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The Denial of Death ()


Pulitzer Prize (Nonfiction)

The antithesis between death and life is not so stark for the Christian as it is for the atheist. Life is a process of becoming, and the moment of death is the transition from one life to another. Thus it is possible for a Christian to succumb to his own kind of death-wish, to seek that extreme of other-worldliness to which the faith has always been liable, especially in periods of stress and uncertainty. There may appear a marked preoccupation with death and a rejection of all temporal things. To say that this world is in a fallen state and that not too much value must be set upon it, is very far from the Manichaean error of supposing it to be evil throughout. The Christian hope finds ambivalence in death: that which destroys, also redeems.
    -Raymond Chapman (1924- ), The Ruined Tower (1961)


Though extravagantly praised as groundbreaking, revolutionary, uniquely insightful, etc., this book totters uneasily between the obvious and the ridiculous.  The obvious is the assertion that the central fact of Man's existence is his mortality.  The ridiculous is the assertion that out of a sense of terror at this rather self-evident and annoyingly persistent fact, Man has structured his reality so as to deny it.  This denial of death, of the central fact of existence, in Becker's opinion leads to virtually all of the pathologies to which humans are subject.  The particular way in which it manifests itself, in his opinion, is in Man's narcissism, the individual's obsessive need to be recognized as important.  It is this which creates what Becker calls "man's tragic destiny"  :

    [H]e must desperately justify himself as an object of primary value in the universe; he must stand
    out, be a hero, make the biggest contribution to world life, show that he counts more than anything
    or anyone else.

Becker therefore views all cultures as mere systems for turning men into the kind of heroes that this destiny requires :

    It doesn't matter whether the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or
    secular, scientific, and civilized.  It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to
    earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of
    unshakable meaning.  They earn this feeling by carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice
    that reflects human value : a temple, a cathedral, a totem pole, a skyscraper, a family that spans
    three generations.  The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting
    worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count.

Because all of this is manifestly untrue as far as Becker is concerned  :

    The question that becomes then the most important one that man can put to himself is simply this :
    how conscious is he of what he is doing to earn his feeling of heroism ?

He supposes that were we to become conscious of our denial of death and of the false cultural structures that we have erected in order to give ourselves a patina of heroism, it would unleash a mighty blast of truth that would fundamentally change the world.  But in the final analysis, all that he really sees as changing is that we would realize that existing cultural systems are artificial and would realize that :

    whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the
    grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything.  Otherwise it is false.  Whatever is
    achieved must be achieved from within the subjective energies of creatures, without deadening, with
    the full exercise of passion, of vision, of pain, of fear, and of sorrow.

Having arrived at these conclusions and come to understand that we can not explain the reasons for the "forward momentum of life", Becker proposes that :

    The most that any one of us can seem to do is to fashion something--an object or ourselves--and
    drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force.

There he ends the book and, sadly, he died in the same year it was published.

Now, for the most part, Becker simply took a roundabout path to arrive at the same conclusion as most existentialists : we have no way of knowing what the purpose of existence is, in fact it may well be purposeless, so the best we can do is act as if existence were its own purpose and keep moving forward.  That's always struck me as an all too nihilistic vision of the universe--somehow craven and ambitionless--but it is fairly hard to refute.

On the other hand, his ideas about Man's "denial of death" are pure bunkum.  While it is certainly true that death is no longer with us in the same way it was through most of Man's history--think of those Monty Python skits, "Bring out your dead!"--it is nonetheless true that the 20th Century was a protracted slaughter of the innocents and that our current culture is obsessed, to the point of hysteria, with trying to make every implement, machine, and food product safe and healthy, regardless of the cost or the marginal utility.  Thoughts of mortality are omnipresent.  As for the historic basis of Western Civilization, it would seem fair in many ways to characterize Judeo-Christianity as a death cult.  Beginning with the Creation myth itself, where Man is sentenced to mortality for defying God, extending through such scenes as the murder of Abel, the near Sacrifice of Isaac, the Flood, and on up to the Crucifixion of Christ, Man's vulnerability to death is at the very forefront of our religious heritage.  How can you square the notion that we repress our awareness of death with the fact that hundreds of millions of us reenact the death of our very God during Communion every week ?

