The Urge to Master Death

The Urge to Master Death

Fear of death is a motivation that has driven man to attempt to control death by controlling the world. In this piece, Aurora Linnea explores the patriarchal root behind the unending drive to control and ward off death.

Patriarchal Terror in the Era of Covid-19

By Aurora Linnea

Man is afraid to die. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Denial of Death (1974), Ernest Becker proposed that, “of all things that move man, one of the principal ones is his terror of death.” Becker studied the oeuvres of Brilliant Men – Freud, Kierkegaard – and struck upon Man’s predicament: Man is conscious, he observes that what lives will one day die; Man is aware he is alive, hence he will die, and he is afraid. He fears his body, the “terrifying dilemma” of that “material fleshy casing” yoking him to the physical world of creatures, the mortal, earthly world with its cycles circling birth into death, its inherent limits and exigencies. Being a living body reminds Man he will die; he is afraid. Man is afraid, all the man-made world has been built around his fear. Man’s fear of death has been the ulterior force goading human history along its ill-starred trajectory. Becker’s thesis: The history of Man is the history of his fear, understanding Man means understanding Man’s fear, Man does what Man does, Man is what Man has become, because he is afraid.

To be human, according to Becker, is to be terrified of death and to pass one’s life laboring to allay terror’s torments through “a defiance of and a denial of the real nature of the world.” That Man is a mortal animal is the wellspring of his suffering, in retaliation Man pits himself against the “inadmissible reality” of…reality itself. It is this dedication to existing in pained permanent opposition to material reality that Becker defines as the project of “humanization.”

Clever creature that he is, Man has refined methods for channeling his horror of reality/mortality into the noble enterprise of “humanization.” He dreams up solacing fantasies of immortality, identifying himself with deathless disembodied gods of his own creation. If Man scorns death for depriving him his right to control his own destiny, he rebels by devoting his life to seizing control over as much of the living world as he can manage. He dominates inferior beings, beasts, lesser men, the wilds. He accumulates wealth, to stand as an undying monument to his reign. He extends his dominion through conquest, subjugates whole peoples, builds empires. His yearly more efficient exploitation of the underlings over whom he rules sings to him reassurances of his limitless power. He abstracts his way to intellectual transcendence, leaving his body below. He invents machines to act as barriers between himself and nature, so his hands don’t get dirty. He entombs the natural world choked-out unseen within an encrustation of man-made artifice to find himself surrounded by the products of his own mind, every disruptive reminder of terrorizing reality extirpated from his field of vision.

Thus, Becker concludes, Man triumphs over “mere physicalness,” salvages himself from the clutches of death. Becomes human.

Man makes himself the Master.

Except Man does all that and still he dies, and sometimes, when reality creeps in from its appointed place exiled to the periphery onto the mainstage of the man-made world and the Master’s delusion-complex of power-and-control defenses against death begins to unravel, Man must take emergency action. Here we have the psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg, writing during the Second World War, to help us understand what comes next: “Man then resorts to the mobilization of his aggression, his hatred.” Through the conversion of fear into hatred enacted as violence against some chosen enemy, Man can restore the necessary sense of control and avoid the humiliation of being caught frightened. “The murderous drives,” Zilboorg explains, “enable us to feel masters over life and death.” He terms this the process of “overcoming death by means of murder,” and discourages readers from feeling overly distressed by Man’s tendency to transmute fear into “murderous hatred.” It’s human nature, after all, to lash out in rage against mortality.

Becker and Zilboorg wrote “Man” to denote “Humanity”; both presumed they were analyzing “human nature,” the “human condition.” In actuality their sex-specific terminology was entirely appropriate, their exclusion of women apt. The condition these authors elucidate is not the “human condition,” but the patriarchal one, the psychic disposition of human cultures malformed by millennia of male rule. ‘Man’ is not ‘humanity,’ but men, as in males—and in fact, only a small subset of males can be correctly included here. ‘Humanization’ via the rejection of physical reality, through domination and exploitation, delusions of control, and antagonistic violence has been largely the undertaking of Western patriarchal civilization. Given that those of us without the luck to have been born ruling-class males of European descent have historically been fodder for, rather than the innovators of, these patriarchal procedures, a clarifying revision of Becker’s thesis feels warranted.

The history of patriarchy is the history of men’s fear.

To understand patriarchal civilization means understanding the fear that lurks at the core of patriarchal masculinity; engineered and administered by ruling-class men, human society has become what it is today because the men in power are afraid to die.

