on July 25, 1997
All lovers of existentialism will enjoy Becker's treatment of life and death. Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for this work when it was first published in 1974. Ironically and tragically, Becker himself died of cancer that very same year. He was 50 years old. I have been unsuccessful in my efforts to find out whether or not Becker knew of his sickness when he wrote the work. He certainly writes as one who understands the darkness of human life. Becker's thesis is that human personality and behavior has its deepest roots in our denying our death (thus the title). By this he means not only our death itself, but all of the horrors associated with our mortality as human beings. Becker makes frequent reference to Otto Rank, and reiterates Rank's point that all human cultural creation is inevitably religious in nature. There is also a wonderful treatment of Freud which will be especially refreshing to all those nauseauted by modern attempts to dress up Freud's theories and make them appear more optomistic than they are, as well as a discussion of Freud's breaks with Jung and others. There is even a chapter on Kierkegaard. Becker also attempts to show that neurosis is at least in part a result of not being able to erect the 'denial of death' defense mechanisms so many do, and that those who traverse the depths of human existence cannot but go mad to some degree. He says at one point, "No wonder the road of the artist so often detous through the madhouse." Finally, Becker bashes modern psychology, which makes this book an absolute must for any deep thinker who is considering entering this field. The Denial of Death is brutally honest, scholastic, and beautiful. Best of all, Becker doesn't make the all too common mistake of attempting to provide a solution (something all lovers of Camus will appreciate). The last 10 pages alone make this book worth reading. Read it thoughtfully and you will never be quite the same
on March 1, 2001
There are some books that are brilliant because they delve deeply into one subject. There are other books that are brilliant because they synthesize a panorama of other great books. Finally, there are perhaps the rarest of works that in one book combine the insights of many other brilliant tomes and make the synthesis seem like one subject. "The Denial of Death" belongs to this rarest of books. The excellence of the insights on so many pages is breathtaking, and it's only fitting that Becker, certainly a great writer previously, made his last book, published shortly and ironically before his death, his best.
Becker states at the outset the problem in our day is not that there isn't enough knowledge, the problem is that there isn't enough integration of this knowledge into a kind of wisdom that would properly summarize the accumulated knowledge. At the outset he acknowledges the difficulty in claiming that there is one direct insight into what causes (almost) all of the neuroses of life, which is the inability of people to see and overcome what I feel is the ultimate paradox of life, that we live and die at the same time. Yet in one book Becker succeeds so well it is astounding!
To summarize a summarizing book is difficult indeed! Basically what Becker claims is that man has twin but conflicting ontological needs/motives - to individuate and yet at the same time to feel a part of something greater. Man is a paradox in many other ways. Unlike other animals inside he (I will omit she to keep it simple) is largely symbolic - in his mind he can imagine the farthest mysteries of the universe, he can philosophize about the deepest meanings of life and its purpose. Yet like other animals man is anal (discussed extensively!) and possesses a body that is only too mortal.
Countless times Becker makes the point that the way most people live with these paradoxes is a "lie in the face of reality." That is, starting from childhood most people use all kinds of repressions to pretend that they aren't going to die. Much of society is based on symbolic systems for people to feel heroic, because when we achieve heroism we feel that we have transcended our mortality. Much of this heroism is in fact false, even disempowering, because for example most pointedly with entertainers and athletes we often in fact project our need for heroism onto them. In psychology this is called transference, which manifests itself in group psychology and other ways that Becker thoroughly covers.
Modern man has lost its way because science has removed the need for God, something transcendent beyond the physical life. Transcending Freud, citing Otto Rank most by far, as well many other fine psychologists, and even including Kirkegaard who predated them, Becker claims that it has been "scientifically" proven that the only way for man to deal with his fate, to achieve his innate heroic need, is to give his life up to something greater than the physical, call it God or whatever you wish. Thus he merges psychology with religion, in my opinion, quite correctly.
In bare form these are some of the main themes of "The Denial of Death." The book is a must read if a person has the courage to tackle this most "urgent" issue. I don't think you'll find a better analysis than Becker's. It could dramatically change the way you look at the world and the people who live in it.
