Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

A Swim in Denial

Fetishism and the Thirst for More Life

Money, mansions, and mortality

Posted Jun 16, 2015

A reader just wrote to me about a young financier who’s bought an architect-designed mansion to demolish it and build a grander mansion on the spot. Word is, he plans to sink 25 million bazoombas into the new hut. Apparently this new Gatsby has a young family, is certifiably religious, and is rumored to be pals with a recent presidential candidate who’s made a killing in finance.  Says the reader:

<< My questions is, why?  Clearly, he could live in a house for $500K and be just as secure and just as comfortable.  Why does he have to do this?  Why does he have to live this way?  Has he no shame?  Is it all ego; all show-off: just because he can?  Can you imagine how much good he could do with all this money if he so chose?  I'm offended by these houses.>>

One answer is that we’re fetishists, attributing special juju to heroic people, symbols, and things. Like infants, we feel they can protect us, even save us. The rich build mansions as kings build a palace, to inspire awe in themselves and in ordinary hero-worshipers. It’s the way we’re built. And especially so: because the mansion is an idol you erect and then live inside of. It signals your heroic identity to you and the world.

Traditionally psychiatry has associated fetishism with sexually charged objects. In The Denial of Death (1973), Ernest Becker showed that since we’re the only animals burdened by an awareness of death, we naturally invest tremendous energy in a bigger-than-life heroic culture that seems to guarantee that the party will go on forever. [1] Becker understands fetishism as a form of “transference”: the urge to compensate for our terrifying vulnerability by imagining life-saving powers in the world around us.

The young financier obligingly illustrates this compulsive, mostly unconscious behavior by heaping up piles of loot and building a self-contained palace.  Like his religion, his money seems to connect him to the source of life. Building big and big money make him a big shot. He shows himself and the world that he’s made the right choices and is stuffing himself and his posterity with life. 

Of course we all know the big shot will die, but in his symbolic play-acting, he commands admiration. And since the self is not a thing (I’ve said this before), we depend on other people’s attention to make us feel real, substantial, meaningful. So with his palace, the hero commands attention as if he has a $100,000 bill, with Woodrow Wilson’s visage, tattoed on his forehead. But it’s even more concrete than that. Big money commands other people.  If you have money, you can utter a wish, and, as in slavery, thousands of hands jump to fulfill your will. 

The hint of slavery probably explains why my reader says, “I'm offended by these houses.” Me too. To be on the bottom is social death.  At the bottom of the bottom, literally, are the “home-less.”  No attention, no helping hands, no choice food or other symbols of fertility and life. You can see why people despise the poor: they’re walking death. And by the way, you notice that today, the entertainment fad for zombies also invites us to fear and loathe the walking dead. The fear is that they’re coming back from horrible death and they’re angry. The “war against the poor” isn’t just a colorful figure of speech.

The reader and the rich guy have conflicting heroic values. One believes we’re all in this together; the other believes in me-first survival.[2]

The thing is, our fetishism is both sublime and sinister. It's hero-worship, whether romantic, political, military, or fandom. It’s money mania, as in Wall Street and Amazon. Kids worship parents. Christians worship a cross, soldiers worship Napoleon, weapons, and a special buddy. Everybody worships breasts and sex. Houses have magical power: they “build in” wealth, prestige, shelter, "beauty," value, etc.  I had a vigorous 90 year old neighbor who fell apart whenever she left her apparently ordinary house. We’re turtles living inside a symbolic shell. 

You can see how deep the fantasy is in a recent Washington Post item headlined “Rich Californians Balk at Limits: ‘We’re Not All Equal When It Comes to Water’” (June 14, 2015).  “Drought or no drought,” says the article, “Steve Yuhas resents the idea that it is somehow shameful to be a water hog. If you can pay for it, he argues, you should get your water. People ‘should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens to be beautiful,’ Yuhas fumed recently on social media. ’We pay significant property taxes based on where we live,’ he added in an interview. ‘And, no, we’re not all equal when it comes to water.’”

Like an infant at Mum’s nipple, Steve is trapped in his own appetite. He’s indignant that California won’t allow his fetish—big money—to bring him all the liquid life he desires. He he can’t believe—he denies—that there’s a shortage that will kill others who “can’t afford” the liquid life he’s sucking down. The reader who’s “offended” by berserk wealth isn’t fooled. He’s knows it’s a moral issue.

Steve may be a jerk. But he’s pitifully human too. He’s in the grips of denial. He doesn’t register that people outside his gated enclave are real and will suffer thirst. That’s partly because he doesn’t realize that the drought is a real threat.  And that suggests that the blank spots in his mind come from his denial of death. 

Once you start being aware of fetishism and transference, everything starts to look different and also connected. The psychology of abandon looks for fantasies of excess that serve denial: big money, mansions, fertile green lawns, denial of drought, denial of death. Steve, say, fantasizes that his big wad enables him to throw off the inhibitions and constraints that limit ordinary people. He imagines that he has access to the magical powers of abandon. Rich Californians Balk at Limits.

And he’s not totally crazy. His trivial denials are grounded in the confusion and greed for life in American culture: the nation’s trillion-dollar military fetish, the crooked privileges of banks, housing “bubbles,” and the like. And the flip side: the heroic fight to preserve the magic by shooting, starving, and segregating the zombies among us. He doesn’t live in the America that believes in sharing and social justice.

And a final twist: the rich usually sense the unfairness and anger, so they keep mum about it. By contrast, Steve’s out squawking on social media. He’s playing the warrior-hero, defending his money fetish against skeptics and infidels. You might surmise that he hasn’t been rich very long, and in the back of his mind, in the vault where denial locks thing up, he has doubts.

Rich Californians Balk at Limits: ah yes, especially since the ultimate limit is death. You could build a whole new religion around Steve Yuhas’s worship:

“We’re Not All Equal When It Comes to Water.”

1. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (1973). And Solomon and Greenberg, The Worm at the Core (2015)

2. See “Killing Me Softly”:

Also in this series: “Ambivalence and the Decision Tree,”

“Facebook, Ambivalence, and the Decision Tree”:

“If Words Were Money”:


Now available from Leveller’s Press and Amazon:

Helena Farrell for Tacit Muse
Source: Helena Farrell for Tacit Muse

When behavior becomes a cultural style, berserk abandon is terrifying yet also alluring. It promises access to extraordinary resources by overthrowing inhibitions. Berserk style has shaped many areas of contemporary American culture, from warfare to politics and intimate life. Focusing on post-Vietnam America and using perspectives from psychology, anthropology, and physiology, Farrell demonstrates the need to unpack the confusions in language and cultural fantasy that drive the nation’s fascination with berserk style.

<<This book amazes me with its audacity, its clarity, and its scope. We usually think of ‘berserk’ behaviors—from apocalyptic rampage killings to ecstatic revels like Burning Man—as extremes of experience, outside ordinary lives. In fascinating detail, Farrell shows how contemporary culture has reframed many varieties of abandon into self-conscious strategies of sense-making and control.  Abandon has become a common lens for organizing modern experience and an often troubling resource for mobilizing and rationalizing cultural and political action. This landmark analysis both enlightens and empowers us.>>

—Les Gasser, Professor of Information and Computer Science, U. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaigne.