The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker (Part 1)

Foreword. The book was first published in 1973. I interviewed him when he was dying from cancer. That moment helped to shape my views on death. Contemplation of our inevitable death adds sweetness to mortality. Another famous book of his is ‘Escape from Evil’. Human beings have a need to control basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death. Some people thought death was a taboo topic. Most people conspire to keep death unconscious. Society provides the hero system which people think can help transcend death. Some people do things because they want to have achieved something that is long-lasting. However, they might not particularly like doing such things. Humans conflict over religions etc and heroism causes much conflicts. To what extent should one pursue heroism? Mankind can hope that people channel their hatred into world problems like poverty etc. The true hero is aware of his mortality and can see impotence and vulnerability. He rejects mass culture and opts for cosmic heroism. Who knows what the future of Mankind will be? Through this book, we learn the relationship between the denial of death and the dominion of evil.

This is the terror of death: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression – and with all this yet to die. – Ernest Becker

Preface. The fear of death haunts humans. People deny that it is the final destiny for man. Some primates celebrate death as it is an elevation to a higher form of life. The dear of death is the human condition. Humans are no closer to the truth than centuries ago. Why is so much overproduction in society nowadays? People like to overproduce but the major issues of the world remain unsolved. The world needs more love, less strife. The problem with modern writers is that there is too much exaggeration. This is my first mature work. The book contains values by philosophers like Kierkegaard, Freud and Otto Rank. Rank’s works were brilliant. His thoughts spanned several fields of knowledge. His books were difficult to read so I have ‘translated’ some of his ideas here. Freud and Rank were close friends. Rank knew his work really well. I will mention more on Rank rather than Jung because Jung was already widely covered by other writers.

Introduction: Human Nature and the Heroic. We know the importance of heroism, but it somehow got neglected along the way. People here thought that the main purpose of man was the heroic. People are narcissistic after all. We are absorbed with ourselves. No one cares about the man next to him. Narcissism is closely associated with self-esteem and self-worth. Man needs to feel comfortable in his self-esteem. Humans need to feel themselves as objects of primary value. Humans are naturally competitive creatures. It is therefore natural for man to want to be a hero. However, all these have no cosmic significance. This is the way society is. Society is a vehicle for heroism. This is the idea of cultural heroism. Are you conscious of what you are doing to earn feeling of heroism? Some men will sacrifice themselves to the good of society. However, the younger generation does not believe in that kind of sacrifice. They see the horrors of society, like wars etc. Some youth scorn religion. Religion needs to work harder to convert these youth on their side. Even the whole society is like a ‘religion’ in some way. It is time for Man to ask the deep questions.

In our culture anyway, especially in modern times, the heroic seems too big for us, or we too small for it. Tell a young man that he is entitled to be a hero and he will blush. We disguise our struggle by piling up figures in a bank book to reflect privately our sense of heroic worth. – Ernest Becker

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. – Ernest Becker

Part 1: The Depth Psychology of Heroism

The Terror of Death. Freud believed in thinking about death once in a while. Death is something that moves man. It was a psychological problem. Heroism was a reflection for the terror of death. Many ancient myths believe in reincarnation or life after death. There is a lot of work on death already. For a young child, he is not aware of what death is. Sometimes, they only realize what death is when they are 9 or 10. A young child is fully dependent on his parents. People with bad experiences might fear death more. Another school of thought is ‘morbidly minded’. This means that the fear of death is in everyone, whether you were brought up well or not. It is not possible to decide whether the fear of death is a basic anxiety. The author believes with this ‘morbidly minded’ school of thought. No one is free of the fear of death. Even William James thought the same. The fact that we strive for self-preservation means that we fear death. However, the fear is more unconscious than conscious. For most people who enjoy living, their fear of death is repressed. A child has to rely on his parents. Animals are not immune to chaos too. Gradually, a child will be exposed to the cruelty of life. Death is a complex symbol, which different societies and cultures will view differently. How does kids with childhood nightmares go on to lead optimistic lives? Humans are very good at repressing our fears. Repression is a scientific concept. It is through striving that fears get absorbed in. As you expand on life and seek better experiences, the fear of death must get ignored. A strong family upbringing amounts to inner sustainment. Men tends to follow what society expects of him and doesn’t question too much. All he needs is to go with the flow and just live. It is when you have undergone a bad experience that the fear of death emerges in pure essence. There are many ways to repress death, of which religion is one way. There are different angles where one can examine the fear of death. Is it even good to be fully aware of your mortality?