In the end I did feel that Becker got somewhat carried away with his insight that the denial of death is the key to understanding people's deepest neuroses - he took it to what I felt was the extreme that it is simply impossible to transcend the denial of death. People who have had near death experiences in many cases seem to have overcome the fear of death, people who have mastered Eastern disciplines like meditation have done the same, and finally self-actualized people who simply live knowing that they are souls having a physical experience can also overcome the angst of physical mortality.
on December 14, 1999
About the Book: All animal species are pre-wired with a survival instinct. Unlike other species, man is cursed with self-awareness which makes known to him his ultimate destiny with death. This realization engenders abject terror. Yet, man has to repress this terror (narrow consciousness) so that he can move through life with equanimity and precision. To do so, culture provides immortality scripts that if lived up to, help attenuate death-related terror through cognitive and emotional means. Emotionally, cultural prescriptions toward immortality elevates self-esteem and buffers against death related fear. This is possible because on a cognitive level, cultural scripts allows one to deny their mortality either through literal (heaven or Nirvana) or symbolic means (e.g., literary immortatlity). Because these cultural prescriptions to immortality are important to everyday functioning, they are refered to as man's vital lies. The problem with these immortality scripts is that they create continuous holy wars between people of differing worldviews: The very prescence of an alternative immortality script insinuates that the favored immortality script may be wrong. This motivates attempts at transelytization or the murder of dissentors (clearing the world of evil). This books well explains the basic human condition, why man's narsisistic nature cannot be helped, why man needs others to build a symbolic (or false) self, why human interaction is fraught with the policing of experience (politics), why being closer to God requires a hierarchy of subordinates and superiors, why man cannot handle freedom (he wishes to be enslaved), how man diffuses responsibility across a group, and more generally, why life, for most, cannot be fully lived (present centered) because most live life as a preperation for death (a chronic outcome- or future orientation taking man out of life). This theory of human motivation is broad and thus meaningful and well synthesizes many otherwise disparate theories or schools of thought into one coherent work. In recent years, Terror Management Theory has provided empirical support for some of Beckers central claims. A must to put into your theoretical toolkit. A good contrast to Beckers work which argues that human motivation leans toward a don't die orientation, is the idea of autotelic motives or human motivation as a live well orientation. To this end, you may want to read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Flow is described as timeless absorption into the task at hand. The task inducing flow is said to bring one's consciosness to a present-centered state (where the devinity - life itself - exists). People who are often in flow are said to be happier. Present centeredness is emphasized by the ancients and many present day therapists alike. I recomend comparing and contrasting these two aforementioned theories.
on February 22, 2012
I am a very fast reader, even when the material is of a high reading level, so when I picked up this small book I expected to be done with it within a few days. Instead it took me about a month. It was one of the most difficult books I've ever read.
It's not just the complexity and sheer breadth of the ideas, although that does play a major part. It's more about the profundity of the ideas. Nearly every page casually tosses out at least one idea that will shake your very foundations and make you question of your major life premises. I had to constantly take breaks to let ideas sink in, reflect on real life examples, reread passages, and take a lot of notes.
It's a dangerous book in some ways because it's brutally honest and illusion-piercing, and once you get exposed to these ideas you can't become unexposed, so if you find its message to be depressing to your core (I didn't, but I know a few people who did), you may want to proceed with care.
A major premise of this book is that just about everything we do and all our personality quirks and neuroses are a compilation of our ways of dealing with and repressing our fear of death. And a major reason why neuroses have increased in society is because science has deconstructed all our major spiritual belief systems and left us with nothing bigger than ourselves to believe in. It becomes harder to sincerely believe in God and an afterlife, so we increasingly feel even if only subconsciously that this one lifetime on earth is all we have, which makes the stakes of our lives higher than any other era of man has felt. Death is no longer just a stage we pass through to get to eternal life, it's just the end.
And it just gets more brutal and deeper from there. However, he takes this insight and spins it off into a bunch of different paths and implications that you wouldn't predict. The best part to me was when he described how this change in man's view of death has totally changed his expectations of romantic relationships, and explains why narcissism and codependency is on the rise.
Highly recommended book, but be patient with it. Again, it's not an easy read.
"The Denial of Death" is one of the most brilliant books I've ever read, without a doubt. It is a work of absolute passion and brilliance, and it is obviously Becker's 'magnum opus', the product of a lifetime's worth of study and reflection on the mystery and underlying meaning of human existence. First, Becker courageously faces what he knows to be true: that human culture and everyday activitity is a 'frantic sedative' of sorts and is not at all what it appears to be. Second, he admits that the human condition is in some ways terrifying and maddeningly paradoxical, in that human beings are quite vulnerable animals unfortunate enough to have the capacity to reflect on their horrid fate:death. He has no illusions about what so called 'neurosis' actually is--Becker knows that the people society call 'neurotic' or 'weird' are precisely those who have a deeper philosophical insight into the nearly paralyzing fundamental questions of human existence. His 'answers', (although as Sam Keen puts it, they are really only palliative solutions) are mostly pragmatic in nature and require what Kierkegaard (to whom a chapter is devoted)termed 'the leap of faith'. The only consolation Becker offers, really, is the acknowledgment that these agonizing ultimate questions are what all the great souls in the history of man (Tolstoy, Peguy, Nietzsche are just a few of those mentioned), have struggled with. The book's reputation as being depressing and heavy handed is not entirely unjustified, but this in no way detracts from its beauty or undeniable importance. Sometimes chilling, but nonetheless a supreme work of perfection, beauty, and authenticity.
