Professor White & Becker's Denial of Death

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  • 07 Apr 2013 at 5:26 pm #3267

    Glass
    Member

    Professor White from The Sunset Limited appears to share much of the same ideas about the nature of the world and our place in it as the late Ernest Becker who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for Denial of Death.

    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Denial_of_Death#section_1

    While reading most of Becker’s book this weekend, I was continually struck by how much his ideas resonated with McCarthy and particularly with White’s philosophy in TSL. In addition to death and immortality, Becker’s ideas about the role of the hero in society also could be used to illuminate how McCarthy uses it in his writing.

    I would like to briefly note the four strands of Becker’s thought that he examines in Denial of Death as told in the Foreword to the book by Sam Keen, who said Becker’s greatest achievement probably was establishing a “science of evil”:
    1. The world is terrifying.
    2. Man controls anxiety by denying the terror of death.
    3. We conspire to keep this terror unconscious by using personal and societal defense mechanisms and society creates a hero system so we can believe we are in something of lasting worth.
    4. These hero projects are aimed at destroying evil but paradoxically bring more evil to the world such as using warfare to purify the world, make it cleaner by ridding it of the dirty enemy.

    Lots of food for thought using Becker to think about McCarthy. Becker offers a way out of this dilemma using some ideas of Kierkegaard though these “outs” don’t seem to me like something White would be interested in.


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    07 Apr 2013 at 6:14 pm #3268

    Glass
    Member

    Here are some notes I took on Ch. 4 from Denial of Death:

    — child must “abandon ecstasy” do without awe, leave fear and trembling behind
    — truth is obscured, avoids despair thru defenses, allows him to feel in control
    — necessary to be dishonest about our situation in the world
    — defenses form a grand illusion — driven away from himself & driven toward things that support the lie, but enslave us
    — to shed the armor of the lie means to risk death and madness — you admit the full flood of despair, the full realization of the true human condition
    — Q: What joy is there when we strip away our neurotic defenses and see the world and human condition for what it really is?
    — paradoxical triumph


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    08 Apr 2013 at 7:38 am #3269

    Richard L.
    Member

    Becker was a genius and his book won the Pulitzer Prize.  I’ve referred to it often here, at least in the earlier incarnations of this forum.  Every war becomes a holy war, because the true believers turn every agenda into a crusade against the ultimate enemy, death.  The current utopian and Ayn Rand-driven Republican Tea Party is no exception.

    H. L. Mencken long ago pointed out it takes the same kind of mind to believe that the Russian Communists have gotten rid of the evils of capitalism as it does to believe that the holy rollers have gotten shed of sin.  But the reverse is also true.  The Ayn Rand purists who crusade against the evils in Big Government are blind to the same kind of evils in the “free market” Big Corporations which become as tyranical and corrupt as the old Stalinism, too big to oppose, too big to fail; and as George Orwell predicted, soon freedom is slavery and slavery is freedom once again.

    Looking at our personal deaths is as hard as looking at the sun, we look away but always are aware of it on some level.  The classics shout of it, but our ears are turned away.  It is always there–James Joyce’s “secret cause.”

    Yet non-existence in this material world is our natural state.  Our brief existence in this material vale is the anonmaly, not the other way around.  We are like the dim light in BLOOD MERIDIAN, the stars that fall.  Our animal selves fit right in–naturalism.  It is only our consciousness that is the Other, that has no place for home, as McCarthy might put it.

    Becker’s book gives us the cause for war, the denial of death, the suppressed fear of death.  But there is another adjacent fear that we suppress and that is the fear of nothingness.  You’re nothing, the man tells the Judge.  The Judge replies that he speaks truer than he knows.  The kid is also nothing; the woman to whom he shows mercy in the desert falls into nothingness.  The blank page is the Judge’s weight, it is an allusion to Melville’s meditation on whiteness in MOBY DICK, it is everything and nothing.  Our consciousness finds no material purchase on this earth.  Our conscious selves are forms without substance or substance without any shape or form  The color of life is water–spirit, for lack of a better word, which has no material reality.

    Becker is right, it is the suppressed fear of death that makes us kill, but it is the suppressed fear of nothingness that makes us restless.  When we become aware enough, we realize that we have run out of country, we can find no purchase, no solid ground.  We can respond to this in one of two ways, glass half-empty or glass half-full–with a smile or with a frown.  The professor in SUNSET LIMITED is a frowner, a materialist, a glass-half-empty kind of a guy.

    We need an essay on McCarthy’s stoicism.  When Oprah asked McCarthy what he wanted people to get from his novel, THE ROAD, he replied that he wanted people to be grateful for life, even if they had no idea of to whom to be grateful.  Which brings up the line in the novel, on page 110, “Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”  Which resonates to a quote from Marcus Aurielius, saying that a man ought to live his life as if borrowed, and that he ought to be prepared at any time to give it back, saying–here, I thank you for this life which I have had in my possession.

    When you finish with Becker, you should read David Loy’s study of emptiness, LACK AND TRANSCENDENCE.


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    08 Apr 2013 at 8:05 pm #3270

    In this thread much grist for any Forumer’s mill.  Well said, Peter and Richard!


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    09 Apr 2013 at 10:06 pm #3271

    Glass
    Member

    Richard: Great post, thanks for the many good comments, which I want to discuss some when I have more time. I will be sure to check out Loy.
    Bob: Good to see you here and glad you enjoyed this thread.

    One quick aside I’d like to add is an idea I have (that is a bit OT) is a possible parallel between Schrodinger’s Cat and the situation between Black and White in Black’s apartment with White playing the role of the cat and Black perhaps playing the role of observer. I guess the main thrust of the idea is that White, like Schrodinger’s Cat in the famous thought experiment, is both alive and dead inside Black’s apartment. Further, I can imagine a future where White is both alive and dead after he comes out of the apartment, especially since we don’t really know for sure what happens to White once he leaves the box i.e., he might be alive in some readers’ minds and dead to others, an interpretation that could change over time in the life of the reader. Live cat/Dead cat….Live White/Dead White. So, contra what is said in the book about “one path,” maybe there are in reality more than that.


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    10 Apr 2013 at 10:55 pm #3272

    Richard L.
    Member

    Re:  Glass/Schrodinger’s Cat/Sunset Limited

    It seems to me, to apply the model of Schrodinger’s Cat to Sunset Limited, you have to assume facts not in evidence.  You would have to assume that the events in the play happen over and over infinitely, with White being the observer, as you say, and Black both alive and dead.  Beckett’s play likewise, with characters who always say they’re going but never go anywhere.

    I would find it easier to believe that, if the events in the play keep happening, it is a cyclical loop, but not a closed loop.  Then every time, White would have another chance to persuade Black, another chance to get it right.

    McCarthy at times plays luck and fatalism against free will and infinite possibilities, as with Chigurh’s coin toss and some of his monologues, but overall his characters, like Faulkner’s, abandon fatalism and rush toward the infinite.  Like Rattner through the graveyard and the gap in the fence where the Edenic tree used to be.

    As it happens, I was just reading Ruth Ozeki’s newly published novel, For The Time Being.  It deals in part with Schrodinger’s Cat and Hugh Everett’s 1957 many worlds theory, which became the modern idea of the multiverse.  According to Ozeki’s interpretation, every different look at Schrodinger’s cat would split off a different universe, infinitely.

    From Ozeki’s Appendix F:

    “Hugh Everett published what came to be called his “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics in 1957, in Reviews of Modern Physics, when he was twenty-seven years old. It was his doctoral thesis at Princeton.  it was not well received.  The leading physicists of his day called him crazy.  They called him stupid.  Everett, disheartened, gave up on quantum physics and went into weapons development.  He worked for the Pentagon’s Weapons System Evaluation Group.  He wrote a paper on military game theory, entitled “Recursive Games,” which is a classic in the field.  He wrote war games software that would simulate nuclear war, and he was involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis.  He advised the White House on nuclear warfare development and strategy during the Cold War. . .’

    “He’d already written the mathematical proof of his many-world interpretation, and he believed that anything he could imagine would occur, or already had.  It’s not surprising that he drank heavily.  His family life was a mess.”   His daughter committed suicide and two months later Everett himself died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-one.

    Interesting guy.  Anyway, in the play, White is the closed mind, the zero.  Black is the mind open to infinity, the one.


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    11 Apr 2013 at 2:25 am #3273

    Glass
    Member

    Richard, again thank you for the excellent comments. You bring up some ideas I had in mind while writing about Schrodinger and TSL, namely the multiverse in my note about the different paths and Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, which would seem to me to be White’s idea of about the worst thing that could possiblty happen to him i.e., to do his life over and over again infinite times. What a long, strange loop that’d be. I love the Everett story, especially the part about his son and his father’s papers. That’s cool the stuff you were reading about it, a nice coincidence as well. It’s 2 a.m. here and I just got up because a storm woke me so apologies if this post is incomprehensible. Appreciate your feedback and ideas.


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    14 Mar 2014 at 9:57 pm #5194

    Glass
    Member

    Could Black be read as a failed Hermes figure?

    I’m thinking about protection of travelers, thresholds, places of departure, the power of speech divinely given, etc. That White is in a sense Hermetically sealed inside Black’s apartment for a time also might be suggestive of Hermes.


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