Gregory Zilboorg says that most people think death fear is absent because it rarely shows its true face; but he argues that underneath all appearances fear of death is universally present. – Ernest Becker

I don’t believe that the complex symbol of death is ever absent, no matter how much vitality and inner sustainment a person has. – Ernest Becker

The Recasting of Some Basic Psychoanalytic Ideas. We know analyze psychoanalytic theories. Does man have an essence? Can it be found? Man has a paradoxical nature as he is half animal and half symbolic. However, men is like food for worms and is made of flesh. This is a complex dilemma. However, animals are simply driven by their instincts. They live in a world without time. Animals do not think of death. Everything men does is try to deny his grotesque fate. The child cannot understand this dualism too. However, the kid sometimes might soil himself and realize that his body is not all rosy and almighty. The body and the self cannot be reconciled easily. Men tries to deny his true condition. Anality is the problem of man’s dualism between his self and body. A kid might play with his feces, but later realize it’s part of his bodily functions. Men sit only on their arse. Having bodily functions also indicate decay and death. Men like to think that they are not an animal. He doesn’t like to have his body take control over him. Our creativity in life is basically a denial of the truth of the human condition. Freud believed in the Oedipus complex. Freud thought of human motives in ‘primitive’ ways. He believed that many people had sexual tendencies since young. Childhood is indeed a crucial period for man. The Oedipus project is about the conflict between narcissism and ambivalence. When the child is very young, he can cry and get what he wants. After that, he enters the ‘anal’ stage, where he seeks to control his body and master it. The child later believes that he can shape his own life. Later on, Freud developed the ‘castration complex’. Eventually, the child must get free of the mother and become independent. Soon, the child sees her as a threat. He realizes that the female model is different from male and is shocked. The female body seems alien to him and the child is helpless. He realizes that she is vulnerable. He realizes that one could have been born anything, and of any sex. It is purely a matter of chance. One has to take on the burden of one’s meaning of life and body. Sexuality is a universal problem. The body is always casting a shadow over your personal freedom. When the child witnesses sexual intercourse between his parents, he couldn’t take it anymore. He couldn’t take part in it. As a result, he feels betrayed. Sex is so widely practiced, but it can disillusioning too. Sex is also a private thing, and in some ways an escape from society. People need to take part in social projects to achieve meaning.

He is a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity, who can place himself imaginatively at a point in space and contemplate bemusedly his own planet. This immense expansion, this dexterity, this ethereality, this self-consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god. – Ernest Becker

Human Character as a Vital Lie. Humans use fantasy as a lie, to distract themselves from reality. Why are so few people truly courageous? Why is man so cowardly? Is it because he is an animal. Are we indebted to society? Maslow termed the fact that people dream to be great, but don’t do it, a term called ‘Jonah Syndrome’. This is because we know we are a weak organism, so have to cut back on the full intensity of life. These are defenses against grandiosity. For most adults, we have closed off our idea of miracles of creation. We live in a miraculous and incomprehensible world. Animals work based on instincts. Men cannot take his own body for granted. His memories and dreams might be foreign to him. We are simply, gods with anuses. Freud studied about human limitation and the formation of character. According to him, Man fears knowledge of oneself. We engage in repression if we fear something that could make us seem inferior or weak. We have to repress our smallness in this world. We must repress the primary awesomeness of the external world. Humans have two fears which are distinct from animals: the fear of life and the fear of death. Man wants to stay safe and not end up in danger because he understands the fragility of life. A child does not know what it is like to possess great power. A child has to learn to build up defenses. He has to generate a unique identity. We live securely and serenely. These defenses form an illusion. Anxiety is the spur of energetic activity. We get into relationships for security, however, we have to maintain them and then to further the lie. We never really live a life that is truly ours. We need to expose the fourth level, which is the fear of death in order to live authentically. This is the psychologic rebirth. One should always live with humility. What does it mean to live with ‘full humanness’? It means full fear and trembling, at least some of the waking day. Maslow talks about self-actualization. Freud had a theory that humans had innate instincts. Post-freudian theory believed that a child was malleable and instinct free. It was the environment that shaped his development more. The child had to think of defenses in the world. Life can seem overwhelming at times. A person’s character is a defense against despair. The child’s perceptions of the world are new and fresh. The world seemed all beautiful.

