Ernest Becker asked,
What are we to make of a creation in which the routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart…bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence…and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue. Everyone reaching out to incorporate others who are edible to him.
The indigenous world imagined the Great Mother as both sustainer and destroyer. But modern people can only answer Becker in dualistic terms. Either we feel the terror, or we construct myths of religion and romance to transcend our fear of mortality. He argues that all human behavior is motivated by the unconscious need to deny this most fundamental anxiety.
Becker regrets that “we must shrink from being fully alive,” because seeing the world “as it really is is devastating and terrifying,” and results in madness. Mystics, however, describe this insight as devastating to the individual ego,and a necessary prelude to the unitive vision that transcends duality.
Ancient devotees of Dionysus, as well as modern practitioners of Eastern and African-based religions, actually strive to attain this state. But for those who lack the containers of community and ritual, the unconscious fear of death is a primary motivator. To the uninitiated modern person, the death of the ego and the death of the physical body are one and the same. Yet the prospect of ecstatic escape from the confines of that ego continually beckons to us, and we respond in all manner of unconscious ways. Let’s try to understand an essential American myth, the denial of death.
Despite seeing great progress since the writings of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and Jessica Mitford, we remain exceptional. America denies and avoids the reality of death more than any other society. This is particularly curious, given our high degree of (perhaps superficial) religiosity. The myth of innocence represents the attitude of the adolescent who expects to live forever. It provides no space to acknowledge that death is a part of life, rather than its opposite. Some call death the most repressed theme of the twentieth century, comparable to the sex taboo of the 19th century. We still view it as morbid, and commonly exclude children from discussion of it. Many adults have never seen a corpse other than in the stage-managed context of the funeral parlor.
Kubler-Ross argues that since few really believe suffering will be rewarded in Heaven, “then suffering becomes purposeless in itself,” and doctors typically sedate the dying to lessen their pain. They are rushed to hospitals, frequently unconscious and against their will, and most die there or in nursing homes. Then the corpse disappears, not to be seen again until it has been “primped up to appear…asleep.” Euphemisms complete the ritual of denial. The “deceased” has “passed on” or “gone to his maker.” “How peaceful he looks.”
The purpose of the ritual is to repress the anxieties that arise when tending to a terminally ill patient. Relatives collude with medical personnel in an elaborate series of lies, maintaining the fiction of probable recovery until the dying person reaches the point of death. Typically a doctor, rather than a minister, presides over the deathbed, keeping displays of emotion to a minimum. Adults deprive both children and the dying persons themselves of the opportunity to confront death.
Ironically, write Anthropologists Richard Huntington and Peter Metcalf, “In America, the archetypal land of enterprise, self-made men are reduced to puppets.” Then the body is embalmed, restored, dressed and transformed from a rotting cadaver into “a beautiful memory picture.” Neither law nor religion nor sanitation requires this process, and nowhere else but in North America is it widely done. In the last view the deceased seems asleep in a casket (often made of metal).
The ritual achieves two results. First, it insulates mourners from the process of decomposition, the finality of death and their own fears. Second, it minimizes cathartic expressions of grief. The funeral director, writes Mitford, “has put on a well-oiled performance in which the concept of death has played no part…” Wakes are generally pleasant social events, and mourners soon return to work. The mystery of death invites mourners to enter an initiatory space, but it closes too abruptly and too soon for any authentic transition or resolution. A veil that had been briefly lifted drops again.
We are told that Christianity represents a victory over death, yet estrangement from nature is one of its central themes. Thus, to Americans, death must be either a part of God’s plan or a punishment. Arnold Toynbee joked that death was “un-American,” an infringement on the right to the pursuit of happiness. By contrast, Indian tribal religions almost universally produced people unafraid of death, wrote Vine Deloria: “…the integrity of communal life did not create an artificial sense of personal identity that had to be protected and preserved at all costs.”
