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COVID-19 and the Denial of Death: Part I

Scrolling through Twitter on the third day of quarantine during a COVID-19 infection didn’t feel much different from any other day, but perhaps it should have. Three and a half years of following so-called “COVID-cautious” scientists and activists meant that, as usual, my feed was full of news about the growing medical consensus around the possible long-term harms of even a single infection, and about the inadequacies of our public health response to the virus, and about the stubborn disdain for masking among the public. This was nothing I hadn’t read before. But after three and a half years avoiding it, COVID was no longer a hypothetical in my mind, it was a virus in my body that might have been planning to go gently or might still end up hanging around to wreak havoc at some unspecified date in the future.

 

It was, I suppose, mildly uncomfortable to sit with the fact that I may have consigned myself to any one of the panoply of long-term symptoms known as Long COVID, or increased my risk for a heart attack or stroke. But perhaps the simple routine of my media consumption meant I wasn’t really facing these facts head-on. Of course, I was vaccinated and boosted when finally infected, and I have health insurance and access to quality medical care, which marks me as much more fortunate than many of the 75 percent or so of Americans estimated to have been infected by COVID-19 at this point. Yet sitting there quarantined in my bedroom, I still wondered about the virus circulating in my body, and about my own mortality, and why it seemed like efforts at masking, cleaning the air, and promoting vaccination had all sort of fallen by the wayside. Well over a million Americans had died, thousands were still dying every week, and yet most people seemed to only care about returning to “normal.” When it came to COVID-19, had we simply started denying death?


This notion comes from Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, published fifty years ago in 1973. The book was highly influential in its time, winning the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1974 and showing up in places like Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. But oddly enough, at a time when many millions across the globe have died from a completely new virus for which there still is no cure, we don’t seem to talk much about Ernest Becker anymore.

 

Becker was born in 1924 to a Jewish family in Springfield, Massachusetts. He served in World War II—even helping to liberate a Nazi concentration camp—and after some time working at the US Embassy in Paris, received a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Syracuse University. Becker took his first academic post teaching cultural anthropology in the Psychiatry Department at Syracuse’s Upstate Medical Center, but clashed with the administration over his increasingly vocal criticisms of psychiatric medicine. He moved west and found himself at odds with the administration of several subsequent academic institutions before landing at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. There, while suffering from colon cancer, he published The Denial of Death. He died in March of 1974 at age 49, and was awarded his Pulitzer posthumously.   

 

Becker described his book as “a study in harmonization of the Babel of views on man and on the human condition,” undertaken, he put it, “in the belief that the time is ripe for a synthesis that covers the best thought in many fields, from the human sciences to religion.” Despite this nod to interdisciplinarity, his understanding of the meaning of life and death was most often filtered through a psychological lens. He sought to reconcile Freudian and post-Freudian psychology, and to read existential philosophy from a psychoanalytic perspective. Becker was as comfortable working through Kierkegaard and Heidegger as he was summing up lesser known psychologists like Otto Rank, from whom he derived significant inspiration. And he was also not above some philosophical score-settling with contemporaries like Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse when he believed them to be wrong-headed.


Becker aimed to put the fear of death firmly at the center of human psychology, in the process reducing the central role previously played by sexual desire in standard Freudian notions of the psyche. In Becker’s telling, each of us desired to achieve a kind of heroism in life, to be the main character as it were, and to an extent this amount of narcissism was part and parcel of any sense of self-worth. But the stark reality of our own mortality was constantly at odds with our sense of our own significance. Like all other animals, every human dies, but we alone were uniquely cognizant of this fact. As Becker wrote, “Man is literally split in two: 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.”

 

This, then, was what Becker called—borrowing from William James—the “worm at the core” of human existence. And it was this tension, this paradox, that drove most of human culture: “everything that man does in his symbolic world is an attempt to deny and overcome his grotesque fate. He literally drives himself into a blind obliviousness with social games, psychological tricks, personal preoccupations so far removed from the reality of his situation that they are forms of madness—agreed madness, shared madness, disguised and dignified

madness, but madness all the same.”

 

Of course, just as with other Freudian forms of repression, repressing our fear of death could have positive outcomes, resulting in creativity and kindness. Extending one’s self into the future through the creation of a family, or by doing good deeds, or producing artwork, could make all of us feel as though we would in some way live forever. Becker argued that we still tended to engage in what Freud called “transference,” which he re-envisioned as a means of shifting one’s inner fear of death onto an object out in the world because the reality of it was too stark to bear. But this transference could be healthy, it could be “a reflex of the urge to heroism and self-unfolding.” Religion could also still play a productive role in salving this death anxiety, though Becker argued that its impact was receding as young people in the West became increasingly secular. At the same time, it was clear to Becker that none of these things could actually solve the psychological problem of mortality. They were merely temporary fixes. Take, for instance, the work of art: “Like any material achievement it is visible, earthly, impermanent. No matter how great it is it still pales in some ways next to the transcending majesty of nature; and so it is ambiguous, hardly a solid immortality symbol.”

 

Yet the larger problem for modern culture was that our terror at our own mortality could be repressed in a variety of harmful, maladaptive ways as well. Modern life tended to rob us of even the chance to act heroically, but it offered increasing opportunities to transfer our fears of death onto charismatic leaders, submit to groupthink, and become hostile towards outsiders. Becker explained that such group members “do not feel they are alone with their smallness and helplessness, as they have the powers of the hero-leader with whom they are identified. Natural narcissism—the feeling that the person next to you will die, not you—is reinforced by trusting dependence on the leader’s power.” We can see the links here to fascism, ethno-nationalism, and authoritarian movements of all sorts. “People use their leaders almost as an excuse. When they give in to the leader’s commands, they can always reserve the feeling that these commands are alien to them, that they are the leader’s responsibility, that the terrible acts they are committing are in his name and not theirs.” To Becker, it was clear that the denial of death had consequences rising well beyond individual-level neuroses and depression. It was a cultural phenomenon with potentially disastrous results.

 

Still, for those of us just trying to live our lives with some degree of normalcy as the pandemic drags on, it is worth pondering what specific lessons The Denial of Death might hold. And that goes double for those of us worried about what “normalcy” has come to mean in the wake of this disaster.


Timothy Recuber is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Smith College. He is the author of The Digital Departed: How We Face Death, Commemorate Life, and Chase Virtual Immortality (2023, New York University Press) and Consuming Catastrophe: Mass Culture in America’s Decade of Disaster (2016, Temple University Press). Contact him at trecuber@smith.edu or @timr100. 




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