English 673: Victorian Commemorations
February 5, 2000
James Gifford <gifford@ualberta.ca>
© James Gifford

Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank and Ernest Becker:
Alternative Theories Surrounding Reading Death and Death Anxiety

These are my notes for an informal presentation for English 673 in 2000. This page was primarily intended for other students in the class, but it has had such high traffic that I have decided to leave it on the site. I should, nonetheless, emphasize that this is rough work.

As our course is largely concerned with reading death in a variety of forms, I will take the opportunity in this presentation to step away from a purely historical or aesthetic approach toward death in the Victorian novel and instead focus on three bodies of theoretical works which examine various aspects of death and in particular the anxiety surrounding death. This will constitute primarily a psychoanalytic approach to death in the novel, but make just as easily be approached from a sociological or anthropological standpoint. To this end, my presentation will roughly be divided between a short outline of the concepts of three related bodies of theory on the subject of death, and a comparison of their specific conflicts and differences. These will be the works of Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank and Ernest Becker. The non-explicitly philosophic and religious subtext of Eliot's work may also be approached profitably from this theoretical standpoint, and thereby allows the reader to access the unspoken aspects of the novellas in Scenes From Clerical Life. Specifically relating to the course texts, I will endeavour to show how each of the theoretical models below can be used to read the text, and will then try to point out additional internal consistencies that would support one reading in particular.

In Civilization And Its Discontents, Freud describes one form of living which

strives to bring about independence of [from] fate - as we may best call it - and with this object it looks for satisfaction within the mind, and uses the capacity for displacing libido which we mentioned before, but it does not turn away from the outer world [as other ways of living may do]; on the contrary, it takes a firm hold of its objects and obtains happiness from an emotional relation to them. Nor is it content to strive for avoidance of pain - that goal of weary resignation; rather it passes by heedlessly and hold fast to the deep-rooted, passionate striving for a positive fulfillment of happiness. Perhaps [this way of living] really comes nearer to this goal than any other method [of living]. I am speaking, of course, of that way of life which makes love the centre of all things and anticipates all happiness from loving and being love. (Civilization 16)

This way of living is then later contrasted in his claim that "It is easy to discover this motive for man's helplessness and dependence upon others; it can best be designated the dread of losing love" (Civilization 52; emphasis original). Within this framework, it is a relatively direct extrapolation to the position which holds that the fear of death or any anxiety surrounding it is best viewed through a libidinal where the mortality anxiety is more directly "the dread of losing love" (52) or the "positive fulfillment of happiness" (16).

In contrast to this theoretical stance Freud's student, Otto Rank, places the mortality anxiety as the fundamental human fear, rather than viewing it as a derivative of the anxiety surrounding libidinal or emotional deprivation. In this respect, their respective views of the psychological sources of religion also become an interesting point of difference, fundamentally through Rank's assertions of the religious impulse and various constructions of order or meaning derive from the position that "man is primarily not concerned with biological succession, either personally or socially. Primitive man is entrenched in what seems to us an obsession with personal immortality" (Beyond 202) and the subsequent 'immortality projects' or psychological means denying personal finitude (which may then take the form of biological or social succession, among others). Before going on to Becker's theoretical approach, it will be profitable to first detail the significant differences between Rankian and Freudian models in relation to these questions of mortality, denial (of mortality) and the related question of religion. This is especially so, since it is the point on which Rank and Freud primarily broke. Freud asserts that

the derivation of a need for religion from the child's feeling of helplessness and the longing it evokes for a father seems to me incontrovertible, especially since this feeling is not simply carried on from childhood days but is kept alive perpetually by the fear of what the superior power of fate will bring. (Civilization 7)

In the spirit of the analysis of death, for the above quotation it may be applicable to read "fate" as the guarantee of personal finitude. In this manner, for Freud religion is also derivative of the fear of the loss of love and the uncertainty of one's relationship to the powers that control or love us. This alternative to the simple fear of the loss of love ties back to the "avoidance of pain - that goal of weary resignation" (Civilization 16) mentioned in the first quotation. Rank, however, purports a contrary position, claiming that

all religion [spring] from the most powerful fear in man - not so much his fear of natural death as of final destruction. Yet the actual creative force expressing man's belief in personal immortality as against racial survival appears as a manifestation of his will for eternal survival. (Beyond 208)

For the close reader of these extracted quotations the question may immediately arise of whether the fear of death and the fear of the loss of love are not in fact the same thing or at least interchangeable concepts. The main difference is one of anxiety. Rank's approach replaces the fear of the loss of love or helplessness with the awareness of personal finitude as the genesis of man's religious impulses, and hence the anxiety surrounding the cognizance of mortality is established as the source of humanity's constructions of meaning, order and in many instances repressions of that which reminds one of mortality. This is a replacing of the Freud's theory of libidinal repression as the source of anxiety with a model that places anxiety as pre-existing repression. Likewise, in the Freudian model uncertainty is unfavourable because it is related to the instability of one's security within the love relationship and "man's helplessness and dependence upon others" (Civilization 52), while for Rank it is disturbing as a reminder of personal finitude. A Freudian reading of the influence of death in literature would likely lead to a contention that the anxieties expressed by the characters are related to problems in libidinal dislocation in object choice and insecurity within the social and familial realm. Such readings are usually quite appropriate, and in our specific example apply well to Eliot's novels in general, but they do fail to integrate the full influence of the question of death within each aspect of the stories.

The conflict here is between the Freudian manner of seeing death as the reality principle (the alternative instinct to the pleasure principle and hence an internal conflict between instincts or the libido) and the opposite in Rankian terms (seeing death as the central human anxiety focused on a lack of control rather than a conflict or repressions of instincts). Rank succinctly outlines these differences in approaching anxiety, offering his own manner viewing it directly as primal or a 'given' in the human condition -- as opposed to Freud's libido-derived theory of anxiety -- saying

Closely connected with the problem of the neurosis, indeed almost identical with it, is the problem of anxiety -- which might be designated as the nuclear problem (Kernproblem) of the neurosis. Freud's attempt to solve the neurosis as a libido problem must be considered unsatisfactory.... Freud interpreted neurotic anxiety in the so-called "actual neurosis" as a result of libido repression, and from that developed his "castration theory." ("Address")

The Rankian position is the alternative which puts forward libido repression as symptomatic of the repression of anxiety, rather than causal (the repression of the libido or instinct results in anxiety, rather than anxiety using the repression of libido as a symbolic way to gain control over the 'uncontrollable' which causes the anxiety). Freudian theory describes this anxiety as ":nothing other than an expression of the fact that [the person is] feeling the loss of the person they love" (Three Essays 289); a libido-limitation. This is then linked to the child who becomes 'self-disciplining' through an invocation of the reality principle. In a Rankian frame it is not related to any such 'death instinct' or reality principle, but is instead tied to a response of either repressing death anxiety or alternatively bringing it within the scope of control through the Nietzschean sense of the 'Will'; making death an act of Will rather than an ego denying act of necessity or submission. The 'reality principle' is therein not an instinct, but a manner of retaining the power of the ego in the face of its limitations. Through these varying approaches it is possible to read Eliot's expression of the manner in which her character's cope with any anxieties surrounding mortality as either through active Willing or denial; both of which become life-limiting neuroses in relation to death, whether they take the form of the love object or religion.

Ernest Becker offers a more refined theory surrounding mortality anxiety which derives from both Rank and Becker, although Becker's affinity is clearly directed toward Rank. Becker makes Rank's position on the repression of the cognizance of mortality more explicit through relating back to religion again (a theme which is particularly appropriate to reading Eliot's works) and the Rankian theory of libidinal repressions being caused by the symbolic denial of personal finitude. Becker relates these libidinal repressions to what he coins 'immortality projects.' Within this viewpoint it is the libidinal instincts which remind one of the prominence of mortality or anxiety which are repressed (rather than the Freudian reversal of this) and hence the repressive element of the religious tendency on the libido or instincts. Aligned with this repression of desires comes Becker's position that "sex is of the body and the body is of death.... Eros and Thanatos are inseparable; death is the natural twin brother of sex" (Denial 162).

