Don’t Fear the Reaper, pt. 1

Don’t Fear the Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult.

This song PERFECTLY captures the book I’m reading right now, and with this post, I’m going to try something new, which is to write shorter, more focused posts but write more regularly. You see, my problem is that I try to write a post about a whole book that I read and I find that I just can’t do it. For example, when I wrote about Consider the Lobster, I had to, when talking about “Up, Simba” just insert random observations at the end because the post was taking me forever to write and there was no way I could extend things further

So as I said, shorter, more focused, and more serialized.

I am reading a book right now called The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. In this post I want to describe the general tone and historical / intellectual position of this book.

The book is about existentialist freudian psychologist, which may be such a mouthful of academic jargon that some readers will just quit right here. But please don’t, because I can offer simple (and perhaps interesting) clarification. Freud roughly thought sexual desire became fragmented, perverted, amplified, and redirected in a variety of ways. These ways contribute to the immense variety of psychological characters and states that we find in the world. “Anal” personalities, childishness, slavishness, oedipal desires, aggression, and so on.

This book is existentialist because it largely agrees with Freud about the unconscious being the source of all psychological activity, but Becker disagrees that SEXUAL motives are at the heart of everything. Rather, he claims that a FEAR OF DEATH is the unifying drive behind all psychological states.

According to him. every personality quirk, social institution, scheme of cooperation, and source of anger results from various ways that humans tries to wrestle with, and deny or evade their ultimate finiteness, animalness, and fragility.

I plan to evaluate many of these arguments in coming posts, but here I just want to give you a flavor of what this book is like.

First, its very intellectually sloppy. It just kind roams around all over the place, mentioning many of the same species of ideas again and again with less precision each time. He psychoanalyzes Freud, which maybe wasn’t cliche in his time, but still comes off pretty boring (who really cares what a crazy and ridiculous person Freud was. I guess just for laughs).

What is more fun is to psychoanalyze Becker, who is obviously deeply in love with Freud, calling him the “master” in many places and stops in the text to meditate on his genius and his ability to transcend his fear of death and lot of other incredible statements. He writes, of one of Freud’s smaller, lesser-known works (Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego),

A book of fewer than 100 pages that in my opinion is probably the single most potentially liberating tract that has ever been fashioned by man.

Seriously? Seems impossible.

Also the book is heavily dogmatic in that Becker, at many points, just assumes the truth of psychoanalytical theory and at many points flies off the handle talking about how psychoanalysis is the crowning point of all empirical theory and that it will liberate man once and for all. I guess the 60s had just finished and this sort of ridiculously vague intellectual approach was in vogue.

Listen to the rhetoric at this point:

Imagine a scientific theory that could explain human slavishness by getting at its nexus; imagine that after ages of laments about human folly men would at last understand exactly why they were so fatally fascinated; imagine being able to detail the precise causes of personal thralldom as coldly and as objectively as a chemist separate elements. When you imagine all these things you will realize better than ever the world-historical importance of psychoanalysis, which alone revealed this mystery.

You’ve got to be kidding me. As if pscyhoanalysis alone revealed these truths and as if its even successful at doing this. This arrogance infects the whole book, and apparently, this book won the pulitzer prize. Again, totally baffling to me.

None of this is to say that the book is a waste of time, there are a bunch of very interesting ideas in here, but I’m just giving the flavor of what we’re dealing with.

Lastly, let me leave you with this.

What are to make of the following report by a winner of the Miss Maryland contest who describes her first meeting with Frank Sinatra (a crooner and film start who gained wealth and notoriety in the middle decades of the 20th century in the United States):

He was my date. I got a massage, and I must have taken five aspirins to calm myself down. In the restaurant, I saw him from across the room, and I got such butterflies in my stomach and such a thing that went from heat to toe. He had like a halo around his head of stars to me. He projected something I have never seen in my lie… when I’m with him I’m in awe, and I don’t know why I can’t snap out of it…I can’t think. He’s so fascinating…

First, Becker decides to CLARIFY who Frank Sinatra is? Even I know who that is and I loved roughly fifty years after Becker. Who wouldn’t know that? It’s like asking people today about Michael Jordan. Also, the way he clarifies it is so funny, calling Sinatra someone who gained prominence “in the middle decades of the 20th century.” What an unnecessarily sophisticated explanation.

Last, the quote about the Miss Maryland winner is pretty incredible too, and I may have something more substantial to say in some upcoming posts, one which will probably be on this (if you want to read ahead).




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