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.
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 .