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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.


Grade: (D+)


Ernest Becker Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Ernest Becker
    -REVIEW ESSAY: “Death” at Fifty: Ernest Becker and the Immortality Project (Jose A. Bufill, 10/04/23, Public Discourse) -REVIEW ESSAY: Ernest Becker and Our Fear of Death: In The Denial of Death, Becker says it’s in our nature to fear death – and to transcend that fear through faith. (Kelsey Osgood, MAY 25, 2021, Plough Quarterly)

Book-related and General Links:
    -The Ernest Becker Foundation
    -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 (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)

    -THEOLOGY OF CHRISTIAN HOPE :  Module THREE : Meditation on Death
    -ESSAY: Don’t fear the Reaper: We have become reluctant to accept death as an integral part of life. Perhaps coronavirus will give us a more realistic attitude to mortality (Andrew Doyle, 23 December, 2020, Standpoint)
    -ESSAY: Fearing Death Is for the Pagans (RAYMOND DANSEREAU, 4/07/22, Crisis)