[Work: The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker, 1973]
The Denial of Life:

A Critique of Pessimism, Pathologization, and Structuralism in Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death

 

Ernest Becker Sketch by M.R.P. - The Denial of Death - critique, criticism, analysis

Caricature Sketch by M.R.P.
[High-res prints available here]

Introduction:

One of my more unexpectedly disappointing experiences in recent memory was reading Ernest Becker’s seminal work of psychoanalytic theory and cultural anthropology, The Denial of Death. Humanity’s obsessive self-distraction and self-delusion on the topic of mortality is something in which I am deeply interested, which is why numerous people had recommended the book to me over the years. With the unmitigated praise (and prestigious accolades) the work has received, I was excited to read what I assumed would be a stirring philosophical and cultural analysis of the titular concept.

The Denial of Death does make a very good first impression, as Becker is an erudite scholar and (drawing on the work of Otto Rank) a subtle interpreter of the theories of Sigmund Freud. But concealed behind the parade of theorists and the solid analytical prose (seemingly consciously concealed) is an old-fashioned, moralizing, pessimistic set of theses: that humanity is in denial of mortality because of a ‘necessary’ denial of the human body and reality; that humanity can only exorcise the dread of death by embracing blind faith and rooting out ‘aberrant’ thoughts and behaviors; and that death can only be truly faced by those who approach the study of humanity and society through a (reductive) structuralist lens.

I think all three notions are shockingly misguided and false, to the extent that I almost see the widespread adoration of the work as either a defensive scenario (where folks who are unable to follow the thread of Becker’s argument praise it, for fear of having to admit their ignorance) or an ironic phenomenon of self-assured conservatism (wherein tradition-biased academics embrace the work because it pats them on the back and insists that only they have already conquered death). While The Denial of Death does certainly have praiseworthy merits, those merits have been stated and overstated across the decades. Thus, in this article I shall explain Becker’s project with special emphasis on its flaws, by addressing each of those three aforementioned theses in turn.

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[Work: The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker, 1973]
The Denial of Life:

A Critique of Pessimism, Pathologization, and Structuralism in Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death

was last modified: October 21st, 2019 by Daniel Podgorski

[Work: The Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare, 1611]
But Your Kind Hostess:

Rhetoric, Meter, and Tone in Act I Scene ii of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale

 

Introduction:

William Shakespeare Sanders Portrait - The Winter's Tale - Act 1 Scene 2 - rhetoric, meter, tone, dialogue, analysis

Sanders Portrait of William Shakespeare

In accordance with the heightened complexity in the structure of Shakespeare’s later plays, the rhetoric and verse forms grow more dense. The intertwining thematic and formal constructions visible throughout his body of work become knotted and subtly layered.

One such instance of this mode of high-wrought writing meeting structural experimentation in the later works of Shakespeare is The Winter’s Tale. Its narrative twists (and, indeed, genre twists) set the stage for dialogue pregnant with verbal and dramatic irony.

Careful attention to a particular passage and to the relationship between that passage and the entire play can yield a vivid portrait of how the play’s thematic concerns are woven into every moment. The passage near the beginning of The Winter’s Tale wherein Hermione convinces Polixenes to stay in Sicily is a potent example of this. In this scene, the play’s concerns with authoritative testimony and with gendered power structures belie the facade of courtly playfulness. These areas of interest, though never explicitly confronted, are present in the passage’s musicality, rhythm, diction, and rhetoric.

There is a confluence in the dialogue formed by the rhetorical flux of femininity, power, youth, and virtue and the ironic metrical disharmony of the dialogue’s participants which situates the scene as an introduction to The Winter’s Tale‘s comedy with hints of its imminent tragedy.

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[Work: The Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare, 1611]
But Your Kind Hostess:

Rhetoric, Meter, and Tone in Act I Scene ii of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale

was last modified: October 22nd, 2019 by Daniel Podgorski

[Work: King Lear, William Shakespeare, 1606]
Music be the Food of Madness:

Repetition, Rhythm, and Passion in Act II Scene iv of Shakespeare’s King Lear

 

William Shakespeare Sketch by M.R.P. - King Lear Act II Scene iv - Act 2 Scene 4 - repetition, meter, speech, analysis

Caricature Sketch by M.R.P.

Introduction:

The mental disintegration of Lear in Shakespeare’s King Lear is marked, in much of Lear’s dialogue from the play’s latter three acts, by madness interspersed with moments of lucidity. Yet, just before that madness becomes dominant, one can see a pivotal moment in the dramatic action at once figuring and presaging Lear’s breakdown by examining the final scene of the play’s second act.

More particularly, this pivot can be witnessed by paying close attention to the portion of Act II Scene iv which features Lear’s last speech prior to his passionate invocation of the storm on the heath. This speech, delivered in response to the final stripping of his attendant knights by Goneril and Regan, showcases a Lear concerned with dignity, identity, and sanity.

Rather than madness interspersed with lucidity, this speech comes across instead as lucidity tinged with madness. A motion can be traced from logic toward passion and from sanity toward madness via attention to the speech’s employment of poetic techniques.

While grief encroaches on the logical concerns and addresses of the speech’s content, the precise metrical and musical constructions of Shakespeare (much like the constructions of Robert Browning that I have previously covered in this series) reflect the motion of the content—both in the moments when Lear is in total control of his faculties, as well as when he feels his mental control slipping.

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[Work: King Lear, William Shakespeare, 1606]
Music be the Food of Madness:

Repetition, Rhythm, and Passion in Act II Scene iv of Shakespeare’s King Lear

was last modified: August 3rd, 2018 by Daniel Podgorski

[Work: A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole, 1980]
Peopling Picaresque:

On the Well-drawn Characters of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces

 

Introduction:

A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole sketch by M.R.P. - characters, picaresque

Sketch by M.R.P.

The publishing history of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is a morose one to recount. In 1969, at the age of 31—after struggling for years with anxiety, paranoia, and depression, which were in turn catalyzed by the successive rejections of his works for publication by notable figures in the publishing business—Toole ran a garden hose from the exhaust of his car into an unventilated cabin, killing himself. Eleven years after his death, in 1980, Toole’s novel was published after his mother shared it with writer and enthusiastic reader Walker Percy. In time, it became an international success, and A Confederacy of Dunces posthumously won John Kennedy Toole the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981.

I mention all of this not merely to set the scene and sow sadness, but to establish the proper context for today’s topic: the development and embodiment of unique characters in Toole’s novel. A Confederacy of Dunces is a work of picaresque fiction, meaning that it follows the wayward exploits of a singular or iconoclastic protagonist as they attempt to navigate a variety of societal strata and scenarios. Toole was himself a singular person: a gifted scholar, a witty presence, and a troubled mind; and as a result, his protagonist is perfectly drawn for his project, while all of the other characters that Toole created are equally vibrant.

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[Work: A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole, 1980]
Peopling Picaresque:

On the Well-drawn Characters of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces

was last modified: January 9th, 2018 by Daniel Podgorski

[Work: Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather, 1927]
Personal Ethics and the Old West:

The Unique Form and Common Values of Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop

 

Willa Cather - Death Comes for the Archbishop - ethics, Old West, CatholicIntroduction:

One of the first books covered in this series was one of my favorites: The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. And, as I said in relation to Wells’ Moreau in that earlier article, it is the case that even if today’s book, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa CatherDeath Comes for the Archbishop - Willa Cather - ethics, Old West, Catholic, were not well-written enough to be worthwhile throughout (which, also like Wells’ novel, it fortunately is), it would still be worth reading so as to provide context for its extremely insightful and satisfying ending. But that said, I would like to set the ending aside and encourage you to check out this curious piece of semi-biographical historical fiction.

Death Comes for the Archbishop so stretches the boundaries of conventional plot development that its status as a novel is widely debated. Willa Cather herself preferred to refer to it as a narrative rather than a novel. Rather than a series of events which build to a climax, the text is comprised of nine small vignette-esque sections (and a prologue) which present periods of time and experiences that are thematically interrelated.

All nine sections cover portions of the life of Bishop Jean Marie Latour, the novel’s protagonist. Bishop Latour is a reserved, efficient, handsome Catholic official. In accordance with the will of the Cardinals, Latour is removed from his post in Sandusky, Ohio and sent to take charge of the parish of the New Mexico territories, (then) recently annexed by the United States, and build up a diocese there.

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[Work: Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather, 1927]
Personal Ethics and the Old West:

The Unique Form and Common Values of Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop

was last modified: July 23rd, 2016 by Daniel Podgorski