Fear of death and its various palliations are so thoroughly embedded in the social machinery of Western patriarchal civilization that under normal circumstances, they pass below notice. Granted, to do so has called for the institutionalization of brutal hierarchies, oppressive empires, genocide, gynocide, ecocide, the pervading malaise of mass alienation, but the Masters have been reasonably successful in convincing themselves they’re not going to die. Their fear has been repressed and managed, sublimated into everyday atrocity. It is only when the patriarchal mind is cornered by a surprise encounter with reality/mortality and its defense mechanisms go into overdrive that the underlying fear hurtles to the fore.

What could be a more paradigmatic “surprise encounter with reality/mortality” than an infectious-disease pandemic?

Covid-19 has the Masters running scared. Patriarchal death-terror is a naked thing shivering on the table now, men’s strategies of self-defense newly conspicuous as they scramble to safeguard themselves against the affront of the unacceptable, inescapable essence of our human condition: that we are animals, vulnerable bodies, born of women, destined to die.

As the current menace to male immortality is a disease, an obvious place to begin a study of men’s fear is the social institution known as medicine. Fear of death shines more glaringly here than elsewhere as a general rule. In medicine, men are dealing directly with bodies, bodily functions, physical sensation; patriarchal conquest commences with the conquering of the body; hence, patriarchal medicine is a logical site for intensive death-terror management. Itself a product of patriarchal imperialism, achieved through the (often femicidal) overthrow of female lay healers during Europe’s Early Modern Period, modern Western medicine is grounded on two key precepts:

1) the body is a machine, to be serviced and repaired by experts.

2) death is an aberration, which men should eliminate.

These principles reflect the mechanistic worldview preached by Enlightenment-era Fathers of Science, most notably Rene Descartes, a Brilliant Man who nonetheless struggled to discern any appreciable differences between a dog and a clock. Carolyn Merchant has described how, with the rise of the mechanistic worldview, bodies were recast as machines at the same time as the earth was ideologically demoted to dead inert matter. And, as may be expected, both bodies and earth existed to be used and manipulated by those blessed with the gift of reason, i.e., elite white males.

The reduction of bodies to machines allowed men to imagine that they’d transcended base physicality; men were not their bodies, but the overseers and technicians of those bodies. When the unreliable body-apparatus inevitably malfunctioned, the Father-Doctors would be there to force it back into working order. They could feel themselves heroes, rescuing patients from the sinking ships of their failing bodies. Medical practice thus evolved to give men a taste of victory in what Marti Kheel calls patriarchal medicine’s “war against nature.” Man vs. Body, Man vs. Death. A proliferation of ever-more invasive, elaborate techno-interventions has been the Father-Doctors’ weaponry in this endless conflict, the more aggressive the better. In the ICU combat zones of patriarchal medicine, men aspire to beat death into submission.

In our present-day plague year, ventilators are the medical technology du jour. Coronavirus infection causes the lungs to fill with fluid, the ailing can’t breathe, their blood oxygen levels plummet, they rush to the hospital where they are hooked up to machines, to breathe for them. This has been so-called Best Practice. Medicine’s passion for ventilators has been such that, in the early weeks of the pandemic, the specter of ventilator shortages was a favored mass-media bogeyman. More recently, evidence has been piling up to suggest that ventilators are not the omnipotent emancipators-from-death we were promised. The force entailed in threading an 10”-long plastic tube down a person’s throat and pumping highly saturated oxygen into her lungs has a funny way of inflicting injuries that compromise her body’s ability to recover, while the long-term sedation required can result in permanent brain damage. One doctor has called placing Covid-19 patients on ventilators “almost a death sentence.” Now, some renegade clinicians are starting to suspect that, just maybe, less invasive, less aggressively technological approaches might be more conducive to survival.

Holding hostility towards the body as its premise, patriarchal medicine allots scarce attention (or funds) to the prevention of illness through cultivating the necessary conditions for bodily health, with health here defined as something more than just the absence of acute disease. Where the dominant attitude is rancor for the body as a glitchy machine and/or blundering heap of stupid flesh, there’s not much room for protective succor or nurturance. Instead, the prescription is a series of reactive assaults, to punish the treacherous body when it errs. Today’s patriarchal medicine is also capitalist-industrial medicine, which introduces a new incentive for the heavy emphasis on crisis-stage interventions: medical procedures, drugs, devices are saleable to consumers as market commodities. The health of the populace therefore interferes with the medical industry’s maximization of profits, making it minimally desirable.

The slew of ‘social distancing‘ guidelines handed down by the CDC and states’ “shelter-in-place” mandates seem to indicate a focus on prevention in the Covid-19 response program. However, these measures are not preventative, but reactionary last-minute interventions aimed at controlling an already critical pathology. And lest we forget, humanity’s last great hope still lies with the biotech industry, as the scientist-saviors toil away to develop (and test on sacrificial animals, and patent, and sell) a vaccine. Once again, man-made technology shall deliver us from death! Shifting attention from heroic interventions to meaningful prevention would require addressing the overall abysmal state of human and planetary health that has rendered our situation so precarious, a task the Father-Doctors have zero inclination to undertake. Where’s the money in it? Where’s the glory? To quote Ivan Illich, “What need is there to worry about a murderous environment when doctors are industrially equipped to act as life-savers!

From fear of death to domestic violence

Outside of the hospital wards, in homes worldwide, women, children, and domesticated animals are locked-down alongside men socialized within patriarchy to alleviate their fear of death through domination and violence.

A man in eastern China beats his wife with a high-chair as she holds their infant daughter in the family’s kitchen; the woman loses feeling in her legs, falls to the floor, still grasping the child, she cannot say how many times the husband hit her. Reports in the U.S. surface of men forbidding wives and girlfriends to wash their hands, reveling in the women’s terror of infection, in the life-or-death power they, as men, can wield. An international upsurge in domestic violence reports, calls to domestic violence helplines: France, 30% increase; Singapore, 33% increase; Brazil, 40-50% increase; Bogota, Columbia, 225% increase; United Kingdom, 700% increase. In the first four weeks of the U.K.’s lockdown, 13 women and children were murdered by men, twice the standard femicide tally of two women per week. Within the first days of lockdown in Columbia, a man shot and killed his wife, his wife’s sister, his wife’s mother. Men murdered at least 1000 women in Mexico in the first three months of 2020. Between March 27 and April 2, with “shelter-in-place” laws spreading across the U.S., as gun and ammunition sales soared, there were at least 19 murder-suicides, nearly all of which involved a man shooting his wife or child before killing himself.

In households where men beat women, there is an 89% likelihood that domesticated animals are also victims of male violence.

In Peru, at least one girl-child was reported raped each day for the first 17 days of quarantine. In Bolivia, police say they have been receiving more than four dozen reports of violence against children, including sexual violence, daily since the country’s lockdown began. By the close of March, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) helpline had experienced a 22% increase in the number of minors calling in; 67% of minor callers identified their abusers as family members. Reports of online child sexual exploitation to cybertip hotlines are up by an average of 30% globally. Livestreaming the sexual abuse of children has spiked. Experts say: To meet the demand for new child pornography, more children are being abused on camera.

Male violence: common factor in every “disaster”

Intensifying male violence against women is recognized as a regular feature of cataclysms.

Noted in the aftermath of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 recession, Hurricane Sandy. The 2013-2017 Ebola outbreak in West Africa corresponded with an epidemic of violence against women and girls, which included increases in trafficking, child marriage, sexual exploitation, and rape. Public health experts cite “stress” as explanation for men’s brutality when catastrophe strikes. When men feel they have lost control, when they sense their mortality encroaching. When circumstances force men to confront reality.

It can be presumed that women are also “stressed” by volcanoes and hurricanes and bankruptcy and plagues, but women do not relieve the stress they feel by beating their partners, killing their partners, raping children. Women do not learn to restore their sense of control through violence against social subordinates when threatened, as men do, to mitigate their fear. That death-defying trick is reserved for patriarchy’s Master class, while women are its first-line victims.

In a patriarchal society, women are the primary underclass; wherever else a woman is slotted in the social hierarchy, she is below some man.

Every man is above some woman: women are easy targets, then, when men get that stressed-out urge to dominate. But violence against women as a male strategy of death-terror management has deeper roots; a woman is more than an easy target for men’s ‘murderous hatred,’ she is the perfect target. The female, by patriarchal construction, symbolizes bodily existence. As Elizabeth Spelman writes in “Woman as Body: Ancient and Contemporary Views” (1982), man-made culture split mind from body; men cast off the fleshliness they feared by claiming Mind for themselves, while portraying women as mindless Body. What is body-identified is also nature-identified, and both are inferior to Mind/Man, both are despised, for how they represent the origins of male mortality. In the Western patriarchal tradition, it is not only women debased to low status by identification with body/nature, but also nonhuman animals and nonwhite “savages.” We are the brute races, death’s emissaries, the Master’s enemies. And among these evils, a woman is often the most accessible. In the comfort of his own home a man can revenge himself by ravaging the concrete being of the woman he “loves,” or possesses: his own personal scapegoat.

He conquers, controls, degrades and destroys her, and in so doing, Man fantasizes he has defeated death. Yet still he will die; he is still afraid. So he sets his sights on larger prey. He has cut down the woman. Colonized the savage. Slaughtered the animal. Mutilated the body. But the natural world persists, uncontrollable reality/mortality mocking Man’s Master-Mind dominion. Earth: the matrix of our materiality, loathsome Mother of all Mothers, the ultimate body, bearer of the sum vulnerability of all mortal creatures. Women’s and nature’s victimization by patriarchal civilization emerge as parallel phenomena, as men strive to realize immortality through last-ditch rituals of violent domination. The ghastly irony is that in his denial of death, Man’s legacy is a human society condemned to self-obliterate. Fear of death becomes fear of life becomes the Masters’ murderous hatred for the living world. Breaking News: “A top nuclear security official says the U.S. must move ahead with plans to ramp up production of key components for the nation’s nuclear arsenal despite the challenges presented by the coronavirus.

Life itself, in the terminal phase of patriarchy’s war against reality/mortality, is Man’s enemy, so life must be mastered, and when that fails, exterminated. And Man will fail. He is failing already. At the helm of his death-machine the Master is terrified, raging against reality, the natural world—and we cannot be afraid, neither to live nor to die, whatever it takes, in defense of life, we have to stop him.

Aurora Linnea is a librarian and ecofeminist pariah living near the Atlantic Ocean.

Featured image: anatomical sketch by Leonardo da Vinci.

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8 thoughts on “The Urge to Master Death”

  1. Excellent essay on our irrational fear of death — until it flips and descends into yet another treatise on how European men are to blame for everything. (Be it noted that Asian and African civilizations are equally patriarchal, and that the fear of death is as much a woman’s obsession as a man’s. There is also no evidence that the upsurge in domestic violence is related to anything more than frustration over the lockdown, and a minority of men with an inclination toward domination, taking it out on the usual, most available targets.)

    But back to the more original topic of our fear of death: I’m surprised the writer didn’t mention the most extreme denial of death on record, which was the obsession of the ancient Egyptians. Their leaders went so far as to compel thousands of slaves to undertake the greatest construction projects in history — the building of the pyramids — simply to improve the odds of their kings getting into the afterlife. Thousands of “lesser” men undoubtedly died or had their lives greatly shortened, just so the top of the hierarchy could indulge a fantasy that Anubis (the half man, half jackal semi-deity of their vivid imaginations) might guide them into a continued reign in eternity. Some guys just can’t let go.

    If memory serves, it was Phillip Wylie, in his book, “The Magic Animal,” who advanced the idea that what most separates humans from other animals isn’t the use of tools, but our knowledge of death.

    But this appears to be an illusion, too. Elephants are known to mourn their dead, in what appear to be the equivalent of trips to the cemetery to remember the fallen. And there is a species of lemur (my nominee for most noble member of the primate world) who even have funeral processions, where the whole colony carries the body of the dead to a suitable resting place in the forest.

    As for the coronavirus and modern medicine, I agree that we have gone much too far — even to the point of all but worshiping medical doctors and hospitals, as the priests and temples of the secular world. They have their place. But far more respect is due the doctors and secular healers who emphasize prevention over surgery and pharmaceuticals.

    After multiple failures by the medical profession to treat my typical ailments (including several prescriptions that nearly killed me), I am happy to say that, at 72, I am on no prescription drugs, and haven’t had a regular doctor or pharmaceutical in the last 12 years. Instead, I began researching natural treatments and, like millions of other people, I have successfully treated several illnesses, including an irregular pulse, hypertension, prostate inflammation, and a life-threatening infection, solely with diet and lifestyle changes, and well-researched supplements. (A cardiologist once informed me that autopsies performed on American dead during the Vietnam War indicated that a MAJORITY of them — at an average age of only 19 — already had blocked arteries. Such is the legacy of the Standard American Diet [SAD] of Big Macs, pizza, fries, sodas, and other processed foods.)

