becker (following Rank) would say; whether it has always been with us and only of late have we found competent means of describing it; or whether in large part it didn't 'come to be' until the great psychoanalysts described what properly belongs under a different form of accounting for human behaviour as neurosis - or perhaps all of these accounts of the rise of neurosis have some truth to them. (Oh God, now I sound like Robert Farrar Capon.) Also: Becker's statement about what we find modern man doing seems unsupported by, e.g., evidence. Put another way (assuming Becker has even got his facts straight), are there more people 'slumping onto analysts' couches' because there are simply more people now than before? Or because, perhaps, there is finally treatment for something where before people could do nothing but suffer? This does not rule out Becker's own interpretation, but it suggests that his is not of necessity the best possible explanation for what is going on.
Thus we turn to the 'first aspect' of neurosis, what we might call 'neurosis universal', and which Becker calls a 'problem of personal character':
When we say neurosis represents the truth of life we again mean that life is an overwhelming problem for an animal free of instinct. The individual has to protect himself against the world, and he can do this only as any other animal would: by narrowing down the world, shutting off experience, developing an obliviousness both to the terrors of the world and to his own anxieties. ... We cannot repeat too often the great lesson of Freudian psychology: that repression is normal self-protection and creative self-restriction—in a real sense, man's natural substitute for instinct. Rank has a perfect, key term for this natural human talent: he calls it "partialization" and very rightly sees that life is impossible without it. What we call the well-adjusted man has just this capacity to partialize the world for comfortable action. I have used the term "fetishization," which is exactly the same idea: the "normal" man bites off what he can chew and digest of life, and no more. ...
Right away we can see the immensely fertile horizon that opens up in all of our thinking on mental health and "normal" behavior. In order to function normally, man has to achieve from the beginning a serious constriction of the world and of himself. We can say that the essence of normality is the refusal of reality. [italics original] What we call neurosis enters precisely at this point: Some people have more trouble with their lies than others. The world is too much with them, and the techniques that they have developed for holding it at bay and cutting it down to size finally begin to choke the person himself. This is neurosis in a nutshell: the miscarriage of clumsy lies about reality.
But we can also see at once that there is no line between normal and neurotic, as we all lie and are all bound in some ways by the lies. Neurosis is, then, something we all share; it is universal. Or, putting it another way, normality is neurosis, and vice versa. We call a man "neurotic" when his lie begins to show damaging effects on him or on people around him and he seeks clinical help for it—or others seek it for him. Otherwise, we call the refusal of reality "normal" because it doesn't occasion any visible problems. It is really as simple as that. [pp. 177-9] Becker has more to say, and we shall look at least at some of what else he writes on neurosis as a problem of character; perhaps confirming his point, for I will be 'cutting' this chapter 'down to size' in order to comment on it. Becker discusses instinct elsewhere in The Denial of Death before saying much about it here, but let me restrict myself to commenting that the way Becker describes 'repression' (or 'partialisation', or 'fetishisation') as the way in which we 'protect' ourselves 'against the world... only as any other animal would', or as a 'natural human talent' or as a 'natural substitute for instinct' rather suggests to me that what Becker is describing is actually instinctive. Indeed, having gone back and re-reading what I cited of Becker's argument about the terror of death being innate and pervasive, it rather suggests that 'repression' is at least in part instinctive, for how else could we share it as a psychological phenomenon with animals? Becker might respond that, even if we could show that his claim that humans are 'animals without instinct' is false, his ruminations on repression and neurosis remain accurate. All the same, I am sceptical of Becker's assertions here, for if 'repression' is partly 'natural', as Becker even concedes it to be, then how can it be called 'repression'? We cannot repress what is physically impossible for us to experience, and it is physically impossible for us to experience the 'whole world' at a go. To be sure, some people are more sensitive to the world than others, but I would argue that the media of our senses, the structure of our brains, and the media of our natural environments preclude the possibility of experiencing the world in the way Becker asserts we do; of course we can deaden ourselves even more to the world by habit (we are trained only to notice some things, and to ignore others), or by technique (earphones plugged into iPod), but against Becker I would say that, if we do not seem to be terrified of the world around us, it is because, at least in part, the world around us doesn't mediate anything particularly terrifying to us through our senses. That said, repression is an observeable phenomenon, and I think that Becker's discussion of neurosis is insightful, for I think it is in part true. Our understanding of what constitutes 'normality' is often enough simply 'respectable neurosis'; I would amplify Becker's point and go so far to say that for the most part, the difference between someone who is 'normal' and someone who is 'neurotic' is a matter of degree rather than kind; in the last resort mental illness is latent in every human being, just as other forms of sickness are (e.g., not everyone becomes affected by cancer, but in everyone there is the potential for cancer).
Becker has more to say about neurosis as a problem of personal character:
[T]he whole thing becomes more complex when we see how the lies about reality begin to miscarry. Then we have to begin to apply the label "neurotic." And there are any number of occasions for this, from many ranges of human experience. Generally speaking we call neurotic any life style that begins to constrict too much, that prevents free forward momentum, new choices, and growth that a person may want and need. ... In terms we used earlier we could say that [a neurotic's] "safe" heroics is not working out; it is choking him, poisoning him with the realization that it is so safe that it is not heroic at all. ...
More sensational are those other familiar miscarriages of lies about reality, what we call obsessions and compulsions, phobias of all kinds. Here we see the result of too much fetishization or partialization, too much narrowing-down of the world of action. The result is that the person gets stuck in the narrowness. It is one thing to ritually wash one's hands three times [earlier presented as an example of 'borderline' neurosis]; it is another to wash them until the hands bleed and one is in the bathroom most of the day. Here we see in pure culture, as it were, what is at stake in all human repression: the fear of life and death. Safety in the face of the real terror of creature existence is becoming a real problem for the person. ...
We can see that the symptom is an attempt to live, an attempt to unblock action and keep the world safe. The fear of life and death is encapsulated in the symptom. If you feel vulnerable it is because you feel bad and inferior, not big or strong enough to face up to the terrors of the universe. You work out your need for perfection (bigness, invulnerability) in the symptom... . We might say that the symptom itself represents the locus of the performance of heroism. No wonder that one cannot give it up: that would release all by itself the whole flood of terror that one is trying to deny and overcome. When you put all your eggs in one basket you must clutch that basket for dear life. It is as though one were to take the whole world and fuse it into a single object or a single fear. We immediately recognize this as the same creative dynamic that the person uses in transference, when he fuses all the terror and majesty of creation in the transference-object. This is what Rank meant when he said that neurosis represents creative power gone astray and confused. ...
The ironic thing about the narrowing-down of neurosis is that the person seeks to avoid death, but he does it by killing off so much of himself and so large a spectrum of his action-world that he is actually isolating and diminishing himself and becoming as though dead. There is just no way for the living creature to avoid life and death, and it is probably poetic justice that if he tries too hard to do so he destroys himself.
But we still haven't exhausted the range of behaviors that we can call neurotic. Another way of approaching neurosis is from the opposite end of the problem. There is a type of person who has difficulty fetishizing and narrowing-down... . We introduced this type... when we talked about the creative person. We saw that these people feel their isolation, their individuality. They stick out, are less built-into normal society, less securely programmed for automatic cultural action. To have difficulty partializing experience is to have difficulty living. Not to be able to fetishize makes one susceptible to the world as a total problem with all the living hell that this exposure raises. We said that partializing the world is biting off what an animal can chew. Not to have this talent means constantly biting off more than one can chew. ...
Now we can see how the problem of neurosis can be laid out along the lines of the twin ontological motives: on the one hand, one merges with the world around him and becomes too much a part of it and so loses his own claim to life. On the other hand, one cuts oneself off from the world in order to make one's own complete [italics original] claim and so loses the ability to live and act in the world on its terms. ... The ideal of course is to find some balance between the two motives, such as characterize the better adjusted person; he is at ease with both. The neurotic represents precisely "an extreme at one end or the other"; he feels that one or the other is a burden. [pp. 179-82] Nothing really new here, but, like any good writer, Becker reiterates in different terms the point he has been trying to make. Neurosis is nothing more than extremes along the spectrum of coping with the creaturely terror of life and death. But 'normal' people differ from neurotics on either end of the spectrum not by kind, but only by degree. The 'vital lie' of the neurotic miscarries (as Becker puts it), either because he (say) has shut too much of the world out or because he lets too much of the world in. Meanwhile, the 'well-adjusted' woman (say), for Becker, is simply someone whose 'vital lie' continues to provide her with opportunities for heroism which are challenging enough to but which are 'safe' enough for her to accomplish. By far it would seem that the commonest form of neurosis, as Becker discusses it in general, is the 'too narrow' form, where the 'fetishisation' or 'partialisation' of reality, becomes too excessive; as Beckers puts it in a brilliant image, a person who is neurotic in this way is someone who has put all his eggs in one basket and is clutching to that basket for dear life. Becker goes into more detail in the following chapter (entitled, 'A General View of Mental Illness') about how to characterise neurotic behaviour based on his understanding of the primary motives of human life (i.e., terror of life and death), and his focus is largely on sexual perversion. But you could view the tenacious, pugnacious, and desperate clinging to ideas as a form of neurosis, too: there are many people who have put all of their mental eggs in one basket, and so clutch that basket for dear life, and who lash out when confronted by ideas that threaten to upset their basket, as it were. Even the most cursory survey of, say, politics, reveals such a situation, I think. It also suggests that Becker's claim that neurosis is, in effect, what we all do in order to cope has some validity, for I think we can all see that most everyone has Views, of the sort that everyone else has to be careful what they say about. That said, I don't believe it is of necessity the case that, this being so, we have to accept Becker's ultimate claim.
So let's look at Becker's final comments on neurosis as a problem of character:
[N]eurosis is par excellence the danger of a symbolic animal whose body is a problem to him. Instead of living biologically, then, he lives symbolically. Instead of living in the part-way that nature provided for he lives in the total way made possible by symbols. One substitutes the magical, all-inclusive world of the self for the real, fragmentary world of experience. Again, in this sense, everyone is neurotic, as everyone holds back from life in some way and lets his symbolic world-view arrange things: this is what cultural morality is for. In this sense, too, the artist is the most neurotic because he too takes the world as a totality and makes a largely symbolic problem out of it.
If this neurosis characterizes everyone to a certain extent and the artist most of all, where do we cross the line into "neurosis" as a clinical problem? One way, as we saw, is by the production of a crippling symptom or a too-constricting life style. The person has tried to cheat nature by restricting his experience, but he remains sensitive to the terror of life at some level of his awareness. Besides, he can't arrange his triumph over life and death in his mind or in his narrow heroics without paying some price: the symptom or a bogging down in guilt and futility because of an unlived life.
... Rank asked why the artist so often avoids clinical neurosis when he is so much a candidate for it because of his vivid imagination... [and] his isolation from the cultural world-view that satisfies everyone else. The answer is that he takes in the world, but instead of being oppressed by it he reworks it in his own personality and recreates it in the work of art. The neurotic is precisely the one who cannot create—the "artiste-manqué," as Rank so aptly called him. We might say that both the artist and the neurotic bite off more than they can chew, but the artist spews it back out again and chews it over in an objectified way, as an external, active, work project. The neurotic can't marshal this creative response embodied in a specific work, and so he chokes on his introversions. ...
The neurotic exhausts himself not only in self-preoccupations like hypochondriacal fears and all sorts of fantasies, but also in others [italics original]: those around him on whom he is dependent become his therapeutic work project; he takes out his subjective problems on them. But people are not clay to be molded; they have needs and counter-wills of their own. ...
From this point of view the difference between the artist and the neurotic seems to boil down largely to a question of talent. It is like the difference between an illiterate schizophrenic and a Strindberg: one ends up on the backwards and the other becomes a culture hero—but both experience the world in similar ways and only the quality and the power of the reaction differ. If the neurotic feels vulnerable in the face of the world he takes in, he reacts by criticizing himself to excess. He can't endure himself or the isolation that his individuality plunges him into. On the other hand, he still needs to be a hero, still needs to earn immortality on the basis of his unique qualities, which means that he still must glorify himself in some ways. But he can glorify himself only in fantasy [italics original], as he cannot fashion a creative work that speaks on his behalf by virtue of its objective perfection. He is caught in a vicious circle because he experiences the unreality of fantasied self-glorification. There is really no conviction possible for man unless it comes from others or from outside himself in some way—at least not for long. One simply cannot justify his own heroism in his own inner symbolic fantasy, which is what leads the neurotic to feel more unworthy and inferior. This is pretty much the situation of the adolescent who has not discovered his inner gifts. The artist, on the other hand, overcomes his inferiority and glorifies himself because he has the talent [ditto] to do so.
From all this we can see how interchangeably we can talk about neurosis, adolescence, normality, the artist—with only varying degrees of difference or with a peculiar additive like "talent" making all the difference. Talent itself is usually largely circumstantial, the result of luck and work, which makes Rank's view of neurosis true to life. Artists are neurotic as well as creative; the greatest of them can have crippling neurotic symptoms and can cripple those around them as well by their neurotic demands and needs. Look what Carlyle did to his wife. There is no doubt that creative work is itself done under a compulsion often indistinguishable from a purely clinical obsession. In this sense, what we call a creative gift is simply the social license to be obsessed. And what we call "cultural routine" is a similar license: the proletariat demands the obsession of work in order to keep from going crazy. I used to wonder how people could stand the really demonic activity of working behind those hellish ranges in hotel kitchens, the frantic whirl of waiting on a dozen tables at one time, the madness of the travel agent's office at the height of the tourist season, or the torture of working with a jack-hammer all day on a hot summer street. The answer is so simple that it eludes us: the craziness of these activities is exactly that of the human condition. They are "right" for us because the alternative is natural desperation. The daily madness of these jobs is a repeated vaccination against the madness of the asylum. Look at the joy and eagerness with which workers return from vacation to their compulsive routines. They plunge into their work with equanimity and lightheartedness because it drowns out something more ominous. Men have to be protected from reality. All of which poses another gigantic problem to a sophisticated Marxism, namely: What is the nature of the obsessive denials of reality that a utopian society will provide to keep men from going mad? [pp. 183-6] Becker's observations about the nature of work are especially sharp after having read Pépin's autobiography, in which he, who comes across as a rather easygoing fellow, spent a great deal of time 'working behind hellish ranges in hotel kitchens'. Indeed, it is not hard to see that much work, superficial though it may be, serves to 'drown out something more ominous'; work has often been an escape from life's problems for many, and now Becker has naturally concluded that work is an escape from the most pressing problem of all. This reminds me of Agent Smith's monologue in The Matrix, in which he narrates how the first Matrix (an illusory world generated by machines so that people are unaware that they are in fact encased in pods and acting as batteries) failed because it was designed to be a utopian society; the 'world' that they made that worked was one in which every human being suffered to a certain extent, and in which they had the opportunity to avoid the madness of the asylum, as it were, by accepting the madness of normality, even though normality was itself an illusion. Indeed, now I look at The Matrix from the perspective of The Denial of Death, I wonder whether the brothers Wachowski read the book. Becker's perspective on work is also interesting because it is a commonplace that we work and keep ourselves busy in order to avoid the things we do when we don't work, and we all know how unhappy and depressed people who can't do 'useful work' get. Does it not then suggest that we fear something that we risk facing when we are not busy, to the extent that many of us are willing to do even demeaning, crippling, and idiotic jobs? How many people are willing to work under absurd, idiotic, or even appalling conditions, simply because it is something for them to do? Becker's paragraph treating work, however small a part of the chapter, is one of its most insightful sections. Meanwhile, while I realise that Becker's work on artists and their motives follows that of Otto Rank (and, I think, to a certain extent that of Freud), it does seem unnecessarily reductive. On the other hand, there is a certain 'universal unreality' with respect to a lot of art (in all media); if you look at the descriptions of paintings or the blurbs in CDs, for example, you will see a lot of verbiage the purpose of which, it seems, is to identify the person as belonging to the cultural world of the 'artist'; on Becker's view, it would seem that artists, having lost confidence in their ability to create something which encapsulates and objectifies the world (and 'partialises' it), have had recourse to creating their own 'artistic culture' which does for them what 'normal culture' does for everyone else. The phenomenon of 'sub-cultures' is, from Becker's perspective, simply a vast (indeed, potentially infinite) complex of symbolic worlds which offer a locus for 'safe heroics' for the growing number of people for whom the predominant culture does not offer sufficient opportunity for such heroism, or else is too constrictive. That many, if not most, people who participate in subcultures are able and willing to keep in touch with the predominant culture (if only to pooh-pooh it; e.g., watching Jersey Shore in order to mock it for its vacuity, but watching it regularly) suggests that they are aware, at some level, that the risk of self-constriction is as likely if they go too 'far' into their chosen subculture as it would be if they went too 'far' into 'standard culture'.
