Seeking to Slacken Time’s Swift Foot

Peter and Earl had been friends for many years. They lived 3000 miles apart and, because it was the 1970s, they communicated via letters and audio tapes. In 1978, Earl sent Peter the manuscript of his latest book on teacher development. Peter was shocked by some of his friend’s radical ideas on death and he questioned their relevance in a book about language teaching: Becker is rather like dialectical materialism and Marxism. Marxism is a very persuasive doctrine when confined to politics and economics. Becker’s ideas in The Denial of Death cannot be tested.

Peter believed that Power, not Death, was the strongest force on earth and he suggested  that Earl reference Adler instead. Arthur Adler’s book Understanding Life proposes that man’s guiding principle is his desire for superiority and domination.  I am very interested in power (philosophically I mean!). Having seen its effects in China and Bulgaria I cannot believe that its fascination, its rewards, its irreplaceability, needs any explanation or support from death or death denial. Power in one form or another brings everything – except immortality. And the way the rich and powerful throughout history have sought to slacken ‘time’s swift foot’ can be easily explained, I should have thought, by the natural desire to continue to enjoy the sweets of power as long as possible.

Earl responded: Showing my readers the power relationships (Adler) would take them deeper than most such books go. But Becker shows why the power games are so ‘deadly urgent’. As for the acceptability of Becker – the first 2 chapters of ‘A Way and Ways’, were presented as is to 100+ teachers in Honolulu. Most of them were in their 20s and 30s. The Becker element was welcomed, rather than being ignored or rejected. It was as though the audience was grateful that someone was willing to look at these ideas with them. Becker was only trying to describe how people do react to the knowledge, and was not urging people to deny it. I think that when you read the whole book you will find many more references to ‘life’ than to ‘death’

Peter wrote back: Becker claims the denial of death is ‘the unifying principle behind all that people do’ – not economic determinism or sex. Death interests me. However right you and Becker are or are not, I think that both health and wisdom demand ‘death acceptance’ after a certain age. The western pursuit of youth and dread of age is, I feel, amongst the most serious neuroses of our culture. The Buddhists do better. At 60 years of age, I should be taking my saffron robe and my begging bowl in order to start preparing for death.  

Meanwhile I am interested in the idea that many millions of years of predatory ancestors have given us even more powerful inherited urges – the desire for territory, dominance, an instinct for the small group. The death of the individual is of little importance compared with the survival of the clan, the family, one’s children. It wasn’t only the Kamikaze pilots who threw away their lives ‘as ‘twere the merest trifle’ during the last war. The concern for the individual is a very recent development. My arguments may be idle ones and Becker may prove right – but my point is that I am surely not unique in coming up with counter arguments to his thesis and so ‘taking my eye off the ball’.

Last month, I came across a copy of The Denial of Death in a second hand bookshop in Wisconsin. It was a rich and thought-provoking read. Becker describes our impulse towards immortality and the instinctive desire we all have to outlive death and decay. Our appetite for power and influence, our need to feel omnipotent and in control is a reflex against the terror of dying someday. We want to matter and we want to measure up better than everyone else and so we pursue symbolic definitions of our self-worth – through words and images in the mind and on paper. Few of us will enter the history books and yet many of us strive to do so.

My crown I am, but still my griefs are mine. You may my glories and my state depose, But not my griefs; still am I king of those.    Richard III Act 4 Scene 1

There is no secure answer to the awesome mystery of being human. Whatever we can achieve, writes Becker, must be within our subjective energies, without deadening and with the full exercise of passion, vision, pain and sorrow.

Ernest Becker died in 1974, just two months before The Denial of Death was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He was 49 years old. Peter died in 1998 at the age of 79. Earl was 89 when he died in 2013.

A Way and Ways by Earl Stevick was published in 1980 by Longman.