An affordable, paperback edition of Cinematic Nihilism is now available from Edinburgh University Press.
The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker. (New York: The Free Press, 1973).
Everything we do in life stems from the vain attempt to deny our mortality. Having children, fighting wars, writing books, making art, building nations; it is all motivated by our denial of death.
This is the central insight of Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death, which upon a recent third reading I have come to admire more than ever. It is one of those works in whose pages I see my thoughts and beliefs reflected so vividly that I wonder if it was my first reading of this masterpiece decades ago that shaped the growth of my own later philosophy, or if the ideas in this book merely resonated with what I already believed before reading it. In truth, the tangle of influences involved in anyone’s intellectual evolution are just too complicated and tightly woven to be systematically separated after-the-fact. But no matter. It remains that there are some authors who give voice to thoughts so profoundly correct that it doesn’t matter who wrote them down first.
Becker himself was influenced by a whole tradition of existential philosophy and psychology, with thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank and Søren Kierkegaard playing key roles in his account of the human condition. Side-lining Freud’s emphasis on sexuality, Becker instead promotes Rank’s claim that it is the quest for immortality, for the infinite, that powers human psychology. He links this psychological insight to the thinking of Kierkegaard, who devoted his philosophical career to articulating how human beings struggle in vain to reconcile their finitude, which is rooted in bodily existence, with their spiritual desire for infinitude. “…man wants the impossible” (p. 155). We know we are doomed to bodily decay, yet we want to live forever. We are a contradiction that cannot be resolved.
And yet we try. In fact, all of humankind’s cultural creations over the centuries have been motivated by the desire to overcome this ontological schism between the finite and the infinite. We follow religions that assure us that once the body dies, the soul will survive forever. We produce children, hoping that they will carry on the family name, and that after they die their children will do the same, and so on, and so on. And even if we don’t reproduce, we make art, write books, build businesses or fight wars that we hope will keep our memories alive when we are physically gone. All of this, according to Becker, is part of the human desire to be heroic, to elevate ourselves above the average, forgettable masses. It is an indication, he tells us that “…we are hopelessly absorbed with ourselves” (p. 2). In the grips of this self absorption, we just cannot accept that there will be a time when we are dead and gone, and so we strive to leave a trace proving that we were here. Society is the vehicle that we have developed in order to facilitate this ongoing human craving for immortality. It is a symbolic system that attempts to deny our finitude in order to give birth to things of lasting value. “The hope and belief is that the things man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his product count” (p. 5).
But all of this is a denial of fundamental reality, according to Becker. Humans, in hoping for symbolic immortality, do not have the courage to accept the truth that all things fade and disappear in time; including ourselves. And so we both fear life and we fear death. We fear life because we don’t have the courage to affirm our here-and-now existence as worthwhile in its own rite; and we fear death because it erases everything. These twin fears drive us into the grips of neurosis, the natural, everyday condition of human animals. We are forced, in varying degrees, to reject reality and to build a creative world out of lies that allow us to forget the horrifying meaninglessness of our existence. We seek to insulate ourselves from the absurdity of reality by telling false stories about the ultimate significance of it all. And so we follow leaders who are good at convincing us of their lies. We fall in love with other people, idealizing them as objects of romantic obsession or of sexual distraction. If we have special, creative talent, we make art, write books, produce films or plays. All of these, according to Becker, are considered by society to be “healthy” ways of dealing with the terror of existence, but ultimately they fall on a continuum with other, less “healthy” coping mechanisms, including depression, schizophrenia, drug and alcohol abuse, and sexual perversion. “…there is no line between normal and neurotic” (p. 178), he tell us, just more or less functional ways of getting along in a world with other people. “Generally speaking, we call neurotic any life style that begins to constrict too much, that prevents free forward momentum, new choices, and growth that a person may want and need” (p. 179). Nevertheless, quoting Rank, Becker insists that “to be able to live, one needs illusions” (p. 188).
And so we are stuck with our lies. The best we can do is to “burn brightly” and try to get along with other people, allowing them to burn as brightly as they can while living their own lies. But Becker warns us that we should not completely lose touch with the underlying horror of reality. In order to respect and value our illusions, we need to understand their power, and in order to do this we must remember what life would be like without them. We must embrace our illusions heroically and courageously precisely because they save us from succumbing to, and being engulfed by, an awful, cruel and meaningless world; a world that Becker sums up like this:
What are we to make of a creation in which routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart with teeth of all types – biting, grinding flesh, plant stalks, bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence into one’s own organization, and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue. Everyone reaching out to incorporate others who are edible to him. The mosquitoes bloating themselves on blood, the maggots, the killer bees attacking with a fury and a demonism, sharks continuing to tear and swallow while their own innards are being torn out – not to mention the daily dismemberment and slaughter in ‘natural’ accidents of all types: an earthquake buries 70 thousand bodies in Peru, automobiles make a pyramid heap of over 50 thousand a year in the US alone, a tidal wave washes over a quarter of a million in the Indian Ocean. Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures (pp. 282 – 283).
His is a pretty bleak description. It’s no wonder that Becker is an advocate for neurotic withdraw into creative illusion.
From my first reading, when I was in my 20’s, I was moved by the bold, unflinching gloominess of The Denial of Death. Upon a third reading, now that I’m in my 50’s, I’m no less moved. Part of the lasting poignancy of this book is due to the fact that Ernest Becker was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize just two months after he died of colon cancer at age 49. I suppose his experience with this disease may have contributed to his focus on anality, shit, and excrement throughout the book. At one point he asserts that “the anus and its incomprehensible, repulsive product represents not only physical determinism and boundness, but the fate as well of all that is physical: decay and death” (p. 31). At another point he proclaims that we are “gods with anuses” (p. 51). And later, he warns, “the turd is mankind’s real threat” (p. 227). As cancer ate him from the inside out, it is no wonder that he was powerfully struck by the incongruity between his loftiest thoughts and the filth percolating inside his gut.
Becker’s own immortality project, neatly and cleanly packaged in book form, has been a relative success, as there are people like me, now older than Becker was when he died, who still think about him and his ideas. There is even an Ernest Becker Foundation, dedicated to raising awareness of how the fear of death affects us all. In the end, of course, none of us can escape our own mortality, and so sooner or later we’ll be gone as well. I’m reminded of Yukio Mishima’s final note, left on his desk before committing seppuku: “Human life is finite, but I would like to live forever.”
First published in 1961, Yukio Mishima’s novel The Frolic of the Beasts (Translated by Andrew Clare. New York: Vintage Books. November 2018) was only recently translated into English in 2018. It is a short work, reminding me of Mishima’s more well-crafted novel The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, which was first published in 1963 and then translated into English two years afterwards. Both stories deal with themes of aberrant love, moral transgression, murder and nihilism, but whereas The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea exhibits an elegant and graceful style, The Frolic of the Beasts is rather clunky and jagged in form. Since I don’t read Japanese, I’m not sure how much of this has to do with the original text and how much is related to the English translation.
The story begins with a prologue describing a photograph of three smiling figures – Yuko, Ippei and Koji – whose apparent happiness, we are told, conflicts with a “wretched incident” that will take place only a few days later. The photo was snapped at the harbor of a fishing village where the three characters live. Yuko and Ippei are married and own five greenhouse gardens near the village where they grow plants and produce for sale. Koji works for them; but there seems to be something secret and unspeakably intimate about the relationship he shares with his employers. This intimacy is confirmed by the photograph and then, at the close of the prologue, with the description of three grave markers that have been erected, against the wishes of villagers, in the local cemetery. Ippei’s grave lies on the right, Koji’s grave is on the left, and Yuko’s grave sits between them as a “reserved monument.” Ippei and Koji, it appears, have died, while Yuko is still alive, but anticipating death; and there is some sort of outrage involving the three that has scandalized the village residents.
The story unfolds through flashbacks and flash-forwards as the hidden secret alluded to in the prologue is slowly revealed. In Chapter 1, Koji is released from prison and returns to the fishing village of Iro where he is met by Yuko at the port upon his arrival. On the boat ride to Iro, Koji repeatedly thinks to himself “I have repented,” but when he meets Yuko, her first words to him are, “You haven’t changed.” She repeats this phrase as the two of them stop for lunch. “You haven’t changed one little bit,” she says to Koji, and he thinks to himself, “They were frightening words” (p. 22). The reader starts to understand that Koji has committed some sort of crime that has disrupted not only his own life, but the course of Yuko’s life as well. Koji longs for an assurance that he is different than he was before his incarceration – that he is reformed – but Yuko sees in him the same person that was always there: someone capable of violence. And yet, she is not afraid or repulsed by him. Rather, she seems protective of, and in fact attracted to, this young man. Yuko has even insisted upon becoming Koji’s legal guardian upon his release.
The two of them walk through the village, and while Koji starts to feel a sense of shame, Yuko commands him to hold his head high as they pass by the villagers who know about his crime. Eventually, they arrive at Yuko’s house where a fearful Koji is greeted by Ippei.
Ippei was a German literature scholar who once worked as a lecturer before inheriting his parents’ ceramics shop in Ginza. Koji was one of his students, hired to work in the shop. Upon becoming his employee, Koji discovered that Ippei, who is married to Yuko, was involved in a number of extra-marital affairs; something that his wife knew about but tolerated. In Koji’s eyes, “Ippei had everything.” In addition to having a beautiful wife and girlfriends, he was educated, intelligent, wore expensive Italian suits and went to exclusive hair salons. On the other hand, Ippei admired Koji for his youth; in particular his “ability to fight and express anger.” “Old age is all that awaits you. There is nothing other than that,” (p. 29) he told Koji, seemingly encouraging his young employee to grab hold of life while he could. Indeed this is what Koji did, falling in love with Yoku and beginning a secret affair with her.
While out with Yoku one day, Koji discovered a heavy, black wrench laying on the ground. Not really understanding why, he picked it up and put it in his jacket pocket. Reflecting upon this later while imprisoned, he interprets the incident as having some sort of metaphysical importance. Koji concludes that it was not he who actually decided to pick up the wrench, but rather that the wrench itself was a manifestation of some primal “will” that had become concrete and which sought to throw the order of reality into chaos. This section of Chapter 2 immediately brought the ideas of Schopenhauer to mind. Schopenhauer, of course, considered all things in the world to be manifestations of an underlying, unitary will, but this cosmic will was neither benevolent nor moral. Rather, it was energetic, violent and cruel. It would make sense that Koji, a student of German literature, would be familiar with these ideas and thus come, in retrospect, to understand the black wrench as the embodiment of a force that seeks to disrupt his world.
And this wrench does indeed change the course of things. When Yoku and Koji walk in on Ippei and his lover Machiko engaged in a romantic rendezvous, Yoku becomes upset and Ippei strikes her across the face. Koji’s inner feelings are confused as he observes all of this. “…he wasn’t sure whom he hated” (p. 49). He longs for this confrontation to lead to some sort of epiphany, a pulling away of the veil that will lead to the revelation of the raw perversity of human nature, but instead all he sees is “nothing other than things he had grown utterly tired of seeing: the mediocre concealment of human shame, the irony of keeping up appearances” (p. 47). This disappoints him. The concrete discovery of her husband’s infidelity, which Yoku knew about all along, is not greeted by her with the “delight” of one who has finally revealed a long suspected truth; instead she reacts in the stereotypical way that a spurned wife is expected to act. At this, Koji recoils instinctively and finds himself compelled to correct things by taking an action that will impart lasting and profound significance to this moment. He reaches into his pocket, grabs the wrench and strikes Ippei repeatedly in the head.
In Chapter 3 we learn about the aftermath of the attack on Ippei. The blows he delivered caused severe brain damage, reducing Ippei to a passive and persistently grinning idiot who needs to be cared for by his wife. This is the crime for which Koji was incarcerated, and though he tells himself that he has “repented,” he nevertheless also feels as if this act of violence was a necessary corrective to the ugly, stupid and senseless reality that would otherwise have been the destiny of these three people:
At the time, I could no longer endure that putrid world; a world bereft of logic. It was necessary that I impart some logic into that world of pig’s entrails. And so you see, I imparted the cold, hard, black logic of iron. Namely, the logic of the wrench. (p. 51).
The “logic of the wrench” defies the nihilistic meaninglessness of reality. It is an attempt willfully to alter the course of nature so that these three characters will no longer be doomed to the mediocrity of conventional, forgettable lives. While they may be demonized, pitied and reviled by others, “the logic of the wrench” assures that they will not be easily forgotten as boring, faceless, run-of-the-mill drones that are merely part of the herd.
Following his incarceration, Koji settles into life with Ippei and Yoku, working in their greenhouses alongside Teijiro, one of the couple’s other employees. One day, he accompanies Yuko and Ippei on a hike to a waterfall in order to make an offering at a sacred shrine. Koji thinks about how happy he is in this peaceful setting, but the hike is rather strenuous, Ippei becomes tired, and Yoku, upon their arrival at the shrine, begins to speak and act disrespectfully and sacrilegiously. She complains that the shrine itself is “dull” and “small,” and then starts to taunt her husband by asking him if he even understands the concept of sacrifice. Ippei seems confused, but Yuko persists, trying to get him to pronounce the word “sacrifice.” When he is unable to do so, she asks him if he understands what a “kiss” is and then grabs Koji, embracing him passionately as her husband watches. This enrages Koji, who slaps Yoku across the face and then turns to face Ippei, who stands passive and silent, that ever present grin fixed to his face. It is a look that terrifies Koji, and in order to escape this fear, he once again embraces Yoku.
Chapter 4 begins with Koji drinking alone one night in the only bar in Iro. It is here that he meets up with two young men – Matsukichi and Kioyshi – and the beautiful daughter of his co-worker Teijiro; a young woman named Kimi. Kimi is on vacation from her factory job, but oddly she does not stay with her father, nor does she spend any time with him. In the past, after the death of her mother, she had seemed to be quite happy living together with her father, but then, quite suddenly Kimi left home, and it became apparent that there had been some sort of falling out.
Koji sits with his three friends in the bar, becoming more and more drunk. Finally, the three young men leave with Kimi and take a row boat out to a small island where they go swimming and then dry off by a campfire. Matsukichi and Kioyshi steal Kimi’s ukulele, which they see as a symbol of her love, and row away, leaving Koji and Kimi stranded on the island together. At the campfire, Kimi tells Koji that she knows he really loves Yuko, but that “just for this one night she was prepared to make a sacrifice and act as a stand-in” (p. 99). But as they have sex, Koji thinks to himself how the experience is “nothing but a poor imitation,” not of Yuko, but of the idealized sexual images that he had conjured up in his imagination while in prison. Here we find yet another indication of the nihilistic theme at the center of the story.
The nihilist considers all existent things to be substandard and flawed when compared to the superlative ideals that human beings are capable of imagining. On earth, there is no such thing as perfect Truth or Justice or Beauty, and so reality as it exists is always defective, ugly and deficient. The only perfections that exist are idealizations, and, disappointingly, the ideal is always incapable of becoming real. Thus, Kimi’s actual beauty is a “poor imitation” of real Beauty, and at the end of the chapter Koji reflects on how the sandals she has left on the island will eventually decay, being “transformed into a dwelling place for an infestation of sea lice,” finally melting “into the great multitude of unearthly, formless material phenomena that exist on earth” (p. 101). Reality is a raw, unformed, ugly, meaningless mass of matter. As Jean-Paul Sartre would say, the world of physical existence is an existence that is “in-itself.” It is a vast absurdity that means nothing at all until human beings exert their willful interpretational efforts to make something out of the nothing; just as Koji did with his wrench. But even those human interpretations are ephemeral, doomed to decay and to die along with the people who formulated them. Nature is ugly and meaningless, and the best thing that a human can do in life is to commit crimes against nature in defiance of its absurdity.
The ugliness of reality is further unveiled in Chapter 5. Before Kimi leaves to go back to her factory job, her father, Teijiro, proudly confesses to Koji that shortly after the death of his wife, he raped Kimi, his own daughter, and this is why she hates him. Teijiro produces a photograph that he bought in Tokyo of a young school girl and a young school boy having sex. Smiling, he says to Koji, “What do you think? It looks a bit like her, doesn’t it?” (p. 108). Teijiro – like Ippei and Koji – is a criminal. In confessing his own crime, he expects Koji, who has also slept with Kimi, to participate in his perverted sexual titillation. It is an attempt to share a bond of corruption with Koji in whom he recognizes a kindred, aberrant spirit. But Koji is still resistant. He is still convinced that he has “repented.”
When Kimi stops to say goodbye, Yoku is present, and Koji senses that she is jealous. But, as it turns out, she is not at all jealous of the sexual affair that he has had with Kimi. She is jealous of Koji’s crime:
Yuko’s jealousy was directed not at Kimi, who was of no importance. It was directed, she said, at Koji’s crime.
The anguish she felt at not having a crime to her name like the one he committed had grown in intensity. Ever since the picnic that day at the waterfall, this thought had rooted itself blackly in her mind – she wanted to compete with Koji’s crime, to somehow be able to own a crime like his in order to at least stand beside him. (p. 119)
Yoku is the only one who possesses no crime of her own, and because of this, she feels lacking and weak. She is the only one in her household who has not willfully challenged the conventional course of life, but rather has simply allowed herself to be swept along by the actions of others. In order to correct this, she must commit a willful transgression against morality.
The story comes to a crescendo when, on a walk with Ippei, Koji confronts his former teacher and accuses him of being a “hollow cavern,” and an “empty hole” (p. 140) around which the entire household revolves. This former scholar has lost all inner thought. He is a perpetually grinning nothing that everyone else must cater to. He has become a being-in-itself, a dumb, ugly force of nature, propelled by inertia and necessity rather than by willful desire. Like a black hole, he sucks everyone around him into his orbit, in the process also sucking the energy out of their lives. However, as Ippei becomes increasingly agitated, it becomes apparent that there is some sort of willful, inner consciousness still alive within him. “What is it you want?” Koji asks, and finally Ippei responds, “Death. I want to die” (p. 144).
The book ends with a first-person epilogue in which a researcher recounts his visit to the town of Iro and his meeting with a priest who recounts his memories of Yuko, Ippei and Koji. The priest recalls how at dawn on a particular day, Yuko and Koji appeared at his temple, hand-in-hand, looking like a bride and groom. They confessed to him that they had strangled Ippei to death. The priest shows the researcher the photograph described in the book’s prologue, and explains that Koji had given it to him the day before the murder. This was used as evidence of premeditation in his court trial, and so Koji was sentenced to death, while Yuko was sentenced to be imprisoned for life. While in prison, Yuko and Koji requested that the priest arrange for three graves to be established in which Yuko would be buried between Ippei and Koji. The priest gives the researcher a photograph of the grave markers, and he in turn visits Yoku in prison, passing the photo along to her. She now can be assured that she has committed a crime that justifies her lying alongside her husband and her lover for eternity.
The Frolic of the Beasts echoes themes that are found in many of Yukio Mishima’s major works, like The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, and the Sea of Fertility. Like these other books, it is a nihilistic tragedy in which the main characters struggle, suffer and ultimately die in the vain attempt to impose their ideals onto a meaningless and resistant world. Their actions take the form of crimes against conventional morality precisely because it is conventional morality that serves to keep individuals tied to an everyday, normal and unexceptional way of life. In order actively to break free from passive mediocrity, the characters in Mishima’s stories find that they must challenge the world as it has been given. The given world – the world in-itself – is an ugly, meaningless nothing that absorbs and dissipates all human effort. It is like the ocean, which provides a dark and threatening backdrop to The Frolic of the Beasts (as well as to The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea). The ocean serves as a symbol of Being itself; a dark, formless and flowing reality giving rise to, and then reabsorbing, all worldly phenomena. Like waves that erupt on the surface of the sea and then melt back into the depths, individual human lives erupt forth from Being, struggle for a short time to make something of their short existence, and then are inexorably vanquished back into the formless void.
In Mishima’s stories, just as in his own life, individual perversion, crime and depravity become acts of defiance against a meaningless world. Though human existence is impermanent, at least crimes against nature can potentially leave a lasting scar on the face of Being.
The paperback edition of Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings is now available for pre-order. Scheduled to be released later this year, it’s a bargain at $29.95!
Seen in San Francisco is a website featuring photos taken in San Francisco. One page highlights Bound Together Bookstore; and in particular three books that everyone should read:
Daniel O’Brien of Glasgow University has published a perceptive and positive review of my book Cinematic Nihilism in the journal Film-Philosophy:
“Cinematic Nihilism is essential reading for film-philosophy scholars or anyone wishing to explore how a nihilistic approach creates positive potential for activity and achievement.”
The full review appears in the latest issue (Volume 23, issue 1) of Film-Philosophy, available online.