Before progressing to a close reading of Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life, I would like to briefly suggest questions that arise from these theoretical methods and ways in which they may relate directly to both our theoretical reading of the novel and the various problems surrounding the act of reading it.

Becker derives from Rank what he terms the causa-sui pursuit, or the desire to be self-generating as a means to stepping outside of the cognizance of birth, which as with Eros and Thanatos, exists as a twin to death. In Rank's terms, the mortal birth is doubly the promise of finitude. Without going into the interesting questions this raises toward Freud's castration theory or gender relations, this question of the self-authorship pursuit may be interestingly applied to the death of the love-object as in Eliot's work, and even religion in general.

Rank, below paraphrased by James Liebermann, describes the projection of death as well. This is an intriguing region of cross-relations to postcolonial theory, and begs the question of the colonization of knowing of death. For Rank's specific contentions regarding projection, it may be simplified that what cannot be directly controlled in the Self or Same is subsequently dominated through the colonization of a projection of this aspect of the Self onto an Other:

The report of another's unexpected death may comfort us, paradoxically. By definition, the audience consists of those who have survived. An other died. Death passed us by, claiming someone else, in primitive terms as sacrifice on behalf of the community. We can rest assured for the moment that death is avoidable. ("Translator's" xiii; emphasis original)

Perhaps this aspect of death-watching or our own death-readings is fruitful to examine. Moreover, Becker extends this question of project, which Rank develops so fully in an anthropological sense, by applying it to killing death symbolically. This is the colonization of death through projection, where death may not be conquerable, but the body is. In this list one may read various aspects of projection into the libidinal aspects of life that are repressed in order to deny death. Sexuality, as is implied in the Eros and Thanatos twinship, is a prime candidate for such an analysis.  Likewise, the love object which makes one recognize one's own sexuality and bodilyness may be read in this manner. Becker makes extensive use of this reading for social analysis of violence and repression within modern and historical cultures, particularly applying it to gender theory and the human body within religion.

In a social sense Herbert Marcuse takes this issue up as well in regard to social domination of the individual and the purpose of society in regard to the issues of death anxiety. In the conclusion to Eros and Civilization he postulates "the brute fact of death denies once and for all the reality of a non-repressive existence" (231). Moreover,

The mere anticipation of the inevitable end, present in every instant, introduces a repressive element into all libidinal relations and renders pleasure itself painful.... [Humanity] is resigned [to mortality and the inevitability of repression] before society forces him to practice resignation methodically, (Marcuse 231)

It should, however, be noted that in this particular example Marcuse has derived his conclusions from a Freudian reading of society, which nonetheless incorporates Rankian psychology predating his break from Freud.

Catherine Russell, in the train of discourse begun by Becker, puts forward the proposition that this sequential argument can only be limited or controlled through the realization of denial. She states that "in this mind/body [or self/other] theory of mortality, confrontation with death is only meaningful within the conventions of denial.... A new theory of mortality is only possible through the deconstruction of the conventions of denial" (Narrative 8). Is it possible for our discussion of the questions of death in Eliot's book to become such a deconstruction and thereby an analysis of death which is apart from the conventions of denial which exist both in Eliot's cultural context and our own?

Scenes Of Clerical Life

Before we look at a few brief extracts from Scenes From Clerical Life a few general observations about the work must be made. First, as the title suggests, the context all three segments of the novel is religious in nature, although Eliot has largely left issues of commentary on the internal conflicts within Christianity and her own stance of Agnosticism outside of the explicit realm of the text. The subject matter of the work, however, may just as appropriately have been titled DEATH Scenes From Clerical Life, given the focus of each story. This generalized association between religion and extremis is an important first note, and may imply a pattern similar to that recorded by Plato in his Socratic dialogues, where death is very explicitly a non-issue which is strongly distanced from the realm of knowledge until Socrates has drunk his hemlock, at which point he becomes extremely lucid on the subject of the soul and the afterlife, having either gained or constructed knowledge of the unknowable Other; mortality. What function does religion play in this formula in Eliot's work (or even works as a whole)?

