The biggest danger, that of losing oneself, can pass off in the world as quietly as if it were nothing:
every other loss, an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. is bound to be noticed.



Prof. Donald L. Carveth
York University, Glendon College
Department of Sociology
2275 Bayview Avenue
Toronto, Canada

Psychoanalysis, Philosophy, Existentialism

Freudian theory got caught in the nature/nurture duality.  Freud saw the human being as a centaur, a beastly id in perpetual tension with a human ego and superego. He falsely naturalized and biologized human destructiveness.  For all translation issues aside (yes he used the term trieb not instinkt), he still described the triebe as arising from a somatic source, by which he did not mean the brain but, in the case of the sexual drive, an erogenic bodily zone.  (Freud was never able to determine the somatic zone that gives rise to aggression, which should have caused him to wonder if this whole idea of the drives arising from somatic sources might be off.)  But this projects our uniquely human evil onto the beast, the animal in us, whereas in reality it arises from what is uniquely human about us: our self-consciousness; our awareness of time and of mortality; the existential anxiety that such awareness, including consciousness of our freedom, generates in us; and our capacity for what G.H. Mead called "role-taking" (i.e., empathy) which enables us to use our empathic awareness of others' experience either to help or to manipulate and injure them.  

In relation to the nature/nurture polarity, I see four possible positions:

1. Biologism: the one-sided emphasis upon the causal role of biological (anatomical, physiological, neurological, etc.) factors.

2. Environmentalism: the one-sided emphasis upon the causal role of environmental factors (conditioning, social and cultural influences).

3. Biosocial interactionism: both nature and nurture, heredity and environment (Freud's position: id + ego/superego).

4. Existentialism: recognition of an emergent human reality irreducible to either nature or nurture or their interaction, an emergent level of being beyond both the inorganic and the organic (the pre-biological and the biological, lithosphere and biosphere) that is post-biological or superorganic (though not supernatural), the noosphere, the world of mind and culture, dependent upon but irreducible to brain, organized by the symbol (both discursive and non-discursive), and characterized by the freedom and existential anxiety described by Kierkegaard, the being-toward-death described by Martin Heidegger, the possibilities of bad faith or self-deception described by Jean-Paul Sartre, and the ego's capacity to substitute thought for action as described by Sigmund Freud. If to all this we add insights of G.H. Mead and Jacques Lacan, we understand that these emergent and, in a sense, transcendent capacities have to do with the symbolic function.

While it is true that human beings are partly things among things that can be studied from a strictly natural science approach, this only applies to human being on the levels of worlds 1 and 2, lithosphere and biosphere, the pre-biological or inorganic, and the biological or organic worlds.  But on the level of world 3 which opens up sometime during the second year of life when symbolic functioning kicks in, the noosophere or post-biological world of mind (as distinct from brain though requiring brain of course), EMERGES and on this emergent level the human being is no longer a thing among things and cannot be studied as such.  What the Germans call the Naturwissenschaften work fine on the level of our existence as things and organisms, but to study human being-in-the-world on the level of world 3, as emergent symboling beings, requires the vershehen or empathic understanding which is the characteristic method of the Geistenswissenschaften--this is what Heinz Kohut called the introspective-empathic method, that Charles Horton Cooley called the method of sympathetic introspection and George Herbert Mead recognized as role-taking.  Mind requires brain but is irreducible t it.  World 3 rests on worlds 2 and 1, but is irreducible to them.  Sometime around 18 months, a revolution occurs: for Kierkegaard the myth of Genesis symbolizes this fall into self-awareness, freedom and anxiety; for Piaget it has to do with the object permanence that language allows; for Mahler such object permanence permits the idea of loss and stimulates separation anxiety; for Freud himself, observing the Fort! Da! game of his grandson at 18 months, here the child begins to use play and magic to work through the anxiety and depression that the recognition of separateness brings.  We are talking about the emergence of human existence.  We are creatures immersed in nature (worlds 1 and 2) by our bodies and brains, but that have emerged from nature because of minds that must constantly deal with what is NOT: yesterday which exists no longer; tomorrow which does not exist yet; non-empirical qualities that symbolism allows us to impose upon empirical things, like beauty, ugliness, good and evil, that do not exist IN the things we impose them on.  In light of all this, insofar as our existence as world 3 beings is concerned, materialism and positivism are grossly insufficient as a basis for knowledge: at best they allow us to understand the TV set.  But some of us are more interested in the programs.

Like Daniel Stern's description of "preverbal senses of self" that he sees appearing prior to the emergence of the verbal sense of self, I find the work of Bion, Bick, Meltzer and others on what may be precursors or prototypes of the symbolic functioning we see emerging some time during the second year very interesting--as long as such work is not used to blur what I see as the fundamentally important distinction between such preverbal precursors and the kind of symbolism that emerges during the second year and that, unlike its precursors, effects a true revolution in the mind.  Let me rephrase that: it doesn't effect a revolution in the mind, it creates the mind, or as I would prefer to say, the human situation that Heidegger calls Dasein, human being-in-the-world, and that Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre describe in terms of its freedom, anxiety, care and guilt--qualities that appear to be absent in both subhuman species and infants (those literally beneath speech).  Please let it be clear that in emphasizing humanity's uniqueness in these ways I am in no way celebrating our superiority, only our difference. Part of our difference is our capacity for madness and destructiveness unparalleled in other species, in addition to the creativity and love this difference also enables. Although I don't share his degree of pessimism, I can certainly relate to Thomas Hardy's poem "Before Life and After" which ends with the dark lines: "Ere nescience shall be reaffirmed, how long, how long?"

On the other hand, continental philosophy has gotten itself so entangled with both obscurantism and extreme social constructivism and relativism that at times it appears alien to the truth-values so central in the psychoanalysis of Freud, Klein and Bion.  Given the level of intellectual abstraction reflected in many current discussions of psychoanalysis on the part of those who seek to free it from its traditional connections with psychiatry and clinical psychology, one need not be in any way anti-intellectual to feel uneasy with the notion of philosophy as an alternative "home" for psychoanalysis.  Since the biological and pharmaceutical turn in psychiatry has rendered psychoanalysis marginal there, and the narrow and positivistic training of psychologists makes psychology unsuitable, I think it is time for psychoanalysis to outgrow its need for a "home" and grow up and create one for itself: a free-standing psychoanalytic profession—and hopefully one that in addition to being informed by an existential philosophy capable of freeing psychoanalysis from what Habermas correctly recognized as its "scientistic self-misunderstanding," its positivism, mechanism, biologism and reductionism, at the same time attends to deeply clinical issues of how best to work with phantasy, anxiety, envy, rage and destructiveness.

While, up to a point, it may be necessary to busy ourselves with philosophy to fight off the philosophical attacks upon or reductions of psychoanalysis, it is equally necessary to guard against the subordination of psychoanalysis to philosophy and to busy ourselves with deeply clinical issues of how best to work with intractable resistances, transferences, countertransferences, etc..  I have benefitted greatly from my studies in philosophy, theology and social theory; they inform my work as a psychoanalyst in countless ways. But as is the case with most intellectuals these interests also served (and continue to serve) my resistance to facing and working through repressed and otherwise defended against anxiety- and guilt-producing phantasies, hate, lust, envy, greed, narcissism, sadism, masochism, etc. It is so much easier to theorize than to really face oneself or to face those more challenging types of patients who force us to face ourselves.

Freud was no lover of philosophy. In the New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (Lecture 35) he describes "the various systems of philosophy which have ventured to draw a picture of the universe as it is reflected in the mind of thinkers who were for the most part turned away from the world."  In a more general sense, psychoanalysis reveals that supposedly disinterested reason is often little more than a tool in the hands of emotional forces it has no conscious awareness of--like a cork bobbing in the sea thinking it commands the rising and falling of the tides. In other words, psychoanalysis has pretty much confirmed the Nietzschean view. In Section 6 of "On the Prejudices of Philosophers" (Beyond Good and Evil) this philosopher/psychologist writes: "Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir."

