[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

[Game: Dark Souls, FromSoftware, 2011]
Unchosen Undead:

A Thorough Existentialist Philosophical Analysis of FromSoftware’s Original Dark Souls

 

Introduction:

Dark Souls, FromSoftware’s dark fantasy masterpiece, is a seemingly impenetrable work from an interpretive and thematic standpoint. First, famously, much of its worldbuilding and story can be reached only by careful attention to environmental set pieces, optional character interactions, and item descriptions. Second, and more of an obstacle for our present analytical purpose, Dark Souls is a game which seems to be about death, decay, and annihilation—but which is simultaneously a game starring a prophecy-driven character who survives death, and in which souls are demonstrable realities.

But would-be Souls scholars should not despair. As for the subtlety and density of its worldbuilding, this is no rarity in the wider world of art. While it’s nowhere near as complex as a Modernist novel, I would contend that Dark Souls is similarly rewarding to careful attention and study as are, for instance, the works of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. So, obviously I don’t consider the difficulty of accessing its story to be an insurmountable detriment. And as for the seeming thematic contradictions of the game, these are not intractable.

A reading of Dark Souls as being in conversation with the canon of existentialist philosophical thought yields a relatively straightforward path toward interpretation: Dark Souls, especially through its story and gameplay mechanics, is an allegory for the human condition in an entropic universe with no inherent meaning. That might seem vague and insubstantial, but hereafter I intend to provide support for it (and eventually specificity) through careful attention to both the game and the relevant philosophy.

Dark Souls screenshot with Furtive Pygmy, Dark Soul, and First Flame - existentialist philosophical analysis of Dark Souls - FromSoftware - existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Friedrich Nietzsche

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[Game: Dark Souls, FromSoftware, 2011]
Unchosen Undead:

A Thorough Existentialist Philosophical Analysis of FromSoftware’s Original Dark Souls

was last modified: October 30th, 2019 by Daniel Podgorski

[Work: Men and Women, Robert Browning, 1855]
A Soliloquy of Browning’s:

Art, Time, and Commodity in Robert Browning’s “A Toccata of Galuppi’s”

 

Introduction:

Portrait of Robert Browning by Thomas B. Read - A Toccata of Galuppi's - art, time, death, commodity

Portrait of Robert Browning by Thomas Buchanan Read

Before returning to a consideration of a novel next week, I would like to once more (as I did in the last article’s analysis of two-centuries-old anti-slavery poetry) carefully examine a classic poem. In this case, it will be the poem “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” from (originally) the 1855 collection Men and Women by Robert Browning, who is known for pieces of poetry with a distinct narrative voice (such that his poems can be read as dramatic monologues). “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” is about art and death and beautiful music, and the analysis below is considerably lengthy, but I hope you will grant me the time.

An attention to artifice suffuses the act of invention whereby Robert Browning’s poems proceed from deeply characterized speakers. This attention to artifice necessarily involves a consideration of the relation between that which is artificial and that which is actual—a relation that can be understood as the more general form of which the relation between art and life is a particular form.

In his poem, “A Toccata of Galuppi’s,” the relationship between art and life becomes a subject of direct address for both the speaker of the poem and the performance represented by the poem itself. The poem expresses a view of art as a permanent representation of impermanent life. For those who consume the art, it becomes a reminder of the ephemerality of pleasure and life even as it discourses on a particular subject or aspect of life, and even as it operates in a tone far afield from melancholy.

Further, the act of consuming art, Browning’s speaker contends, is an economic act wherein time is traded for participation, contributing to life’s aforementioned brevity. Browning’s poem seamlessly blends a dramatic consideration of art as an inadequate-because-eternal approximation of human life with an evaluation of the grim commodification of art as a temporal purchase. Through this combination, “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” reflects on the inadequacy of art to quell anxieties about mortality.

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[Work: Men and Women, Robert Browning, 1855]
A Soliloquy of Browning’s:

Art, Time, and Commodity in Robert Browning’s “A Toccata of Galuppi’s”

was last modified: June 15th, 2016 by Daniel Podgorski

[Topics: Death, Materialism, Philosophy of Religion, Reincarnation]
Pop Philosophy:

The Mixed Philosophical Legacy of Alan Watts, and His Ideas about Death

 

Alan Watts Sketch by M.R.P. - Philosophy, Death, and Reincarnation

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

Introduction:

Alan Watts—in his time a popular lecturer and philosopher of mind, aesthetics, metaphysics, and religion—was a bit of an oddball. I feel fairly confident in saying that Alan Watts’ interpretations and considerations of Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, and Anglicanism, as well as his general attitude and demeanor, have to some degree shaped the popular image of the field of philosophy (and not for the better).

Much like how producers of pop culture almost always put poet characters in the emotional style and darkly colored trappings of the mid-twentieth-century confessional and beat poets, so the string of airy, unintuitive, and completely self-assured claims that constitute Watts’ works give shape to the nebulous and impractical stereotype of the discipline of philosophy possessed by so many modern students of science in the western world.

It is irrelevant that most of the aforementioned producers and students are not consciously picturing such forebears (in fact, I find it unlikely that most of them have even heard of Robert Lowell or Alan Watts); still, to find the source for a society’s image of an academic pursuit, one often need look no further than the best-selling popularizers of that field in the few preceding generations. These days, philosophical characters seem to always be a caricature of either Freud, Marx, or Watts. (Indeed, the 2013 science-fiction film Her featured an artificially intelligent philosopher who was a reconstruction of the consciousness of Alan Watts.)

Now, because I have already, on multiple occasions in this series, concluded that scientists should study philosophy and philosophers should study science, I will let go of these digressions and move on to my main topic for the day: Alan Watts’ discussion of death. I should start by clarifying that, although he and I would have no end of disagreements, I do still respect Alan Watts; he was a sincere thinker and a captivating speaker.

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[Topics: Death, Materialism, Philosophy of Religion, Reincarnation]
Pop Philosophy:

The Mixed Philosophical Legacy of Alan Watts, and His Ideas about Death

was last modified: April 13th, 2019 by Daniel Podgorski

[Work: The Stranger, Albert Camus, 1942]
Smiling While Despised:

The Ending of Albert Camus’ The Stranger and the Beginning of Authenticity

 

Albert Camus Sketch by M.R.P. - The Stranger ending - authenticity, existentialism

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

Introduction:

A month ago, your Tuesday Tome article consisted of a discussion of the topic of authenticity in the existential classic The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy. This week, I would like to look at this same theme, authenticity, in the context of a work that is not merely labeled existential, but existentialist, appearing as it does among the canon of the French existentialists in the 20th century: The Stranger by Albert Camus.

The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of The Stranger, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already read the book.

Specifically, I would like to talk about the ending epiphany of protagonist Meursault, and what it is that allows Meursault to face his death happily at the end of The Stranger. My initial premise is that attainment of the aforementioned authenticity allows Meursault to do so, but this premise will be complicated by the novel’s very last line, for which I will offer three different but related readings.

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[Work: The Stranger, Albert Camus, 1942]
Smiling While Despised:

The Ending of Albert Camus’ The Stranger and the Beginning of Authenticity

was last modified: February 22nd, 2018 by Daniel Podgorski