One of my students recently posed an interesting question. Does Ernest Becker’s idea about the denial of mortality and death being at the root of human motivation apply equally to all humans everywhere? It has been said (by Phillip Reiff, I think, though I don’t have the exact quote at my fingertips) that each era has it own “pornography,” that topic which consumes major portions of the social energy suppressing, and yet it holds deep and unavoidable allure at the same time. Whatever that issue be in a given society, people will react to it like a moth to flame, repelled and in denial but at the same time drawn to it by irrational psychological forces that probably in large measure stem directly from the social taboo itself. For European Victorian society this was sexual eroticism, and therefore what Freud noticed and outlined in his sexual theory of psychology was not a human universal itself, but rather a psychology more or less specific to his time and place. In modern society (so the argument might go) the allure of sexuality has pretty much lost its unconscious psychological force. With endless and easy access to all kinds of sexual depiction through mass media of all kinds, our society’s problem is less one of controlling sexual obsession that it is simply maintaining adequate interest and arousal for a minimal level of sexual functioning. But clearly (as can be seen by random viewing of television and movies) the obsession of modern society is death and destruction. Therefore, what Becker so accurately diagnosed was not a human universal, but rather the “new pornography” of modern technological society.
There is certainly a lot that can be said for this point of view. After all, isn’t it true that even Becker somewhat idealized earlier and primitive societies for the fact that they exhibit much less death anxiety than our own?
In interaction with this point of view, I would say that Becker did not unduly idealize pre-modern societies or the people of these societies. But he did see that the problem of facing naked death anxiety was effectively ameliorated in such societies, compared to modern society, for the following
1. In general, pre-modern societies are relatively isolated and culturally homogenous, so that their cultural transcendence systems (that is, hero systems, religious narratives and teachings, and so on) were less likely to be directly challenged–everyone a person came in contact with on a daily basis basically saw the world in the same way, and thus reinforced the plausibility of that particular worldview. In modern technological society, high speed travel, large-scale immigration, and encompassing mass media work to inform society’s members of dozens, hundreds, of competing worldviews, thus presenting a fundamental and ongoing challenge to the unquestioned veracity of any one particular version. If, as Becker thought, our sense of ourselves as worthy people, engaged in worthy endeavors of transcending importance (that is, our worldview and our place as a valued person within it) acts as a buffer against naked mortality anxiety, then certainly we could say that this functioned better in earlier societies. This is not because their worldviews were more true or more accurate, but because their communications horizons were severely limited. (What, in modern society, is sectarian self-segregation but an attempt to (re)create conditions of limited communications horizons as a reinforcement of group worldview plausibility?)
2. Pre-modern societies, based on tribe, family and tradition (esp. oral tradition) produce less highly individuated people, hence less naked death anxiety for the individual. The more one is psychologized to the “group,” the less one needs to establish transcending meaning for life all alone. The more one individuates (has a sense of himself/herself as a separate individual with very personal desires and needs) the more one “stands alone” and is thus exposed to the anxiety of failure, an only lightly disguised form of death anxiety. Therefore, more highly individuated societies do have a higher burden of death anxiety as Becker depicted it.
3. Actual death is not hidden away in pre-modern societies. Children grow up seeing people die, yet also have the direct experience that life goes on. As this is reinforced in the integration of religious narratives and rituals in everyday life (tending to ancestors, etc.) it is very natural to maintain the worldview of life continuing on in some form after death. Modern societies do keep actual death hidden and out of sight for the most part–exchanging it for the highly stylized depictions of death of the mass media. This is clearly an aspect of the manifestation of death anxiety in modern society. Up-close and personal exposure to actual death are replaced by depictions of stylized, unreal death. And unreal death easily translates as “death is unreal.” But unconsciously the anxiety persists.
There is more that can be said, and I will come back to this in future blogs. For the time being, let me just conclude that this is not to say that people in pre-modern societies did not face death anxiety; only that the cultural buffers against its debilitating potential are relatively strong compared to modern societies. Modern societies can almost be described and characterized by their systematic, point-for-point undermining of the pre-modern cultural buffers against death anxiety-cultural– diversity (making particular transcendence narrative less plausible); high, even exaggerated, individuation (placing all of the burden of existence on the individual rather than the group); and increased reliance on professional expertise, which has the rather direct side effect of hiding the dying and dead away from children as they grow up (even the deaths of their pets and animals) and thus increasing its anxiety-provoking potential.
Therefore, if people in pre-modern societies experience less naked death anxiety than people of modern, technological societies, it is not because the people themselves were of a different makeup or psychology. It is because the cultural buffers of pre-modern societies work more efficiently, and pre-modern people are not subjected to the same challenges to their worldviews as are inherent to a modern cultural milieu.