Play, Death, and Apotheosis
We cannot look directly at either the sun or death, says La Rochefoucauld. If we could not blink at death as we do at the sun, it would blind us. Let that saving reflex begin to lag, and anxiety emerges: in Kierkegaard's unforgettable phrase, the sickness unto death. A reflex makes a useful analogy for behavior that can be ambiguously conscious and unconscious, automatic yet sometimes overridden. This is the context in which Ernest Becker places heroism as "first and foremost a reflex of the terror of death." 1 In this chapter I want to examine play-death as one expression of that essential blinking reflex, not only because play-death enables the mortal mind to acknowledge death while shutting it out, but more specifically because it is a special instance of the universal process Becker describes, in which imagination generates heroism in order to master the prospect of its own annihilation.
It is difficult to think about death. Because death is nothingness and nature abhors a vacuum, imagination has to construe it vicariously, through symbolic equivalents. In life no less than art death is a complex symbol that varies from one individual and culture to another, and reflects the values of living imaginations. The dead sleep, go to their reward, lay down their burden, and so on. This cognitive peculiarity reinforces "the almost universal human recourse to magic and irrationality" in handling anxiety about mortality, and helps to explain the persistent belief that "death is a fictive experience" 2—that is, a kind of play-death.
Let me make this subject less alien by evoking a particular child's concrete experience. One summer evening when my daughter Vanessa was nearly four years old she asked me with an uneasy stammer if I was going to die. When I answered yes, someday, she asked if she