When the “love partner becomes the divining ideal”

I was listening to Barton and Sarah Stone teach the students on gender and sexuality, and one of the resources they briefly touched on was Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973). The observation he makes is well worth reading:

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 truth and in gratitude –what we saw was the universal motive of the Agape-merger. If [man] 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. The self-glorification that he needed in his innermost nature he now looked for in the love partner. The love partner becomes the divining ideal within which to fulfill one’s life. All spiritual and moral needs now become focused 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. Salvation 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.”
[…] Understanding this, Rank could take a great step beyond Freud. Freud thought that modern man’s moral dependence on another was a result of the Oedipus complex. But Rank could see that it was the result of a continuation of the causa-sui project of denying creatureliness. As there was no religious cosmology into which to fit such a denial, one grabbed onto a partner. Man reached for a “thou” when the world-view of the great religious community overseen by God died. Modern man’s dependency on the love partner, then, is a result of the loss of spiritual ideologies, just as is his dependency on his parents or his psychotherapist. He needs somebody, some “individual ideology of justification” to replace the declining “collective ideologies.” Sexuality, which Freud thought was at the heat of the Oedipus complex, is not understood for what it really is: another twisting and turning, a groping for the meaning of one’s life. If you don’t have a God in heaven, an invisible dimension that justifies the visible one, then you take what is nearest at hand and work out your problems on that. (p. 160-62)

2 thoughts on “When the “love partner becomes the divining ideal”

  • August 6, 2015 at 11:16 am
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    That is an incredible quote. I’ll be coming back to that. Is the rest of the book that good?

  • August 10, 2015 at 12:58 am
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    It is a profound quote… and yet I have two critiques.

    1. If the author thinks God is really abstract… and that the search for someone to love is also abstract, in looking for the “other”, is there any kind of relationship which for him is not abstract? Somehow we’ve got to inject a theory of true communication, which is a meeting of the minds, mutual influence, and shared attention.
    2. Becker says this is a modern trend, but Jeremiah (2:3), Haggai (1:6), Paul (Rom 1:25, 1 Cor 7:33) and Andreas Capellanus (The Art of Courtly Love, c.1185) would say it is a folly that afflicts just about every person at one time or another.

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