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Why can't we stop for death?

The Black Mirror and The Worm at the Core reveal the human obsession with, and denial of, our mortality.

When he was entering what he knew would be the final stage of his terminal illness, Bob Monkhouse used to joke that the terrible thing about dying was how stiff it left you feeling the next day. There is something pleasantly cavalier in the comedian’s quip. Why make a tragedy of something that will happen to us all? Perhaps we’d be wiser if we didn’t think of death at all, but instead – as the philosopher Spinoza recommended – only of life. But that kind of wisdom seems to be beyond our capacity. The human preoccupation with death is pervasive and universal, and every society offers remedies for the anxiety that the fact of mortality evokes.

Religions have their afterlives, while secular faiths offer continuity with some larger entity – nations, political projects, the human species, a process of cosmic evolution – to stave off the painful certainty of oblivion. In their own lives, human beings struggle to create an image of themselves that they can project into the world. Careers and families prolong the sense of self beyond the grave. Acts of exceptional heroism and death-defying extreme sports serve a similar impulse. By leaving a mark, we can feel we are not just fleeting individuals who will soon be dead and then forgotten.

Against this background, it might seem that the whole of human culture is an exercise in death denial. This is the message of Stephen Cave’s thoughtful and beautifully clear Immortality: the Quest to Live For Ever and How It Drives Civilisation (2012). A more vividly personal but no less compelling study of our denial of death is presented in Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematorium (2015), in which the author uses her experience of working at a Californian funeral parlour to show how contemporary mortuary practice – removing the corpse as quickly as possible, then prettifying it so that it almost seems alive – serves to expel the fact of death from our lives.

Both books cite the work of the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. In The Denial of Death (1973) Becker, whose work is now undergoing something of a revival, suggested that flight from death is the driving force of civilisation. Many of humanity’s greatest achievements, as well as its worst crimes, can be understood as attempts to ward off mortality.

Becker’s work is the avowed inspiration of the latest book in this growing canon, The Worm at the Core, co-authored by three American social psychologists. They begin with a story:

On a rainy, grey day in December 1973, philosopher Sam Keen, writing for Psychology Today, trundled down the halls of a hospital in Burnaby, British

Columbia, to interview a terminally ill cancer patient who doctors said had just days to live. When Keen entered the room, the dying man told him, with a touch of mortal irony: “You are catching me in extremis. This is a test of everything I’ve written about death. And I’ve got a chance to show how one dies . . .”

The dying man was Ernest Becker. Talking to Keen, he summarised the theory that others are now taking up and developing: “We build character and culture in order to shield ourselves from the devastating awareness of our underlying helplessness and the terror of our inevitable death.”

Becker’s career had not been easy. Born in 1924, he joined the army at the age of 18 and served in an infantry battalion that liberated a Nazi death camp. After a period working at the American embassy in Paris he decided to become an anthropologist and entered academic life. Drifting from one university to another, he was popular with students (who at one point offered to pay his salary when his contract was terminated) but failed to make much of an impression on his colleagues. In another irony, his book The Denial of Death was awarded the Pulitzer Prize two months after he died in 1974.

Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski chanced upon Becker’s writings in the early 1980s. “Like the Rosetta Stone, they were to us a revelation . . . Becker explained how the fear of death guided human behaviour.” Filled with enthusiasm, the three young psychologists tried to share his ideas at the 1984 meeting of the Society for Experimental Psychology. But the audience started drifting away when they mentioned that their work was influenced by psychoanalysis and existential philosophy; when they went on to cite the ideas of Marx, Kierkegaard and Freud, “renowned psychologists were storming the conference room exits”. The authors then submitted a paper to a flagship academic journal. Some months later, they received a one-line review: “I have no doubt that this paper would be of no interest to any psychologist, living or dead.” ­Somehow, one suspects that Becker would not have been surprised by this response.

Undaunted, the authors then did 25 years of research to test their ideas. Melding existential thinking with the findings of empirical social science, they argue that terror of death infuses a wide range of human behaviours – from obsessive-compulsive disorders and the anxious pursuit of sex through to the search for self-esteem and the use of violence to harm those who challenge our beliefs. The Worm at the Core is the most comprehensive and well-evidenced account to date of the idea that fending off the awareness of death is the prime mover of the human condition. It’s a considerable achievement, showing up the bigotry and timidity of the initial academic reaction to the authors’ ideas.

At the same time, like other such accounts – including Becker’s – The Worm at the Core suffers from neglecting the conflicting impulses that have shaped the human response to death. They are right to suggest that it is awareness of death, more than anything else, which differentiates human beings from other animals. They are also right to argue that denial of death is one of the most powerful forces in human life. Where they go astray is in passing over how, on the contrary, many human beings have welcomed their mortality.

To start with, religions aren’t always immortality cults. A preoccupation with death may be universally human, and attempts to escape from it are found in many cultures and traditions – including, as the authors show, Chinese alchemy. But a longing for everlasting life has been at its strongest in societies and individuals whose values are shaped by monotheism, more particularly by Christianity. (Belief in an afterlife hasn’t been central in most currents of Judaism.) In ancient Greek polytheism, it was believed that the gods envied people their mortality; everlasting life might be a curse – an eternity of boredom. In many of their forms, Hinduism and Buddhism express a search for mortality, the project of releasing human beings from the unending life that comes with the cycle of transmigration and rebirth.

For the poets and philosophers of pre-Christian Europe, death was by no means always an evil. The Roman Stoic Seneca had no compunction in writing to a young disciple that he should not be afraid to consider suicide if he had already tasted most of life’s pleasures. Even more boldly, the Greek poet Theognis, writing some time in the 6th century BC, declared: “Best for all for mortal beings is never to have been born at all” – a line that Nietzsche used in his analysis of ancient Greek culture. In his poem “Tess’s Lament”, Thomas Hardy has the heroine of Tess of the D’Urbervilles give voice to a similar sentiment: “I cannot bear my life as writ,/I’d have my life unbe;/Would turn my memory to a blot/. . . And gone all trace of me!” What Tess wants is not just to cease to exist, but to “unbe” – never to have been born. Hardy’s character illustrates the power of Freud’s insight that human beings can be moved as much by a longing for complete extinction as by the urge to live.

In The Black Mirror Raymond Tallis, trained as a doctor and for much of his life an expert in geriatric medicine, writes as a philosopher. He writes in his overture to this strange, bold, and courageous book, “If to be a philosopher is to be an onlooker, the vantage point of death is the ultra ne plus of the philosophical viewpoint: you look upon your life from the virtual position of one who has outlived it.” As he observes, his book is an implicit rejoinder to Spinoza’s injunction that a free human being should think only of life: “The free man (and woman) who is preparing for life may think more deeply and, indeed, more freely by thinking about death. In order to live like a philosopher, it is necessary to die like one – that is, to die in thought and in imagination before you die in body.”

It’s an observation that encapsulates the central paradox of the book. It may be necessary, if you want to live as a philosopher, to think of yourself as already dead, but it is also impossible given that, as Tallis admits, what comes when life ends is inconceivable to us. How can we envision non-existence? If we are tormented by the thought of death, one reason is that we can’t imagine what it means to be dead. It is hard to see how philosophy can help us here.

In The Black Mirror, Tallis explores the life that will be lost when he is gone. Although he discusses bereavement – for many people, a loss worse than the prospect of their own death – it is not a large part of the book. It is his own loss that chiefly concerns him. He refers to himself throughout in the third person:

 

Visitors paying their last respects will direct them to the capital of RT’s body, to the head with which they had been tête-à-tête for so long. It was here, more than any other part of his frame, that revealed his changing take on a changing world. Little of its meaning-packed anterior surface had been excused the duty to communicate: mouth, eyes, nose, forehead, cheeks, all had their say.

 

This third-person perspective is more than a stylistic device. It’s an attempt to achieve a point of view on one’s life that is outside oneself and yet not that of another living being. But unless you believe in some kind of divine mind, there is no such point of view. Tallis is a convinced atheist – not the all-too-familiar kind, typified by Dawkins, which rants on incessantly about the evils of religion, but the rarer, more intelligent variety that finds the very idea of God empty and incoherent. If the idea of God is devoid of meaning, however, so, too, is the idea that the world can be seen from the standpoint of someone who has died. After all, who – or what – is looking?

Tallis tries to adopt this standpoint because he wants to “live philosophically”. Having been imaginatively dead, he hopes to come back with his love of life re-energised. The Black Mirror, he tells us, “is, ultimately, a work of praise and gratitude”. It is true that the book contains many invocations of beauty and joy: “ploughlands bordered with bare hawthorn hedges scribbled on low dark and grey skies rifted with brilliance”; the simple pleasure in existing on a dull Wednesday afternoon. Overall, though, the mood is melancholy, heavy with regret for how much of the life that is gone was left unlived. Pursuing “some dream of changing the world (and of course his prospects in it) for the better”, the author “allowed himself to be indifferent to an April evening, glistening with dew and birdsong, that could have become itself in his consciousness”. Now it is getting late: “With age he had lost some of his singularity and become ‘Old Man’ or ‘Elderly Gentleman’ in the eyes of strangers – a sign of the de-differentiations to come.” Seeing life from the standpoint of death – “the philosophical viewpoint” – does not seem to have produced the hoped-for reinvigoration. By playing the corpse, dying “in thought and in imagination”, you may end up a fretful ghost.

If this remarkable book fails to deliver the uplift it aims to provide, the fault lies with the hopes the author has invested in philosophy. Like rationalists the world over, Tallis wants to believe that discordant impulses can be reconciled through a process of reflection. But the human response to mortality is intrinsically contradictory. We fear the  prospect of death and build up elaborate defences against it, yet at the same time yearn for the inconceivable transformation that death will bring.

It is unreasonable to look to philosophy for remedies for this quintessentially human self-division. Better take up a religion, or else accept and enjoy the short, uncertain life we are given. In the end, feeling stiff the next day is no big deal.

The Worm at the Core: on the Role of Death in Life by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski is published by Allen Lane
The Black Mirror: Fragments of an Obituary for Life by Raymond Tallis is published by Atlantic Books

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon