Reading Ernest Becker in 2011

Dan Liechty | August 1, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

Recently a person contacted me to say that he had read Ernest Becker’s 1974 book, The Denial of Death, and felt that it was more or less entirely worthless because what Becker wrote about homosexuality was outdated and wrong. I have heard similar strong criticisms of Becker’s work because he failed to directly criticize patriarchy and his language follows the style of using male pronouns. We do, of course, always have to be willing to criticize (that is, read critically) authors of earlier times. But I am not sure it is fair or just (or good scholarship) to dismiss an author because he or she reflects in specific instances the standards and assumptions of his or her own time rather than out own. I have no idea what the standards and assumptions will be 50 or 100 years from now, but I am sure that my current writing will violate something. I hope the readers of the future, if they be kind enough then to still read anything I have written, will do so with grace and a critical eye. Anyway, here is what I wrote in reply to this gentleman:

“I am sympathetic with you for what you went through in coming to terms with your sexual orientation during a time [1970s] in which homosexuality was still extremely taboo in this country. I have heard personal stories about this struggle from a number of close friends. I can only say that I respect you for what you went through and for bearing the brunt of the social prejudices, opening the doors so that it is at least somewhat easier for the current generation of adolescents and young adults.

You are, of course, absolutely correct that Ernest Becker was a human being, a man of his time, and despite his insights into certain aspects of the human situation, his thinking in a number of areas was not particularly progressive. It would be a tragic mistake to approach any of Becker’s texts as some sort of fixed scriptural cannon from which only pearls of truth and wisdom magically emerge. His texts also are only all too human.

Therefore, we can and must simply jettison and ignore what Becker wrote about particular religious, social and political issues of his time, including especially his few statements about women and homosexuality (which, while not particularly progressive to our ears, were actually much less patriarchal and homophobic than much of what was in the literature of that time.) That said, many of us have found key aspects of Becker’s work (most specifically, the death anxiety thesis) that continue to be very useful in constructing a more liberated ethic and philosophy in our time. It helps us understand at a deep level the ins and outs of human motivation, both at an individual and collective level. It lends itself well to explicating dynamics of transference, idolization, scapegoating, alienation, disgust, and many more, tying these various dynamics together and showing that they spring from a common source.

That hermeneutic continues to keep Becker’s work fresh. For example, while what Becker wrote about homosexuality fairly well followed the standard line of established psychoanalytic theory of the 1960s, might it not be that the death anxiety thesis does contribute to understanding some of the key human dynamics involved in the social ostracism of sexual minorities during the 1970s (and, unfortunately, ongoing into our own time, though hopefully that prejudicial ostracism is abating)?

Perhaps, given your experience with Becker’s text 40 years ago it is impossible to approach this work with anything but contempt. That is certainly understandable. At the same time, as said, many of us have found the death anxiety thesis to be of continuing value, and that by standing on Becker’s shoulders (so to speak) we can see much farther than Becker ever could or than we could without him.”

3 Comments

  1. Great post, Normal Dan! (BTW, great to meet you at the EBF Summer Institute). I couldn’t agree with you more. There are countless examples of philosophers and other thinkers who—due to either the prevailing views of the times in which they wrote, or due to personal foibles—wrote things that were shocking given our current sensibilities (or even the sensibilities of their own time). Schopenhauer’s florid misogyny, for example, led him to say that women were “inferior in every respect” to men, and were useful only for “propagation of the species.” But much of Schopenhauer’s other writing is insightful and profound, and to reject all of Schopenhauer because of his reprehensible misogyny is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    Schopenhauer had a substantial effect on the thinking of Wagner, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Conrad, Proust, and many other writers and thinkers. While all of them probably found some of Schopenhauer’s thinking wrongheaded, they nonetheless profited greatly from reading him. So, Normal Dan, I like your response to the person who questioned Becker’s statements on homosexuality. Becker’s works, I believe, will continue to have an increasing impact in the marketplace of ideas, and it is asking too much of a thinker to conform to all of our sensibilities. I have never encountered a thinker with whom I have not strongly disagreed on at least some points, and I hope I never do!

    Phil Hansten

  2. Says Becker about homosexuality:

    “In fact, we might say that the pervert [and he is talking specifically the homosexual] represents a striving for individuality precisely because he does not feel individual at all and has little power to sustain an identity. Perversions represent an impoverished and ludicrous claim for a sharply defined personality by those least equipped by their early developmental training to exercise such a claim. If, as Rank says, perversions are a striving for freedom, we must add that they usually represent strivings by those least equipped to be able to stand freedom. They flee the species slavery not out of strength but out of weakness, an inabliity to support the purely animal side of their nature.”

    Becker was indeed a man of his time,and of course we can’t “jettison” the profound insights he reveals. He was, after all, just a man (and it is Becker who tells us what that phrase, “just a man,” really means, its import). We’d do him a disservice to find him infallible. He’d chide anyone who insists on making his, Becker’s, thought sacrosanct, beyond criticism. Having said this, though, I can’t imagine any serious intellectual inquiry of Becker’s time being more homophobic than what Becker says about homosexuals [“impoverished and ludicrous”]. The above is grim. I’d hate to read the more scathing stuff.

    Bruce

  3. It should be noted that there are scholars around who still share Becker’s views in our day and age. We cannot simply assume that Becker would have succumbed to the newer mainstream views on sexuality if he had lived long enough. Like Rene Girard, much of Becker’s genius has to do with his non-conformance to academic peer pressure and “popular” views on psychology, ethics and the like. To suggest that Becker is invalidated in any view by his views on these matters is ludicrous. To try and redeem him by suggesting that he would have changed his views if he had shared in our phenomenal post-2000 wisdom is equally ludicrous.

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