It is also worth looking at Becker's discussion of neurosis as a problem of illusion; of course at this point we are well aware that, according to Becker, human activity of all kinds is directed toward maintaining the 'vital lie'.
We have looked at neurosis as a problem of character and have seen that it can be approached in two ways: as a problem of too much narrowness toward the world or of too much openness. ... But it is very risky to try to be hard and fast about types of personality; there are all kinds of blends and combinations that defy precise compartmentalization. After all, one of the reasons we narrow down too much is that we must sense on some level of awareness that life is too big and threatening a problem. And if we say that the average man narrows down "just about right," we have to ask who this average man is. He may avoid the psychiatric clinic, but somebody around has to pay for it. We are reminded of those Roman portrait-busts that stuff our museums: to live in this tight-lipped style as an average good citizen must have created some daily hell. Of course we are not talking only about daily pettinesses and the small sadisms that are practised on family and friends. Even if the average man lives in a kind of obliviousness of anxiety, it is because he has erected a massive wall of repressions to hide the problem of life and death. His anality may protect him, but all through history it is the "normal, average men" who, like locusts, have laid waste to the world in order to forget themselves.
Perhaps this blending-in of normalcy and neurosis becomes even clearer if we look at the problem not only as one of character but also under another general aspect: as a question of reality and illusion. ... In terms of everything we have said so far, this way of looking at neurosis will be easy to grasp. We have seen that what we call the human character is actually a lie about the nature of reality. The causa-sui [italics original] project is a pretense that one is invulnerable because protected by the power of others and of culture... . But in back... whispers the voice of possible truth: that human life may not be more than a meaningless interlude in a vicious drama of flesh and bones that we call evolution[.] ...
Some people are more sensitive to the lie of cultural life, to the illusion of the causa-sui [ditto] project that others are... caught up in. ... The average man is at least secure that the cultural game is [ditto] the truth... . It is all so simple and clear-cut. But now the neurotic:
He perceives himself as unreal and reality as unbearable, because with him the mechanisms of illusion are known and destroyed by self consciousness. He can no longer deceive himself about himself and disillusions even his own ideal of personality. He perceives himself as bad, guilt laden, inferior, as a small, weak, helpless creature, which is the truth about mankind, as Oedipus also discovered in the crash of his heroic fate. All other is illusion, deception, but necessary deception in order to be able to bear one's self and thereby life. [This is a citation from Otto Rank, Will Therapy and Truth and Reality.]
In other words, the neurotic isolates himself from others, cannot engage freely in their partialization of the world, and so cannot live by their deceptions about the human condition. He lifts himself out of the "natural therapy" of everyday life... and so the illusions that others share seem unreal to him. ... Neither can he, like the artist, create new illusions. [italics original] And don't some people drink to head off the despair of reality as they sense it truly is? Men must always imagine and believe in a "second" reality or a better world than the one that is given him by nature. ...
With the truth, one cannot live. To be able to live one needs illusions, not only outer illusions such as art, religion, philosophy, science and love afford, but inner illusions which first condition the outer [i.e., a secure sense of one's active powers, and of being able to count on the powers of others]. The more a man can take reality as truth, appearance as essence, the sounder, the better adjusted, the happier will he be ... this constantly effective process of self-deceiving, pretending and blundering, is no psychopathological mechanism.... [This paragraph is also a citation from Rank, Will Therapy; the ellipses I take to be Becker's handiwork; the text in brackets is at least from The Denial of Death if not from Rank's work.]
... [This insight] shakes the foundations of our conceptualization of normality and health. It makes them entirely a relative value problem. The neurotic opts out of life because he is having trouble maintaining his illusions about it, which proves nothing less than that life is possible only with illusions.
And so, the question... must become... one that reflects the essence of the human condition: On what level of illusion does one live? ... [R]ight now we must remind ourselves that when we talk about the need for illusion we are not being cynical. True, there is a great deal of falseness and self-deception in the cultural causa-sui project, but there is also the necessity of this project. Man needs a "second" world, a world of humanly created meaning, a new reality that he can live, dramatize, nourish himself in. "Illusion" means creative play at its highest level. Cultural illusion is a necessary ideology of self-justification, a heroic dimension that is life itself to the symbolic animal. To lose the security of heroic cultural illusion is to die—that is what "deculturation" of primitives means and that is what it does. It kills them or reduces them to the animal level of chronic fighting and fornication. Life becomes possible only in a continual alcoholic stupor. Many of the older American Indians were relieved when the Big Chiefs in Ottawa and Washington took control and prevented them from warring and feuding. It was a relief from the constant anxiety of death for their loved ones, if not for themselves. But they also knew, with a heavy heart, that this eclipse of their traditional hero-systems at the same time left them as good as dead. [pp. 186-9] This last part of Becker's discussion of the necessity of cultural illusion, and of neurosis as the inability of the individual to 'buy in' to the illusions which culture generates for her (say) use, doesn't quite seem to follow. It would appear that Becker drew this conclusion from what he found in a book called Primitive War: Its Practices and Concepts, by Harry Holbert Turney-High. Both book and author are relatively obscure (by contemporary standards); in any event, Becker's illustration is an interesting one. The aboriginal culture and its modes of heroism having been demolished (a creative illusion overthrown by another one is, I suppose, unconvincing), the indigenous peoples of North America were reduced to coping mechanisms. The conditions which obtain in many reserves are miserable, to a certain extent (supposing Becker is right), because their inhabitants are unable to create an effective cultural immortality project for themselves to stave off the misery of reality. This does not address the means by which aboriginals continue to be systematically oppressed, of course, but, assuming Becker has got it right, the demise of their cultural immortality project has made them, generally, less able to resist, less able to cope, than, say, individuals in other societies whose cultural immortality projects were not demolished, however oppressed they may have been in the past or at present. Besides, there are lots of people belonging to the predominant North American culture (whether by birth or adoption, as it were) whose neurotic coping is at least as harmful to self and other, but less obvious, because culturally sanctioned. Moreover, if true, what Becker and Rank have to say about the nature of neurosis as a penetration of the illusions to which we cling indeed overturn how we view mental health. I am sure that in previous commentaries on The Denial of Death I have cited passages in which Becker discusses how we need 'creative illusion' in order to survive. If Becker, following Rank, is right, 'mental health' rightly consists of nurturing and inhabiting a series of creative illusions sufficiently robust to ward us from the neurotic extremes while yet preventing us from harmfully projecting or transferring onto others; you might say that 'mental health' is about arranging it so that we pay the price for our illusions only a little bit at a time, without forcing others to pay the price for us.
We'll look at the last aspect of neurosis that Becker mentioned, neurosis as an historical artifact (as it were), before finishing this post with Becker's conclusions about neurosis and modern society.
Our third general approach to the problem of neurosis is that of the historical dimension. It is the most important of all, really, because it absorbs the others. We saw that neurosis could be looked at at a basic level as a problem of character and, at another level, as a problem of illusion, of creative cultural play. The historical level is a third level into which these two merge. The quality of cultural play, of creative illusion, varies with each society and historical period. In other words, the individual can more easily cross the line into clinical neurosis precisely where he is thrown back on himself and his own resources in order to justify his life. Rank could validly raise the issue of neurosis as a historical problem and not a clinical one. If history is a succession of immortality ideologies, then the problems of men can be read directly against those ideologies—how embracing they are, how convincing, how easy they make it for men to be confident and secure in their personal heroism. What characterizes modern life is the failure of all traditional immortality ideologies to absorb and quicken man's hunger for self-perpetuation and heroism. Neurosis is today a widespread problem because of the disappearance of convincing dramas of heroic apotheosis of man. The subject is summed up succinctly in Pinel's famous observation on how the Salpêtrière mental hospital got cleared out at the time of the French Revolution. All the neurotics found a ready-made drama of self-transcending action and heroic identity. It was as simple as that.
It begins to look as though modern man cannot find his heroism in everyday life, as men did in traditional societies just by doing their daily duty of raising children, working, and worshipping. He needs revolutions and wars and "continuing" revolutions to last when the revolutions and wars end. That is the price modern man pays for the eclipse of the sacred dimension. When he dethroned the ideas of soul and God he was thrown back hopelessly on his own resources, on himself and those few around him. Even lovers and families trap and disillusion us because they are not substitutes for absolute transcendence. We might say that they are poor illusions in the sense that we have been discussing. [p. 190] For Becker then, it is plausible to say that there are, if you will, more madmen now than there were in the past, because they lack a 'convincing illusion' which offers them self-transcendence and personal, immortalising heroism. Even if we don't accept Becker's central premise, it is certainly the case, and troubling, in my view, that anything we want to call 'good' we describe as 'revolutionary', or 'paradigm-changing', and the like; but the use of such words says more about what we think is good, rather than what actually is good. Interestingly, although it is doubtful that he would have much truck with much of what Becker says, Jesus said a number of things which confirm what Becker says about 'lovers and families [trapping] and [disillusioning] us because they are not substitutes for absolute transcendence'. 'Whoever does the will of God' he says (according to Mark 3.35) 'is my brother and sister and mother', for example, or when in the Gospel of Luke (11.27-28) a woman praises him, saying, 'Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nurse you!' he replies, 'Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!' The insistence that the 'nuclear' family be the centre of human meaning, when it is easy to see that such a construct is a figment of our imagination (even in the era when it could be said that it was very nearly realised as the font of transcendence it never really was such a thing), is a foolish narrowing down of the search for transcendence to something which cannot provide it. Families have always been 'bigger' than the idea of the nuclear family supposedly permits; they have always been more varied and less structured. We all know that what actually is in life very rarely meets the ideal to which we aspire, but in many respects the ideal 'nuclear family' is not, in my view, worth aspiring to. This is not to say that families are 'bad'; it is just that they have been given more weight than they can carry by people who are casting around for something to carry a load they feel that they have been given.
Back to neurosis as a historical phenomenon. Here Becker explains the effect which the scientific discipline of psychology has had, despite the intent of many who practice it:
[T]he triumph of scientific psychology had more equivocal effects than merely leaving intact the soul that it set out to banish. When you narrow down the soul to the self, and the self to the early conditioning of the child, what do you have left? You have the individual man, and you are stuck with him. I mean that the promise of psychology, like all of modern science, was that it would usher in the era of the happiness of man, by showing him how things worked, how one thing caused another. Then, when man knew the causes of things, all he had to do was to take possession of the domain of nature, including his own nature, and his happiness would be assured. But now we come up against the fallacy of psychological self-scrutiny that Rank, almost alone among the disciples of Freud, understood. ... Psychology... wanted to show... that if you found men's motives and showed to man why he felt guilty and bad, he could then accept himself and be happy. But actually psychology could only find part [italics original] of the reason for [such negative] feelings... . We don't want to deny that this is a lot. It represents a great liberation from what we could call "false badness," the conflicts artificially caused by one's own early environment and the accidents of birth and place. ...
But now the point that we are driving at: early conditioning... and the like are only part of the problem of the person. The causa-sui [ditto] lie is aimed at the whole of nature... . As the existentialists have put it, psychology found out about neurotic guilt or circumstantial, exaggerated, unscrutinized personal guilts; but it did not have anything to say about real or natural creature guilt. It tried to lay a total claim on the problem of unhappiness, when it had only a part-claim on the problem. ...
Psychology narrows the cause for personal unhappiness down to the person himself, and then he is stuck with himself. ... All the analysis in the world doesn't allow the person to find out who he is [ditto] and why he is here on earth, why he has to die, and how he can make his life a triumph. It is when psychology pretends to do this... that it becomes a fraud that makes the situation of modern man an impasse from which he cannot escape. Or... psychology... has not understood how much individual unhappiness is itself a historical problem in the larger sense, a problem of the eclipse of secure communal ideologies of redemption. ...
Or better, we would say, psychoanalysis failed therapeutically where it fetishized the causes of human unhappiness as sexuality, and when it pretended to be a total world-view in itself. ...
There is no way to answer Rank's devastating relativization of modern psychology. We have only to look around at the growing number of psychological gurus in the marketplace in order to get the lived historical flavor of the thing. Modern man started looking inward in the 19th century because he hoped to find immortality in a new way. He wanted heroic apotheosis as did all other historical men—but now there is no one to give it to him except his psychological guru. ... In this sense, as Rank said (with what has to be a touch of ironic humor): psychotherapists "are, so to say, the neurotic's product due to his illness." Modern man needs a "thou" to whom to turn for spiritual and moral dependence, and as God was in eclipse, the therapist has had to replace Him—just as the lover and the parents did. ... [T]he psychoanalysts, not understanding this historical problem, have been trying to figure out why the "termination of the transference" in therapy is such a devilish problem in many cases. Had they read and understood Rank, they would quickly have seen that the "thou" of the therapist is the new God... . As the individual cannot serve as God he must give rise to a truly devilish problem. ...
In this sense... psychoanalysis actually stultifies the emotional life of the patient. Man wants to focus his love on an absolute measure of power and value, and the analyst tells him that all is reducible to his early conditioning and is therefore relative. Man wants to find and experience the marvelous, and the analyst tells him how matter-of-fact everything is, how clinically explainable are our deepest ontological motives and guilts. Man is thereby deprived of the absolute mystery he needs, and the only omnipotent thing that then remains is the man who explained it away. And so the patient clings to the analyst with all his might and dreads terminating the analysis. [pp. 191-5] Looking back at Becker's image of all of one's eggs in one basket and clutching for dear life to that basket, from this perspective, the psychotherapist becomes, so to speak, the basket into which his (say) patients have put all of their eggs. I am led to believe that many patients undergoing certain forms of therapy 'fall in love' with their therapists (which, I understand, is commonly known to be transference, even by us amateur psychologists) - you might say it is a kind of 'Stockholm syndrome', for the psychotherapist, in breaking down all of the sources of meaning in your life, leaves you with nothing but himself to focus your adoration upon. I would go so far as to say that transference, 'fetishisation', 'partialisation', whatever you wish to call it (and whether or not you accept its role in Becker's scheme, you must concede that it is a real mental artifact), is so commonplace that the phenomenon known as 'Stockholm syndrome' is, in many cases, how we learn to love (although it is, in the end, not really love). I should say that Becker would insist that we recognise the goods that psychology has given us; but he would agree, I think, with the assessment that psychology, when it does not recognise its own limits, is idolatrous. There is much in this passage, I think, which coheres with criticisms of Freudian psychology (and to all psychological endeavour, to a certain extent) in such writings of C. S. Lewis as The Abolition of Man or his essay (published somewhere) about Freudianism. It is not so much that what psychology has to say about the human condition is necessarily wrong; it is just that the psychological gurus are no better as sources or foci of the human immortality project than some other other foci they have set out to replace. (God being among them; I would disclaim the view that Becker seems to hold, that God exists only for our convenience as the best possible focus for the cultural immortality project, but it may be said that, if we can't do any better than to have such a project, only God can be the right focus of it. Certainly gurus [in the sense Becker gives the word] of all kinds, including - perhaps especially - those who claim to serve God, really mean to stand in his place.) On Becker's view, the psychoanalyst who wishes to stop transference by his patients to his own person but can't understand why he is powerless to do so is to be pitied; the psychological guru who encourages such transference from his devotees, condemned (as, I think, we shall see in our look at the final chapter of The Denial of Death when we come to it). In any case Becker's comment about the 'growing number' of 'psychological gurus' seems more and more apt. In our (supposedly) postmodern age it is claimed that people are more interested in spirituality, but I don't think it is too much to say that most of the so-called spirituality on offer is little more than efforts by 'gurus' - whether clergy, televangelists, dharmic gurus, psychologists, self-help experts, celebrities, et al. - to encourage us to make them the objects of our transference; to love them, in effect, as if they were gods.