After this first general note it should also be added that as readers we constitute a society of death-watchers just as clearly as Eliot herself and her initial audience. This situation and its aesthetic compel a question of projection in Rank and Becker's description, as well as possibly invoking the subject of the Lacanian gaze. What issues are at stake in this 'colonial' act of reading death and having (or believing oneself to have) knowledge of it through the textual experience? To what extent can the reader extrapolate these same issues to the internal aesthetic of the texts own construction and the social medium it creates/depicts?

Lastly, given Becker's discussion -- briefly described above -- of the gender issues which become entangled in the 'denial of death' or repression of the anxiety stemming from the cognizance of it, to what extent should we as modern readers be concerned with what deaths we 'watch' in the novel? I am specifically meaning the associations that are made in the three stories between violence, control or order, the love-object or mate, and the act of watching death or being a witness to it. In this respect character (and readers) can be implicated in a sphere spiraling out from the spouse to the family and society at large.

Death and Representation

The Bronfen and Goodwin text offers us many new ways to clarify the positions outlined above, and perhaps also elaborates the varying approaches which may be taken toward a theoretical approach to the subject of death.  Firstly, the above discussion of colonial theory and its relation to death theory appears in Death and Representation as early as the first paragraph, where we are told that

the distancing risks falsification, as though one were to assert that in analyzing cultural artifacts and theorizing about their relation to death we were achieving some commensurate power of our own.
    In a sense we are. Not power over death, of course - to any significant extent - but nevertheless an important kind of power. (3)

This power may be looked at through the knowledge/power relationship, where any knowledge of the Other (death being not of the Self) assumes a socio-psychological power relationship, regardless of whether such knowledge is purely constructed or in some form based on hyper-reality. Confusing the problematic relationship between power and knowledge is the assertion that death is a universal factor, which is a difficult subject in our current relativistic sense of plurality. In its experience it is utterly individual (if it is anything) and is only universal in its assumed cognizance among those who have not experienced it.

It may also be useful to discuss the relationship between Becker and Rank's views on death anxiety in relation to the statement that "Culture itself would then be an attempt both to represent death and to contain it, to make it comprehensible and thereby to diffuse some of its power" (Death 4). This does not quite mesh with the outline here given of Freudian theory, but when death-anxiety is viewed as a primary anxiety this approach becomes logical. What would such a stance say in regard to the psychological function of the representation of death?

In line with Russell's call for a deconstruction of the conventions or politics of denial (a position strongly akin to Becker's) is also in parallel with our text's suggestion to "abandon the binary conception of death and culture" (Death 4) and moreover that "the tidy binary opposition between a representing order and a represented chaos is unsound: politically, psychologically, aesthetically" (Death 4).

The first conflict may arise in the uni-directional assertions that "Death - not in the abstract, but people dying and the processes by which they die - may signify by turns a monarch's sovereignty, a people's own power, and the primacy of biology over culture" (Death 5), and "this last question [of death in the social realm], to return to Foucault, essentially asks, What do these death signify, what do they represent?  What power can I/we exercise over them?" (Death 5). With the theories in mind that we have discussed above it would seem equally plausible that the direction of these statements may be reversed and that the non-abstract death may also be looked on as within a system of representation. They occupy not only the social realm, where they may signify social elements, but they may likewise occupy a symbolic relationship to the self in the individual sphere. In this space, the death of others may as equally represent a symbolic death of the self as it does a symbolic death of death itself. In the same vein, the monarch's sovereignty that is signified by these people's deaths may itself be a signifier in relation to the individual cognizance and denial of death. The question to be explored is not one of "revising the ways we understand death" (Death 5) in the above statements - for death itself cannot be understood - but of revising the way we understand the role of the representations and projections of death within the construct of the binary opposition, and the way in which this process of representation is an integral aspect of the conventions of denial.

