The Denial of Death: What is the Heroic Individual?

We come at last to the final chapter of Ernest Becker's work, The Denial of Death. I have found that each successive marginal commentary of mine has become longer and longer, as his argument became more and more complex.

For the sake of reference, here are the links to the other posts in the series, each of which focussed on one chapter of The Denial of Death. I did not see fit to comment on every chapter of the work, but I think I have got enough of Becker's own argument in for anyone reading the posts in order to be able to follow along; of course the best thing to do, if his thesis interests you, is to read the book for yourself.

  1. Styx in Denial
  2. The Terror of Death 
  3. Existential Dualism and You
  4. Human Character as a Vital Lie
  5. The Nexus of Unfreedom
  6. Becker's Heroes
  7. Rank Neurosis

Now we'll proceed straight to the commentary. This post will be much more like the first of the series, for I think, at this point, that not many more of Becker's own conclusions need to be cited at length.

The first point Becker makes is about the ambiguity of heroism. He discusses several geniuses to whom he has previously referred, such as Freud and Kierkegaard. These men, and many others of comparable or only slightly lesser genius, claimed to have solved the problem of human heroism (in Becker's terms). But look what happens when we consider their lives and work as a whole.
[I]n matters of immortality everyone has the same self-righteous conviction. The thing seems perverse because each diametrically opposed view is put forth with the same maddening certainty; and authorities who are equally unimpeachable hold opposite views!
Take, for example, Freud's seasoned thoughts on human nature, and his idea of where he stood on the pyramid of struggling mankind:
... I have found little that is "good" about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash, no matter whether they publicly subscribe to this or that ethical doctrine or none at all.... If we are to talk of ethics, I subscribe to a high ideal from which most of the human beings I have come across depart most lamentably. [Ellipses original to Becker; the citation is from Psychoanalysis and Faith]
When perhaps the greatest psychologist who ever lived lets drop the stock phrase "in my experience," it has the authority of a Papal Bull during medieval times. Of course, he also implies that if most people are trash, some aren't, and we can surmise who is one of the few exceptions. We are reminded of those once-popular books on eugenics that always carried a handsome frontispiece photograph of the author beaming his vitality and personality as the ideal type for the book's argument.
As we would expect, Freud's self-evaluation would hardly be agreed upon by everyone; almost each of his major dissenting disciples could find something to look down on him for, with a certain condescending pity. ...
Kierkegaard had his own formula for what it means to be a man. He... describes what he calls "the knight of faith." ... [T]he ideal of the knight of faith is surely one of the most beautiful and challenging ideals ever put forth by man. ...[But Kierkegaard] turned away from life partly from his fear of life, he embraced death more easily because he had failed in life; his own life was not a voluntary sacrifice undertaken in free will, but a pathetically driven sacrifice. He did not live in the categories in which he thought. [pp. 255-8] The chief difficulty, then, is that, according to Becker, all 'immortality formulae' are given us by people who are but mortals. Some of Freud's worst detractors were not his enemies, but his former disciples; his implication (in the passage Becker quotes) that he, almost alone among all men, strikes the reader as an impossible claim. And Becker shows (citing a monograph called Athens and Jerusalem by Lev Shestov), that Kierkegaard could not himself live up to the ideal he so excellently (so Becker) put forth.
From this, we can conclude that the multitudinous 'immortality formulae' on offer in the world today are ineffective, not necessarily because there is anything wrong with them, but because their authors or proponents are mortal, whose deaths of necessity fatally contradict the promise which their formulae purport to give to the world. Another way of looking at this is to see that, whenever we try to 'rise above' the human condition, either someone else is swift to grasp our feet and haul us back down; which indicates that the methods by which we try to 'rise above' the human condition are necessarily failures, because they cannot prevent others from pulling us back in; or, our own intrinsic flaws contradict the message we are trying to get across. Becker's solution to all this, as I think we can easily surmise from all that we have already seen, would be to say that we must remember that 'immortality formulae' are, at all times and in all ways, nothing more than creative illusions designed to help us live our lives heroically in the face of our combined terror of life and death and our instinctive strivings toward expansion and absorption.

Because of this conclusion, Becker is led to criticise 'prophets of unrepression':
I have been saying that a man cannot evolve beyond his character, that he is stuck with it. Goethe said that a man cannot get rid of his nature even if he throws it away; to which we can add—even if he tries to throw it to God. Now it is time to see that if a man cannot evolve beyond his character, he cannot evolve without [italics original] character. This brings up one of the great debates in contemporary thought. ... I am referring... to the new propheticism of people like Marcuse, Brown, and so many others, on what man may achieve, what it really means to be a man. ...
Take Norman Brown's Life Against Death: Rarely does a work of this brilliance appear. Rarely does a book so full of closely reasoned argument, of very threatening argument, achieve such popularity: but like most other foundation-shaking messages, this one is popular for all the wrong reasons. It is prized... for its wholly non-sequitur conclusions: for its plea for the unrepressed life, the resurrection of the body as the seat of primary pleasure, the abolition of shame and guilt. ... The enemy of mankind is basic repression, the denial of throbbing physical life and the spectre of death. The prophetic message is for the wholly unrepressed life, which would bring into birth a new man. ...
Once again and always we are back to basic things that we have not shouted loud enough from the rooftops... guilt is not a result of infantile fantasy but of self-conscious adult reality. ... The child denies the reality of his world as miracle and as terror; that's all there is to it. ... [G]uilt is a function of real overwhelmingness, the stark majesty of the objects in the child's world. ... Brown's whole vision of some future man falls flat on the one failure to understand guilt. It does not derive from "infantile fantasy" but from reality. ...
[Writers such as Brown or Marcuse] see their task as a serious and gigantic one: the critique of an entire way of life; and they see themselves in an equally gigantic prophetic role: to point to a way out once and for all, in the most uncompromising terms. That is why their popularity is so great: they are prophets and simplifiers. ... [The prophet of unrepression] is so committed to this fulfillment [the birth of a new world] that he cannot allow himself to stop in midstream and follow out the implications of his own reservations on unrepression... fear of death is obviously deeper than ideology. To admit this would make his whole thesis ambiguous—and what revolutionary wants that? He would have to... [admit] that there is a demonism in human affairs that even the greatest and most sweeping revolution cannot undo. With an admission like this [he] would be an anomaly—a "tragic revolutionary"[.] ...
... No one has argued [the] impossibility [of living without repression] with more authority and style than Philip Rieff in his recent work... . He turns the whole movement on its head: repression is not falsification of the world, it is "truth"—the only truth that man can know, because he cannot experience everything. Rieff is calling us back... to... [an] acceptance of the limits of life... . In a particularly beautiful phrase, he puts it this way:
The heaviest crosses are internal and men make them so that, thus skeletally supported, they can bear the burden of their flesh. Under the sign of this inner cross, a certain inner distance is achieved from the infantile desire to be and have everything. [The citation is from an article entitled 'The Impossible Culture']
Rieff's point is... that in order to have a truly human existence there must be limits; and what we call culture or the superego sets such limits. Culture is a compromise with life that makes human life possible. He quotes Marx's defiant revolutionary phrase: "I am nothing and should be everything." For Rieff this is the undiluted infantile unconscious speaking. Or, as I would prefer to say with Rank, the neurotic consciousness—the "all or nothing" of the person who cannot "partialize" his world. [pp. 260-5] This is one of the best passages in the book, in my view. Incidentally, much of the material in the middle of my abridgement, which I have rendered as referring generically to 'psychological prophets' in fact refers specifically to Herbert Marcuse. But of course many people may be found to have said or written similar things.
I found that this part of The Denial of Death has striking Biblical echoes. In the first place, Becker's point that over and over again the 'basic things' about repression need to be 'shouted from the rooftops' is an allusion (however unconscious) to Luke 12.3; while it is interesting that his quotation from Rieff's article focusses on a statement so alike Jesus' words to us to 'take up your cross and follow me' that it is uncanny. Rieff and Becker appear to agree that 'repression' is the means by which we form a 'skeleton' to support our human existence; without it we would not have 'selves' (it would seem), not have the ability to expand symbolically, not have the ability to be anything more than a mental blob, completely absorbed in the 'other'. It has always been a claim of Christianity (at least of the orthodox variations) that we are to accept finitude and mortality.

I am not sure whether 'repression' is quite the right word here. It is known that, for example, people repress traumatic events in their past, and that this repression is not a wholly conscious activity, and that it has harmful consequences for their well-being (and that of others, for people who have repressed past trauma tend to re-enact it, inflicting it upon others); but the repression of which Becker speaks appears to be of a different order altogether; it is the 'partialisation' of the world so that we are capable of experiencing it. You might say that we must strive not to be repressive, yet acknowledge that it is impossible to live 'unrepressed lives' in the sense of being able to live 'without limits'.

Becker's comments about 'infantile fantasy' - the desire 'to be and have everything' - makes me wonder about how we ought to interpret Jesus' words that we must be like children to take hold of the kingdom of God [cf. Mk.10.15]. I would say that it is not 'infantile narcissism' that distinguishes children from adults and is the quality to be sought for to attain the kingdom of God, for all of us are probably guilty of what you might call 'ultimate narcissism'; indeed, adults more than children have the means to come as close to attaining this as possible (insofar as it can be attained). It is a quality that children possess, that seems to come naturally to them, that adults do not have but could recapture. I suspect, however, that all of us some of the time and some people all of the time equate attaining the kingdom of God (or whatever the goal of human life is) with achieiving the ultimate narcissistic and infantile fantasy of 'being and having everything'; although I wonder to what extent such a desire can be called 'infantile', since it is, I deem, open to question how infants can possibly conceptualise desire (although see, e.g., Augustine's Confessions, I.6).

Finally, it is interesting that Becker chooses the term 'prophet' to refer to the great heralds of the unrepressed life, which, time and again, Becker pronounces is impossible. It rather reminds me of the claim made by many of the Biblical prophets that they were not, in fact, 'prophets' (to go into more detail would mean I'd have to start digging through Hebrew, so you'll just have to go with me here); that is, in the period of classical OT prophecy, 'prophets' were those who told people what they wanted to hear. Those who we know think of as the prophets - Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah, et al. - often repudiated the title 'prophet' (see, e.g., Amos 7.14) because they frequently had a message to give to the people, a word of the Lord, that they would most certainly not want to hear. Despite the world-shaking nature of their claims, the 'prophets of unrepression' are doing as much, we might say, as the prophets who told Israel and Judah what they wanted to hear and then said it was an oracle from God.

That said, Becker would agree with the 'prophets of unrepression' that human life must be lived to the fullest, that we must strive for the best possible heroic victory - but he would say that by their claims that it is possible to live without guilt, to live unafraid of death (or of life), they falsify human heroics.

