The recent posts about Woody Allen and Lucian Freud reminded me of a scene in Annie Hall where, shortly after explaining that “I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable,” Alvy recommends Ernest Becker’s book The Denial of Death to Annie. Written in 1973, it is Becker’s evaluation of human psychology from a Freudian and post-Freudian perspective. In it, he argues that Freud’s (in)famous argument that people are fundamentally libidinal—that is driven by sexual desire—was descriptively accurate but specifically misguided; the real motivation behind people’s subconscious maladies lies not in the hyper-sexual realm but rather in the existential reality of their own mortality. As he states in the opening pages:
“The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.” (ix)
While it is intellectually fashionable to argue that people are fundamentally different than they were 2000 years ago, or even 200 years ago, one can’t help but notice parallels between Becker’s psychological analysis of this primal fear and the very thing that St. Paul believes that the Gospel addresses. In 1 Cor. 15:55 he states: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
Part one of The Denial of Death concerns what Becker calls the quest for “heroism.” In short, this quest is the result of a foundational narcissism that is a constitutive part of human nature. Becker paraphrases Aristotle as saying, “luck is when the guy next to you gets hit with the arrow.” This morbid narcissism which positions the human at the center of his/her entire universe is the motivating drive behind the impulse to the “heroic.” Paradoxically, Becker argues that while the heroism is usually accomplished through unrealistic transference, it actually is that which allows for a modicum of “healthy” living. In short, the human must develop ways of coping with his mortality by developing “immortality measures” which allow for the release of anxiety and fear. He writes:
“Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with.” (26)
This split necessitates a base level of denial and transference. As Pascal comments, “Men are so necessarily mad that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness.” (27) The rest of the book concerns the various ways of interpreting and dealing with this particular “necessary madness.”
In order to exist within the basic framework of fear, Becker argues that people must harness the positive transferential aspects of their self-made reality in order to function. As Freud comments, “[humans] constantly give what is unreal precedence over what is real.” (133) Becker continues, “and we know why. The real world is simply too terrible to admit; it tells man that he is a small, trembling animal who will decay and die. Illusion changes all this, makes man seem important, vital to the universe, immortal in some way.” (133) In this way, Becker both exposes the real self-deception underlying human nature and argues that without it, humans would not be able to function.
It is through this insight that Becker makes one of his most provocative statements: mental illness is a result of the inability for a human to develop the necessary illusions of heroics. He explains:
“From this vantage point the theory of mental illness is really a general theory of the failures of death-transcendence. The avoidance of life and the terror of death become enmeshed in the personality to such an extent that it is crippled—unable to exercise the ‘normal cultural heroism’ of other members of society.” (248)
It is at this point that Becker makes his sweeping turn from the state of psychoanalytical insight towards the culture at large. He has made a compelling case for the general need for illusion to cover over the more stark and dire reality of human mortality; however, he has been reluctant to proscribe a realm of “positive transference.” Here, he begins to describe “positive heroism” which, evidently, are those aspects of a person’s transferential reality that manifest in positive ways. The goal of the psychoanalyst is not to remove the necessary illusion; rather, it is to buttress or counterbalance those areas of the positive illusion which have become unstable.
“Once you accept the truly desperate situation that man is in, you come to see not only that neurosis is normal, but that even psychotic failure represents only a little additional push in the routine stumbling along life’s way.” (269)
This dire prognosis ends with Becker admitting that “traditional” religious mythology provides a healthy and positive way of dealing with the terrors of human mortality. He agrees with psychologist Norman Brown, who “realized that the only way to get beyond the natural contradictions of existence was in the time-worn religious way: to project one’s problems onto a god-figure, to be healed by an all-embracing and all-justifying beyond.” (285) Indeed.