As for Becker's notion of what Man finds heroic, he seems to be talking about the kind of demand for recognition that Francis Fukuyama discusses in The End of History and the Last Man, which I guess is a concept derived from Hegel.  But this kind of "heroism" is essentially selfish and is antithetical to everything that our religion, and the rest of our culture, teaches us.  Our heroes are those who sacrifice themselves for the good of others, not those who prove their own significance, but those who ignore self for the common good.  When Ronald Reagan began the tradition of introducing heroes at the State of the Union, he began with Lenny Skutnick, a more ordinary man than whom would be hard to imagine.  But he had plunged into the Potomac in the midst of snow and freezing weather, heedless of his own life, in order to try to save the survivors of a plane crash.  This is the Right Stuff in our culture.  Or return again to Christianity, what is the central action of the religion, Christ accepting death in order to reconcile Man and God.  Again, self sacrifice is not merely celebrated, it is a quality of the divine.  And what is Christ's most important teaching ?  the simple commandment to love one another.  "One another," not ourselves.

It seems that Becker has taken a particularly malignant pathology of modernity--the love of self--and mistakenly determined it to be the central fact of our existence.  Actually, it is but one facet of existence, a powerful one, but one that is continually at war with our capacity to love others.  To this extent, Becker is right that it would be a very good thing if folks who have fallen prey to this disease were to realize how empty is their drive to prove their own "primary value."  It would be infinitely better to return to an understanding of our existence which judges us by our willingness to make ourselves secondary and endow others with primary value.  But his argument here is not with all of Western culture, but with some of its most recent and unfortunate manifestations--Marxism, Darwinism, Freudianism, etc.--all of those materialistic beliefs which tend to objectify Man.  And they are rooted not in a denial of death but in an acceptance of it as the ultimate end of human existence.  It is such countercultural -isms which deny the existence of eternal and absolute values beyond Man and turn him instead upon himself, focussing him totally on his own day-to-day existence and the struggle to survive.  The problem is not "denial of death", it is denial of anything beyond death.  If men believed again in their own souls or in God or in heaven or in hell, or in whatever type of system would require that their actions be judged after they are dead, the problems that Becker was worried about would take care of themselves.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (D+)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -The Ernest Becker Foundation
    -LECTURE : GROWING UP RUGGED: FRITZ PERLS AND GESTALT THERAPY  (Ernest Becker)
    -ESSAY : THE LEGACY OF ERNEST BECKER (Ron Leifer, M.D., Psych News)
    -ESSAY : Kagan notes on Ernest Becker's Birth and Death of Meaning (These notes are meant to function as minimal highlighting commentary on Becker's text. (Michael Kagan, Le Moyne College Department of Philosophy)
    -DISCUSSION : on-line discussion forum called Becker's Denial of Death
    -LINKS : "Ernest Becker" links (PTypes Personality Types)
    -LECTURE : The Denial of Death and the Practice of Dying (or: "Tasting Death") (Glenn Hughes)
    -ESSAY : Biospirituality as a Path to Fulfillment (Steve Kaufman, MD)
    -ARCHIVES : "ernest becker" (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : Oct 31, 1974 J.M. Cameron: Surviving Death, NY Review of Books
       Living and Dying by Robert Jay Lifton and Eric Olson
       The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker
       Ending by Hilma Wolitzer
       Jewish Reflections on Death edited by Rabbi Jack Riemer
    -REVIEW : of The Denial of Death (Seasons of God's Grace)
    -BOOK LIST : Death: A Reading List (Compiled by Fred Branfman, Dwight Garner, Gary Kamiya, Laura Miller, Joyce Millman, Scott Rosenberg and David Talbot, Salon)
    -AWARD : Pulitzer Prize for NonFiction : 1974 : The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

OTTO RANK :
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "otto rank"
    -Otto Rank (1884-1939)
    -REVIEW : of ACTS OF WILL The Life and Work of Otto Rank. By E. James Lieberman (Michael Vincent Miller, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Otto Rank, A Psychology of Difference: The American Lectures Selected, Edited, and Introduced by Robert Kramer with a foreword by Rollo May Separation, Will, and Creativity: The Wisdom of Otto Rank by Esther Menaker. Edited by Claude Barbre (Stephen Khamsi, Ph.D., Birth Psychology)
    -REVIEW : of THE SECRET RING Freud's Inner Circle and the Politics of Psychoanalysis. By Phyllis Grosskurth ( Stuart Schneiderman, NY Times Book Review)

