Death Denial Is Death Drive
On Alex Ebert’s “A Void Dance” and how denying death is to embrace the death drive, while accepting death denies the death drive.
A VOID DANCE
A virus that consumes its host. A cancerous plague. The human-virus equivalency, let's call it. Most popularly…
In “A Void Dance,” Alex Ebert recently made an interesting elaboration on the comparison of humanity with a virus. This is a comparison we’ve probably heard before, but Ebert adds a new twist on the idea that should be focused on:
“Apoptosis” means “dropping off” in Greek, referring to the natural process of leaves falling from trees in winter. In multicellular biology it refers to the immuno-regenerative process of discarding damaged cells. Apoptosis is what keeps multicellular organisms healthy and regenerative — specifically, it is the process of programmed cell death. It puts the “re” in regeneration.
So what? What does this have to do with the human-virus equivalency?
Cancer cells avoid apoptosis.
That’s right. They avoid programmed cell death. That’s what makes them cancerous. Instead of integrating death for the good of the whole, cancer cells avoid apoptosis, self-replicate — and destroy the whole. The cancer cell refuses to integrate death.
I’m sure you now see where this is headed. But don’t let me convince you — convince yourself. Does mainstream culture exhibit an avoidance of its own mortality?
When humanity fails to accept death, it becomes a force of death. It is a good thing that cells are alive in us; if they weren’t, we’d be dead. But there is a ditch on either side of the road: if the “will to live” is out of balance with an “acceptance of death,” then the “will to live” becomes “a will to kill.” Life without death is a drive for death. Alex Ebert captures this point well:
If this avoidance theory is correct, our psychological avoidance of death would itself be responsible for our unconscious drive towards it. This, in turn, would mean that the death drive, which was previously thought to be a phenomenon intrinsic to life, may actually be a classically Jungian example of neurosis — a neurosis caused by avoiding our mortality to begin with.
What a tremendous irony it would be if avoiding our mortality posed the gravest threat to our collective survival.
(Please note that the paradoxical truth that “a denial of death causes a death drive” suggests that we are ontologically A/B versus A/A, but that will have to be expanded on later).
Up to a point, it’s a good thing that humanity doesn’t want to die (personally, I like being here). Because we have wanted to eradicate death, we have tried to build societies that extend life expectancy, that make medicine available, that stop violence, and so on. To some degree, the drive to live has proven wonderful, but it seems there is a line that can be crossed, causing tremendous trouble.¹
The logic Mr. Ebert employs could be applied to many areas. If we don’t learn to accept “a death of status,” then though it’s alright and even good to incur status and influence up to a point, there comes a time where we need to let that status and influence wane; otherwise, “status anxiety” destroys us and we become like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.² If we don’t learn to accept a death of our skills, then we become the old person still working a job that we were once the best in, holding back the group and failing to make room for new blood to step in and play a roll. If we can’t accept our scientific thesis being disproven, then we become the scientist who slips in “pseudo-science” in our effort to “keep alive” our life’s work. If we can’t accept modernity and Pluralism, we can become religious fundamentalists. And so on.
The very drive that has helped society advance and increased the overall economic quality of life for the average person (following the work of Deirdre McCloskey) is the very drive that can mutate into a “death drive” if we fail to manage it (along the way) with an acceptance of death. Our brains are frenemies that make thinking possible while simultaneously making thinking so hard, and our brains naturally want a “single answer” (something A/A). We want to think “life drives” are over here and “death drives” over there, and as long as we stay on the “life drive”-side, we’ll be good to go: the idea that a “life drive” can eventually become a “death drive” messes everything up. That means we must be aware, paying attention, agile, willing to move — numerous characteristics our “minds” naturally don’t want to worry about. Furthermore, up to the point where the “life drive” becomes a “death drive,” we’ll have a ton of (experiential) evidence that the “life drive” is the way to go. After all, we’ve reduced sickness and poverty — what do you mean we need to embrace death? If we did that, we’d still be back in the Stone Ages. And so we end up neurotic and cancerous…
Richard Dawkins famously coined the term “memes” to describe how ideas spread (elaborated on by Susan Blackmore), and Deirdre McCloskey basically argues that certain “memes” are critical for reducing global poverty. Using this language and following Ebert’s argument, humanity ceases to be “like a meme” and instead becomes “like a cancer” once we cease accepting death. No matter what happens, humanity seems that it has to be “like a virus,” but we decide with our relationship to death if that’s a good thing.³
Based on Pew Research, religion is in decline even if spirituality is somehow growing (as Charles Taylor argues in The Secular Age, elaborated on by James K.A. Smith).⁴ Religion was uniquely talented at blending “the will to live” with “the acceptance of death” by placing eternal life after death, and perhaps spirituality will one day prove just as talented (and it easily already does in some circles). But the point I want to focus on for a moment is how a waning of religion might in some ways be contributing to the transformation of humanity into a cancer by making it less likely people think about and accept death.⁵ On the flipside, religion corresponds also with strong societal “givens,” which “Belonging Again” argues corresponds with “the banality of evil” described by Hannah Arendt. Considering this, the decline of religion may reduce the likelihood that there ever arises another Nazi Germany, but the decline may simultaneously increase the likelihood that we fail to accept death and become cancerous. As with many things in life, a balance must be struck, a balance which our brains naturally hate having to strike.⁶
Religion classically could make death desirable, for one could enter into paradise. But not just any death at any time (depending on the tradition): for the immoral person to die was to risk Hell, and a person who committed suicide could also be denied Heaven. Death had to be natural or accidental. Given these conditions though, death wasn’t something to be feared; in fact, it could be something anticipates. Perhaps for us that’s taking things a little far — there’s a difference between “wanting death” and “accepting death” — and this disposition can contribute to religious fanaticism. But the point is that religions have generally had ways to make people more aware of death. Hinduism has pondered Saṃsāra, the Norse have found honor in Valhalla, while Christians and Jews have debated possibilities of rebirth, annihilation, and resurrection. No, the traditions have rarely agreed even with themselves about what happens after death, but at least they were death conscious in ways that even mitigate the fear of death. Not perfectly, no, but trying to accept death is better than not trying at all: reducing the “death drive” is better than letting it grow freely.
Buddhism has never accepted a notion of “the afterlife” like Christianity, but it too focused on habituating followers to be “unattached” to life in such a way that death was not something to fear. And this understanding of death was expanded to include other categories like the death of the ego, self, desires, and so on. As Alex Ebert recognizes, if we accept our natural death but not the death of our ego, then “the death drive” will consume our minds. Considering this, there are multiple areas where we must look to “embrace death” as to avoid becoming cancerous. We must accept the death of our egos, our status, our materiality, our ideologies — accepting our “natural death” is only one step of a whole process in which we need to integrate death into our whole beings. Even if we avoid becoming cancerous one way, we can still be cancerous in another.
Assuming religion continues collapsing, can spiritually fill the void by embracing the void? Certainly, it can for some people, but what about the majority? These are critical questions that spiritualists need to focus on that Alex Ebert has brought into focus. How can spirituality stop humanity from becoming cancerous? How can spiritually help us know how to integrate the “life drive” with death so as to avoid a “death drive?” These are questions I will leave open for another time.
I think a reason we can become cancerous is that we naturally hold the wrong ontological understanding of ourselves. Generally, we see ourselves as an “A is A,” when really we are a “ ‘A/(A-isn’t-A)’ is ‘A/(A-isn’t-A)’ (without B).” Okay, that’s a mouthful: let’s just stick with A/B for short (but if you want the argument for the extended formula, please do see the paper “On ‘A is A.’ ”). We are born naturally toward A/A, and most of us spend our whole lives living out our starting position. But if we do that, we become cancerous just like Ebert warns: we must transition. We must leave home if we are to have any hope of keeping it.⁷
What do I mean when I say humanity is A/B? Well, that’s the whole subject of (Re)constructing “A is A,” but for now just take it to mean that we all exist and yet don’t exist; we all understand the world by translating it into thoughts that don’t fully capture the world; we all naturally think we have selves that are our own making that are really emergent results of countless variables we can’t keep up with; and so on. To borrow language from Green Day, we’re all something like “walking contradictions” (full of tension, ironic, and so on). Worse yet, we’re “walking contradictions” who naturally believe we aren’t. We’re A/Bs who believe we’re A/As, causing trouble.
(Please also see “Reflections On ‘The Difference Between Neuroscience and Psychoanalysis’ by Cadell Last” for more.)
Religions have traditionally been masters of paradoxical tensions and practices that could help us be (“toward”) A/B, meaning they helped people “align their expectations” with their realities (making us “toward” A/B as we simultaneously were A/Bs). Jesus teaches that we must die to live, that the least will be first, that we must respond to aggression by turning the other cheek — a myriad of paradoxical practices, all which can help us be A/B (which, do note, is associated with being “holy,” which is perhaps the positive version of the counterfeit “coolness,” an A/A, that Ebert deconstructs). Even Socrates suggests that wisdom is found in accepting our profound ignorance, which is a strange inversion. In this way, the greatest sages and teachers seem to have understood the importance of A/B in our lives, a mantle modern spirituality will need to take up, I think.
Anyway, the very fact that humanity seems to devolve when we deny death suggests that we are ontologically A/B versus A/A, and that therefore we need to engage in practices that make us “toward” A/B if we are to get our act together. Again, religions seem to have understood that there is something “topsy-turvy” about human beings, and in this spirit, perhaps alluding to Hegel in the preference of The Phenomenology of Spirit, Guy Debord wrote that ‘[i]n a world which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false.’⁸
If humans are ontologically paradoxical somehow, then we need “paradoxical practices” to be attuned with our true/false selves (not “true,” not “false,” but a mixture of both). Ironically, the practices of “knowing ourselves” and “being ourselves” then are the very practices that can make us ‘out of joint’ (to allude to Hamlet). Alex Ebert discusses this in his presentation on “Dead Cool,” and there are examples in literature to support the position. Polonius tells Hamlet, for example, ‘to thine own self be true’ (not long before Hamlet kills Polonius, which has psychoanalytical significance), but it’s basically impossible for Hamlet to do this, because Hamlet is caught between the values of Christ and Achilles, an ethic which claims revenge is sin and an ethic which claims revenge is honorable. Hamlet is trapped in the middle of a Nietzschean “transvaluation of values”: the whole reason Hamlet is driven mad is because he’s trying to be true to himself but doesn’t have a stable self or “world” to even make that possible. Had Hamlet been more like Socrates (who the Oracle said was wise because he accepted ignorance), then perhaps Hamlet would have avoided his tragic fate.⁹
If humans are alive and only think about being alive, they are “toward” a being of A/A, but if while humans are alive they consider and accept death, they are “toward” a being of A/B. If humans with egos think about growing their egos, they are A/A; if humans use their egos to shrink their egos, humans are A/B. And so on. I think it was Walker Percy, a profound thinker on death, who once made the point that if everyone is standing on their heads, we have to look like we are standing on our heads to show people how to stand right-side up. In other words, if the world is A/A and believes that being such is to “have its stuff together,” then we need to be A/B and come off as “not having our stuff together” in order to show people how to be “in joint” with the nature of reality. This requires overcoming countless anxieties.
There is something paradoxical about pondering death while alive, a state of nonexistence while existing, but if humans are ontologically more A/B than A/A, for us to be “toward” A/B is for us to be orientated toward life in a way that actually resonates with who and what we really are in the fabric of our being. We are naturally toward A/A — we all start here — so we all must figure out when and how to transition to A/B. Religions and societies of the past had practices and rituals for this, as Alex Ebert notes:
From the Aboriginal Walkabout to the Native American Vision Quest to the Senegalese Kore to the Grecian Eleusinian Mysteries, existential initiations or “death initiations” were a near-ubiquitous feature of the cultures of antiquity. Part of becoming an adult or a realized person. Facing the void. Moving thru the bleakness of dissolution and living anyhow. Building a warm relationship to the unknown. Celebrating the beauty of transience. Integrating death.
Since the dawn of industrialization, existential initiations have gone conspicuously missing from culture.
Mr. Ebert is exactly right.¹⁰ Religions had practices and teachings for making us A/B, but what about us?
Hegel in The Phenomenology of Spirit (which arguably should be translated The Phenomenology of Mind) writes that in ‘the Absolute, the A = A […] all is one.’¹¹ Critically though, Hegel also writes
‘The realized purpose, or the existent actuality, is movement and unfolded becoming; but is just this unrest that is the self […]’¹²
A/A is an idea in the head of A/B-humans which humans are naturally “toward” but can never reach. Problematically, movement “toward” A/A is also structured into reality, which, since we can never get there, means increased neuroticism is embedded into the nature of history, given that we don’t figure out how to “accept the problem.”¹³
Just like Plato said about his “realm of forms,” the idea of A/A is perfect and unified, and so it is incredibly tempting. And the more we move through history, the more we feel like we finally can achieve A/A — a myth of ontological progress, even if there is some truth to the story of technological progress (though Neil Postman may disagree and want us to be a little more tragic). But we cannot achieve A/A, and we must accept that we cannot, or else we will become cancerous.¹⁴ In a sense, it’s a curse that we are capable of conceiving “Platonic forms,” but in another sense it’s wonderful, for that ability to think is why we are able to enjoy “the Great Enrichment” discussed by McCloskey. We wouldn’t be better off if we could only perceive, but why not must be expanded on throughout (Re)constructing “A is A.”
‘Death is not an event in life,’ we learn from Wittgenstein, but, considering our paradoxical ontology, we’re not an event in life either — trying to be has turned us into a cancer. Leopold Kohr summed up The Breakdown of Nations with the statement that ‘[w]henever something is wrong, something is too big.’¹⁵ Similarly, perhaps we could sum up Alex Ebert’s argument with the phrase “whenever something is neurotic, something is unwilling to die.”¹⁶ Like perhaps religions once did, could we make death desirable again? To start, perhaps we could point out that without death, life might not be precious, for it is the fact life will end that it matters to us. Well, can we make life matter? Only if we can learn to live without it.
Humanity is ‘the negative being who is only to the extent that he suppresses Being,’ but everything in us wants to Be and so isn’t.¹⁷ We must fight ourselves, and today we seem weaker than ever before to prevail. But even when all is lost, the realization “all is lost” can save us. It is in the lostness that we can be found.
¹Where is that line? Hard to say, and perhaps when life expectancy rose to over seventy, there were many people who viewed that as “unnatural” and “problematic.” I don’t know, but I personally have found the visions for overcoming “the sickness of death” proposed in Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari questionable. Perhaps I shouldn’t, but at the very least, I agree with Alex Ebert that if we don’t learn that “denying death” isn’t the answer, the chance of us avoiding a “death drive” will lessen. Perhaps, for example, we could overcome “natural death from age” with technology but simultaneously accept “the death of the ego,” and perhaps this will balance us out and avoid a “death drive?” I’m not sure.
²This is perhaps a perfect movie for examining the inability to accept “death” and how that then causes a “death drive.” The movie orbits around the transition from “silent films” to “films with sound,” and includes numerous cameos from the stars of the “silent film” era. Those who thrive can accept the change and their resulting loss of status, while those who can’t accept “the changing times” lose their minds (caught between ages like Hamlet is caught between ethics).
³I hope this section has highlighted the critical importance of “transitions” or what I call in The Conflict of Mind “flip moments.” We are born resisting death — our “life drive” is radically strong — and it’s that resistance that can prove to be extremely valuable and useful early on. But then at a certain point we have to “transition” and learn to “accept death,” and at this point it’s “as if” we were never flirting with a “death drive” but always striking the right balance. “Flip moments” seemingly reach back in time and transform the meaning of “always,” but what I mean by that is expanded on in the paper. Ultimately, this role of “transitions” needs to be acknowledged if there is any hope of us overcoming our natural orientation “toward” A/A into the healthy yet unnatural A/B.
⁴See “Attendance at Religious Services,” as can be found here:
⁵Nuance is needed here, for the ability of the “Prosperity Gospel” to help Christians accept death is probably less than the doctrine of Maximus the Confessor.
⁶Please note that if our brains naturally hate “balances” and the majority of the world is a democracy, since it’s probable that the majority won’t strike these “balances,” it is probable the majority of democracies will eventually become “cancerous” and implement “death drives.” This is a sobering thought.
