Read The Denial of Death Online

Authors: Ernest Becker

The Denial of Death (10 page)

BOOK: The Denial of Death
3.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Let us digress here for a moment in order to show that this view of character is not one put forth by morbid existentialists but instead represents the now-agreed merger of Freudian and post-Freudian psychology. A subtle but very profound change has come over our understanding of the early development of the child. It is a change that can be summed up briefly in the shifts from Freudian to post-Freudian psychology and now back again to a sobered Freudianism. Freud saw the child as an antagonist of his world, as someone who had drives of aggression and sexuality that he wanted to wo
rk on the world. But as he could not work them out as a child, he had to suffer frustration and develop substitute satisfactions. The thwarting of these drives in childhood led to such a residue of bitterness and antisociality that the world would always be peopled by a type of animal that resented what it had done to him, what it had deprived him of. He would be a mean animal, deep down, one who felt cheated, one who harbored choked-up feelings and desires. He might on the surface be pleasant enough, responsible, creative; but underneath it all was a residue of trashiness that threatened to burst out
and that in any event would somehow work itself out on others or on himself.

Freud’s theory of innate instincts was undermined very early in social-psychological quarters and very late within psychoanalysis itself, and a new view of the child came into vogue. It tended to see the child as neutral, instinct-free, basically malleable; apart from some unknown factors of hereditary constitution and temperame
nt, the child was looked upon wholly as a creature shaped by his environment. In this view the parents were thought to be responsible for the child’s repressions, for the character defenses that he developed, and for the kind of person he turned out to be, as they had provided him with an environment and molded him to it. Even more than that, as the parents had opposed the child’s natural energetic and free expansion and had demanded his surrender to their world, they could be considered in some fundamental way as guilty for whatever warpings his character had. If the child had no instincts
he at least had plenty of free energy and a natural innocence of the body. He sought continual activity and diversion, wanted to move about his world in its entirety, to bend it to his use and delight as much as possible. He sought to express himself spontaneously, feel the most satisfaction in his bodily processes, derive the most comfort, thrill, and pleasure from others. But as this kind of limitless expansion is not possible in the world, the child has to be checked for his own good; and the parents were the checkers of his activity. Whatever attitudes the child had toward himself, his body, and h
is world were considered to have been implanted by his experience with his trainers and with his immediate environment.

This was the post-Freudian view of character development, the reaction against Freud’s instinctivism. Actually it is pre-Freudian, dating from the Enlightenment and Rousseau and Marx. In recent years the most biting and carefully thought-out critique of this view was given by Norman O. Brown.
The epithets he used against Fromm and the neo-Freudians were bitter indeed for a book that called us all back to Eros. But the gravamen of Brown’s critique was a serious one that had been overlooked by many in recent decades: that the situation of the child was an impossible one and that he
had to fashion his own defenses against the world, had to find a way of surviving in it. As we saw in Chapter Three, the child’s own existential dilemmas gave him his task quite independently of the parents: his “attitudes” came to him from his need to adapt to the whole desperate human condition, not merely to attune himself to the whims of his parents.

The student of ideas is entitled to wonder what kind of book Brown would have fashioned out of his brilliance if he had digested Adler and Rank with the thoroughness with which he studied F
reud. It was Adler and Rank, after all, who understood the desperate situation of the child, without falling either into the Freudian trap of inner instincts or that of easy environmentalism. As Rank put it once and for all, for all future psychoanalysts and students of man:

every human being is … equally unfree, that is,
… create out of freedom, a prison… .

Rank was criticizing Rousseau’s vision of man as born free and then put into chains by training and by society. Rank understood that in the face of the overwhelmingness of the world the child could not out of himself muster the stamina and the authority necessary to live in full expansiveness with limitless horizons of perception and experience.

We have arrived at a unique stage in the development of psychoanalytic thought. By fully incorporating the work of Adler and Rank on an equal level with Freud, modern psychoanalysis has been able to keep the roundness and soberness of the master without the errors, extreme formulations, and dogma of strict Freudianism. As I see it, Brown’s book represents a declaration that the circle has been closed fully between the psychoanalysis of the founders and the most recent theoretical and clinical work, without anything essential being lost. Even on the syndrome that in truth coul
d most justifiably accuse the parents of failing to fashion an adequate human being—that of schizophrenia—there has been a marked change of emphasis, a new consciousness of the tragic dimensions of human life. No one has summed this up better than Harold Searles, and I would like to quote at length his sensitive and authoritative personal statement, which I think is a very important one historically:

At Chestnut Lodge, the twice-weekly, hour-long case presentations usually have to do with schizophrenic patients… . When the author went there, nearly 12 years ago, the therapists—including the author—presenting these cases often tended to paint a totally, or almost totally, black picture of the patient’s childhood family relationships; the feeling-atmosphere of the presentation was one of blame of the parents more than anything else. As the years have gone on, the author has found that the presentations have come to convey less and less of such blame
, and to convey more and more of the tragedy of the patients’ lives—tragedy which is so much of a piece with the tragedy of life for all of us that the presentation is often a profoundly grief-laden experience for both the presenter and the listeners. One feels that the staff-presentation now gives a truer picture of a patient’s life, but a picture which is much more deeply shaking than was the blame-colored picture previously often seen.

The tragedy of life that Searles is referring to is the one we have been discussing: man’s finitude, his dread of death and of the overwhelmingness of life. The schizophrenic feels these more than anyone else because he has not been able to build the confident defenses that a person normally uses to deny them. The schizophrenic’s misfortune is that he has been burdened with extra anxieties, extra guilt, extra helplessness, an even more unpredictable and unsupportive environment. He is not surely seated in his body, has no secure base from which to negotiate a defiance of and a denial of the
nature of the world. The parents have made him massively inept as an organism. He has to contrive extra-ingenious and extra-desperate ways of living in the world that will keep him from being torn apart by experience, since he is already almost apart. We see again confirmed the point of view that a person’s character is a defense against despair, an attempt to avoid insanity because of the
nature of the world. Searles looks at schizophrenia precisely as the result of the inability to shut out terror, as a desperate style of living with terror. Frankly I don’t know anyt
hing more cogent that needs to be said about this syndrome: it is a failure in humanization, which means a failure to
confidently deny
man’s real situation on this planet. Schizophrenia is the limiting test case for the theory of character and reality that we have been expounding here: the failure to build dependable character defenses allows the true nature of reality to appear to man. It is scientifically apodictic. The creativity of people on the schizophrenic end of the human continuum is a creativity that springs from the inability to accept the standardized cultural denials of the real nature of ex
perience. And the price of this kind of almost “ extra human” creativity is to live on the brink of madness, as men have long known. The schizophrenic is supremely creative in an almost extra-human sense because he is furthest from the animal: he lacks the secu
re instinctive programming of lower organisms; and he lacks the secure cultural programming of average men. No wonder he appears to average men as “crazy”: he is not in anything’s world.


Let us close our long discussion of the function of character by juxtaposing two great pieces of poetic writing and insight, separated by almost three centuries. The first, by Thomas Traherne, gives a beautiful description of the world as it appears to the perceptions of the child before he has been able to fashion automatic reactions. Traherne describes the pristine perceptions of the child:

All appeared new, and strange at first, inexpressibly rare and delightful and beautiful… . The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold; the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things. The Men! O what
venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die… . The city seemed to stand in Eden… .

We might call this the paradise of prerepression. But then, Traherne goes on to describe his fall from Eden; the development of cultural perceptions and denials of the pristine character of reality; and like a modern psychoanalyst in the early days of, say, Chestnut Lodge, he accuses the parents of this fall, makes his whole case against them:

Thoughts are the most present things to thoughts, and of the most powerful influence. My soul was only apt and disposed to great things; but souls to souls are like apples to apples, one being rotten rots another. When I began to speak and go, nothing began to be present t
o me, but what was present to me in their thoughts. Nor was anything present to me any other way, than it was so to them…. All things were absent which they talked not of. So I began among my play-fellows to prize a drum, a fine coat, a penny, a gilded book, & c.,… . As for the Heavens and the Sun and Stars they disappeared, and were no more unto me than the bare walls. So that the strange riches of man’s invention quite overcame the riches of Nature, being learned more laboriously and in the second place.

What is missing in this splendid portrayal of the child’s fall from natural perception into the artificialities of the cultural world? Nothing less than what we have cited as the great post-Freudian merger on the human personality: Traherne’s own complicity in the process, his
to fall from grace in order to grow, move about without anxiety, protect himself
the Sun, the Stars, the Heavens. Traherne doesn’t record his other pristine reactions, say, to the piercing screams of his “play-fellows” as they cut their hands or smashed their noses and mouths and splashed him
with globs of weird, warm red that sent terror into his bowels. He says that he knew not that they should die, that all seemed immortal—but did his parents introduce death into the world? This was the deep-lying rot that rubbed into his soul, and it rubbed in not from the parents but from the world, from the “riches of nature.” In some complex ways death edged itself as a symbol into his perceptions and chilled his soul, and to banish the
of life Traherne had to remold his paradise, even to lying about it in his memory as we all do. True, the earth was the place of mystical beauty that he painted it and
that Carlyle later agreed to be “a mystic temple”; but it was at the same time “a hall of doom” that Traherne chose to deny in his memory of childhood.

The totality of the human condition is the thing that is so hard for man to recapture. He wants his world safe for delight, wants to blame others for his fate. Compare to Traherne a modern poet’s consciousness of the full roundness of the human condition. Marcia Lee Anderson tells us with penetrating brilliance how we have to live in a hall of doom, what we need to do to protect ourselves:

We multiply diseases for delight,
Invent a horrid want, a shameful doubt,
Luxuriate in license, feed on night,
Make inward bedlam—and will not come out.
Why should we? Stripped of subtle complications,
Who could regard the sun except with fear?
This is our shelter against contemplation,
Our only refuge from the plain and clear.
Who would crawl out from under the obscure
To stand defenseless in the sunny air?
No terror of obliquity so sure
As the most shining terror of despair
To know how simple is our deepest need,
How sharp, and how impossible to feed.

The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive. Marcia Lee Anderson draws the circle not only on Traherne, but on Maslow, on humanistic psychoanalysis, and even on Freudian Norman O. Brown himself. What exactly would it mean on this earth to be wholly unrepressed, to live in full bodily and psychic expansiveness? It can only mean to be reborn into madness. Brown warns us of the full radicalness of his reading of Freud by stressing t
hat he resolutely follows Ferenczi’s insight that “Character-traits are, so to speak, secret psychoses.”
This is shaking scientific truth, and we have also subscribed to it with Brown. If it has seemed hard for men to get agreement on such a truth during the age of Freud, one day it will be secure.

BOOK: The Denial of Death
3.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Point Hope by Kristen James
Ice Shock by M. G. Harris
Vital Signs by Robin Cook
Every Little Kiss by Kendra Leigh Castle
No Love for the Wicked by Powell, Megan
The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder