July 19, 2017

The Denial of Death


At the end of the last thread, jjarden posted the following article:


It resonated with me quite strongly, because it describes the life I have been leading since I left the US. I had no real family or community there, just found it a loveless and alienating place. Here in Mexico, I have 2 families in 2 cities, with real emotional and spiritual connections. I truly love them, and vice versa. The other thing mentioned in the article that's a plus is that the gov't here is not bothering you all the time, meddling in your affairs. For whatever reason, the philosophy is one of live and let live, and the 3 times cops pulled me over for speeding, for example, they were exceedingly polite. You just don't feel harassed, let alone live in terror that you'll be pulled over and shot--an increasingly familiar phenomenon in the US.

I've been rereading a book I 1st read many years ago, "The Denial of Death," by Ernest Becker. His argument is that we take on symbolic 'immortality projects'--for example, the American Dream--in order to hide from our mortality; to deny death. This project gives people the feeling that there is meaning in their lives. But because the project is essentially arbitrary, and sits on a volcano (the fear of death), it is endowed with a kind of ferocity. He thus writes that we "wheel and deal in an idiot frenzy"--a perfect description of hustling America. All of this, he says, explains the phenomenon of depression. People start to feel that their immortality project is false, that they've been sold a bill of goods; or they feel that they cannot be successful, be a 'hero', in terms of that immortality project. (I would add, they can probably feel both emotions at the same time.) The result is that they are reminded of their mortality, and their feelings of worthlessness.

This goes a long way to explaining Trump--an illusory life-raft against the collapse of the American Dream, the promise to restore it--and also, the genocide we visit on other peoples, and the rage we see at home. Police are mowing down unarmed civilians at an alarming rate, and civilians are mowing down each other. The degree of all this was dramatically lower 20 years ago. At that time, it would be unthinkable that someone would be so offended at an oversight of not receiving bacon on their cheeseburger, that they would return to McDonald's with a machine gun and hose the place down. This would seem to be the stuff of (surreal) comedy, yet it happens all the time. Americans are depressed, bitter, and spiritually lost as a result of their immortality project having failed them--or of them, having failed it--and are going over the top on a daily basis as a result. (The stats: there is now more than one massacre a day in the US, now, defined as the killing and/or maiming of 4 or more individuals.) We are, to quote Dylan Thomas, raging against the dying of the light. There are of course better ways of reacting to our individual and national decline, but neither the country nor its inhabitants are likely to find them. All we have ever known, in America, is blind impulse, and all indications are that that is not going to change.