All the analysis in the world doesn't allow the person to find out who he is and why he is here on earth, why he has to die, and how he can make his life a triumph. It is when psychology pretends to do this, when it offers itself as a full explanation of human unhappiness, that it becomes a fraud that makes the situation of modern man an impasse from which he cannot escape.
Our banner quote author this week is one of those clarion voices of lucidity that arrive only a few times a century.
His name is Ernest Becker (1924-1974), and the book from which we are quoting is the Pulitzer Prize winning work that was the crown of his career. To this day, some 20 years after I first encountered it, I will pick up The Denial of Death, particularly during those moments where I am near the end of my rope of patience with the seemingly fathomless self-destructiveness of human stupidity.
Becker was an intellectual who led with the heart, a thinker of such energy and innovation that he surpassed (to my mind, at least) the very models upon which he founded his own work—the founders and proponents of the various early schools of psychoanalysis—Rank, Adler, and Freud himself.
Becker warned us that when a science becomes an orthodoxy (as happened with psychoanalysis), it has sunk to the same level as the religions and philosophical systems it pretends to surpass. He rigorously sought out the limits of reason, so as to better understand and appreciate its potential. Is there anyone, anywhere—in the media, in academia, in science, or in literature—doing this today?
By exploring the boundaries of his science, Becker revealed truths that serve even today as both a guide and a warning to our generation. The Denial of Death was written in 1973, but it might have been published last week, and with far more to show us than Mr. Woodward's celebrated new tome. For Becker goes beyond the Washington mill of intrigue and into an investigative journalism of the group psyche—he reveals the symbiosis that furthers the cause of a tyranny such as the one currently oppressing us, right here in America. As you read the following (and then, I hope, experience the rest of Becker's work), think about the positively suicidal projections that were cast on our own leaders in the wake of 9/11. This excerpt, by the way, follows a fascinating discussion of the Charles Manson murders, in a chapter titled "The Spell Cast by Persons—The Nexus of Unfreedom":
From this discussion of transference we can see one great cause of the large-scale ravages that man makes on the world. He is not just a naturally and lustily destructive animal who lays waste around him because he feels omnipotent and impregnable. Rather, he is a trembling animal who pulls the world down around his shoulders as he clutches for protection and support and tries to affirm in a cowardly way his feeble powers. The qualities of the leader, then, and the problems of people fit together in a natural symbiosis...the powers of the leader stem from what he can do for people, beyond the magic that he himself possesses. People project their problems onto him, which gives him his role and stature. Leaders need followers as much as they are needed by them: the leader projects onto his followers his own inability to stand alone, his own fear of isolation. We must say that if there were no natural leaders possessing the magic of charisma, men would have to invent them, just as leaders must create followers if there are none available.
Links to books and more information on Ernest Becker:
The Ernest Becker Foundation
The Denial of Death
Escape From Evil
All Writings by Ernest Becker