In 1973, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker (1924-1974) published his seminal book The Denial of Death. Because of this publication, a year later and two months after his death, Becker was granted the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction.
The Denial of Death elaborates the following thesis:
The basic motivation for human behavior is our biological need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death.
One of the most important functions of culture therefore is to provide symbolic defense mechanisms against the knowledge of mortality. Culture, and religion in particular, can be understood as an attempt to deny death. In this context Becker writes about immortality projects. These projects allow us to create a symbolic, so-called meaningful and heroic self-concept that we feel outlasts our physical self and time on earth.
Combined with the insights of yet another “out of the box” thinking literary critic and anthropologist, René Girard (1923-2015), we might conclude that the creation of our heroic self-concepts is possible because of our mimetic (i.e. imitative) nature.
The way we think about ourselves and the way we develop a sense of identity is always mediated by our social environment. And that which makes something like a social environment possible precisely is our – indeed mimetic – ability to put ourselves in each other’s shoes. Neuroscientists have discovered that so-called mirror neurons in our brains play a very important role in this regard. These brain cells allow us to imitate others. They allow us to pretend that we’re someone else and to take another person’s point of view. And this allows us to imagine what others are experiencing, thinking, expecting or even desiring. In short, our mimetic ability is the conditio sine qua non to empathize and bond with others, and to develop a sense of self.
Of course our imaginative projections about others can be wrong. That’s why we, rather unwittingly, constantly look for the confirmation of mutually established social expectations. The question “Am I doing this right?” seems to be the ever present subtext to our behavior. It really structures the interaction between ourselves and others. To quote sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998), we expect that others have certain expectations and act accordingly. That’s how a social order is established in a particular culture.
Each (sub-)cultural environment establishes its own identity concepts, based on particular mimetic interactions. Those identity concepts are models that we use to create a meaningful image for ourselves. As stated earlier, according to Becker, a meaningful culturally defined self-image can be understood as an attempt to escape the realization that we are mortal beings. In other words,
our attempt to create an image that is loved by others whose respect we (mimetically) learned to desire = an attempt to deny death.
Although they might provide us with a good and secure feeling, there’s a downside to our immortality projects. We might become so obsessed with our symbolic, so-called meaningful self-image that we might be prepared to literally sacrifice ourselves to it. As anxious persons, we show the tendency to act according to the supposed expectations of “meaningful” others in order to gain their approval. As we become more obsessed with our social status, we might accomplish exactly what we were trying to move away from, death! Think of workaholics who destroy their own health, or think of ISIL suicide bombers, who sacrifice themselves in order to gain a supposedly “sacred” identity. Jesus of Nazareth formulates this tragic, failed and paradoxical attempt at “the denial of death” in our cultural and/or religious projects very succinctly in the Gospels (Matthew 16:25a-26a):
For whoever would save his life will lose it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?
And not only that, we might also be prepared to sacrifice those others we deem a threat to our self-image. Jesus himself becomes a victim of people (among them are his own disciples!) who try to protect their “socially acceptable” self-image.
In short, if we make it our goal “to be loved” by so-called meaningful others, we tend to become auto- and hetero-aggressive.
The question is whether we can be saved from our sacrificial tendencies. Since we are relational beings [or since our being is essentially relational], we can only be saved from these tendencies if we receive an identity from a being that is not at all interested in “being loved” (a being that comes from outside the human game of mutually established social expectations). This can only be a being that is not mortal, since it is mortality that leads human beings to the desire “to be loved”. If we experience the love of such a being, we can distance ourselves more and more from the desire to adjust ourselves to a self-image that seeks the approval of others. Moreover, since we diminish our auto-aggressive tendencies we will also diminish our hetero-aggressive tendencies. We will no longer defend a so-called socially acceptable self-image at the expense of others. Paradoxically, the acknowledgment of ourselves and our mortality might allow us to surrender to that Love that is “not defined by death”. Our newly found ability “to love” will enable others to love themselves as well, and save them as well from their auto-aggressive tendencies, thus enabling them to love others, etcetera. Until the whole world is “saved” by this Love.
Christians are convinced that the “Spirit of Love” springs from the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and his so-called “Father”. They believe that God can be experienced as a Love – at least at the human level – that is not defined by death. One of the images they use to speak of this Love indeed is the image of the Trinity (love means “relation”, thus the image of a relation between a Father and a Son, and the Spirit that springs from that relation, is appropriate). To be loved by Jesus of Nazareth thus means to be loved by a being that allows us to more fully accept ourselves and others.
In other words,
the Love incarnated by Jesus potentially saves us from our cultural (be it secular or religious) illusional immortality projects.
Thanks for the interesting post! I like Becker’s work, but I think it should be interpreted by the mimetic theory.
Dr. Oughourlian argues in “The Mimetic Brain” that anxiety disorders are produced by rivalry. When we do not identify the source of rivalry in a person, our rational brain represents or symbolizes it. I wonder if Becker’s psychology sets up death itself to be the ultimate model-rival. “Death” is the ultimate symbol of “the rival”. People try to cope with the naturalistic view of death by saying, for example, that life’s finitude gives it meaning. Death is therefore required to feel the most alive. This is just like the masochist, as theorized by Girard, who accepts his punishment because it shows that he is in proximity to his deity.
Usually existential therapists suggest that life can be lived authentically because, even if meaning is constructed, we still find ourselves having desires and values. This runs parallel to the thought that “everyone dies alone”. In death, our finitude makes us complete in a certain sense. I wonder if existentialists cling to death because it is a last ditch attempt to define oneself as an individual by having the ultimate enemy: death itself.