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The Denial of Death

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 24, 2005

    For Whom Doth That Bell Toll?

    Stanley Hauerwas, the famed professor of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School, once labelled modern medicine a 'death deferral industry.' In his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death Becker contends that medicine is not alone. According to Becker's thesis in fact all human enterprises are derivative of the Promethean will to tame death and rob it of its sting. The great protagonist of Becker's work is Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard¿s ¿Knight of Faith¿ embodies for Becker all that both ancient religion and 20th century psychoanalysis set out to attain ¿ total consciousness in the face of the collective human tragedy we call death. Denial is in this respect a call to faith ¿ a call for humanity to admit the limits of its own creatureliness and drink its hemlock with Socratic courage. The great irony of Denial is Becker¿s analysis of his psychological forebear Freud. Becker harnesses a great deal of the psychoanalytic tradition he inherited from Freud then uses it, in good old Oedipal fashion, to knock the father from the throne. According to Becker, Freud was himself an embodiment of the kind of death denial from which psychoanalysis should have freed him. Becker argues Freud¿s dogged commitment to his own theories about human sexuality is an embarrassing example of Freud¿s refusal to let go his aspirations for intellectual immortality. When confronted by contrary evidence or conclusions it was Freud¿s pattern to simply feint ¿ an example, according to Becker, of Freud¿s escapist defense mechanics. Or, in Neil Young¿s own immortal words ¿it¿s better to burn out than just fade away.¿ If Becker¿s analysis of Freud is correct then we can see in ourselves some startling parallels. We cling to life through all kinds of ways and means until the end comes. And then we hope for a short, painless death. There is little talk of getting right with our maker. No one knows what it means to die well. Given the fact that we live in an age of genetic manipulation, cryogenic freezing and extreme makeovers the myth of immortality must still be alive. When it is all said and done, however, most of us could care less about discovering why we want our spouse to get a new set of boobs. Freud¿s old answer ¿ sex ¿ seemed as good as any. But Becker¿s thesis does have immediate implications for us as we contemplate the virtues of peace, freedom, democracy and whatever else we might be willing to kill and die for. Are modern values nothing more than fetishized expressions of our desire to out ring the bell which doth toll for all? At the very least Becker¿s book gives us pause to consider the possibility that even our most altruistic actions might be driven by blind self- interest. Becker seems to want to call the human species to a radical honesty about its place in the cosmos. It is uncertain, however, what coming to terms with the reality of death can alone do to mend the way we live our lives and die our deaths. What, apart from other virtues like courage, peacemaking, hope and love, do we have to gain from admitting that it is indeed from dust that we come and to dust we shall return. It is here that Becker¿s psychoanalysis seems to fall short. Liberating the unconsciousness is interesting, but not all that edifying ¿ especially if, as Becker asserts, the will of the unconscious is altogether ineluctable anyway. This is perhaps what made the apostle Paul candidly admit that if Christ were not raised from the dead then all his labors for the gospel were in vain (1 Cor. 15:13). For Paul the resurrection was the gospel and the only thing capable of rescuing us from death¿s long shadow. All Becker¿s heroes, Kierkegaard, Luther, and in acknowledged ambivalence even Jung, point toward a resurrection. The Kierkegaardian Leap is always occasioned by the hope for

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2010

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