If there’s a constant in human history, it’s death denial. Ernest Becker, in the last book he published just before his death in 1974, The Denial of Death, explores and explains the pervasiveness of death denial in all cultures all over the globe. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for anyone interested in trying to come to grips with their own death, but also with the death of cultures, ways of life and all cultural artifacts. According to Becker, individual death is a given, at least in the physical sense, but as human beings, we can’t accept that inevitability, so we devise sometimes very elaborate systems of death denial. For Becker, cultures themselves are immortality projects designed to deny death. The Christian idea of the soul is a great immortality project. The body dies, the soul lives on forever. Take that, death! Life 1, Death 0. So, Christians can live thinking that when they die, they live. That’s comforting, I guess, if it’s possible to really believe that. My sense is that doubt is hard to cast aside. Is there really an afterlife? After all, it’s just promises, no proof. It’s also my sense that one way to assuage guilt over doubt is to affirm the death denying ideology of the soul more firmly than ever. I’m not picking specifically on Christians here, everybody else does it too. There are atheistic religions like Buddhism but they also have mechanisms that promise some form of immortality.
None of this is surprising. In the simplest of biological terms, living organisms, particularly the sentient ones, ‘want’ to continue to live. It’s a basic drive. Becker’s book, Escape From Evil, published shortly after his death by his wife, Marie, and his publishers, expresses this beautifully in its first few pages. We are driven to fight the two pillars of evil in life: disease and death. Disease injures our potential to enjoy life, to revel in a good meal, an excellent glass of wine, or a particularly spectacular sunset. Death takes away everything, all enjoyment, all time, all everything. What greater evil can there be? So we devise elaborate schemes to make us feel like none of this will ever happen to us? Not to humans. We are the chosen species. We are not like other animals. We are special under the sun. And if anyone dares say otherwise, well, that’s most unfortunate for them. They must be dealt with in the harshest of terms because if our death-denying ideologies are proven to be weak or just plain lies, then we die…forever. Aboriginal cultures everywhere, when faced with the power of colonialism, abandoned their traditional practices and took on the beliefs of their captors and colonizers. Why continue to put faith in an immortality-ideology that failed to protect them in their most trying moment?
Now, of course, the most powerful immortality-ideology is capital accumulation and wealth. But we know that this kind of ideology, no matter how powerful cannot promise us immortality. Still, there are many people today who live and die for ‘freedom’ to accumulate capital to get rich. They are, in fact, willing to kill the very planet they occupy so that they might live forever.
This short post barely scratches the surface of the importance of Becker’s work. I’ll come back to Becker over and over again in posts to come.