In Section 5 he writes: "What provokes one to look at all philosophers half suspiciously, half mockingly, is not that one discovers again and again how innocent they are--how often and how easily they make mistakes and go astray; in short, their childishness and childlikeness--but that they are not honest enough in their work, although they all make a lot of virtuous noise when the problem of truthfulness is touched even remotely. They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic (as opposed to the mystics of every rank, who are more honest and doltish--and talk of "inspiration"); while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of "inspiration"—most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract -- that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact. They are all advocates who resent that name, and for the most part even wily spokesmen for their prejudices which they baptize "truths" -- and very far from having the courage of the conscience that admits this, precisely this, to itself; very far from having the good taste of the courage which also lets this be known, whether to warn an enemy or friend, or, from exhuberance, to mock itself."

But even acknowledging all this, it remains the case that through its very hostility to philosophy psychoanalysis fell victim to a taken-for-granted philosophy and a "scientistic self-misunderstanding."  Psychoanalysis needs existential philosophy to properly comprehend itself as Geisteswissenschaft, not Naturwissenschaft, as an essentially hermeneutic enterprise, and a hermeneutic that seeks to grapple with the uniquely human dilemmas of Dasein, fearful of death, in flight from freedom, burdened by existential, not merely neurotic, anxiety and guilt.

One who is committed to psychoanalysis is happy to reject epistemological privilege for psychoanalysis and to welcome the fact that the sword cuts both ways and that there ought to be a psychoanalysis of psychoanalysis as well as a psychoanalysis of philosophy or whatever else, since to practice the psychoanalysis of psychoanalysis is to practice psychoanalysis.

Freedom From ... / Freedom To ...


From: "Psychoanalysis and Social Theory:  The Hobbesian Problem Revisited."  Psychoanalysis & Contemporary Thought 7, 1 (1984), 43-98.

Drawing upon the biological perspectives of Jacob von Uexkhull, F.J.J. Buytendijk and Adolf Portmann and evaluations of these views in terms of philosophical anthropology by Hellmuth Plessner and Arnold Gehlen (Grene, 1969), Berger and Luckmann (1967, pp.47-52) have drawn attention to man's peculiar position in the animal kingdom as a "biologically insufficient" creature characterized by "world-openness" as a result of a unique ontogenetic development characterized by a period of "postnatal foetalization."  Because of the essentially premature birth of the human neonate and its prolonged dependency upon its significant others, the infant gradually acquires from its "surrogate ego" and its "facilitating social environment" a capacity to replace its missing instincts with a symbolic and self-reflexive linguistic facility and a distinctive type of ego-functioning that elevates the human being to a fundamentally emergent and superorganic level of being.

Far from being an instinct-dominated creature, man is an instinctless but meaning- and metaphor-ridden animal (Mills, 1939, 1940; Bruyn, 1966; Burke, 1968; Duncan, 1968, 1969; Lakoff and Johnson, 1980).  As the existentialists have argued, man is in one sense a denatured animal, condemned to be within nature and yet in some ways inevitably outside it (Fromm, 1941), moved by organismic appetites and yet able both to nihilate them and imaginatively extend them to infinity in visions of total and perfect gratification which evoke dissatisfaction with merely finite pleasures.

According to Sartre, man's possession of a nihilating consciousness enables him to say "No."  Though psychoanalysis has long been aware of the negativism that often characterizes the anal phase of psychosexual development and its significance in the development of the capacity for autonomy and active mastery, with a few exceptions (e.g., Erikson, 1968, pp.107-114), it has generally been unwilling to recognize in these developments the foundation of human freedom, albeit in its negative form.  Without exaggerating the scope of the human subject's freedom, it would appear necessary to recognize that "development produces a marked qualitative shift somewhere around the rapprochement subphase" (Blanck and Blanck, 1979, p.73) of separation-individuation: a "point of fulcrum" associated with the development of language. Having attained the emergent level of symbolic action and interaction, the child is no longer an infrahuman (but potentially human) reagent restricted to the inorganic and organic worlds of process, but a person or human agent acting on the superorganic level of human praxis.

