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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

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game