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Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

Posted By Paul Comstock On April 11, 2007 @ 11:37 am In Classics,Death,Non-Fiction Reviews,Philosophy,Psychology | 10 Comments

Denial of Death
by Ernest Becker
Free Press 336 pp.
CLR Rating:

The Worm At The Core

The fact is that this is what society is and always has been…a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism…from the “high” heroism of a Churchill, a Mao, or a Buddha, to the “low” heroism of the coal miner, the peasant, the simple priest; the plain everyday earthly heroism wrought by gnarled working hands guiding a family through hunger and disease.

“The Denial of Death” recently turned up on Bill Clinton’s list of 20 favorite books. The winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1974, one hopes that every generation a mention such as this will bring this brilliant book to the attention of new readers.

According to Becker, man is torn between his symbolic, self-conscious awareness and his animal nature. The same creature that names himself, imagines, explores and speculates is in the end, food for insects. How man deals with this can explain everything from individual neuroses to the Holocaust. It is what William James called “the worm at the core” of man’s existence. Anality is viewed as an attempt to deny the possibility of accident or death, to insist on our separation from nature. Members of the primitive Chagga tribe wear an anal plug their entire lives. Modern society of course, goes to elaborate lengths to imagine a separation from natural reality. The resulting tension expresses itself in a Swift poem:

Nor wonder how I lost my Wits;
Oh! Caelia, Caelia, Caelia shits!

So man is afraid, but where does he turn? He’s simply not strong enough to go it alone. To quote Maslow: “We enjoy and even thrill to the godlike possibilities we see in ourselves…and yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe and fear before these very same possibilities.” So we as individuals and a society create intoxicating illusions in which to lose ourselves. The brave few that try to get beyond our secure societal roles find the same emptiness, fear and anxiety as that of the psychotic. To quote Jack Nicholson as Col. Nathan R. Jessup: “The truth? You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” Enter Kierkegaard.

Beck considers Kierkegaard’s insight into the human condition to be so accomplished that his 1840s writings should be considered “post-Freudian,” particularly his understanding of the causes of repression and its devastating effects. One can close up, obsess, collect bottlecaps, do whatever it takes to allay our fear. One can also detach from the body, taste the infinite and become God joining other schizophrenics in pushing a shopping cart down a city street. Or finally, we can as Martin Luther put it “taste death as though it were present,” kill off our illusions and admit that we are creature. Only then according to Kierkegaard can we see beyond to “absolute transcendence, to the Ultimate Power of Creation.” One breaks the illusions of a cultural heroism, and through faith, aligns oneself with the infinite and in a sense a cosmic heroism.

In Kierkegaard, psychology and religion, philosophy and science, poetry and truth merge indistinguishably together in the yearning of the creature.

If Kierkegaard is to be viewed as the hero of Becker’s story, Freud is seen as a tragically flawed genius. While most of us suppress our fears with societal roles and customs, the genius can attempt a sui generis project that in the creator’s mind will fundamentally change the world and secure his immortality. In Becker’s view, Freud clung tightly to this role, which explains his bitterness when others, particularly Jung, challenged his work. Psychoanalysis became in effect Freud’s “private religion.” His life becomes a symbol for the failures and limits of worldly heroism. But Freud’s contributions, particularly in group psychology, cannot be overestimated. An individual’s identification with the hero-leader allows him or her to become the omnipotent infant once again. All the individual’s moral decisions and responsibilities are transferred to the hero-leader. The consequences from Hitler to Charles Manson to Mao are all too familiar to us. The ensuing carnage is not a reflection of man’s strength, but rather man “trying to affirm in a cowardly way his feeble powers.”

So what can we do? We can downsize or fetishize the world into a manageable size. We can dedicate our lives to creating a masterpiece that establishes our “immortality.” We can hold tightly to nationalism or a rock star or Marxism. To Becker’s credit, he doesn’t provide “the Answer,” just some clues as to when we’re on the wrong path and why we’ve chosen it. He understands the need for myths. He understands the devastating results of separating science from all moral or religious contexts. Joseph Campbell stated that the world is changing too fast for us to cultivate and sustain a mythology. Writers like Becker are seedlings on a barren social landscape. We need to nurture them.


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