Discover more from Litverse
In Defense of Repression
Lessons from 'The Denial of Death'
Our cells are the building blocks of all life, the biological unit that is the structure and function of all living beings. Every day, tens of billions of our cells die on the inside and the outside, from skin cells to brain cells. The scientific name for this process is “apoptosis,” which translates from Greek to “falling off.” Apoptosis begs the question of how we define ourselves not only at the cellular level, but as a whole: What do we keep? What do we leave behind? Do we have a choice?
Philosophers may approach the concept of a new self and old self with the paradox about the ship of Thesus, which Plutarch recorded for us:
The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.
If all the parts of an object are replaced during a long journey, is it the same object at the end of the journey? Are we the same self from one day to the next? From one year to the next? One decade? We are forever shedding interpretations of our inner life as we tell ourselves new stories. It is up to us to interpret those stories and, with materials new and old, construct an identity.
Sometimes, we have no choice in what comes bubbling back up to the surface. Sometimes, we get caught in the riptide. That would explain why the number of US adults seeking mental health treatment rose from 27.2 million in 2002 to 41.4 million 2020. In 2021, one in five Americans received some form of mental health treatment. During lockdowns, we spent entirely too much time with ourselves.
If around 20% of Americans receive some mental health treatment, it’s pertinent to add that about half (47%) of Americans surveyed say that they see going to therapy as a sign of weakness and repression is a feat of strength to be admired. There are generational differences in how we tell our stories, which is made clear by another survey: just 8% of baby boomers say they’re willing to go to therapy. Meanwhile, 45% of millennials say they will talk to a therapist to improve their mental health.
Is therapy weakness or wisdom? Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, in his Pulitzer-prize winning The Denial of Death (1972), argues that therapy and self-expression needs to have a limit. Balance is necessary, he believes, in all the things. Even the truth.
Ernest Becker, born 1924 to Jewish parents who emigrated to Massachusetts, was a World War II veteran who had liberated a Nazi concentration camp. After a stint as a dignitary in France, he got his PhD in 1960 and taught in the psychiatry department of Upstate Medical College in Syracuse, New York. He witnessed the industrial incarceration of patients subject to a psychiatry that his close friend and colleague, Thomas Szaz, described as a new kind of totalitarianism that corrupted mental health institutions and turned patients into prisoners. Both men lost their jobs for their views.
Psychiatry, in the sixties, was government business. With the horrific experiences of World War II in the back of his mind, it is then no wonder Becker claims repression is necessary for survival and systemic therapy does more harm than good. In The Denial of Death, we see a charmingly contrarian confidence that tell us that repression is a process that gives us power over our experiences. One must not see it as the antithesis of expression but an alternative to it. We may consider two things to let us see repression this way.
First: all creation is a translation of what we repress.
Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start… But when you get the damned hurt use it—don’t cheat with it… You see, Bo, you’re not a tragic character. Neither am I. All we are is writers and what we should do is write.
Hemingway’s advice is simple: we must channel our pain into a creation beyond the self, not within the self. This creation is our art.
Second: we cannot be functional members of society without repression.
This is why we say we are irrevocably “good” when asked, regardless of our inner state. Repression of our inner state for the sake of an outer state is the basic economics of a personality market apathetic to the unprofitable idea of oblivion. Becker explains repression as a method in which we merge with “some higher, self-absorbing meaning,” an exercise in community and cohesion and culture. In finding a common cause, we find meaning not through ourselves but through others. As Becker writes:
One of the things we see as we glance over history is that creature consciousness is always absorbed by culture. Culture opposes nature and transcends it. Culture is in its most intimate intent a heroic denial of creatureliness. But this denial is more effective in some epochs than in others. When man lived securely under the canopy of the Judeo-Christian world picture he was part of a great whole; to put it in our terms, his cosmic heroism was completely mapped out, it was unmistakable. He came from the invisible world into the visible one by the act of God.
In other words, repression is good because by repressing ourselves we identify with a cause greater than our individual self. Becker writes that, without religion, a secular society is left to find that self-absorbing higher meaning in consumerism or decide to turn further inwards.
Commercial industrialism promised Western man a paradise on earth, described in great detail by the Hollywood Myth, that replaced the paradise in heaven of the Christian myth. And now psychology must replace them both with the myth of paradise through self-knowledge.
Becker frames psychology as the myth of paradise through self-knowledge. The Denial of Death argues that as animals, our first instinct is to believe in a myth as a way to sustain ourselves in what he calls a “remorseless world.” Psychology acts as a way to help us tell that myth, allowing us to name all the parts of ourselves, but at the cost of making our interiority indecipherable to ourselves and the world. As Becker describes it, psychology leaves us vulnerable because we lose our shared social heroisms to analysis:
[Man] buries himself in psychology in the belief that awareness all by itself will be some kind of magical cure for his problems. But psychology was born with the breakdown of shared social heroisms; it can only be gone beyond with the creation of new heroisms that are basically matters of belief and will, dedication to a vision.
Becker’s thesis is that repression is how we connect to a higher meaning and prioritize something greater than the individual self. Psychology does the opposite by asking us to to ghostwrite our belief system with the fantasies of our histories, making us all heroes according to the kingdoms we dream into being in which our preferences are royal decree and any critiques of the validity of the royal decree, whether through group text, family email chain, or awkward holiday dinner, are to be considered an act of aggression to be met with civil war. In respecting too many realities, we risk losing grip on our own in the fearful knowledge that everything is subjective and therefore everything we believe to be true and beautiful and special are lies of the light. As Becker explains, that light comes from two things: transference and projection. These two things are how we repress the infinite enough to realize the possible, in knowing that clemency is repression and repression is forgiveness and forgiveness, not grudges, is what makes us move on.
So is repression good or not? Does it depend on how you define it? Read the epic conclusion in “In Defense of Repression II.”