He doesn’t know who he is, why he was born, what he is doing on the planet, what he is supposed to do, what he can expect. His own existence is incomprehensible to him, a miracle just like the rest of creation… – Ernest Becker

It can be the power of an all-absorbing activity, a passion, a dedication to a game, a way of life, that like a comfortable web keeps a person buoyed up and ignorant of himself, of the fact that he does not rest on his center. – Ernest Becker

No matter what men pretend, they are only one accidental bite away from utter fallibility. – Ernest Becker

The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive. – Ernest Becker

The Psychoanalyst Kierkegaard. Psychiatric and religious perspectives are closely linked. They cannot be separated easily. Kierkegaard wrote outstanding analyses of the human mind. It is because of his ambiguity that causes him to be in dread. Man cannot suddenly be an animal. Death is man’s peculiar and greatest anxiety. Man tries to avoid anxiety. How does Man lie about himself? He mentioned Man blocked off reality and lived in half-obscurity. It is similar to the term ‘repression’ of modern day. It is important to let the child fend on his own. Although upbringing is important, at some stage, it is important to let the child wander on their own. One should always seek new possibilities and choices. He described character shut-offs as men living inauthentic lives. They simply follow automatic and uncritical living. They do not belong to anyone. Men who do not think for themselves. This is the guy who imitates others. The ‘immediate’ man does not recognize himself and needs external validation. This is the guy enslaved by culture. Men chooses to live that way because of the danger of a full horizon of experience. Freedom can be dangerous. The problem of life is too much possibility. The split of the body and the self is known as schizophrenia. However, it is important to acknowledge one’s limits. The idea of consummate health is not easy to attain. Depressive psychosis is where there too much limitation placed and not enough freedom of the inner self. This happens when an individual is bogged down by daily life. Some men live a ‘safe’ live. The extreme case of this is depressive psychosis, where a man feels literally stupid. In this case, everything becomes necessary and yet seem trivial. The depressed person feels these people are his shelter. He embeds himself in others. Both excessive and too little possibility of life are bad. One has to live safely within the probabilities of a given set of social rules. Some men try to make use of their special talents to benefit mankind. However, after a while, we get tied down by other commitments. This is better an immediate man. He does want his uniqueness to result in confrontation. The last type of man is the self-created man, the man who is the master of his own fate. He will plunge into life. This could seem demonic. He immerses in the body and experiences. Kierkegaard understood the dangers of lying to oneself. What would life be like if one did not lie? What is the true possibility of man? He didn’t like the ‘normal cultural man’. The real man is one who has ‘transcended’ himself. How does one open up to new possibilities? To him, the enemy was the Oedipus complex. The childhood defenses you built since young become your life-long trap. He must know how to throw off ‘cultural lendings’. One should not live automatically. One needs to realize the truth of one’s condition and recognize one’s creatureliness. The flood of anxiety is the educator. By understanding dread may happen every moment, one will lead to interpret reality differently. One needs to face up to his natural impotence and death. The self must be broken in order to become a self. One has to feel lost and accept it and then one can begin to find himself. The self must be destroyed for self-transcendence to begin. The child relies on power linkages, which have to be broken. This leads to faith. However, does one yearn for cosmic heroism? Kierkegaard believed in the merger of psychology and religion. The brink of oblivion can seem like the brink of infinity. One can use anxiety as an eternal spring for growth into new dimensions of thought and trust.

