"Death and Designation in Pine Mountain"

by Grant Carrington

    An column that appeared in the fanzine Knights edited by Mike Bracken

    In July 1978 I received a letter from Mike Bishop, in which he mentioned that he was reading Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death, and that he was impressed by it. I had read it two years earlier and I didn't feel the same way. But I must be some kind of maverick, for the book had won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1974.
    The book is Becker's attempt to replace Freud's emphasis on sex and the Oedipal complex with Man's fear of death, which Becker claims distinguishes Man from other animals. Although they recognize death when it occurs, they have (as far as we can tell) no comprehension of their own future death.
    Man, on the other hand, can foresee his own distant death, if not its circumstances. Futhermore, Man "not only lives in this moment, but expands his inner self to yesterday, his curiosity to centuries ago, his fears to five billion years from now when the sun will cool, his hopes to an eternity from now." In other words, Man can create science fiction, where he deals with the very real probability that not only will he personally die but so will his progeny, his entire species, and eventually all life.
    But much science fiction deals with this prospect with hope, even with possibility of eventually somehow escaping the implosion of the universe back to the Cosmic Egg (as in Poul Anderson's Tau Zero). Becker, on the other hand, repeats over and over his theme of the terror and helplessness of man, of the futility of existence.
    Is it any wonder that when I visited Mike Bishop in his home in Pine Mountain, Georgia, a few weeks later, Mike told me he had recently been waking up in the middle of the night, suddenly aware that he was going to die? Certainly not, for Mike Bishop is 32, an age when the small indications that one has passed one's physical peak begin to add up. The person who is in his mid-thirties can no longer ignore those signals his body is sending him, telling him that he isn't quite as young as he used to be--the muscle pulled playing softball takes a week to heal instead of a day; his hairline is beginning to recede; the wrinkles on his forehead don't smooth out when he quits frowning. Dozens of little notifications from the body's Aging Department, no one of which is important unto itself, but all put together, they say: "You're growing old, boy." And somewhere along the line there's that last little straw, and the camel's back breaks, and you suddenly realize that you're dying. You're really dying! You aren't that special someone that you've always thought you were--that somehow you were the one who was going to beat the odds and cheat Old Man Death--and the thought of dying becomes a very personal one. Number One will die.

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