on June 27, 2003
Book Review / The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker
Nearly 60 reviews have already been posted on this book, many delving into the ins and outs of the psychological theories Becker proposes. So, I simply want to report the impact this book had on me.
Over decades of reading, I have sought authors who will admit the truth. Becker does.
To find a book that insightfully examines -- with a clear, steady gaze -- the profoundest fundamentals of human existence is quite rare. I have read thousands of books in my life, and Becker's is one of the few that genuinely qualifies. He dares go where many fear to tread. But, death and our denial of it, he establishes, is at the core of human existence and a root force shaping both human personality and human society. I imagine it is impossible to understand life without grasping this. Becker brilliantly analyzes why and how we avoid acknowledging this fact at all costs.
If you have the courage to look at the core of things; to examine your own denial of death and how it has -- and currently is -- shaping your life; then this book is for you. It is for readers who find the truth fundamentally more liberating, than intimidating.
Becker helped me become more honestly human. He also helped me feel less weird, ( i.e. neurotic) by acknowledging that much neurosis stems from being constantly and painfully aware of the actual facts of existence.
Despite the "heavy" topic, Becker's overall writing style is lucid, accessible, even engaging, and without posturing. Only occasional sections lapse into rather turgid debate of psychological theory.
If you want a book that calmly stares you straight in the face, while dissecting what really matters; if you are looking for a book that can help ground you in the center of reality, here it is.
on March 29, 2003
This is one of the most important books I've ever read.
My father was dying. I nearly had a breakdown. I found this book and began to confront, for the first time in my life, my profound fear of death, my pathological inability to accept that it happens.
I got involved in destructive relationships, I smoked two packs a day, I drank till 4 in the morning with "friends".... two years later, I have grieved and confronted my father's death, given up smoking, stopped drinking, and began making smarter sexual choices.
Is it all because of this book? No. But Becker began me on a road confronting my mortality -- what he would call my creatureliness. This led to further reading in this area and a radical change in my perspective on my own body.
Confronting death makes one grow up -- and it also gives one a real genuine chance at authentic loving. Investigating Freud, Otto Rank, Fromm, Norman O. Brown, and Kierkegaard (among others) Becker shows himself to be lively, friendly, realistic, severe, grandiose, and humble, all at once. His genial prose is a delight to read. Even when he is illuminating the darkest, most frightening areas of human experience, he is rigorous and hopeful and, frankly, utterly bewitching.
Most of the book remains relevant on personal and political grounds. Only his more fanciful theories of mental illness strike me as irrelevant today, though there is a poetry in them that neurotics (not psychotics) may very well find illuminating.
Let's bring Becker back. It's a delight to see him referenced in Peter Shabad's new psychoanalytic book. I hope this is a harbinger in a resurgence of Beckerian thought!
on August 29, 2004
This tour de force is Becker's immortality project, his fitting gift to all mankind. In it, he tackles the preeminent problem of mankind. What he refers to as "the vital lie": man's refusal to accept his own lack of immortality. The author brilliantly, passionately, honestly and convincingly analyzes man's failure to confront his own finititude.
Man's denial of the inevitability of death is an attempt to escape the terror of the ultimate fear, to escape the ultimate human psychological debilitation, to evade the ultimate human dilemma. It is the fear of death that drives him into an existential and ontological black hole, all escapes from which are either temporary or existentially incomplete or dishonest.
Since he cannot transcend his mortality, man can only maintain denial at tremendous cost to himself: his mind. He is forced to live a life of either meaninglessness or a lie, psychological delusion. In either case his only choice is the brand of neurosis he will choose.
Man, ever the narcissistic being, can assign value and meaning to his life only by making himself a hero in his own symbolically created world, the most important of which is society itself. In this self-defined, self-created self-contained drama (society's cultural system), man proceeds to create a script for his heroism in his own life project.
