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Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, Chapter 2

The Terror of Death
The 'Morbidly-Minded' Argument

      The "healthy-minded" argument just discussed is one side of the picture of the accumulated research and opinion on the problem of the fear of death, but there is another side.  A large body of people would agree with these observations on early experience and would admit that experiences may heighten natural anxieties and later fears, but these people would also claim very strongly that nevertheless the fear of death is natural and is present in everyone, that it is the basic fear that influences all others, a fear from which no one is immune, no matter how disguised it may be.  William James spoke very early for this school, and with his usual colorful realism he called death "the worm at the core" of man's pretensions to happiness." No less a student of human nature than Max Scheler thought that all men must have some kind of certain intuition of this "worm at the core," whether they admitted it or not." Countless other authorities-some of whom we shall parade in the following pages-belong to this school: students of the stature of Freud, many of his close circle, and serious researchers who are not psychoanalysts.  What are we to make of a dispute in which there are two distinct camps, both studded with distinguished authorities?  ' Jacques Choron goes so far as to say that it is questionable whether it will ever be possible to decide whether the fear of death is or is not the basic anxiety." In matters like this, then, the most that one can do is to take sides, to give an opinion based on the authorities that seem to him most compelling, and to present some of the compelling arguments.

      I frankly side with this second school—In fact, this whole book is a network of arguments based on the universality of the fear of death, or "terror" as I prefer to call it, in order to convey how all-consuming it is when we look it full in the face.  The first document that I want to present and finger on is a paper written by the noted psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg; it is an especially penetrating essay that—for succinctness and scope—has not been much improved upon, even though it appeared several decades ago." Zilboorg says that most people think death fear is absent because it rarely shows its true face; but he argues that underneath all appearances fear of death is universally present:

For behind the sense of insecurity in the face of danger, behind the sense of discouragement and depression, there always lurks the basic fear of death, a fear which undergoes most complex elaborations and manifests itself in many indirect ways.... No one is free of the fear of death.... The anxiety neuroses, the various phobic states, even a considerable number of depressive suicidal states and many schizophrenias amply demonstrate the ever-present fear of death which becomes woven into the major conflicts of the given psychopathological conditions. . . . We may take for granted that the fear of death is always present in our mental functioning.19

Hadn't James said the same thing earlier, in his own way?

Let sanguine healthy-mindedness do its best with its strange power of living in the moment and ignoring and forgetting, still the evil background is really there to be thought of, and the skull will grin in at the banquet.20

      The difference in these two statements is not so much in the imagery and style as in the fact that Zilboorg’s comes almost a half-century later and is based on that much more real clinical work, not only on philosophical speculation or personal intuition.  But it also continues the straight fine of development from James and the post-Darwinians who saw the fear of death as a biological and evolutionary problem.  Here I think he is on very sound ground, and I especially like the way he puts the case.  Zilboorg points out that this fear is actually an expression of the instinct of self-preservation, which functions as a constant drive to maintain life and to master the-dangers that threaten life:

Such constant expenditure of psychological energy on the business of preserving life would be impossible if the fear of death were not as constant.  The very term "self-preservation" implies an effort against some force of disintegration; the affective aspect of this is fear, fear of death.21

In other words, the fear of death must be present behind all our normal functioning, in order for the organism to be armed toward self-preservation.  But the fear of death cannot be present constantly in one's mental functioning, else the organism could not function.  Zilboorg continues:

If this fear were as constantly conscious, we should be unable to function normally.  It must be properly repressed to keep us living with any modicum of comfort.  We know very well that to repress means more than to put away and to forget that which was put away and the place where we put it.  It means also to maintain a constant psychological effort to keep the lid on and inwardly never relax our watchfulness.22

And so we can understand what seems like an impossible paradox: the ever-present fear of death in the normal biological functioning of our instinct of self-preservation, as well as our utter obliviousness to this fear in our conscious life:

Therefore in normal times we move about actually without ever believing in our own death as if me fully believed in our own corporeal immortality.  We are intent on mastering death....... A man will say, of course, that he knows he will die some day, but he does not really care.  He is having a good time with living, and he does not think about death and does not care to bother about it—but this is a purely intellectual, verbal admission.  The affect of fear is repressed.23

      The argument from biology and evolution is basic and has to be taken seriously; I don't see how it can be left out of any discussion.  Animals in order to survive have bad to be protected by fear-responses, in relation not only to other animals but to nature itself.  They had to see the real relationship of their limited powers to the dangerous world in which they were immersed.  Reality and fear go together naturally.  As the human infant is in an even more exposed and helpless situation, it is foolish to assume that the fear response of animals would have disappeared in such a weak and highly sensitive species.  It is more reasonable to think that it was instead heightened, as some of the early Darwinians thought: early men who were most afraid were those who were most realistic about their situation in nature, and they passed on to their offspring a realism that had a high survival value.24 The result was the emergence of man as we know him: a hyperanxious animal who constantly invents reasons for anxiety even where there are none.

      The argument from psychoanalysis is less speculative and has to be taken even more seriously.  It showed us something about the child’s inner world that we had never realized: namely, that it was more filled with terror, the more the child was different from other animals.  We could say that fear is programmed into the lower animals by ready-made instincts; but an animal who has no instincts has no programmed fears.  Man's fears are fashioned out of the ways in which he perceives the world.  Now, what is unique about the child’s perception of the world?  For one thing, the extreme confusion of cause-and-effect relationships; for another, extreme unreality about the limits of his own powers.  The child lives in a situation of utter dependence; and when his needs are met it must seem to him that he has magical powers, real omnipotence.  If he experiences pain, hunger, or discomfort, all he has to do is to scream and he is relieved and lulled by gentle, loving sounds.  He is a magician and a telepath who has only to mumble and to imagine and the world turns to his desires.

      But now the penalty for such perceptions.  In a magical world where things cause other things to happen just by a mere thought or a look of displeasure, anything can happen to anyone.  When the child experiences inevitable and real frustrations from his parents, he directs hate and destructive feelings toward them; and he has no way of knowing that malevolent feelings cannot be fulfilled by the same magic as were his other wishes.  Psychoanalysts believe that this confusion is a main cause of guilt and helplessness in the child.  In his very fine essay Wahl summed up this paradox:

. . . the socialization processes for all children are painful and frustrating, and hence no child escapes forming hostile death wishes toward his socializers.  Therefore, none escape the fear of personal death in either direct or symbolic form.  Repression is usually immediate and effective 25

The child is too weak to take responsibility for all this destructive feeling, and he can't control the magical execution of his desires.  This is what we mean by an immature ego: the child doesn’t have the sure ability to organize his perceptions and his relationship to the world; he can't control his own activity; and he doesn't have sure command over the acts of others.  He thus has no real control over the magical cause-and-effect that he senses, either inside himself or outside in nature and in others: his destructive wishes could explode, his parents' wishes likewise.  The forces of nature are confused, externally and internally and for a weak ego this fact makes for quantities of exaggerated potential power and added terror.  The result is that the child—at least some of the time—lives with an inner sense of chaos that other animals are immune to.26

      Ironically, even when the child makes out real cause-and-effect relationships they become a burden to him because he over-generalizes them.  One such generalization is what the Psychoanalysts call the “talion principle." The child crushes insects, sees the cat eat a mouse and make it vanish, joins with the family to make a pet rabbit disappear into their interiors, and so on.  He comes to know something about the power relations of the world but can't give them relative value: the parents could eat him and make him vanish, and he could likewise eat them; when the father gets a fierce glow in his eyes as he clubs a rat, the watching child might also expect to be clubbed—especially if he has been thinking bad magical thoughts.

      I don't want to seem to make an exact picture of processes that are still unclear to us or to make out that all children live in the same world and have the same problems; also, I wouldn't want to make the child's world seem more lurid than it really is most of the time; but I think it is important to show the painful contradictions that must be present in it at least some of the time and to show how fantastic a world it surely is for the first few years of the child's life.  Perhaps then we could understand better why Zilboorg said that the fear of death "undergoes most complex elaborations and manifests itself in many indirect ways." Or, as Wahl so perfectly put it, death is a complex symbol and not any particular, sharply defined thing to the child:

. . . the child's concept of death is not a single thing, but it is rather a composite of mutually contradictory paradoxes... death itself is not only a state, but a complex symbol, the significance of which will vary from one person to another and from one culture to another.27

We could understand, too, why children have their recurrent nightmares, their universal phobias of insects and mean dogs.  In their tortured interiors radiate complex symbols of many inadmissible realities-terror of the world, the horror of one's own wishes, the fear of vengeance by the parents, the disappearance of things, one's lack of control over anything, really.  It is too much for any animal to take, but the child has to take it, and so he wakes up screaming with almost punctual regularity during the period when his weak ego is in the process of consolidating things.

The "Disappearance" of the Fear of Death

      Yet, the nightmares become more and more widely spaced, and some children have more than others: we are back again to the beginning of our discussion, to those who do not believe that the fear of death is normal, who think that it is a neurotic exaggeration that draws on bad early experiences.  Otherwise, they say, how explain that so many people—the vast majority—seem to survive the flurry of childhood nightmares and go on to live a healthy, more-or-less optimistic life, untroubled by death?  As Montaigne said, the peasant has a profound indifference and a patience toward death and the sinister side of life; and if we say that this is because of his stupidity, then “let's all learn from stupidity."28 Today, when we know more than Montaigne, we would say “let's all learn from repression”—but the moral would have just as much weight: repression takes care of the complex symbol of death for most people.

      But its disappearance doesn't mean that the fear was never there.  The argument of those who believe in the universality of the innate terror of death rests its case mostly on what we know about bow effective repression is.  The argument can probably never be cleanly decided: if you claim that a concept is not present because it is repressed, you can't lose; it is not a fair game, intellectually, because you always hold the trump card.  This type of argument makes psychoanalysis seem unscientific to many people, the fact that its proponents can claim that someone denies one of their concepts because he represses his consciousness of its truth.

      But repression is not a magical word for winning arguments; it is a real phenomenon, and we have been able to study many of its workings.  This study gives it legitimacy as a scientific concept and makes it a more-or-less dependable ally in our argument.  For one thing, there is a growing body of research trying to get at the consciousness of death denied by repression that uses psychological tests such as measuring galvanic skin responses; it strongly Suggests that underneath the most bland exterior lurks the universal anxiety, the "worm at the core."29

      For another thing, there is nothing like shocks in the real world to jar loose repressions.  Recently psychiatrists reported an increase in anxiety neuroses in children as a result of the earth tremors in Southern California.  For these children the discovery that life really includes cataclysmic danger was too much for their still-imperfect denial systems-hence open outbursts of anxiety.  With adults we see this manifestation of anxiety in the face of impending catastrophe where it takes the form of panic.  Recently several people suffered broken limbs and other injuries after forcing open their airplane's safety door during take-off and jumping from the wing to the ground; the incident was triggered by the backfire of an engine.  Obviously underneath these harmless noises other things are rumbling in the creature.

      But even more important is how repression works: it is not simply a negative force opposing life energies; it lives on life energies and uses them creatively.  I mean that fears are naturally absorbed by expansive organismic striving.  Nature seems to have built into organisms an innate healthy-mindedness; it expresses itself in self-delight, in the pleasure of unfolding one's capacities into the world, in the incorporation of things in that world, and in feeding on its limitless experiences.  This is a lot of very positive experience, and when a powerful organism moves with it, it gives contentment.  As Santayana once put it: a lion must feel more secure that God is on his side than a gazelle.  On the most elemental level the organism works actively against its own fragility by seeking to expand and perpetuate itself in living experience; instead of shrinking, it moves toward more life.  Also, it does one thing at a time, avoiding needless distractions from all-absorbing activity; in this way, it would seem, fear of death can be carefully ignored or actually absorbed in the life-expanding processes.  Occasionally we seem to see such a vital organism on the human level: I am thinking of the portrait of Zorba the Greek drawn by Nikos Kazantzakis.  Zorba was an ideal of the nonchalant victory of all-absorbing daily passion over timidity and death, and he purged others in his life-affirming flame.  But Kazantzakis himself was no Zorba—which is partly why the character of Zorba rang a bit false—nor are most other men.  Still, everyone enjoys a working amount of basic narcissism, even though it is not a lion's.  The child who is well nourished and loved develops, as I’ve said, a sense of magical omnipotence, a sense of his own indestructibility, a feeling of proven power and secure support.  He can imagine himself, deep down, to be eternal.  We might say that his repression of the idea of his own death is made easy for him because he is fortified against it in his very narcissistic vitality.  This type of character probably helped Freud to say that the unconscious does not know death.  Anyway, we know that basic narcissism is increased when one's childhood experiences have been securely life supporting and warmly enhancing to the sense of self, to the feeling of being really special, truly Number One in creation.  The reality is that some people have more of what the psychoanalyst Leon J. Saul has aptly called "Inner Sustainment." 30 It is a sense of bodily confidence in the face of experience that sees the person more easily through severe life crises and even sharp personality changes, it almost seems to take the place of the directive instincts of lower animals.  One can't help thinking of Freud again, who had more inner sustainment than most men, thanks to his mother and favorable early environment; he knew the confidence and courage that it gave to a man, and he himself faced up to life and to a fatal cancer with a Stoic heroism.  Again we have evidence that the complex symbol of fear of death would be very variable in its intensity it would be, as Wahl concluded, "profoundly dependent upon the nature and the vicissitudes of the developmental process."31