Malidoma Some´ observes our characteristic refusal to give in to grief: “A non-Westerner arriving in this country for the first time is struck by how… (Americans) pride themselves for not showing how they feel about anything.” To him, we typically carry great loads of unexpressed grief. And this leads to a corresponding inability to experience joy: “People who do not know how to weep together are people who cannot laugh together.” This is a succinct, tribal definition of alienation – exile from the worlds of both community and spirit.
This brings us back to the loss of the Dionysian experience. If we cannot grieve or tolerate the vision of the dark goddess and her bloody, dismembered son, then we cannot experience ecstasy either. We learn to tolerate pale substitutes: romance novels, horror movies (in which characters often refuse to die), the spectacles of popular music and sports, New Age spirituality, Sunday church and happy endings. We learn early to emphasize the light (including “lite”) to the eventual exclusion of the dark.
It follows that depression has reached epidemic proportions – and that violence is so fundamental to our experience. Kubler-Ross wrote that our denial of death “has only increased our anxiety and contributed to our… aggressiveness – to kill in order to avoid the reality and facing of our own death. To Phillip Slater, “…our technologically strangled environment” in which impersonal forces impact us from remote, Apollonic distances and provoke us to “find a remote victim on which to wreck our vengeance.” This is one reason why Americans rarely protest the military’s mass killing of distant Third World people.
But America was characterized from the start by extreme violence. It was present in the “idea” of America – not the abstract ideals of the founding fathers, but the projection of darkness, instinct and lust onto the Other in the already demythologized world of the seventeenth century. By the Industrial Revolution of the 1840’s, Americans had been slaughtering Indians and enslaving Africans for two centuries. Technology certainly contributed to alienation, loneliness and the breakdown of extended families and father-son relationships. But as a seed of depression and long-distance violence, it fell on fertile soil that had been well prepared.
And history conspired. No one alive can recall the carnage of the Civil War; since then we have fought our major wars across great oceanic expanses. With the ready availability of handguns, we slaughter each other in small-scale violence like no other people in history. Except for urban race riots, however, there had been no warfare on American territory for well over a century until the recent terrorist acts.
These factors all help to perpetuate the myth of innocence. The final ingredient is the state of the media, in which news reporting, political spin and entertainment are now almost indistinguishable. On the one hand, media colludes with our need to remain sheltered from the world and our impact upon it. “We are so desperate for this,” writes Michael Ventura, that we are willing to accept ignorance as a substitute for innocence.”
On the other hand, even as violent programming perpetuates fear of crime and terrorism, television has desensitized three generations of Americans to the actual effects of violence. We all know the statistics. We can theoretically take two populations of children and predict that, as young adults fifteen years later, those who watch more TV will be more violent than the group that watched less. Thus, there is a direct connection between the national denial of death in the abstract and America’s ferocious expression of literal violence. James Hillman concluded that death is “the ultimate repressed,” who returns “through the body’s shattered disarray,” an incursion “into awareness as ultimate truth.” We innocently observe, we are shocked, and we quickly forget.
Adolescent males are literally bloated with hormones – litima – that when not transformed through ritual, always turns violent in one form or another. Never having confronted death directly, we must find a way to see it,by condoning violence or personally inflicting it upon others. Preferring vengeance to mourning, we remainthe only nation to use atomic weapons. Americans invented napalm, cluster bombs and “anti-personnel” mines. We are stunningly unmoved by news of torture at Guantanamo and rape in Iraq, because innocence trumps awareness. The nation that watches and exports thousands of hours of electronic mayhem and has more handguns than citizens is shocked every time a teenager massacres his schoolmates.
Octavio Paz contrasted his own Mexican culture, which has an intimate relationship to the dark side of existence, with ours: “A culture that begins by denying death will end by denying life.” Such a nation desperately needs someone to save it – distract it – from the black hole of death, and to vanquish, rather than to accommodate those forces of darkness. Such a nation needs heroes. And it will get the heroes it deserves.