Briefly continuing this discourse on the mechanism of binary opposition, it may additionally be argued that this pair (as with most) collapses into a unity when explored more fully. In Death and Representation we read that "Not only are the simplistic oppositions death/life and death/culture problematic, but so is the equally basic question of what it is to represent death" (7; emphasis original). This holds true, however, since death appears to only exist in social and individual spaces through representation (as opposed to the direct experiential construction of knowledge), to what extent can be seperate death from culture or death from life? Just as when separating the Occidental "Self" from the Oriental "Other," we find that the politics of representation and the conventions of denial are more concerned with the contents of the Self than they are with any actual exteriority. Can death as the Other, in this manner, be looked on as existing only in a representational form as a projection of the denied or repressed contents of the Same? It is argued that "representation presupposes an original presence, and in the case of death that is clearly paradoxical" (Death 7); however, in the absence any such presence it seems that death is the locus of representation as the false opposition to the self.

Works Cited

Becker, Ernest. The Denial Of Death. 1974. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997.

Eliot, George. Scenes Of Clerical Life. Toronto: Penguin Books Canada, 1999.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization And Its Discontents. Trans. Joan Riviere. London: Hogarth Press, 1930. Toronto: General Publishing, 1994.

---. Three Essays On The Theory Of Sexuality. Trans. James Strachey. The Freud Reader. ed. Peter Gay. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995. 239-292.

Goodwin, Sarah and Elisabeth Bronfen. "Introduction." Death and Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Liebermann, E. James. "Translator's Introduction." Psychology And The Soul. Trans. Gregory C. Richter and E. James Liebermann. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Marcuse, Herbert. Eros And Civilization. Boston: The Beacon Press, 1955. Toronto: Saunders of Toronto, Ltd., 1966.

Rank, Otto. "Address On Anxiety." Lecture. New York School of Social Work. October, 1926.

---. Beyond Psychology. Philadelphia: E. Hauser, 1941. Toronto: General Publishing Co., 1958.

Russell, Catherine. Narrative Mortality: Death, Closure, And New Wave Cinemas. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

Further Readings

Becker, Ernest. The Birth And Death Of Meaning. 1962. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1971.

---. Escape From Evil. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1975.

Durrell, Lawrence. "The Limits of Criticism." A Key To Modern British Poetry. 1952. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem And Taboo. New York: Moffat, Yard and Co., 1918. trans. A. A. Brill. Toronto: General Publishing Co., 1998.

---. Beyond The Pleasure Principle. Trans. James Strachey. The Freud Reader. ed. Peter Gay. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995. 594-626.

---. Mourning And Melancholia. Trans. James Strachey. The Freud Reader. ed. Peter Gay. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995. 584-589.

Hughes, Glen. "The Denial of Death and the Practice of Dying (or: 'Tasting Death')." The Ernest Becker Foundation.  Online. September 13, 2000. Available: <http://faculty.washington.edu/nelgee/lectures/speeches/hughes_1.htm>.

Patocka, Jan. Herectical Essays In The Philosophy Of History. trans. Erazim Kohak. Chicago: Open Court, 1992

Rank, Otto. Art And Artist: Creative Urge And Personality Development. 1932. trans. Charles Francis Atkinson. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1989.

---. A Psychology of Difference: The American Lectures. 1927. ed. Robert Kramer and Rollo May. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

---. Psychology And The Soul. trans. Gregory C. Richter and E. James Liebermann. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

---. Truth And Reality. 1936. trans. Jessie Taft. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978.

Schuster, Joshua. "Death Reckoning in the Thinking of Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida." Other Voices 1:1 (1997). Available: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~ov/jnschust/death.html.

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