When the insights of Sartre are combined with those of G.H. Mead, we  recognize that man's capacity for symboling constitutes him as the "inventor of the negative" (Burke, 1968, p.9), enables him to imagine "what is not" and compare it to "what is," to posit various "Thou shalt nots" and to "secrete a nothingness" (Sartre, 1943, pp.33-85) between his situation and his reaction to it (i.e., himself)--an act of nihilation that transforms "reaction" into "action" in the proper sense.  At the point at which, like Helen Keller in that moment of realization that words refer to things and that everything has a name (Cassirer, 1944, pp.33-36; White, 1949, pp.36-39), man crosses the emergent evolutionary boundary between the prehuman and the human condition, he acquires the freedom to refuse; to delay his response to stimuli; to replace an overt response by a covert symbolic action; to distance himself from immediate influences; to compare what is with what was, will be, or might be; to deny the truth; and to repress his wishes--even to die rather than submit to the force of circumstance.

Such negative freedom means that insofar as we are concerned with man's distinctively human action (as opposed to his nature as a material and biological organism), such concepts as "instinct" and "cause" are no longer unequivocal.  When a person can nihilate the "instinct" of self- preservation by committing suicide, it can no longer be seen as an instinct.  When a person can refuse to act to relieve his hunger by reminding himself that it is not yet time for lunch, or that he is on a diet, or that he is committed to a political hunger strike and is willing to die of starvation rather than submit, we can no longer speak of a hunger instinct.  Man is an animal capable of pretending he is not an animal--and in so denying his creatureliness he proves that he truly is something more, or at least something very different, than any other creature.

Essentially the same reasoning applies in the case of causality. Causal determinism implies a necessary link between antecedent conditions and consequent effects such that given the former the latter must follow.  Although such mechanical causation certainly affects man insofar as he is a material object and a biological organism subject to the laws that govern the inorganic (pre-biological) and organic (biological) levels of reality (lithosphere and biosphere respectively), when we turn our attention to the uniquely human, superorganic (post-biological) realm of mind, meaning and action (the noosphere [Huxley, 1927, 1947]), causality is a controversial concept.

For the early Sartre (1943, 1948), if a prisoner confesses when his interrogator holds a gun to his head and threatens to shoot him unless he complies, he is in bad faith if he claims he had no choice.  While his positive or practical freedom ("freedom to" do, be, or have whatever he wants) is radically restricted in such a situation--as it is in the lives of most persons owing to the limitations of poverty, ignorance, disease, social powerlessness and the like--the prisoner's negative or psychological freedom ("freedom from" mechanical determination) remains absolute: he could have chosen to die rather than confess.  Although he never abandoned this insistence upon man's psychological (negative) freedom from mechanical determination, the later Sartre (1960, 1969, 1977, 1980) came to recognize the overwhelming power of our psychological conditioning in childhood by family, class, and culture--all of which constitute for us a kind of "predestination" he concluded.  Nevertheless, Sartre continued to believe that, to the extent that we remain human, capable of the complex symboling processes entailed in minding and selfing, we retain an "I" in addition to a "me"--a degree of subjective freedom to reflect upon our conditioned selves and in this way purchase some degree of liberating distance from them.  Such emancipatory self-reflection is, after all, what clinical psychoanalysis is all about.  

It must be emphasized that in all this insistence upon man's symboling functions, his freedom from instinct and from mechanical determinism (insofar as his action rather than his material reality or rudimentary reflexes is concerned), there is no attempt to deny the fact of the human body, its natural appetites and functions, or the fact that man is subjected to various happenings beyond his control and various conditions which severely limit his positive or practical freedom to realize his wishes. Man's finitude, creatureliness and mortality are inescapable aspects of his being and even his very subjectivity is conditioned by psychosocial forces that shape his very definition of the situation within which he must act. But the fact remains that as a human being, as Homo Sapiens or animal symbolicum, as being-for-itself (pour-soi) at the same time as he is immersed in being-in-itself (en-soi), man is "condemned to be free" (Sartre, 1946, p.34), at least in the limited sense that as long as his nihilating consciousness is not eliminated or subjected to control through physical or chemical techniques (which, in effect, render him a thing rather than a person), he retains that minimal degree of psychological freedom to refuse at whatever cost and to "make something out of what is made of him" (Sartre, 1969, p.45), if only by reflecting upon and choosing his attitude toward this.

