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June 22, 2008

More on Ernest Becker

A few days ago, I related how my increasing focus on the importance of denial as an important human coping strategy had led me to cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, whom I’d never even heard of before. I’ve now had time to read about half of The Denial of Death, the work Becker completed while on his own death bed in 1973, one for which he is best known and received a 1974 Pulitzer prize.

I’ve now read enough of it to discover that although Becker and I had come to an almost identical conclusion about denial, namely that fear of death seems to play a major (and generally unacknowledged) role in human motivation, we got there from quite different points of departure, and by very different means. Another discovery was that Becker’s own short life provides evidence supporting another conclusion I've been closing in on: that the generation into which we are born plays an important role in shaping the constantly changing intellectual substrate of human history. Thus any understanding of how history itself has evolved is made even more difficult for reasons I will introduce toward the end of this entry and develop more fully at a later date.

To return to Becker, the subject of denial, and how he and I differ: he turns out to be a Freudian maverick who was also heavily influenced by some maverick Nineteenth Century philosophers as well. Although Becker makes frequent use of the terms clinical and science, he does not employ them the way I would, and although we were born less than a decade apart, his military service in World War Two, his early death in 1973, the flowering of his academic career during the tumultuous Sixties, would have, if considered in conjunction with my own late-bloomer chronology, served to focus us on two very different eras. For him, it was clearly the first half of the Twentieth Century; for me, it's been the second half plus the first decade of this one. The critical dividing line of the Sixties played an important role for both of us: Becker career was directly affected in ways he never had an opportunity to either process or respond to. On the other hand, I've had almost forty years to catch up with the Sixties and a unique opportunity to debrief the casualties of Nixon's drug war. That said, some of Becker’s penetrating insights are timeless and stated in such arresting prose that I can readily understand why they caught and held the attention of a cluster of influential contemporaries who have been subsequently moved to create a foundation honoring his work that, even as this is written, is preparing to meet in Seattle to continue discussing his influence.

As for me, although I’ve only just discovered Becker (and learned he was a colleague of Thomas Szasz at Syracuse), I consider his early death a tragedy. I’m also reasonably sure he’d find his modern adulation somewhat distracting and find myself wondering instead, what more he might have contributed if he’d been blessed with Szaszian longevity. How would such a gifted intellect have adapted to the modern information age? What would be his present take on the Sixties? What he have thought about the DSM and the current pharmaceutical management of anxiety? They are but a few of the questions for which, sadly, we’ll never have Becker's answers.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at June 22, 2008 09:23 PM