“The Romantic Solution” from Earnest Becker’s “The Denial of Death”

This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. In this section Becker describes the consequences of modernity to the meaning seeking person. From Chapter 8

The Romantic Solution

Once we realize what the religious solution did, we can see how modern man edged himself into an impossible situation. He still needed to feel heroic, to know that his life mattered in the scheme of things; he still had to be specially “good” for something truly special. Also, he still had to merge himself with some higher, self-absorbing meaning, in trust and in gratitude —what we saw as the universal motive of the Agape-merger. If he no longer had God, how was he to do this? One of the first ways that occurred to him, as Rank saw, was the “romantic solution”: he fixed his urge to cosmic heroism onto another person in the form of a love object.3 The self-glorification that he needed in his innermost nature he now looked for in the love partner. The love partner becomes the divine ideal within which to fulfill one’s life. All spiritual and moral needs now become focussed in one individual. Spirituality, which once referred to another dimension of things, is now brought down to this earth and given form in another individual human being. Salva¬tion itself is no longer referred to an abstraction like God but can be sought “in the beatification of the other.” We could call this “transference beatification.” Man now lives in a “cosmology of two.”4 To be sure, all through history there has been some competition be-tween human objects of love and divine ones—we think of Heloise and Abelard, Alcibiades and Socrates, or even the Song of Solomon. But the main difference is that in traditional society the human partner would not absorb into himself the whole dimension of the divine; in modern society he does. pg. 159

In case we are inclined to forget how deified the romantic love object is, the popular songs continually remind us. They tell us that the lover is the “springtime,” the “angel-glow,” with eyes “like stars,” that the experience of love will be “divine,” like heaven” itself, and so on and on popular love songs have surely had this content from ancient times and will likely continue to have it as long as man remains a mammal and a cousin of the primates. These songs reflect the hunger for real experience, a serious emotional yearning on the part of the creature. The point is that if the love object is divine perfection, then one’s own self is elevated by joining one’s destiny to it. One has the highest measure for one’s ideal- striving; all of one’s inner conflicts and contradictions, the many aspects of guilt—all these one can try to purge in a perfect consummation with perfection itself. This becomes a true “moral vindication in the other. “5 Modern man fulfills his urge to self expansion in the love object just as it was once fulfilled in God: “God as .. representation of our own will does not resist us except when we ourselves want it, and just as little does the lover resist us who, in yielding, subjects himseff to our will.”6 In one word, the love object is. God. As a Hindu song puts it: “My lover is like God; if he accepts me my existence is utilized.” No wonder Rank could conclude that the love relationship of modern man is a religious problem.” pg. 160

As we know from our own experience this method gives great and real benefits. Is one oppressed by the burden of his life? Then he can lay it at his divine partner’s feet. Is self-consciousness too painful, the sense of being a separate individual, trying to make some kind of meaning out of who one is, what life is, and the like? Then one can wipe it away in the emotional yielding to the partner, forget oneself in the delirium of sex, and still be marvellously quickened in the experience. Is one weighed down by the guilt of his body, the drag of his animality that haunts his victory over decay and death? But this is just what the comfortable sex relationship is for: in sex the body and the consciousness of it are no longer separated; the body is no longer something we look at as alien to ourselves. As soon as it is fully accepted as a body by the partner, our self-consciousness vanishes; it merges with the body and with the self-consciousness and body of the partner. Four fragments of „existence melt into one unity and things are no longer disjointed and grotesque: everything is “natural,” functional, expressed as it should be—and so it is stilled and justified. All the more is guilt wiped away when the body finds its natural usage in the production of a child. Nature herself then proclaims one’s innocence, how fitting it is that one should have a body, be basically a procreative animal. pg. 162

But now the rub for man. If sex is a fulfillment of his role as an animal in the species, it reminds him that he is nothing himself but a link in the chain of being, exchangeable with any other and completely expendable in himself. Sex represents, then, species consciousness and, as such, the defeat of individuality, of personality. But it is just, this personality that man wants to develop: the idea of himself as a special cosmic hero with special gifts for the universe. He doesn’t want to be a mere fornicating animal like any other—this is not a truly human meaning, a truly distinctive contribution to world life. From the very beginning, then, the sexual act represents a double negation: by physical death and of distinctive personal gifts. This point is crucial because it explains why sexual taboos have been at the heart of human society since the very beginning. They affirm the triumph of human personality over animal sameness. With the complex codes for sexual self-denial, man was able to impose the cultural map for personal immortality over the animal body. He brought sexual taboos into being because he needed to triumph over the body, and he sacrificed the pleasures of the body to the highest pleasure of all self-perpetuation as a spiritual being through all eternity. This is the substitution that Roheim was really describing when he made his penetrating observation on the Australian aborigines: The repression and sublimation of: the primal scene is at the bottom of totemistic ritual and religion, that is, the denial of the body as the transmitter of peculiarly human life. pg. 163