Freud's Centaur Model of Human Nature:
An Existentialist Critique

According to Erikson (1950), Freud presents us with a centaur model of human nature: 

The id Freud considered to be the oldest province of the mind, both in individual terms--for he held the young baby to be "all id"--and in phylogenetic terms, for the id is the deposition in us of the whole of evolutionary history. The id is everything that is left of our organization of the responses of the amoeba and of the impulses of the ape, of the blind spasms of our intra-uterine existence, and of the needs of our postnatal days--everything which would make us "mere creatures." The name "id," of course, designates the assumption that the "ego" finds itself attached to this impersonal, this bestial layer like the centaur to his equestrian underpinnings: only that the ego considers such a combination a danger and an imposition, whereas the centaur makes the most of it (p.192).

While agreeing with Erikson's characterization, Guntrip (1971) regards the theory as "astonishing and unrealistic, in its assumption that human nature is made up, by evolutionary `layering,' of an ineradicable dualism of two mutually hostile elements" (p.50). He takes the seeming plausibility of the centaur model as evidence both of "how far back in history human beings have suffered from split-ego conditions" (p.51) and of "how tremendous has been the struggle to disentangle the two elements in Freud's original thought, the physiological and biological impersonal-process theory of id-drives and superego controls, and the personal object-relational thinking that has always been struggling to break free and move on to a new and more adequate conceptualization of human beings in their personal life" (pp. 51-2).

Freud's centaur model is certainly "astonishing and unrealistic " in its conception of human nature as divided between a human ego/superego harnessed to a bestial id and in its misconception of human destructiveness and evil as manifestations of the beast in man. For, ironically, the beasts are never really beastly, only humans are. Humanity's (and Freud's) indictment of the beasts is a classic case of projection. 

Yet Freud's very dualism, his depiction of the human being as a fundamentally divided self, accounts for the power and the enduring validity of the psychoanalytic vision of the human condition. For Freud's (1923, 1931) depiction of human beings as caught between the forces of culture (ego/superego) and of nature (id) approximates an existentialist understanding that while fundamentally "de-natured" as free subjects through our possession of reason, morality and symbolic self-consciousness unknown in other species, we are at the same time immersed in nature by our physical existence as objects and our biological being as animals destined to die--but unlike other animals in possession of minds that know this.

In suggesting that this dualism is not existential, that is, not an intrinsic feature of what it is to be human, but results instead from an historical fall into "split-ego conditions," Guntrip echoes Heidegger's fateful mistake in historicizing the subject/object split. In so positing a human condition prior to or beyond this split—that is, beyond “the fall of man” into dualism—these thinkers embrace a romanticism that led, in Heidegger’s case, to Nazism. In Guntrip’s case it led to a kind of therapeutic romanticism in which the omnipotent therapist could, through heroic measures, redeem even the most broken, schizoid and schizophrenic patients, much as Jesus resurrected Lazarus from the dead. In reality, the subject-object split represents no historical fall at all: it is existential, a characteristic of human consciousness as such, a contradiction at the core of human being-in-the-world, a kind of “brokenness” that is a part of what it is to be a human being in all times, all places, all cultures. As fashionable as it is in philosophical circles to dismiss such dualism as fallacy it is, on the contrary, simply true--as both Kierkegaard and Sartre fully understood. We are beings caught between the infinite and the finite, possibility and necessity, culture and nature, the ideal and the material, mind (psyche, soul and spirit) and body, being-for-itself and being-in-itself. Freud's centaur model approximates this existential (not historical) split and this is its truth and its strength. As Ernest Becker (1973) might put it, we are spiritual beings who have to shit and to die--and we know it.

Here we see a fundamental division within existential philosophy itself, between those who, following Heidegger (1927), view existentialism as a critique of and an attempt to transcend both subject/object and mind/body dualism, and those who, following Kierkegaard and Sartre, find in such dualism the key to an existentialist understanding of the human predicament. For existentialists of the latter school, where Freud went wrong was not in conceiving humans as divided beings, but in his misconception of the nature and origin of human passions. Misconceiving them as biologically grounded drives he obscured their true nature as responses to the crucifying contradictions (subject/object, mind/body) of the human condition. Human passions arise not from the animal element of human nature, but from the fact that human beings are not merely animals or objects, and not merely minds or free subjects either, but always both. 

Though Freud (1911) knew the human trieb is not equivalent to animal instinkt, its aims and objects being acquired and environmentally influenced and not biologically fixed, he insisted it arises from a somatic source. And, for Freud, this source is not the brain, but a somatic zone of the body. In this way, Freud biologizes and naturalizes human passion, representing it as arising ultimately from biology rather than from human existence--that is, from our being as self-conscious, future-oriented creatures struggling with the existential anxiety arising from our awareness of both freedom and death. Beyond such existential anxiety, and the existential guilt arising from its evasion, lie the neurotic anxieties and guilt feelings with which psychoanalysts are more familiar.

As Lacan (1977) recognized (without disturbing his claim to represent a return to Freud by explicitly criticizing the master), Freud confused human desire with organic need. While we certainly share organic or biological needs with other animal species, this is not what psychoanalysis is about. It is about human desire which, as many philosophers have rightly understood, emerges from a sense of lack. The emergence of symbolic consciousness in the human child, a process in which the child begins to ex-ist (existere: to step or stand out), entails both self-consciousness and the dialectic of being and nothingness: the awareness of self entails recognition of what the self is not. "Man is the being by whom nothingness comes into the world," Sartre (1943) writes. Human consciousness is doubly nihilating he explains: in order to know this cup I must know (1) that I am not the cup and (2) that the cup is not the table upon which it rests. In thus separating or distinguishing subject and object, I "secrete a nothingness" between them--and I do the same thing in distinguishing object from object. In so bringing nothingness (gaps, lacks, cracks, splits, distinctions, differences, boundaries and limits) into the world, I encounter what Lacan describes as my manque-a-etre: my lack of being. And it is out of this lack that my desire emerges.

Just as Lacan never overtly criticizes Freud (while radically revising him), so he never acknowledges Sartre (while thoroughly assimilating and appropriating his insights). What Lacan valuably adds to Sartre is the recognition of the semiotic basis of the existential facts described in Sartre's phenomenological ontology. Human beings bring nothingness into the world because we are symboling beings and symbolization not only requires recognition of the difference between signifier (the arbitrary sign that stands for the thing) and signified (the mental concept of the thing), but also the difference between the signified (the concept of the thing) and the thing-in-itself (the so-called ding-an-sich existing in the Real beyond both conceptualization and signification). It is for these reasons that human consciousness is doubly nihilating, as Sartre claims. Furthermore, as symboling and time-binding beings we exist in perpetual dialogue with that which does not empirically exist: yesterday (which leaves traces but exists no longer) and tomorrow (which does not exist yet).

In these ways, our experience is pervaded by difference, absence, nothingness, gap and lack. It is the emergence of human consciousness into this field of negation that Kristeva describes as "abjection"--the opening up of a metaphoricial wound that, in health at least, bleeds perpetually, or of a loss which can, and must not ever, be finally mourned.

But to make the point exclusively in this mournful way, making human consciousness all about absence and loss, results in what I have called "melancholic existentialism" (Carveth, 2004). Its insights need to be complemented with awareness that the gap between subject and object makes possible not only the loss of the object but of true communion with it as other. In this way, nothingness opens us up to love, connection and jouissance, as much as to loss and sorrow. The human passions, broadly categorized as sexuality and aggression, that Freud misconceived as arising from biological sources in reality emerge from the contradictions of human existence, the desire that emerges from lack, and the longing, aggression and defensive strategies that emerge in the face of the anxieties of freedom and of death.