GENERAL :
    -THEOLOGY OF CHRISTIAN HOPE :  Module THREE : Meditation on Death

Comments:

Yes, in broad anthropological and historical terms Christianity is indeed a death cult, but more accurately, a "denial of death" cult -- and that's the point of communion: eat the flesh, drink the blood, and live forever. Pretend to be immortal, just like a god.

- Jeff

- Mar-31-2007, 20:53

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robbie:

Yes, it's a problem of atomized secular society.

- oj

- Feb-07-2006, 16:24

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Of course it is easy to conclude that most accept their death each day: we drive on the freeway, take communion, look at Jesus on the cross, acknowledge hunger, executions, abortions, and murders in our daily news. Mr. Becker's book is not written on this level, from which the reviewer clearly is writing. Becker is writing from the stance of what each human being feels and thinks when they are alone, rolling over in the middle of the night when no one is around, about their existence. Each person implicitly feels that they are "special" and they have "meaning". Unfortunately, Becker brings to light that "the last thing obvious to a fish is water". Becker opens the cookie jar and tells us that what we've been reaching for all of our lives is something we'd rather not discuss at all. This book caused me some serious contemplation for the 1 year after I read it. How deeply you think, or how much of a philosopher you think you are affects your view of Becker's ideas. Those who shrug at the thesis are super-human in thought and already know and embrace it, or are mired in the circular logic of being human, which Becker demonstrates in his own heroic act.

- robbie

- Feb-07-2006, 16:07

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No the reviewer did not read the book, did not understand the book, doesn't even have the right to lay his fat foolhardy fingers on its pages. Becker deserves much much more than this.

Pearls before Swine

- Nick Antonas

- Feb-24-2005, 03:13

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We resist Becker because his words stick in our craw. He writes about our 4am fog of fear, feelings, and ideas in a way that names that which we couldn't quite say before.

He asks us to brace ouselves, Sons of Man. To notice that our dark side is the engine that moves us forward. Good comes from evil; pride cannot be forced into humility; it can only bloom into 'the good.' So when we see that 'the good' that appeared to offer us redemption from our fallenness, still sprouts from roots forever stained, we protest; we protest so much as to expose our dark underbelly.

I haven't so much read Denial of Death, as chewed on sections long enough for illusion to drop its veil & truth to bubble up from below.

It isn't that I find Becker right on every point and at every turn. I believe he is quite likely wrong about much; he's at lengths to show where Freud was wrong & overly dialed into orgasmics; but at the distance of 30 years, one is struck by how much of Freud, that Becker allowed to stand after his critique. But much as debunking Freud's ideas doesn't get rid of him or lessen his stature as a great intellect, so we can poke holes all over in Becker and yet not diminish the thrust of his argument. Disprove every one of Freud's ideas, & his general point remains: we must look below the surface to find that which gums up our lives & relationships. Becker, likewise, may miss on many points but the broad sweep of his argument, the direction he asks us to look is what takes us beyond our current sight to increased insight.

someone commented on Chesterton's take on Dickens, that he (Chesterton) misquoted lines, confused facts, and made lamentably careless mistakes in his biography; and yet, in final analysis, his portrait lands more truly on target than all the rest, and by a good margin.

Justin

- Justin Shoemaker

- Feb-13-2004, 00:38

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I read this review of Ernest Becker's book, The Denial of Death, and I am not sure if the reviewer is serious or simply being ironic.

Case in point:

"On the other hand, his ideas about Man's "denial of death" are pure bunkum. ... Thoughts of mortality are omnipresent. As for the historic basis of Western Civilization, it would seem fair in many ways to characterize Judeo-Christianity as a death cult. Beginning with the Creation myth itself, where Man is sentenced to mortality for defying God, extending through such scenes as the murder of Abel, the near Sacrifice of Isaac, the Flood, and on up to the Crucifixion of Christ, Man's vulnerability to death is at the very forefront of our religious heritage. How can you square the notion that we repress our awareness of death with the fact that hundreds of millions of us reenact the death of our very God during Communion every week?"

