Review: The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

The Denial of DeathThe Denial of Death [1973] – ★★★★

It is fateful and ironic how the lie we need in order to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours[Becker, 1973: 56].

Ernest Becker (1924 – 1974) was a cultural anthropologist whose book The Denial of Death won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize. It deals with the topic that few people want to consider or talk about – their own mortality and death. The paradox is that, although this topic is considered to be a societal taboo, everyone on this earth will have to confront it sooner or later. In fact, Becker argues, everyone is confronting and dealing with it from the moment that they are born – they just do it subconsciously or unconsciously. The Denial of Death delves into the works of Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank and Søren Kierkegaard, as Becker puts his thesis forward that all humans have a natural fear (or terror) of death and their own mortality, and, thus, throughout their lives, employ certain mechanisms (including repression) and create illusions to deal with this fear and live. Though the book relies heavily on the works by other authors, it is also a very deep and insightful read – a cry of the soul on the human condition, as well as a penetrating essay that demystifies the man and his actions.

In his book, Becker has recourse to psychology, psychiatry, philosophy and anthropology, and begins his book by pointing out that, from birth, we feel the need to be “heroic” and cannot really comprehend our own death – the fact that we will die one day is too terrible a thought to live with and, thus, men [sic] never think about their own deaths seriously. People become attracted to a certain “hero” system in society and are conditioned from birth to admire people who face death courageously. This desire stems from a human being both a mortal and insignificant creature in the grand scheme of things and the universe (a simple body), and, at the same time, a human capable of self-awareness, consciousness, creativity, dreams, aspirations, desires, feelings and high intelligence (soul/self). It is very difficult (in fact, impossible) to reconcile these two elements and come to terms with the fact that this human being who has so much potential and awareness can just “bite the dust” and do so as easily as some insect flying next to him/her.

Relying on the work of Sigmund Freud, Becker speculates on child psychology, and goes to detail many mechanisms that human beings employ to escape the paradox outlined above, the condition of the perpetual fear of death, as well as the fact that life and death are so closely interlinked that one cannot live without “being awakened to life through death” [Becker, 1973: 66]. These mechanisms are the creations of various illusions, such as the “character” defence, as well as such activities as drinking and shopping to forget mortality, and various other activities, from writing books to having babies, to prolong one’s immortality. It is precisely the implicit denial of death and decay by everyone in society that makes sexuality such a taboo topic (because it exposes humans’ propensity to be mere creatures that procreate). Thus, death or bodily functions are best deemed forgotten, and, instead, humans set their minds on cultural things to get closer to the idea of being immortal. Love is explained by Becker as the desire to experience immortality through the lover or the love for another person, and one idolises that person to which one is attached to and, in this, way, seeks immortality (“the love partner becomes the divine idol within which to fulfil one’s life” [1973: 160]).

Becker goes to explain artistic creativity, masochism, group sadism, neuroses and mental illness in general through his idea of the terror of death. According to the author, neurosis is natural since everyone holds back from life at some point and to some extent, and Becker also points out that the happier and more well-adjusted a person appears to be, the more successful he is in creating illusions around him and fooling everyone close to him. In fact, it is neurotic personalities out there, those who are generally fearful and socially-handicapped, who really see the true picture and refuse to believe in the illusionary world created by others. Others are merely indulging in their “hellish” jobs to escape their innate feelings of insignificance and dread – men are protected from reality and truth through jobs and their routine – “the hellish [jobs that men toil at] is a repeated vaccination against the madness of the asylum” [1973: 160].

Becker then turns to Kierkegaard and says that religion previously provided an answer for the man to resolve this paradox of death and life, and it is through religion the man could previously finally accept that he would die. There is an urge in every human being from childhood to attach himself or herself to a high power figure (“expand by merging with the powerful” [1973: 149]), and religion provided the means of attachement to be able to transcend a being while remaining a being. Religion provided a comfortable answer to death, while enabling people to develop and realise themselves. However, now, the modern man cannot have recourse to that religion because it lost its conviction and he [sic] no longer believes in the mysterious. The modern man is stranded and lost, trying to reach his immortality by other means, sometimes through very undesirable means. The solution that Kierkegaard proposes is the “knight of faith”, who accepts everything in life and has faith – “the man must reach out for support to a dream, a metaphysic of hope that sustains him and makes his life worthwhile” [1973: 275].

The downside of Becker’s book is that it relies too heavily on what others have said before Becker, including Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank and Søren Kierkegaard, and there is this feeling that the whole book is merely a summary of other authors’ positions, including those of William James and Alfred Adler. It becomes difficult to distinguish Becker’s views from those he quotes so extensively, praises and criticises. Becker’s account is also very individualistic, with his thesis stemming from the premise that a human being is a very selfish being who primarily desires to make his own voice heard. In that vein, the author pays little attention to more collectivist and altruistic aspects of the human nature, and barely mentions such elements as self-sacrifice, suicide or Buddhism – though they are all very relevant to his topic. This is coupled with the endless repetitions by Becker, as well as his tendency to over-simplify human behaviour, reducing it to just a single driving force.

Though hardly ground-breaking, The Denial of Death is, nevertheless, an essay of great insight which puts other people’s ideas intelligently together to become an almost essential read since the ideas put forward can really open one’s eyes on many things in life, and on how and why the man does what he does in life. 

12 thoughts on “Review: The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

  1. I guess humans – like other animals – have a strong sense of survival. And the flip-side of that is fear of death. It sounds a bit negative that all we do is to achieve some sort of immortality. I think, the knowledge that we will die, has a positive aspect as well, it encourages us to get the best out of our limited time on earth. In any case, it sounds like an interesting book, and I don’t mind it is based on Freud and Kierkegaard (who is Otto Rank?)

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    1. Otto Rank was an Austrian psychoanalyst and apparently a close friend/colleague of Sigmund Freud. I did not know who he was either before reading the book. It is fair to say that Becker’s book is the summary of Rank’s position and views since Rank published such essays as “The Myth of the Birth of the Hero” and “The Trauma of Birth” – essentially everything that Becker talks about in his book.

      And, I agree with you also that, without death, life would not have had that meaning. It is precisely because we know our lives are limited that we are capable and have motivation to accomplish something/so much. Becker does not deny that and talks about it, but he also argues that this does not detract from his argument and humans still have this innate dread of passing. It is precisely because we have death in our minds somewhere that we are so anxious to achieve something and do it relatively fast. He also says that life and death are, indeed, closely interlinked, and it is still difficult for a human being to acknowledge that he can achieve so much in life – develop himself so much in all areas and still….die (like any insect or animal or any completely non-conscious entity, etc). In that respect, says, Becker it is wrong to believe that humans are any different from, say, dinosaurs. They are not special – but do EVERYTHING in their power in their limited time span on earth to say LOUDLY that they are (i.e. denying their mortality in this way) – the means that they employ to do this sometimes leads to very tragic things, as history showed.

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  2. This is an interesting theme, though I have limited respect for anything based on Freud since I learned that his entire system of psychoanalysis was based on denial of women’s reports of their childhood sexual abuse. (They must have been lies covering for their inadmissible desire to have sex with daddy.) Not sure I could read a disciple of his with enough patience.

    But it is important to come to terms with death. Other philosophers have posited that this is the basis of our freedom, and I agree.

    I also recommend Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea cycle as a meditation on the topic. There is a lot of wisdom in there.

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    1. I think “The Denial of Death” is worth reading because Becker is, in fact, very critical of Freud there. The way I can describe the book is that Becker “criticises Freud, idolises Rank and explains Kierkegaard”.

      Thanks for this recommendation, I will check out the Earthsea books!

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  3. I enjoyed reading your review, it is insightful and well-balanced. Reminds me of Lacan’s account on obsessive neurosis; the individual cannot determine whether he wants to live or die. Too bad that the author did not include this notion. Antigone is a heroine that would have been interesting to explore, since death is already a significant part of her from the beginning of the tragedy. Creon and chorus reprimand her for this in an interesting way.

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    1. Thanks for this great comment. Becker does not mention Lacan at all because he is so obsessed with his other trio. I am not that familiar with Lacan’s positions, but thanks to you I have just found a new book I want to read “Beyond Discontent: ‘Sublimation’ from Goethe to Lacan” by Eckart Goebel. “Lacan defined the task of “love” as the perpetual untying or severing of the knot of imaginary servitude”. Isn’t this beautiful? 🙂

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      1. Lacan is very hard to decipher, much like Heidegger, he uses his own language and even algebra. It can be a challenge to get to know this great author, it may be good to start with interpretations of his work. For example, his article “Kant avec Sade” has about 20 pages, but a whole book was written to interpret it.
        I agree, it is beautiful. 🙂

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          1. That is the one is among the hardest to approach I would say. Not because of the reader’s capacity, but because his “Ecrites”, and this article belongs to them, are meant for an “elite” already well-acquainted with his work. He was a die-hard elitist, Lacan, and liked to write cryptically. His seminars are a good start, and you can find books which are essentially interpretations of each seminar in English. “The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis”, XI seminar, is good to start. And when it comes to my blog, thank you, I truly appreciate it! 🙂 Underrated yes, but I believe that I should write more regularly and invest myself more in networking, getting to know people. On the other hand, this blog’s main purpose is to get some feedback from the readers (social networks other than WordPress are the key here) and eventually use these articles in some other way – a magazine from Southeastern Europe has already contacted me to write for them, and I do, so I guess that it is paying off. I believe that “numbers” aren’t everything, attentive and mindful readers are. So I thank you, again!

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            1. So his books then have something in common with alchemical writings that only the “initiated” can understand? 🙂 Intriguing, thank you for all your suggestions and advice.

              I am happy to hear that, yeah, still it pains me to see such an intelligent film blog that explores film in so much (philosophical and psychological) depth not getting the likes and followers it really deserves. I guess you are right, it is all about marketing and networking and the effort of connecting which also decide the number of one’s followers. One has to make an effort these days and go out there actively to drag the followers back to one’s sites 🙂 Yeah, I guess it is the quality of your followers and not quantity of them that matters at the end of the day.

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              1. Alchemy, a great analogy! I agree, only the “initiated” can get it. One feminist, angry with Lacan, said that he should make his seminars even more exclusive and keep them to himself. No problem!

                Yes, it’s all about marketing and networking, I guess human interaction (via internet as well) is the key to everything, as it seems. But it’s good, connecting with people, an enriching experience. It’s just that I have so many interests, there is work, and the day is short… But if there is will, one can find time for everything!

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