The Melancholic Existentialism of Ernest Becker

Free Associations Vol. 11, Part 3, No. 59 (2004): 422-29.




Critical Dialogue About Terror Management Theory


Critic: I disagree about the limitations of Becker’s one sided view of life. Yes Becker sees terror everywhere and you argue he leaves no room for those who have come to terms with the rules of existence and go on to lead fairly happy lives despite full knowledge of how it all ends. Becker claims they distract themselves; you I think, claim they have accepted reality and moved through it into genuine happiness.

Life is like living in a house on fire. We can smell the smoke, feel the heat building, sense the flames—we might party on for a while despite the encroaching destruction, but it never leaves us that the end is near. I fear there is only one side to life—and knowing it we grab as many distractions as we can find. Some of us might even roast marshmallows as the house burns. But we are always slightly terror-filled by this conundrum given us by evolution. What else can we really do but hope for something after death even if it is just molecular reorganization. Or we default to cosmic heroism which is a very poor second best.

Carveth: I just don’t agree. I think this ideology that makes everything a defence against death anxiety sometimes functions as a defence against neurotic anxiety stemming from other sources, such as unconscious guilt. In other words, I think the theory “existentializes” or universalizes what may often be a very personal anxiety state that might be relieved by personal analysis. I think some folks would rather justify their anxiety by calling it the human condition, the universal anxiety of death, etc., etc., rather than facing their need for psychoanalysis to get at the real roots of their chronic anxiety, instead of rationalizing it.

I think people who have come to terms with their conscience and made substantial progress to resolving other neurotic conflicts and have acquired the capacity to give and receive love are sometimes able to accept the natural ending of life; they have been able to lead relatively fulfilled lives and are tired and willing and able to say goodbye—just as, if we are not too greedy, after a very satisfying meal we are happy to push away from the table.

Critic: Part of our satisfaction with the scrumptious meal is the knowledge that we will eat another one again. Tell a man that was his last meal and I’m not so sure he ends his repast with a smile. I think the point of the Becker’s book is very much to existentialize the denial of death, to affirm that this is a universal experience. It lurks in all of us. This is our base anxiety. As we become aware of its effect on us, we can more adeptly analyze our immortality projects—both personal and cultural. Make less stressful choices.

I think very early in life we all become worried.  I have never met a child who is not fearful. Teenagers are nothing but anxiety. Many early adults self-medicate with lifestyle and fret over what to do with their lives (time is short already).  Middle age is a time of regrets. Seniors expatiate relentlessly on physical decay and illness. This all seems to reinforce Becker’s point. Underneath it all we are sweating death constantly.

Again, his point I think, is that the first step towards a healthier outlook is to recognize this preoccupation. Talk about it, watch for its influence and mitigate its effects with conscious choices. Or believe in an afterlife.

Perhaps you and Becker are not that far apart. I just feel that all of us start from a place of terror. This is a natural phenomenon. We become aware of death early and this fear runs the show. I don’t think anyone starts life secure and happy. Yes, individually we can work towards the state of mind you describe but the only ones who seem to genuinely get there are the religious—those who have convinced themselves there is an afterlife. But by then we are right back to diversions and distractions, so what’s the fun in that.

Munch’s “The Scream” sums it up for me. Must have also been important to Munch as he painted it four times. Did you know this painting sold for $120,000,000? Talk about the value of symbols to the human experience and the need to hook yourself to an immortal construct.Leon Black, the purchaser, I would postulate is very much in denial.

Carveth: Research conducted in connection with Terror Management Theory has provided a good deal of support for the idea of the defensive function of belief systems and it's good to have this. But belief systems defend against a range of anxieties. I just object to the privileging of death anxiety as the Ur anxiety in Terror Management Theory. I think this type of reductionism, this sort of "master theory," is very appealing to people, especially since it saves them the time and trouble involved in seeking deeper self knowledge.



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