Literature Review: A Desperate Attempt to Prove that Literature Research is Still Relevant

Mar 05, 2019

If you are new, hello! And if you’re joining me again, then hello again!

See, if you read multiple of my blog posts, you get TWO greetings. So tune in weekly to get an extra greeting!

As an avid book-reader, the phrase “literature review,” especially in the context of literature research, has always been confusing to me. If I’m conducting a literature review about a book (i.e. literature), would it be a “literature literature review?”. I spent a whole three minutes Googling that question, but when I couldn’t find an answer on the first page of search results, I gave up. But if any of you guys know the answer, please let me know. I don’t know how much longer I’m going to last.

Anyways, for this post, I am supposed to present some background research to help situate my research inquiry. As a reminder, my AP Research project will be studying intersections between terror management theory (TMT), a social psychology theory that rationalizes how humans deal with death, and Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. Specifically, I will be studying the dual-process model of TMT, which explains how humans process death anxiety, or the fear of dying. (Buckle in folks, things are about to get real theoretical!)

The foundations of terror management theory were first developed in Ernest Becker’s psycho-philosophical book The Denial of Death. In this book, Becker seeks to discover different ways that humans cope with the knowledge that death is inevitable. Becker synthesizes Sigmund Freud’s On Narcissism, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and Alfred Adler’s principles of self-esteem and the inferiority complex, to explain how humans developed an unconscious fear of death. Becker also explains that humans are unique organisms, because we have the ability to contemplate about our own deaths. However, this ability generates “death anxiety,” or existential terror, in which we constantly and unconsciously reflect on the finality of death. Death anxiety is defined as the subconscious anxiety that arises from the human paradox of life and death (Pyszczynski et al.).

Terror management theory (TMT) is a modern interpretation of Ernest Becker’s work, illustrated in Greenberg, Solomon, and Pyszczynski’s book The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. TMT also rationalizes how humans deal with their universal, subconscious fear of death. Similar to Becker’s theories, TMT posits that humans are organisms who are capable of contemplating death. Our knowledge of death’s finality causes us to experience death anxiety, in which we fear death and constantly pursue actions that prolong our lives. According to TMT, humans are biologically motivated to stay alive, yet we know we cannot evade death permanently. The fact that we know death is coming, yet we can do nothing to prevent its finality, generates existential terror through “the problem of death awareness” (Wisman 319). Deviating from Becker’s work, TMT specifically explains that in order to alleviate death anxiety, we embrace cultural values that give our lives meaning. For example, parents can evade death anxiety by striving to take care of their children, fulfilling the cultural role of the nurturing guardian.

Another branch of terror management theory is the dual-process model, which describes two different ways we respond to death thoughts and morality threats. Our more rational, conscious, and immediate response to situations that evoke death anxiety are known as proximal defenses. Proximal defenses are “threat-focused” and “activated when thoughts of death are in current focal attention” (Pyszczynski et al. 835). Proximal defenses often manifest in the biological “fight or flight response.” For example, we break suddenly when the car in front of us stops, because we want to avoid a painful traffic accident. Proximal defenses push away immediate death anxiety from our conscience, either through distraction or denial of death threats. For example, caffeine addicts are more likely to challenge research suggesting that caffeine consumption is related to fibrocystic disease (Kunda).

While proximal defenses suppress immediate death-related thoughts or push the problem of death “into the distance future by denying one’s vulnerability,” distal defenses act as long-term, latent, or subconscious responses to death anxiety (Pyszczynski et al. 835). Distal defenses act as a preventative measure against future death anxiety, and they emerge when we adhere to cultural values or specific faiths. By espousing cultural standards and values, we can attain high self-esteem, which buffers us from death anxiety. Essentially, by embracing cultural norms that center ourselves as “a valuable participant in a meaningful universe,” we force ourselves to believe that some transcendental aspect of ourselves (such as our values, or our “legacy”) will live on after the death of our biological body (Pyszczynski et al. 836).

The Road is my favorite McCarthy novel for many reasons: it’s a thrilling story about surviving in a bleak environmental, but the author also offers philosophical reflections on what it means to live, what time means in a world completely devoid of society, what it means to be the “good guy” versus the “bad guy” (spoiler alert: the “bad guys” in The Road eat babies. And I’m not going to include a quote because God forbid there might be children on this blog!). Without giving away too much of the plot, the basic story goes like this: a catastrophic event has destroyed all forms of life on Earth, leaving everything gray and covered in ash. McCarthy never explains what happened, but readers theorize that the inciting incident was some sort of volcanic eruption, because everything is described as cold, blackened, or burnt. Armed with a shopping cart of supplies, a father and son leave their home to travel south, towards the sea. I’ve read this novel four times already, and I’ve cried every single time. (Of course, that’s no surprise—ask my friends and they’ll tell you about how I cried six times during the Bumblebee movie.)

Literature research focused on McCarthy’s The Road addresses this novel from several perspectives, none of them purely psychological in nature. For example, this novel has been studied extensively from a religious point of view. The moving story about a father and son navigating a barren landscape is often described as a “narrative within the framework of a Christian sensibility and iconography” (DeCoste 71). Pertaining to the subject of death, Hannah Stark reads The Road through an anthropocentric lens (i.e. a perspective that considers human beings as the most significant entity in the universe). She discovers that metaphors for vision, sight, and blindness reflect McCarthy’s argument that humans are “the chosen witness to the end of the world” (Stark 71). However, most research surrounding this novel seeks to answer a fundamental question, “In the hopelessness of an unspecific catastrophe that has turned the known world into a bleak and hostile wilderness, how can existence be sustained?” (Fledderjohann 44).

Therefore, while literary research on McCarthy often approaches his work through different theoretical frameworks, there is a current lack of research that studies McCarthy’s novels through TMT. This is the research gap that I hope to address with my AP Research project.

Today’s quote is from page 27 of The Road, when the father and his son stumble across the father’s dilapidated childhood home: “This is where I used to sleep. My cot was against this wall. In the nights in their thousands to dream the dreams of a child’s imaginings, worlds rich or fearful such as might offer themselves but never the one to be… Raw cold daylight fell through the roof. Gray as his heart.”

Works Cited:

DeCoste, D. Marcel. “‘A THING THAT EVEN DEATH CANNOT UNDO’: THE OPERATION OF THE THEOLOGICAL VIRTUES IN CORMAC MCCARTHY’S ‘THE ROAD.’” Religion & Literature, vol. 44, no. 2, 2012, pp. 67–91. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24397670.

Kunda, Z. (1987). Motivated inference: Self-serving generation and evaluation of causal  theories. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(4), 636-647. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.53.4.636.

Pyszczynski, Tom, Jeff Greenberg, and Sheldon Solomon. “A dual-process model of defense against conscious and unconscious death-related thoughts: an extension of terror management theory.” Psychological review 106.4 (1999): 835.

Stark, Hannah. “’All These Things He Saw and Did Not See’: Witnessing the End of the World in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road.’” Critical Survey, vol. 25, no. 2, 2013, pp. 71–84. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42751035.

Wisman, Arnaud. “Digging in Terror Management Theory: To Use or Lose the Symbolic Self?” Psychological Inquiry, vol. 17, no. 4, 2006, pp. 319–327. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20447343.

5 Replies to “Literature Review: A Desperate Attempt to Prove that Literature Research is Still Relevant”

  1. Serina K. says:

    Kurtis Conner????

  2. Anuradha S. says:

    You ain’t slick with that Kurtis Conner ref

    1. Krystal Y. says:

      Please don’t report me to the office of testing integrity 🙁

  3. Anuradha S. says:

    Also for like additional reading for your literature review, I highly recommend a graphic novel titled “Y: The Last Man”. It’s set in the early 2000s where basically every single mammal with a Y chromosome dies…except for a guy named Yorick and his male Capuchin monkey. It’s really good and I think you’ll like it!

  4. Krip R. says:

    TMT is truly an interesting and terrifying concept! The definitions and explanations here are very clear and really aid the understanding for what your project.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.