In the Western world, death is considered a taboo subject. When one takes an interest in the macabre, in mortuary science, or in death practices and philosophies around the world. people are perturbed—offended, even. Death is denied, time and time again, despite the fact that it will happen to each and every one of us eventually; our mortality is inescapable, our finiteness undetachable from our humanity. We want to feel like our time on this earth is meaningful. It is no surprise, then, that many people concern themselves with what philosopher and cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker called in his 1973 book, The Denial of Death, immortality projects and heroism. These are but temporary band aids on a much bigger problem. Bound by these dilemmas, we end up creating an unreal or fake sense of self, living an inauthentic existence as a result.
People spend their entire lives aiming to have the most wealth, the best material things, their greatest version of success, all while “underneath throbs the ache of cosmic specialness.” We ache to feel special, to stand out amongst the crowd, to feel like we are part of a bigger plan, like we will outlast the mortal physicality of our bodies. According to Becker, this calling to transcendence is rooted in our fear of dying: “heroism is first and foremost a reflex of the terror of death.” In order to achieve such heroic tasks, Becker asserts that we seek out what he calls immortality projects, or causa sui.
Immortality projects are endeavors we engage in to fulfill our need for transcendence. Some people find this through religion and spirituality, starting a business, or raising a family, but others opt to pursue education, social work, or the arts to feel like they are living a meaningful life, leaving an impact after they’re no longer living. The examples are endless, but they all share the same purpose: Immortality projects provide us with meaning. They grant us that “cosmic specialness” we so crave. In pursuing them, we feel like we can never truly die; some part of us will always live on in some shape or form. Immortality projects, therefore, are a denial of death.
But what if I told you that you didn’t have to deny death in order to engage in immortality projects? What if I told you that accepting death paves the way to create something else instead?
When we deny death, it only makes experiencing it all the more painful. One sees their mortality, as something to be understood—almost as a problem one must solve. Becker posits this is true for nearly everyone, but it is especially true for creatives. To help process this understanding of mortality, the artist does what they do best: they create. It is through the act of creating that the artist begins to understand not only themselves but the external world as well. Becker writes: “The work of art is, then, the ideal answer of the creative type to the problem of existence as he takes it in—not only the existence of the external world, but especially his own: who he is as a painfully separate person with nothing shared to lean on.” One can be reborn with a conscious awareness of mortality without a penchant for immortality projects as Becker defines them.
When we live a life in denial of death, we are not living a real, authentic existence. We are not wholly present in the moment, in the time being, because there is a part of us that is cowed, cornered, so terrified to die, to let go of this life. We are hanging on to every breath like a lifeline and we forget to truly live while life is actually happening. And then—suddenly—our time is up, and we die. But when we take a step back, breathe, and realize that our bodies are temporary, that our breaths will eventually cease, that we are not meant to live forever—when we accept our mortality, welcome it into our arms like a long-lost friend…only then will we be free to live uninhibited, full, authentic lives.
The process of creating helps the artist come to terms with mortality.
Artists I know often speak of “identity death” or “ego death” as a kind of rebirth during monumental events or changes in their lives, but it can also be an acceptance of their mortality, their very human finiteness. Through such an identity death, the artist is reborn to see the world through a new lens, a new understanding of how short and fragile life can be—and how sudden and painful death can also be. The act of creating is more important than the end result; it is a process of understanding, of becoming, of realizing who the artist is and can become. Art is, one might say, what religion is for the religious: It is a particular lens through which to view the world. Becker writes, “[h]is creative work is at the same time the expression of his heroism and the justification of it.” It is through this process of creation that one can begin to understand their own mortality and choose how they want to live their life before it comes to an end.
The acceptance of death paves the way for utopia as a post-immortality project. Unlike Becker’s definition of a project wherein one denies death, utopia as post-causa sui accepts death. Utopia as The New Rhythm sees it is based on self-realization and respect for the Self. It necessarily begins with the artist, the individual. The artist’s works of art are only attempts to conjure the complexity of the human condition, as they “still [pale] in some ways next to the transcending majesty of nature.” So, the artist may spend their entire life trying to understand themselves, their mortality, and the world around them. It is an ongoing process of understanding—until it isn’t, and they eventually succumb to their mortal fate. This is a constant work in progress, a constant striving toward that utopian vision of a New Rhythm. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t enact change and revolution in the meantime. Utopia as post-causa sui is death-accepting, self-realizing, and always growing. Instead of a traditional immortality project attempting to achieve a sense of ego-centric “cosmic specialness,” we can work on bettering the present, to imagine and create a brighter future for everyone.