⁷Albert Camus in mind, the fact we must “surrender” A/A into A/B can suggest why suicide is not a way to “accept death.” Suicide is to die: there’s nothing to accept. Suicide is an A/A seeking an A/A-answer in death versus outside of it: suicide is a mirror opposite to a “life drive” that only accepts life (and so becomes cancerous). To live as A/B well, we need to be in life “toward” that which “isn’t a thing in life” (as Wittgenstein put it) — death. If it was possible for us to be “in” death and “toward” life, we could be A/B that way (and who knows, perhaps we all die into some “Sunken Place”), but in this world, it is only possible for us to be “in” life and “toward” death (and so achieve A/B). Perhaps God is A/B because He loves us? Hard to say.
⁸Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Detroit, MI: Black & Red, 1983 and 2010: Section 9.
⁹Iago in Othello famously declares, ‘I am not what I am,’ while Paul in First Corinthians tells us that ‘by the Grace of God, I am what I am.’ Both of these individuals place the source of their identities outside of themselves, which suggests attunement with A/B. Now, Iago shows us that accepting A/B alone is not enough for living a good life, for he ends up a villainous traitor and seems to use his phrase to basically claim he is not responsible for his actions. As we deconstruct the traditional self (A/A into A/B), we must be careful not to open a door to believing ourselves unresponsible for the wrongs we commit. We need to be more like St. Paul, per se, but how can we do that if we don’t believe in God?
¹⁰This point reminds me of “Chesterton’s fence” and also Edmund Burke on the problem of tearing something down (even for good reason) without something to replace it.
¹¹Hegel, G.W.F. The Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A.V. Miller, Oxford University Press, 1977: 9.
¹²Hegel, G.W.F. The Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A.V. Miller, Oxford University Press, 1977: 12.
¹³This might help address an objection that could arise in response to this paper: it’s one thing to accept our death, another to accept the death of our wife from cancer. It is one thing to discuss the importance of accepting death from a wealthy suburbia, another thing to discuss accepting death while fleeing from terrorists. In this way, is talk of “accepting death” privileged?
Well, according to Freud, psychoanalysis is inherently privileged, for its mostly in “first world” societies that existential anxiety and mental health seem to become prevalent problems (which is suggested by Durkheim in Suicide, “The Delta Factor” of Walker Percy, and even “The World Happiness Report”). Walker Percy (who Peter Augustine Lawler is a great scholar on) writes:
‘Why do people often feel bad in good environments and good in bad environments?’¹
‘[W]hy is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, New Jersey, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon […] [W]hy is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane’?²
Well, if we’re following Hegel, it’s because history is a movement of A/B “toward” an A/A it can never reach, and the more history advances and technology improves, the more humanity realizes it’s predicament (running out of the “plausible deniability”). Furthermore, a man in a hurricane in paradise is “toward” A/B, thanks to the very paradox of his situation.
Not ready for Hegel and unwilling to accept reality, humanity suffers. Perhaps, to use the language of Heidegger (who Johannes A. Niederhauser writers powerfully on in his book, Heidegger on Death and Being), history is a story of a being obsessed with Being gradually realizing Being is “out of reach,” across the “noumenon of death,” per se. Can we learn to accept this? How? What rituals do we need?
Please also note that if we are fleeing terrorists, then this is the equivalent of avoiding suicide: there is no A/B to be found in “accepting death” here, only another version of A/A. We frankly must live according to the “life drive” up to a certain point: we need society to advance to a certain point of “stability” for us to become A/B. We can’t skip the “life drive” phase, but that means we have to risk becoming cancerous. Risk is unavoidable.
¹Percy, Walker. “The Delta Factor”. The Message in the Bottle. New York, NY: First Picador USA Edition, 2000: 3.
²Percy, Walker. “The Delta Factor”. The Message in the Bottle. New York, NY: First Picador USA Edition, 2000: 4.
¹⁴We must accept the “hysterical truth” that waits at the end of “The Freudian Hero’s Journey,” but what is meant by that is expanded on in “The Age of Hysteria” by O.G. Rose, inspired by Cadell Last’s work on Freud.
¹⁵Kohr, Leopold. The Breakdown of Nations. Green Books Ltd, in association with New European Publications, 2001: 21.
¹⁶“The Rationality of Invincibility and Self-Destruction” by O.G. Rose basically argues that it is the “life drive” of corporations that makes it “rational” to become “too big to fail,” at which point corporations become forces of destruction. Considering this, associating “bigness” with “the death drive” seems appropriate.
¹⁷Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Detroit, MI: Black & Red, 1983 and 2010: Section 125.
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