Ernest_Becker_Denial_of_death

With  The Fifty Shades of Grey brouhaha surrounding its phenomenal  book and movie success, its film  release over Valentine’s Day, and the op-eds about  physical and psychological abuse towards women, here’s a different take. This is from the Pulitzer-Prize winning book of 1974, The Denial of Death  by cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker.

The seminal theme in Becker’s book is that  death is so terrifying to the human being  that we spend our lives  attempting to manage  the fear. Indeed, our identity, conscious and unconscious,  is largely constructed to control that  terror.  “The great boon of repression,” Becker writes, ” is that it makes it possible to live decisively in an overwhelmingly miraculous and incomprehensible world, a world so full of beauty , majesty, and terror that if animals perceived it all they would be paralyzed to act.”

Becker continues by claiming that, “Sadism and masochism seem like frighteningly technical ideas, secrets about the inner recesses of man only fully revealed to practicing psychoanalysts.” But, he says, that for some people,  the sexual dance of pain and pleasure can be a process to manage and control life’s mystery.

“Masochism is thus a way of taking the anxiety of life and death and the overwhelming terror of existence and congealing them into a small dosage. One then experiences pain from the terrifying power and yet lives through it without experiencing the ultimate threat of annihilation and death.”Otto Rank called masochism the “small sacrifice,” the “lighter punishment,” the “placation” that allows one to avoid the arch-evil of death. When applied to sexuality, masochism is thus a way of taking suffering and pain, “which in the last analysis are symbols of death,” and transmuting them into desired sources of pleasure.”

Sadism is the inverse of masochism. The sadist is playing a role, as if a god, who is above the cycle of life. Sadism also  manages death, by executing “the small sacrifice”. I am reminded of the song from Stephen Sondheim’s  A Little Night Music, adapted from Ingmar Bergman’s comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night  when Charlotte, a  wife to a cheating husband, sings about the roundelay of life and love -

Every day a little death,
In the parlour, in the bed,
In the curtains, in the silver,
In the buttons, in the bread.
Everyday a little sting,
In the heart and in the head.
Every move and every breath,
And you hardly feel a thing,
Brings a perfect little death.

Many people,  Becker believes,  never find the wholesome moving forward, an ideology and a way of life that  deals in a healthy way with our own dual nature. “Man is literally split in two, ” he writes, ” he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.”

“The child emerges with a name, a family , a play-world in a neighborhood, all clearly cut out for him. But his insides are full of nightmarish memories of impossible battles, terrifying anxieties of blood, pain, aloneness, darkness; mixed with limitless desires, sensations of unspeakable beauty, majesty, awe, mystery; and fantasies and hallucinations of mixtures between the two, the impossible attempt to compromise between bodies and symbols.”The prison of one’s character is painstakingly built to deny one thing and one thing alone: one’s creatureliness. The creatureliness is the terror. Once you  admit that you are a defecating creature, you invite the primeval ocean of creature anxiety to flood over you. But it is more than creature anxiety, it is also man’s anxiety, the anxiety that results from the human paradox that man is an animal who is conscious of his animal limitation. Anxiety is the result of the perception of the truth of one’s condition. What does it mean to be a self-conscious animal? The idea is ludicrous, if it is not monstrous. It means to know that one is food for worms. This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression—and with all this yet to die. It seems like a hoax, which is why one type of cultural man rebels openly against the idea of God. What kind of deity would create such complex and fancy worm food? Cynical deities, said the Greeks, who use man’s torments for their own amusement.”

Becker is not suggesting that the dominant-submissive sex play is a road to mental health.  In the end,  it is a fail in the “heroic process” of being a balanced human being. “…sadomasochism is ultimately belittling,” Becker writes, “a hothouse drama of control and transcendence played by pint-sized characters.”

“Why don’t you like me ?” asks Grey, the dominant in the book and  movie, Fifty Shades of Grey.

“Because you never stay with me,” answers Anastasia, the submissive.

According to Becker, sexual  abuse between consenting adults, no matter who is  submissive or  who is dominant, no matter what gender,    it is  all about leaving.  Leaving,  if only temporarily,   our panic and bewilderment of our earthly, split-apart conundrum.

For the first time, The Denial of Death is  now available  as an e-book through Amazon.

In The Denial of Death, there is a wonderful   chronicle of the  conflicts between  Carl Jung  and Sigmund Freud ,  the two titans of modern psychology. The relationship is  provocatively represented  – written with great detail, insight and wit .

Magic_HatWith statements like the above, I am reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s prescient comment from Profiles of the Future (1961). “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Most of us see the magic all around: wearables are gaining traction, homes are becoming smarter. This is the metaverse  - that thin layer of unseen tech, like the hands of as Jinn, aiding our lives seamlessly through the Internet.  We only have to look across the road to see the future’s horizon. There is  the driverless car headed down the highway - its trunk filled with new magic.

Certainly, Google’s Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt, caused a couple of heads to explode at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland  last week ( 1.22.2015) when he was asked about the future of the web.

“I will answer very simply that the Internet will disappear,” Schmidt said.

According to CNET, the Google executive later clarified. “It will be part of your presence all the time. Imagine you walk into a room, and the room is dynamic. And with your permission and all of that, you are interacting with the things going on in the room.”

In very short order, we have seen  the magic:  the  world-wide web collapsing time and space. We can be connected with anyone in the world, no matter the distance or time of day. We have seen incredible positive transformation, especially in the way we can collaborate across the globe, 24/7.

Yet, every time we send a text, we are rewarded by a drop of dopamine, “the pleasure drug”. We are becoming more and more addicted to our tech habits — whether child, teen, or adult.

The Director of MIT’s Center for Self and technology, Sherry Turkle,  has completed  big-idea research, illustrating that we actually prefer a screen  filter to actual   one-on-one, face-to-face  human interaction. “We are losing the raw human part of being with each other,” she said.

It’s going to be harder and harder to “unplug”, to take the “day off from tech” when our wearables are wired and our cars know the way better than we do.

I simply hope that the future contains the balance between humanity and tech – the middle ground, or as the Greeks used to say, the “Golden Mean”.   I hope that the greatest trick of all does not  become  our awkward, silly, brilliant, messy, humanity vanishing  into the magic hat of tomorrow’s technology.