Here we see the human awareness that there is something definitely 'wrong' with us and our condition. We SHOULD be immortal, but we are not. Something went wrong. We are 'fallen' and the very center of our fallen state is our mortality. Ergo, the whole cultural religion, "the historic basis for Western Civilization," has at its very generative motivational core the promise that this 'fallen' (mortal) state is not the final answer and can be 'fixed' by practicing the religion. What looks like a death cult is in fact completely motivated by the ongoing promise of escaping the mortal condition. You can see this clearly just by finishing out your own final thought in this paragraph.

"How can you square the notion that we repress our awareness of death with the fact that hundreds of millions of us reenact the death of our very God during Communion every week, (i.e., the ritual celebration of our God who died that we might gain eternal life)?"

Here, clearly, there is no contradiction or mystery to this at all. The communion service is one ritualization of the individual and collective denial of death (denial that mortality, death, is the final word on who we are as human beings.) This seems so obvious, even in the reviewer’s own formulation of the 'problem,' that again, I am not sure how serious the reviewer intended these criticisms.

Further criticisms of Becker's work which follow in this review stem directly from this wooden misreading of Becker’s writing, as evidenced above. I speak as one who knows Becker's work intimately, forward and backward, and as one who has written extensively on the religious nature of Becker's basic insights. Becker was not an atheist nor hostile to religion per se. He understood his own work as a twin parallel to that of Paul Tillich’s. But whereas Tillich’s work moved toward the merger of religious faith and social science from the side of religion, Becker saw his work as moving toward a similar merger from the side of social science.

Admittedly, there is some lopsidedness to Becker’s later work simply because he died young and unexpectedly (at age 49). His method was always to go at something one way, then turn around and go at it from another/the other side. He never got the chance to do that with Denial of Death. But it should be understood that in Denial of Death, Becker was not primarily throwing the gauntlet of criticism down to religionists (or if so, only toward the most unselfreflective religious types) but rather he was throwing down the gauntlet of criticism to the scientific types. He is basically saying in this book that if you stick very strictly to the empirical facts as understood scientifically, you are left with a very bleak, stark view of the human situation. We may well not be a viable species in the long term. Becker was so often simply dismissed as unscientific by the sociological and psychological academics, without fully digesting (or even partially digesting) what he was saying. In Denial of Death, he is saying as strongly as he can, look, I didn't make up the rules here of what we will consider to be empirically, scientifically valid, nor was it I who made scientific validity the be-all and end-all of what academic conversation considers to be “Truth.” But given that these are the rules for what is considered scientifically valid, and scientific validity is what we privilege above all other knowledge, then THIS is what a truly scientific view would say about the human species. If that is too 'pessimistic,' fine, then either redefine scientific validity, move beyond ‘science' as the centrally privilege form of knowing, or both. But don't pretend you can define science this way, privilege scientific knowledge above all else, and YET be optimistic about the human condition.

At times Becker played with both of those options above, but from an interview we have while he was dying in the hospital in 1973, he seems wistfully to have decided just to give over the future of the human condition to whatever comes beyond and recognize he can do nothing other than that in any case (he reflects Freud's Jewish stoicism here, rather than Kierkegaard's Christian leap of faith, but he did definitely believe in God). I personally am with Becker on this, that finally we can do nothing more than hand the meaning of our lives over to God in trust and faith, recognizing that the evidence even for God’s existence is ambiguous. In my view, any religious ideology that claims to know more about the meaning of human affairs than this will always be tempted to force God’s hand, and is thus potentially very dangerous.

Becker is not easy reading, but he certainly deserves a more nuanced review than the one above.

- Daniel Liechty

- Feb-05-2004, 14:54

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My sentiments exactly to the last comment, except I would add: Did you bother to read the whole book? Did you bother to try to understand what Becker is saying? Try reading the chapters on Kierkegaard again; that will take care of most of the problems you had with the book. Then try reading the rest of it. You may see something you missed the first time around.

- ernesto

- Nov-09-2003, 11:47

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You sir, are a fool.

- Ryan

- Mar-31-2003, 14:48

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