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Surviving Death

Living and Dying

by Robert Jay Lifton, by Eric Olson
Praeger, 156 pp., $6.50

The Denial of Death

by Ernest Becker
The Free Press, 314 pp., $7.95


by Hilma Wolitzer
William Morrow, 223 pp., $6.95

Jewish Reflections on Death

edited by Rabbi Jack Riemer, with a foreword by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Schocken Books, 224 pp., $7.95 (to be published in January, 1975)

For some years now people have been saying that death is to us what sex was to the Victorians, suppressed as a topic in ordinary society, repressed as a future certainty by most people most of the time, something children should be shielded from, for they are not to be admitted to the bedside of the dying or allowed to see dead human bodies and they are told stories about death analogous to the stories that used to be told, perhaps still are told in prim circles, about gestation and birth. Death is now prettified out of existence by the relentless and mendacious undertaking industry, with its euphemisms (“casket,” “passed away,” “loved one”) and its painting and mummification of the corrupting body so that it may appear to be something else. After all, sexual repression hasn’t been abolished by frankness in talk, and it may be that the repression of the thought of death is not altogether separable from sexual repression. The interest we have in necrophilia, and the repugnance we at the same time have for it, are both evident. Stories about the English necrophile Christie, who strangled women in order to copulate with them, are eagerly read. So far as I know such acts have not yet been performed on the screen or mimicked in the theater, but my information may well not be up-to-date.

Despite their being banned from polite conversation death and dying are now forcing their way into public discussion. For this there are many reasons. I choose the following as perhaps the more important. There is the now established belief that the living rather than the dead are being exploited by the undertaking industry. Exposures of its practices are popular—Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death is the best known of these—and a critical attitude to undertakers blends with an increasingly admitted discontent with doctors and hospitals. These last have changed the whole setting and process of dying (as of birth) in recent years. Formerly we were born in the bed in which we were conceived and if we were lucky we died in it or in one like it, speaking so long as we were conscious with the friends and relatives round the bed, nourished at this final moment by the sacramental ordinances of a church, and having our eyes shut by those who were closest to us in life.

Men now begin to see that the loss of the old setting for death and the pattern of mourning that surrounded it has taken from us something that helped to reconcile the dying to their condition and rendered cathartic the grief of the living. Changes in medical technology and the emasculation or decay of traditional religion have combined to present us with a situation men are coming to find disquieting. Again, changes and discoveries in medicine have raised hard questions in moral casuistry. When is a man really dead? (Discussion of this has been forced by the demand for organs that are biologically viable with which to patch up the living.) If a man is dying anyway and can only be kept in existence, either in conscious misery or in merely vegetable life, through being attached to machines, ought we to strive officiously to keep him alive? Is there a moral distinction between deciding not to use antibiotics or mechanical respirators to keep the dying alive for a short and miserable time and giving a patient an injection that will end his life?

Finally, the phenomenon of death has in our time become bizarre. Auschwitz and Treblinka, Kolyma and Vorkuta, Dresden and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these are names that represent terrible, uncanny realities that are nevertheless unbelievable and inconceivable. They raise perplexing questions about the nature of our time, questions that are at the same time about death and its meaning—or its absurdity—for us.

To fear death and to be saddened by the deaths of others, there is nothing strange here. Such attitudes are universal. In Judaism and Christianity death is an enemy, a sign of a mysterious estrangement of man from God, even though it may be met piously and in hope. Philosophy cannot take away the terror of death. “Death is not an event in life; death is not lived through,” said Wittgenstein. Hamlet and Claudio (see Measure for Measure, III, i) would not have failed to see the point of the remark, but seeing it would not have removed for them death’s mystery and dread. About the deaths of others we sometimes seem to feel differently, especially about such deaths as are attended with great suffering, and we may even say (or, if we no longer say it, we see its point): Those whom the gods love die young.

All the same, it seems easy for some to put death out of the upper reaches of the mind. Dr. Kübler-Ross, whose magnificent pioneering work in American hospitals is gradually shifting attitudes to the terminally ill receiving hospital care, conjectured, surely with justice, that the initial difficulties she came across in getting at such patients so that she might talk to them about their condition were signs of the failure of doctors and nurses to recognize the reality of death as it applied to themselves. To refuse to recognize in practice the fatal illness of a patient is to refuse to recognize in the patient the possibility of one’s own death.

A phobia about death looks like a problem for analysis. Now, two things are commonly taken for granted in our thinking about the soul (I use “soul” as the vernacular equivalent of psyche). Inner conflict is painful and we strive to overcome it, to find a position of rest and harmony. Of course, our strivings may bring about the opposite of what we want. The health of the soul is thought to rest upon the acceptance of the real, whereas sickness essentially goes with a refusal to accept reality, harsh and disagreeable as the real may often be. Thus, neurosis and psychosis spring from inner conflicts that the subject doesn’t recognize; and in principle the overcoming of the inner conflict comes about through the subject’s recognizing it for what it is (this means understanding its history, how it arose in the first place).

But how is it possible for so universal a topic as death, one which is about a great human certainty (all men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal, as the old logic books used to say), how is it possible for such a topic to be so deeply disturbing, to represent so evidently painful a conflict, to generate so many taboos, to be protected as sexual relations are by powerful rituals and tough institutions, rituals so powerful and institutions so tough that their weakening and absence are now felt to be grievous? Perhaps there are some obvious explanations to be looked at before we engage in any deep analysis of the problem. More people today, in Western societies, think that to die is to be annihilated. Our knowledge of the clinical process of dying in modern hospitals under controlled conditions tells us that our deaths may be lonely and unregarded; we naturally fear such an end.

And perhaps most of us who live in tranquility in Western societies are necessarily less familiar with death than our grandfathers were. In the nineteenth century young men and women died of tuberculosis, pneumonia was a great killer at all ages; above all, children died, and women in childbed. The present writer was fiftyeight years old before he was present at a deathbed. Death, hard to come to terms with in any case, since it means the end, in the case of men and women of mature years, of a vast and long-cherished project, becomes harder to imagine in a society in which it isn’t visible and seems something surgery and antibiotics enable us to put off indefinitely. We know perfectly well we shall die; and we know that our time has seen large-scale death of a kind without parallel in history. But perhaps such knowledge doesn’t cohere with our felt experience.

The little book by Lifton and Olson is a kind of pop guide to recent discussion of the topic of death. It is slapdash and superficial and doesn’t contain much hard argument. The following is a characteristic generalization.

Death has now become unacceptable because it is associated with images of absurd holocaust and annihilation and because our lives have become rootless and disconnected.

Rootless” is an interesting expression because it suggests at once two quite distinct ideas that nevertheless fuse: things that ought to have roots but don’t are, first, not nourished, and then liable to be blown away by the first strong wind. “Disconnected” isn’t so rich an idea, for it isn’t clear what we are disconnected from and why this is bad. I suspect that something like “incoherent” is meant, for the authors make much of the absence from our culture of generally recognized rites of passage from stage to stage of life and from life to death, something that is a consequence of the decline of institutional religion; we suffer from, in their infelicitous phrase, “psychohistorical dislocation.” But their study is very thin, and very careless, too. They actually argue that in Calvinism only the elect have “the right of immortality.” This is an ignorance so gross that I am sure the authors must know better. They can write such a sentence as this: “Many [Vietnam veterans] are haunted with guilt and disturbing memories of brutal atrocities of which they were a part.”

Ernest Becker’s book is quite another thing. It is an absorbing study of what psychoanalysis and closely related traditions have to say on the topic of death. It isn’t easy to summarize and two careful readings haven’t been enough for me to state with any confidence the essence of what Becker has to say. To call him eclectic as a theorist would convey the wrong impression. In the psychoanalytical tradition it is Otto Rank who has had the greatest influence on him; but perhaps the most important influence (of course, after Freud) is Kierkegaard, whose picture of “the Knight of faith” he finds sympathetic. He rejects the suburban optimism of many neo-Freudians and although he admires Norman O. Brown immensely he has no patience with the paradise of polymorphous pleasures. Life, for Becker, is a desperate business, in which a steady heroism before the terrors of existence is in general the only thing to be commended. The side of Freud he admires most is his grim honesty. He reminds us that Freud said that “he cured the miseries of the neurotic only to open up to him the normal misery of life.”

But what is the inner conflict from which the death phobia comes; and if we can isolate and understand the conflict, in what way can we recapitulate its origin so that we come out of the conflict and recognize the truth about ourselves and the world? Becker rejects the associated Oedipus and castration complexes as basic grounds for the fear of death. The trouble is deeper and comes from our fundamental situation as embodied intelligences.

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