It came as something of a surprise when a classmate recommended a book to me called The Denial of Death. It’s not the sort of thing I usually read. But when I skimmed the table of contents, the recommendation made more sense.
Author Ernest Becker spends his book on death exploring its connection with heroism, and thereby with immortality. The book has three parts: 1) The Depth Psychology of Heroism, 2) The Failures of Heroism, and 3) Retrospect and Conclusion: The Dilemmas of Heroism. Throughout this text, Becker suggests that heroism IS the denial of death—that it is a sort of narcissism that allows men to “march into point-blank fire in wars: at heart one doesn’t feel that he will die, he only feels sorry for the man next to him” (2). Even more intriguing, Becker then makes the jump to religion, telling us that organized religion is “the crisis of society” and that its cultural value lies in its ability to be a hero system for worshippers. If it can’t be that, then it “must work against the culture, recruit youth to be anti-heroes to the ways of life of the society they live in. This is the dilemma of religion in our time” (7). Becker delves through studies of Kierkegaard, Freud, and classical myth to conclude that “Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness … as awareness calls for types of heroic dedication that his culture no longer provides for him, society contrives to help him forget. Or, alternatively, he buries himself in psychology In the belief that awareness all by itself will be some kind of magical cure for his problems” (284).
Becker seems to be pointing out that science can’t explain everything, that even as we are aware of the futility of striving for immortality, we also understand that in order to have purpose, we must have an idea of the heroic.
It seems to me that this idea of the heroic is precisely how popular movie and book series appeal to wide swaths of people. Because The Denial of Death was published in 1973, the obvious epic tale to discuss in connection with is work is Star Wars. I’m familiar enough with the Star Wars universe to know that both in George Lucas’ universe and in the approved Expanded Universe, certain figures—most notably Luke Skywalker—follow very carefully the model of the classical tragic hero. Certainly, the movies are a major part of U.S. culture today; I’m not the only one who thinks so. The U.S. Library of Congress’s National Film Preservation Board named A New Hope as one of the most “culturally, historically, or esthetically important” films of the time. And the Writers Guild of America recognizes the original screenplay as one of the 101 best of all time.
I would suggest this has something to do with the connection between heroism and religion. The idea of attaining self-knowledge is a hero characteristic that Lucas took to the extreme in Star Wars. The hero’s means for power comes very literally through self-awareness by way of Lucas’ invention of the Force, an invisible power that binds everything and can be tapped into by those who are both sensitive to it and self-aware enough to master that sensitivity. Luke’s training is defined by a search for peace within himself. Other classical heroes also paid attention to their own place in the scheme of the world. Both Odysseus and Aeneas pray constantly and often worry about the safety of their men. Furthermore, Odysseus’s and Aeneas’s navigation of the channel between Scylla and Charbydis is a classical representation of the prudence of steering a middle path. Luke, meanwhile, walks the dangerous line between being a lowly farmer and ruling the galaxy. He chooses the middle path as well, turning his efforts to becoming a Jedi Knight. The middle ground for these men represents the way to becoming a hero. And I suggest here that the middle ground is religion—perhaps an unsurprising conclusion in pondering on a book about death. Or is it?
Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: The Free Press: A Division of Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1973. Print.