At last, Becker once again discusses how psychology and science merge with religion (say, theology) at the frontiers of thought:
[Traditional religions] have held that man is doomed to his present form, that he can't really evolve any further, that anything he might achieve can only be achieved from within the real nightmare of his loneliness in creation and from the energies that he now has. He has to adapt and wait. ... Men should wait while using their best intelligence and effort to secure their adaptation and survival. Ideally they would wait in a condition of openness toward miracle and mystery, in the lived truth of creation, which would make it easier both to survive and to be redeemed because men would be less driven to undo themselves and would be more like the image that pleases their Creator: awe-filled creatures trying to live in harmony with the rest of creation. Today we would add, too, that they would be less likely to poison the rest of creation.
What do we mean by the lived truth of creation? We have to mean the world as it appears to men in a condition of relative unrepression... [a] perception of reality... that is alive to the panic [italics original] inherent in creation. Sylvia Plath somewhere named God "King Panic." And Panic is fittingly King of the Grotesque. What are we to make of a creation in which the routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart with teeth of all types—biting, grinding flesh, plant stalks, bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence into one's own organization, and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue. Everyone reaching out to incorporate others who are edible to him. The mosquitos bloating themselves on blood, the maggots, the killer-bees attacking with a fury and a demonism, sharks continuing to tear and swallow while their own innards are being torn out—not to mention the daily dismemberment and slaughter in "natural" accidents of all types: an earthquake buries alive 70 thousand bodies in Peru, automobiles make a pyramid heap of over 50 thousand a year in the U.S. alone, a tidal wave washes over a quarter of a million in the Indian Ocean. Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures. The soberest conclusion that we could make about what has actually been taking place on the planet for about three billion years is that it is being turned into a vast pit of fertilizer. ...
Science and religion merge in a critique of the deadening of perception of this kind of truth, and science betrays us when it is willing to absorb lived truth all into itself. Here the criticism of all behaviorist psychology, all manipulations of men, and all coercive utopianism comes to rest. These techniques try to make the world other than it is, legislate the grotesque out of it, inaugurate a "proper" human condition. ... The Watsons, the Skinners, the Pavlovians—all have their formulas for smoothing things out. Even Freud... wanted to see a saner world and seemed willing to absorb lived truth into science if only it were possible. He once mused that in order to really change things by therapy one would have to get at the masses of men; and that the only way to do this would be to mix the copper of suggestion into the pure gold of psychoanalysis. In others words, to coerce, by transference, a less evil world. But Freud... gradually came to see that the evil in the world is not only in the insides of people but on the outside, in nature[.] ...
The problem with all scientific manipulators is that somehow they don't take life seriously enough; in this sense, all science is "bougeois," an affair of bureaucrats. I think that taking life seriously means something such as this: that whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything. Otherwise it is false. Whatever is achieved must be achieved from within the subjective energies of creatures, without deadening, with the full exercise of passion, of vision, of pain, of fear, and of sorrow. ... Manipulative, utopian science, by deadening human sensitivity, would also deprive men of the heroic in their urge to victory. And we know that in some very important way this falsifies our struggle by emptying us, by preventing us from incorporating the maximum of experience. It means the end of the distinctively human[.]...
... The urge to cosmic heroism, then, is sacred and mysterious and not to be neatly ordered and rationalized by science and secularism. Science, after all, is a credo that has attempted to absorb into itself and to deny the fear of life and death; and it is only one more competitor in the spectrum of roles for cosmic heroics.
Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing. As awareness calls for types of heroic dedication that his culture no longer provides for him, society contrives to help him forget. Or, alternatively, he buries himself in psychology in the belief that awareness all by itself will be some kind of magical cure for his problems. But psychology was born with the breakdown of shared social heroisms; it can only be gone beyond with the creation of new heroisms that are basically matters of belief and will, dedication to a vision. ... Rank... saw that the orientation of men has to be always beyond their bodies, has to be grounded in healthy repressions, and toward explicit immortality-ideologies, myths of heroic transference.
We can conclude that project as grand as the scientific-mythical construction of victory over human limitation is not something that can be programmed by science. Even more, it comes from the vital energies of masses of men sweating within the nightmare of creation—and it is not even in man's hands to program. ... The most that any one of us can seem to do is to fashion something—an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force. [pp. 281-5] Here we reach the end of The Denial of Death at last. I will have more to say about the concluding section in the main body of the post, following, but permit me to comment marginally that it is worth asking whether creation 'really' is a 'nightmare'; only humans, it seems, are capable of coming to some such conclusion, and besides, our 'blood-soaked' corner of creation is really the smallest and most insignificant speck; interstellar space is unimaginably vast, cold, and empty of the kind of panic Becker and 'sensitive types' (such as the aforementioned Sylvia Plath) sense 'rumbling underneath'. Nevertheless, you can't deny that Earth has, in large part, been a great pit of fertiliser. Re-reading this section of the book reminded me of Robert Farrar Capon's Genesis: The Movie; he would probably have quoted this section of The Denial of Death with relish and approval.
I am not sure that, at the end of it all, Becker answers the question the title of his concluding chapter raises; that is, what is the heroic individual? I've already pointed out its resemblance to Genesis: The Movie; incongruously, perhaps, this last section of the last chapter of The Denial of Death also shares in common with C. S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man a critique of the kind of 'scientific bureaucrat' whose desire to manipulate humans to make a 'better world' results in 'men without chests' (to use Lewis's phrase), and the technocrats as the ruling class. And, despite Becker's largely functional approach to religion, as we have seen, he seems to conclude that religious belief of a kind is better than what we might call 'scientism' (to distinguish it from science per se) - which would in fact be a kind of religious belief, only one incapable of providing a suitable form of cosmic heroism, from Becker's point of view.

This might explain, for example, why some atheist authors of fiction (such as Terry Pratchett or Philip Pullman) seem to promote in their works religious belief of a kind despite their rejection of 'traditional belief' in God or 'the gods'. Pratchett's Nation is exemplary of what I mean. As has been noted in the comments on one of my other posts on The Denial of Death, Pratchett, for one, seems familiar with at least some of the ideas promulgated in The Denial of Death. If we're going to make something of ourselves, if we're not going to sink to looking for a way to symbolically crawl back into the womb, in the process allowing those whose inner demons are driving them on to dominate and destroy, then it turns out we need something like religion.

But at this point I think we can see that the biggest problem with The Denial of Death is not so much its dualism, or its author's view that only the 'grotesque' interpretation of the activity of nature is the 'real' one (although it is a valid interpretation at least in part), or its apparently scientific conclusion that humankind is at root motivated by the 'twin ontological motives' (the desire to expand and the desire to be absorbed, opposed by the two primal fears, the fear of life and fear of death) - problematic as all these are - but its wholly self-conscious view of heroism. I do not mean, of course, that we mustn't cast a critical eye over our behaviour, world-view, and the whole of who we are and ask tough questions about them - indeed, we should do all those things.