The whole order of things fills me with a sense of anguish, from the gnat to the mysteries of incarnation; all is entirely unintelligible to me, and particularly my own person. Great is my sorrow, without limits. None knows of it, except God in Heaven, and He cannot have pity. – Soren Kierkegaard

If a man were a beast or an angel, he would not be able to be in dread. Since he is a synthesis he can be in dread…man himself produces dread. – Ernest Becker

For the self is a synthesis in which the finite is the limiting factor, and the infinite is the expanding factor. Infinitude’s despair is therefore the fantastical, the limitless. – Ernest Becker

In such a bogging down, the individual does not feel or see that he has alternatives, cannot imagine any choices or alternate ways of life, cannot release himself from the network of obligations even though these obligations no longer give him a sense of self-esteem, of primary value, of being a heroic contributor to world life even by doing his daily family and job duties. – Ernest Becker

By seeing the multitude of men about it, by getting engaged in all sorts of worldly affairs, by becoming wise about how things go in this world, such a man forgets himself… does not dare to believe in himself, finds it too venturesome a thing to be himself, far easier and safer to be like the others, to become an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd. – Soren Kierkegaard

One chooses slavery because it is safe and meaningful; then one loses the meaning of it, but fears to move out of it. One has literally died to life but must remain physically in this world. – Ernest Becker

It would be so nice to be the self he wants to be, to realize his vocation, his authentic talent, but it is dangerous, it might upset his world completely. – Ernest Becker

One goes through it all to arrive at faith, the faith that one’s very creatureliness has some meaning to a Creator; that despite one’s true insignificance, weakness, death, one’s existence has meaning in some ultimate sense because it exists within an eternal and infinite scheme of things brought about and maintained to some kind of design by some creative force. – Kierkegaard

The Problem of Freud’s Character, Noch Einmal. Freud tried to understand faith and deepen his understanding of man. Freud spoke a truth where nobody wanted to here. He recognized man’s creatureliness. He didn’t have high opinions of religion. To him, creatureliness was instinctive behavior. Freud had bias to his sexual theory. Carl Jung didn’t agree with Freud. Freud thought that religion was repressed sexuality. Apparently, Freud was very proud of his sexual theory. Jung thought it was not proven and had no basis. Freud thought occultism was self-deluding and self-inflating. Now, we know that the sexual theory proved to be wrong. Man did not just seek sexuality, but only had a fear of death which caused repression. The issue with Freud was that he didn’t leave his sexual dogma. He never really became an existentialist. He thought men had a death instinct and overcame it by killing. Freud thought that man carried death with him unconsciously as part of his biology. He changed the ‘death problem’ to the ‘death instinct’. Freud had many health problems and hated dissent. He was cynical towards those who opposed him. Freud seemed to be narcissistic. Many people thought of Freud to have a strong character. Freud was certainly not the immediate man. To him, death was an intimate problem. He played with the date of his death all his life. He wasn’t afraid of dying, but the grief it might cause his parents after he passed on. Sometimes, he suffered panic attacks. Freud reacted to death via panic attacks and also heroic resignation. He didn’t want to disappear into oblivion. Freud tried his best to submit to others around him. He was ambivalent towards supernaturalism. He believed in some superstitions, but failed to let that affect his main character. He didn’t want to yield because that would let one’s guard down. His psychoanalytic movement was his vehicle for heroism. The problem with being a genius is that he needs his work to justify him. Freud wanted Jung to carry on psychoanalysis. Jung was Freud’s son and when Jung rejected him, it was like the father-murder complex. Jung admitted Freud was a good teacher, but he had a mind of his own. Freud hated when Jung triumphed over him. This was the guilt of victory. Freud was largely disappointed by his father. Freud wished that his younger brother would die and he eventually did. This left a lot of guilt inside him. Jung hated feelings of helplessness. Do you abandon the causa-sui project, the attempt to be father of oneself? Freud saw the man who didn’t need sexual need and activity as having a higher aspiration as compared to a common man. Human beings are fragile and ephemeral. How far does life has to secure heroic meaning? The Enlightment’s view is that immorality means being loved by many anonymous people. Freud tried to destroy some of the letters he wrote. To Freud, psychoanalysis was his form of religion. Freud didn’t need to have intellectual dependence or spiritual dependence. Freud was obsessed about his sex talk and didn’t seem to know how to stop. However, he was still a great man. Freud refused to move from his instinct theory to the blanket idea of a death fear. He never wanted to move from scientific creatureliness to religious creatureliness.

The death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice, of the other; through the death of the other, one buys oneself free from the penalty of dying, of being killed. – Otto Rank

It was Freud who discovered the idea of being “wrecked by success”: that when a person achieves the truly superlative, it is often felt as an intolerable burden because it means that he has won out in competition with the father, having excelled him. – Ernest Becker



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