An aspect of Ernest Becker’s work that has always intrigued me is his treatment of anality. In The Denial of Death he characterizes it as follows: “ … it reflects the dualism of man’s condition—his self and his body. The anus and its incomprehensible repulsive product represents not only physical determinism and boundness, but the fate as well of all that is physical: decay and death.” Later he states, “To say someone is ‘anal’ means someone is trying extra-hard to protect himself against the accidents of life and danger of death, trying to use the symbols of culture as a sure means of triumph over natural mystery, trying to pass himself off as anything but an animal.”
In reflecting on the symbols of culture it occurred to me that it might be instructive to examine the symbols associated with that most important of consumer products, toilet paper. Regarding our dual nature and death anxiety, toilet paper is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. When we do an internet image search of toilet paper, what do we find? My search uncovered a variety of symbols but they seem to cluster in a few groups. Babies are popular, as are a variety of cartoon animals, bear cubs and bunnies, butterflies and puppies. The famous big bear who does his business in the woods is conspicuously absent. Why are these images chosen? Newborns represent the opposite end of the temporal spectrum from death. They reflect life itself, specifically new life and regeneration, a transcendence of death. Denial is accomplished through counter symbolism. Psychologically it is similar to the tagline for my mother’s assisted living retirement community: A Sunrise Community. The bears and bunnies are not depicted realistically but rather as a form of unreality, colored pink or blue and sporting a big ole smile. Denial or repression is accomplished through fantasy. What are we to make of this? I’m not sure, but perhaps a little more time roughing it in the woods would be a good thing. An unexpected and interesting result of my search was the discovery of toilet paper used to smear political opponents, i.e. Bush, Obama, Osama bin Laden. Here, the connection between death anxiety and the annihilation of enemies is clear.
Finally, regarding the topic of anality and death denial I would like to recommend a short film that I use in my classes. It is only ten minutes long and readily available online. The title is Our Time Is Up and it tells the story of an anal psychotherapist whose imminent death changes his perspective. While the film plays fast and loose with therapeutic techniques, it nevertheless clearly shows the effects of death denial and the benefits of working through that denial. You can view it below.