To conclude our look at this chapter of The Denial of Death, we shall pass over Becker's discussion of how neurosis and sin merge, as it were, at the highest level of psychological and theological analysis (on pp. 196-8) and move to Becker's concluding statements about neurosis as a failure of heroism.
We have now covered the three aspects of the problem of neurosis: as a result of character-formation, as a problem of reality versus illusion, and as a result of historical circumstances. All three of course merge into one. Man lives his contradictions for better or for worse in some kind of cultural project in a given historical period. Neurosis is another word for the total problem of the human condition... . Men are naturally neurotic and always have been, but at some times they have it easier than at others to mask their true condition. Men avoid clinical neurosis when they can trustingly live their heroism in some kind of self-transcending drama. Modern man lives his contradictions for the worse, because the modern condition is one in which convincing dramas of heroic apotheosis, of creative play, or of cultural illusion are in eclipse. ...
This is Rank's devastating Kierkegaardian conclusion: if neurosis is sin, and not disease, then the only thing which can "cure" it is a world-view, some kind of affirmative collective ideology in which the person can perform the living drama of his acceptance as a creature. Only in this way can the neurotic come out of his isolation to become part of such a larger and higher wholeness as religion has always represented. In anthropology we called these the myth-ritual complexes of traditional society. ... The myth-ritual complex is a social form for the channelling of obsessions. We might say that it places creative obsession within the reach of everyman, which is precisely the function of ritual. ... Neurosis is the contriving of private obsessional ritual to replace the socially-agreed one now lost by the demise of traditional society. The customs and myths of traditional society provided a whole interpretation of the meaning of life, ready-made for the individual; all he had to do was to accept living it as true. The modern neurotic must do just this if he is to be "cured": he must welcome a living illusion.
It is one thing to imagine this "cure," but it is quite another to "prescribe" it to modern man. How hollow it must ring in his ears. For one thing, he can't get living myth-ritual complexes, the deep-going inherited social traditions that have so far sustained men, on a prescription form from the corner pharmacy. He can't even get them in mental hospitals or therapeutic communities. The modern neurotic cannot magically find the kind of world he needs, which is one reason he tries to create his own. In this very crucial sense neurosis is the modern tragedy of man; historically he is an orphan.
A second reason for the hollowness of our prescription for neurosis follows. If there are no ready-made traditional world-views into which to fit oneself with dependency and trust, religion becomes a very personal matter—so personal that faith itself seems neurotic, like a private fantasy and a decision taken out of weakness. The one thing modern man cannot do is what Kierkegaard prescribed: the lonely leap into faith, the naïve personal trust in some kind of transcendental support for one's life. This support is now independent of living external rituals and customs: the church and the community do not exist, or do not carry much conviction. This situation is what helps make faith fantastic. In order for something to seem true to man, it has to be visibly supported in some way—lived, external, compelling. Men need pageants, crowds, panoplies, special days marked off on calendars—an objective focus for obsession, something to give form and body to internal fantasy, something external to yield oneself to. Otherwise the neurotic is brought back to the point of his departure: how is he to believe in his lonely, inner sense of specialness?
A third problem is that modern man is the victim of his own disillusionment; he has been disinherited by his own analytic strength. The characteristic of the modern mind is the banishment of mystery, of naïve belief, of simple-minded hope. We put the accent on the visible, the clear, the cause-and-effect relation, the logical—always the logical. We know [italics original] the difference between dreams and reality, between facts and fictions, symbols and bodies. But right away we can see that these characteristics of the modern mind are exactly those of neurosis. What typifies the neurotic is that he "knows" his situation vis-à-vis [ditto] reality. He has no doubts; there is nothing you can say to sway him, to give him hope or trust. He is a miserable animal whose body decays, who will die, who will pass into dust and oblivion, disappear forever not only in this world but in all the possible dimensions of the universe, whose life serves no conceivable purpose, who may as well not have been born, and so on and so forth. He knows Truth and Reality, the motives of the entire universe.
It was G. K. Chesterton who kept alive the spirit of Kierkegaard and naïve Christianity in modern thought, as when he showed with such style that the characteristics the modern mind prides itself on are precisely those of madness. There is no one more logical than the lunatic, more concerned with the minutiae of cause and effect. Madmen are the greatest reasoners we know, and that trait is one of the accompaniments of their undoing. All their vital processes are shrunken into the mind. What is the one thing they lack that sane men possess? The ability to be careless, to disregard appearances, to relax and laugh at the world. They can't unbend, can't gamble their whole existence, as did Pascal, on a fanciful wager. They can't do what religion has always asked: to believe in a justification of their lives that seems absurd. The neurotic knows better: he is the absurd, but nothing else is absurd; it is "only too true." But faith asks that man expand himself trustingly into the nonlogical, into the truly fantastic. This spiritual expansion is the one thing that modern man finds most difficult, precisely because he is constricted into himself and has nothing to lean on, no collective drama that makes fantasy seem real because it is lived and shared. ...
We have to look for the answer to the problem of freedom where it is most absent: in the transference, the fatal and crushing enslaver of men. The transference fetishizes mystery, terror, and power; it holds the self bound in its grip. Religion answers directly to the problem of transference by expanding awe and terror to the cosmos where they belong. It also takes the problem of self-justification and removes it from the objects near at hand. We no longer have to please those around us, but the very source of creation—the powers that created us, not those into whose lives we accidentally fell. Our life ceases to be a reflexive dialogue with the standards of our wives, husbands, friends, and leaders and becomes instead measured by standards of the highest heroism, ideals truly fit to lead us on and beyond ourselves. In this way we fill ourselves with independent values, can make free decisions, and, most importantly, can lean on powers that really support us and do not oppose us. The personality can truly begin to emerge in religion because God, as an abstraction, does not oppose the individual as others do, but instead provides the individual with all the power necessary for independent self-justification. What greater security than to lean confidently on God, on the Fount of creation, the most terrifying power of all? If God is hidden and intangible, all the better: that allows man to expand and develop by himself. ...
Best of all, of course, religion solves the problem of death, which no living individuals can solve, no matter how they would support us. Religion, then, gives the possibility of heroic victory in freedom and solves the problem of human dignity at its highest level. The two ontological motives of the human condition are both met: the need to surrender oneself in full to the rest of nature, to become a part of it by laying down one's whole existence to some higher meaning; and the need to expand oneself as an individual heroic personality. Finally, religion alone gives hope, because it holds open the dimension of the unknown and the unknowable, the fantastic mystery of creation that the human mind cannot even begin to approach, the possibility of a multidimensionality of spheres of existence, of heavens and possible embodiments that make a mockery of earthly logic—and in doing so, it relieves the absurdity of earthly life, all the impossible limitations and frustrations of living matter. In religious terms, to "see God" is to die, because the creature is too small and finite to be able to bear the higher meanings of creation. Religion takes one's very creatureliness, one's insignificance, and makes it a condition of hope. Full transcendence of the human condition means limitless possibility unimaginable to us. [pp. 198-204] Phew! There's a lot to take in. The upshot, I think, is that for Becker, individual psychotherapy is insufficient to provide the kind of meaning, the kind of 'vital lie' or 'creative illusion', which we need to live, to cope with our terror of life and of death. The only solution that can provide a 'vital lie' of sufficient power is 'religion', or, to put it in Becker's terms, a 'collective immortality ideology'. For religion, in Becker's view, is not important at all on its own terms - it would be safe to say that much religious content for Becker is the kind of too-narrow 'fetishisation' or transference against which he warns - but for what it is able to accomplish as a 'collective immortality ideology'. Whilst Becker's view of what religion is and is supposed to accomplish is rather pragmatic, at least religion in Becker's terms must be concerned with freeing people (at least psychologically), which so far as it goes is a goal worthy of support. Meanwhile, God for Becker must needs be 'abstract' because (so it follows) a God with his own motives and a will counter to our own is not a god upon whom we can lean for self-justification, not a god whose limitless power enables us to both give ourselves and our projects over to the world and yet fulfill our own existence. Now, it is important to remember that God (as conceived by, say, orthodox Christian theology) is, if you like, 'abstract', in the sense that he is not simply another agent or object in the universe, not another actor (in the sense of one who performs actions) like, say, you or I. A better term (one also used by Becker) would be 'transcendent'. God, unlike us, transcends nature. We are subject to limitation; God is not. So far Becker and Christian theology are in accord. But Becker's scheme does not hold a place in it for God anything like how Christians conceive him to be, save perhaps Paul Tillich and those who follow him in his conception of God. God doesn't 'do' anything; indeed, even though Christians claim that God does not 'exist' in the way that, say, you or I do, God is even more of a figment of our imagination for Becker, and it is necessary that he be so; for a God capable of contradicting our wills is one who (it may be supposed) send us back to square one in Becker's scheme, doomed and terrified animals. But if God 'exists' only in order to provide a source of strength for our 'creative illusions' which we need to cope with life and death, it is hard to see how we can actually get beyond the problem for which Becker thinks religion, as he has defined it, is the solution. Now, whatever Becker thinks of God, it is the case (I find) that in The Denial of Death all his talk of God is of an abstract entity the reality of which is of little importance and the purpose of which is to fulfill our needs. Despite Becker's plumping for religion, then, I feel uneasy having him, as it were, on the 'side of the angels'. That said, it may well be that Becker is right to say that religion really is the cure for neurosis in a way in which psychotherapy is not; but I think his understanding of religion is insufficient for the purpose to which he puts it.
So much, then, for Becker's discussion of neurosis in The Denial of Death. The next post will be the last in this series, and it will look at his conclusions about heroism.

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