    But I want to be careful not to make too much of natural vitality and inner sustainment.  As we will see in Chapter Six, even the, unusually favored Freud suffered his whole life from phobias and from death-anxiety; and he came to fully perceive the world under the aspect of natural terror.  I don't believe that the complex symbol of death is ever absent, no matter bow much vitality and inner sustainment a person has.  Even more, if we say that these powers make repression easy and natural, we are only saying the half of it.  Actually, they get their very power from repression.  Psychiatrists argue that the fear of death varies in intensity depending on the developmental process, and I think that one important reason fort this variability is that the fear is transmuted in that process.  If the child has had a very favorable upbringing, it only serves all the better to bide the fear of death.  After all, repression is made possible by the natural identification of the child with the powers of his parents.  If he has been well cared for, identification comes easily and solidly, and his parents' powerful triumph over death automatically becomes his.  What is more natural to banish one's fears than to live on delegated powers?  And what does the whole growing-up period signify, if not the giving over of one's life project?  I am going to be talking about these things all the way through this book and do not want to develop them in this introductory discussion.  What we will see is that man cuts out for himself a manageable world; he throws himself into action uncritically, unthinkingly.  He accepts the cultural programming that turns his nose where he is supposed to look; he doesn't bite the world off in one piece as a giant would, but in small manageable pieces, as a beaver does.  He uses all kinds of techniques, which we call the “character defenses": he learns not to expose himself, not to stand out; he learns to embed himself in other-power, both of concrete persons and of things and cultural commands; the result is that he comes to exist in the imagined infallibility of the world around him.  He doesn't have to have fears when his feet are solidly mired and his life mapped out in a ready-made maze.  All he has to do is to plunge ahead in a compulsive style of drivenness in the "ways of the world" that the child learns and in which he lives later as a kind of grim equanimity-the "strange power of living in the moment and ignoring and forgetting"-as James put it.  This is the deeper reason that Montaigne's peasant isn't troubled until the very end, when the Angel of Death, who has always been sitting on his shoulder, extends his wing.  Or at least until he is prematurely startled into dumb awareness, like the "Husbands" in John Cassavetes' fine film.  At times like this, when the awareness dawns that has always been blotted out by frenetic, ready-made activity, we see the transmutation of repression redistilled, so to speak, and the fear of death emerges in pure essence.  This is why people have Psychotic breaks when repression no longer works, when the forward momentum of activity is no longer possible.  Besides, the peasant mentality is far less romantic than Montaigne would have us believe.  The peasant’s equanimity is usually immersed in a style of life that has elements of real madness, and so it protects him: an undercurrent of constant hate and bitterness expressed in feuding, bullying, bickering and family quarrels, the petty mentality, the self-deprecation, the superstition, the obsessive control of daily life by a strict authoritarianism, and so on.  As the title of a recent essay by Joseph Lopreato has it: "How would you like to be a peasant?”

      We will also touch upon another large dimension in which the complex symbol of death is transmuted and transcended by man—belief in immortality, the extension of one's being into eternity.  Right now we can conclude that there are many ways that repression works to calm the anxious human animal, so that he need not be anxious at all.

      I think we have reconciled our two divergent positions on the fear of death.  The "environmental" and the "innate" positions are both part of the same picture; they merge naturally into one another; it all depends from which angle you approach the picture: from the side of the disguises and transmutations of the fear of death or from the side of its apparent absence.  I admit with a sense of scientific uneasiness that whatever angle you use, you don't get at the actual fear of death; and so I reluctantly agree with Choron that the argument can probably never be cleanly "won." Nevertheless something very important emerges: there are different images of man that he can draw and choose from.

      On the one hand, we see a human animal who is partly dead to the world, who is most "dignified" when he shows a certain obliviousness to his fate, when he allows himself to be drifting through life; who is most "free" when he lives in secure dependency on powers around Mm, when he is least in possession of himself.  On the other hand, we get an image of a human animal who is overly sensitive to the world, who cannot shut it out, who is thrown back on his own meagre powers, and who seems least free to move and act, least in possession of himself, and most undignified. Whichever image we choose to identify with depends in large part upon ourselves.  Let us then explore and develop these images further to see what they reveal to us.

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