If you find the ideal love and try to make it the sole judge of good and bad in yourself, the measure of your strivings, you become simply the reflex of another person. You lose yourself in the other, just as obedient children lose themselves in the family. No wonder that dependency, whether of the god or the slave in the relationship, carries with it so much underlying resentment. As Rank put it, explaining the historical bankruptcy of romantic loves a “person no longer wanted to be used as another’s soul even with its attendant compensations.”17 When you confuse personal love and cosmic heroism you are bound to fail in both spheres. The impossibility of the heroism undermines the love, even if it is real. As Rank so aptly says, this double failure is what produces the sense of utter despair that we see in modern man. It is impossible to get blood from a stone, to get spirituality from a physical being, and so one feels “inferior” that his life has. somehow not succeeded, that he has not realized his true gifts, and so on.”

No wonder. How can a human being be a god-like “everything’ to another? No human relationship can bear the burden of godhood, and the attempt has to take its toll in some way on both parties. The reasons are not far to seek. The thing that makes God the perfect spiritual object is precisely that he is abstract—as Hegel saw. He is not a concrete individuality, and so He does not limit our development by His own personal will and needs. When we look for the “perfect” human object we are looking for someone who allows us to express our will completely, without any frustration or false notes. We want an object that reflects a truly ideal image of ourselves.20 But no human object can do this; humans have wills and counterwills of their own, in a thousand ways they can move against us, their very appetites offend us. God’s greatness and power is something that we can nourish ourselves in, without its being compromised in any way by the happenings of this world. No human partner can offer this assurance because the partner is real. However much we may idealize and idolize him, he inevitably reflects earthly decay and imperfection. And as he is our ideal measure of value, this imperfection falls back upon us. If your partner is your “All” then any shortcoming in him becomes a major threat to you.

If a woman loses her beauty, or shows that she doesn’t have the strength and dependability that we once thought she did, or loses her intellectual sharpness, or falls short of our own peculiar needs in any of a thousand ways, then all the investment we have made in her is undermined. The shadow of imperfection falls over our lives, and with it—death and the defeat of cosmic heroism. “She lessens” = “I die.” This is the reason for so much bitterness, shortness of temper and recrimination in our daily family lives. We get back a reflection from our loved objects that is less than the grandeur and perfection that we need to nourish ourselves. We feel diminished by their human shortcomings. Our interiors feel empty or anguished, our lives valueless, when we see the inevitable pettinesses of the world expressed through the human beings in it. For this reason, too, we often attack loved ones and try to bring them down to size. We see that our gods have clay feet, and so we must hack away at them in order to save ourselves, to deflate the unreal over-investment that we have made in them in order to secure our own apotheosis. In this sense, the deflation of the over-invested partner, parent, or friend is a creative act that is necessary to correct the lie that we have been living, to reaffirm our own inner freedom of growth that transcends the particular object and is not bound to it. But not everybody can do this because many of us need the lie in order to live. We may have no other God and we may prefer to deflate ourselves in order to keep the relationship, even though we glimpse the impossibility of it and the slavishness to which it reduces us. This is one direct explanation—as we shall see–of the phenomenon of depression.

After all, what is it that we want when we elevate the love partner to the position of God? We want redemption—nothing less. We want to be rid of our faults, of our•feeling of nothingness. We want to be justified, to know that our creation has not been in vain. We turn to the love partner for the experience of the heroic, for perfect validation; we expect them to “make us good”: through love,” Needless to say, human partners can’t do this. The Iover does not dispense cosmic heroism; he cannot give absolution in his own name. The reason is that as a finite being he: too is doomed, and we read that doom in his own fallibilities, in his very deterioration. Redemption can only come from outside the individual, from beyond, from our conceptualization of the ultimate source of things, the perfection of creation. It can only come, as Rank saw, when we…lay down our individuality, give it up, admit our creatureliness and helplessness.24 What partner would ever permit us to do this, would bear us if we did? The partner: needs us to be as God. On the other hand, what partner could ever want to give redemption—unless he was mad? Even the partner who plays God in the relationship cannot stand it for long, as at some level he knows that he does not possess the resources that the other needs and claims. He does not have perfect strength, perfect assurance, secure heroism. He cannot stand the burden of godhood, and so he must resent the slave. Besides, the uncomfortable realization must always be there: how can one be a genuine god if one’s slave is so miserable and unworthy? pg. 167, 168

About Paul VanderKlay

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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3 Responses to “The Romantic Solution” from Earnest Becker’s “The Denial of Death”

  1. Pingback: The Same Sex Marriage Debate and our Romantic Idolatries | Leadingchurch.com

  2. Pingback: Forgiveness For Bloated Selves | Leadingchurch.com

  3. Pingback: What Is Marriage For? | Leadingchurch.com

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