    While the coronavirus scare should be taken seriously, it should be noted that though approximately 10% of Americans are known to have been infected, the death rate so far is about 85,000 of 35 milion exposures, or roughly one in 400 infections. Serious, but hardly on a par with smallpox or the plague.

    Our COVID-19 response also reminded me of the pre-industrial Inuit custom, where an old person who could no longer function in the tribe was taken out on the ice, and left on a sled to die. As brutal and almost murderous as this may appear at first glance, it was unavoidable in a society with few luxuries or spare rations. And it was something everyone accepted from childhood, as a natural passage from this world to the next. Nor did the elderly see it as an execution, but as a ritual they participated in willingly, as the kindest possible option in a forbidding corner of Nature.

    In the grand scheme of things, individual lives do not count for much. What matters in the end isn’t how long we live, but whether we brought more into the world than we took from it, or at least no less.

    And, sadly, no member of industrial civilization can achieve even that. As someone noted, every child who comes into the developed world today is the equivalent of putting another 18 full-size cars on the road. And the longer that child lives, the bigger the fleet.

    About the best we can hope for is to try to steer our world back toward one that is survivable for Nature, and to do whatever we can to live in harmony with that world.

  2. You think women aren’t experiencing “frustration over the lockdown”? Yet you don’t see a corresponding spike of female violence. Lockdowns are not responsible for male violence. Men are.

  3. I’d be interested to read a comparison of male violence against other males to females. What are the relative numbers of victims and where do they occur? Have the lockdowns transferred male rage from streets, pubs and other houses to the domestic sphere where a woman is the victim instead of a man? In reports of femicide, such as the appalling figures from Brazil and elsewhere in South and Central America, I never see a comparison with male-on-male violence. That would put it in context.

    Can anyone point me to studies or reports? I see almost nothing online.

  4. @Mark Behrend: Yes, the Coronavirus is not especially lethal but it is comparably extremely easy to transmit. That means a lot of asymptomatic carriers leading to a high number (not rate) of deaths. It’s one reason why the notion of letting it rip in order to gain herd immunity is so problematic.

    As for the Indigenous practice of letting the elderly die:
    – infanticide by mothers was also relatively common, as that was one means of controlling populations in societies which didn’t use agriculture to enable more people per unit of land to be fed. It is entirely rational and logical for our abortion laws to be extended to, ,say, the first six months after birth. There’s little difference in any substantive way between a nine-month foetus/baby and one of ten or eleven months. Neither can surivive unaided. I am not advocating this, just pointing out the inconsistency in pro-abortion arguments. Nor am I against abortion being made available free of charge.
    – It’s also entirely neoliberal. Once someone is no longer productive and cannot produce, only consume using other people’s money, they should be disposed of. It’s hardly humane but it fits very well into capitalist ideology. We should not spend any resources on the dead, either, as they can neither produce nor consume, so have zero value.

  5. Femicide is not every and any murder of a female. If you, say, run over a person and kills them, and that person happens to be female, that’s not femicide. Femicide is a crime of misogynistic motivations. So to compare it directly with murders where the misogyny factor is absent is misleading.

    Anyway, I’m Brazilian and here are recent data about all sorts of violent crimes in my country:

    www (dot) ipea (dot) gov (dot) br/portal /images /stories /PDFs/relatorio_ institucional /190605_atlas_da_violencia_2019 (dot) pdf

  6. Femicide is not every and any murder of a female. If you, say, run over a person and kills them, and that person happens to be female, that’s not femicide. Femicide is a crime of misogynistic motivations. So to compare it directly with murders where the misogyny factor is absent is misleading.

    Anyway, I’m Brazilian. Here you can find recent data about all sorts of violent crimes in Brazil:

    www (dot) ipea (dot) gov (dot) br/portal /images /stories /PDFs/relatorio_institucional/190605_atlas_da_violencia_2019 (dot) pdf

  7. SRH: Regarding male on male violence, Julian Vigo looked at statistics for Canada because she was replying to a very silly essay on Counterpunch about the legions of murdered transgendered people. The essay was published at Feminist Current and may be on Vigo’s blog at Medium. Males were murdered at higher rates than females, and of course the lowest murder rate was that experienced by trans. Men are very violent toward each other — this is how they keep each other in line. One of my favorite movies is The Hill, which brilliantly portrays the masculinist necessity of men turning themselves (and then everyone and everything else) into objects; it is set in a British war prison for British soldiers.

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