Rather, Becker's heroic programme does not seem, at the last, to offer just what it is he says we need: an opportunity to make something - a work of art or culturally heroic life - and make an offering of it. (We'll ignore, for the present, the dubious and vague idea of a 'life-force' as the subject, so to speak, to which our creation is to be offered; but it is odd that Becker should have recourse to such an idea when he pooh-poohs psychologists and thinkers whom we might refer to as 'vitalists', who indeed conceive of a 'life force' in more than just abstract terms.) Even if we agree with Becker that that's what we ought to be doing with ourselves, the problem is that there doesn't seem to be a way forward from The Denial of Death. Could Becker reply, he might say that, him having done his part to show why we have got where we are and what we are like, it is up to others to find a way forward. And that would not necessarily be bad. But the problem is not that it's up to someone else to follow through on Becker's work and write about what kind of heroic programmes are likely to accomplish what we need for 'healthy repression', to find the best and most vital lies about ourselves (I suppose that it is possible that someone has followed through in just such a way, it having been over thirty years since The Denial of Death was published). The problem, in my view, is that at the end of it all we have nothing to offer to anything, be it another person, our culture, God (whether the living God who created and sustains all things, or the abstraction which exists only for our fulfillment as conceived by Becker), or some kind of 'life-force'. If Becker is to be believed, we are trapped in a web of lies, from which no escape is possible. This being so, all heroism, no matter how well conceived, no matter how noble the animating deceptions which encourage us to strive, no matter what, is fatally and irrevocably undermined, demolished, and illusory. In short, heroism becomes impossible.

And yet, and yet, for all that Becker's work in The Denial of Death seems to me to support counterfeit religion, for all that it ignores real love, beauty and participation in the world (which is one of the primary criticisms of the book in a review of it by Donald Evans in the January 1979 issues of Religious Studies Review [pp. 25-34]; you can read it for yourself if you have access to the ATLA database via library proxy); for all that, it does, unwittingly (I believe), support the teaching of Jesus. It does this by showing that so much of our heroism, so much of our striving, is motivated at least as much by 'vital lies'. For Christianity is, if nothing else, a repudiation of much of what we commonly think of as heroic. Christian heroism - the kind that is practised Christians are not too caught up in trying to be heroic in ways accepted by the wider culture, that is - is the way of the cross. 'Take up your cross and follow me,' said Jesus. Christian heroism is an invitation to put to death our 'vital lies', our 'necessary illusions', so that God may raise from the dead our true selves, submerged and drowned beneath the distortions and 'character-armour' - the 'old man', as Paul put it - with which we have filled ourselves; at last it is an invitation to die - so that God may raise us to new life.

It may be that Christian heroism looks a lot like the kind of making something of our lives and offering it up after Becker's fashion; but if it does, it is because Becker had his finger on the pulse of truth but misread it. Put another way, all other kinds of heroism, pagan, modern, traditional, therapeutic, artistic, romantic, and the like, all are shadowy copies, pale imitations, of the heroism modelled for us by Jesus. 'No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. [Jn. 15.13]'; 'For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. [Mk. 10.45]' As much as they get it wrong (sometimes horrifically), they still share, they still participate, in genuine heroism after all.

The heroic individual, then, is not one who is following Becker's programme, even though in many respects what she is doing is of a piece with what he calls for. She need not be Christian (although ultimately only those who are daily and consciously living Christianly are those who are capable of living into the kind of self-giving heroics practised by Jesus; that is, of truly being heroic), for, as Becker showed, it is hard to draw up a balance in favour of one side or another. She is not self-consciously trying to 'make an offering of herself', or to 'make a work of art as an object on which she can work out the world as a problem', or to 'sacrifice her causa-sui project and absorb it into the cultural immortality project', or anything else of the like. Rather, she is one who is, paradoxically, finds herself, becoming more and more able to 'expand' symbolically into the world, the more she 'loses' herself in pursuing the only kind of heroic life worth living, the only kind of heroism not fatally enmeshed in 'vital lies'. She does not need to be 'unrepressed' nor to be without limits; she does not need to be coerced or 'modified' in order not to fear death; rather, it is by embracing finitude, limit, definition, boundary (all of them deaths of relentless organismic and narcissistic self-expansion), that she is able to gain a true self, a self capable of true heroism. In many respects, she is not going to look much different than most others. She may participate in lesser heroisms, but she accepts this as a condition of her finitude, for the self-giving heroism pours out, empties itself, into other heroics, that they may participate in its fullness; indeed, fulfilling true heroism is often as not a matter of fulfilling lesser ones, when they have been redeemed by the greater. Such an one, then, is the heroic individual.

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