From the start, this project is doomed to an ignominious existential failure for man has no respectable escapes other than that of facing the truth of his condition and then having to endure the abject terror that implies; or remaining in denial by choosing an appropriate role as hero in his own symbolically created drama.
Whether that drama is religious or not is somewhat beside the point since the escape is through the same delusional door. In either case, achieving heroism in his own self-defined fantasized world, leaves man with the false feeling that he has somehow transcended mortality. It is a monumental lie.
In the process of unfolding this drama of man's confrontation with the fear of death, Becker explains a great deal about what we currently understand about the basic human condition.
Few books possess the power and clarity of this one. Six stars!!!!!!
Since we actually had at least one President who could and did read, please allow me to share with you the following:
Bill Clinton's Review of The Denial of Death
(From page 235 of his "My Life:")
"I read one book in Acapulco, Ernest Becker's "The Denial of Death - heavy reading for a honeymoon, but I was also a year older than my father when he died, and I had taken a big step. It seemed like a good time to keep exploring the meaning of life.
According to Becker, as we grow up, at some point we become aware of death, then the fact that people we know and love die, then the fact that someday we, too, will die. Most of us do what we can to avoid it. Meanwhile, in ways we understand only dimly if at all, we embrace identities and the illusion of self-sufficiency. We pursue activities, both positive and negative, that we hope will lift us above the chains of ordinary existence and perhaps endure after we are gone. All this we do in a desperate push against the certainty that death is our ultimate destiny. Some of us seek power and wealth, others romantic love, sex, or some other indulgence. Some want to be great, others to do good and be good. Whether we succeed or fail, we are still going to die. The only solace, of course is to believe that since we were created, there must be a Creator, one to whom we matter and will in some way return.
Where does Becker's analysis leave us? He concludes: "Who knows what form the forward momentum of life will take in the time ahead ... 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." Ernest Becker died shortly before the Denial of Death was published, but seemed to have met Immanuel Kant's test of life: "How to occupy properly that place in creation that is assigned to man, and how to learn from it what one must be in order to be a man. I've spent a lifetime trying to do that. Becker's book helped convince me it was an effort worth making.
on February 13, 2005
There is a truly brilliant thesis in this Pulitzer Prize winning book, one that ties together the advancements in psychology and philosophy of some of the greatest minds ever, like Freud and Kierkegaard and Rank. Becker argues convincingly that the fear of death is the single greatest human motivator, and that everything we do, all of our paranoia and perversions, stem from this fear. In order to survive and function in this world, we are forced to deny the reality of our own mortality, a mortality that is obvious in everything around us, especially in our own flawed physical bodies.
From this premise, Becker moves on to many brilliant insights. His exploration of the earliest contradictions that infants face, trying to reconcile their feelings of omnipotence with the obvious flaws of their anatomy, is absolutely fascinating. Also fascinating is his treatment of how humans approach sexuality, a topic many would consider to be life-affirming but which in reality is one of the strongest indicators of the fragile and ephemeral nature of our existence.
As with most works of non-fiction thirty years after their publication, this one is not perfect. Even a reader with no experience in psychology or philosophy will find an obvious flaw here and there. And the book is dense enough that it can be a frustrating read - indeed, some passages get so chewy that you might feel like skimming them. But it still remains a landmark work in its field, and one that has given me new insight into my own ideas about life and death.
on May 4, 2000
Ernest Becker's remarkable book "The Denial of Death", along with its companion work "Escape From Evil", is the best book I have ever read. Becker tackles an enormous quantity of topics smoothly and gracefully, and goes directly to the jugular vein of existence with a writing style which is at once erratic and cohesive, and always conversational. Beyond the content of the book itself, "The Denial of Death" has provided me a gateway to other provocative reading matter, primarily the work of Otto Rank. The material contained in Becker's thought and words are tools for a lifetime, taking on new and enriched meaning with the passing of time. I found Becker's penetrating critique of the last chapter from Norman O. Brown's "Life Against Death" to be especially compelling; how could such an heroic thinker as Brown, queries Becker, fly directly in the face of everything he had said throughout the duration of an otherwise ground-breaking book by concluding that guilt is an aritificial construct when, in fact, it is the rudiment of all societal enterprise and an inescapable fact of being alive? Such brutally frank perspicacity is what makes Ernest Becker someone to take extremely seriously, not only as a writer but as a social theorist and iconoclast as well. If there were any one book I would recommend to any student of life who truly wants to get at the core of human interaction and fragility, it would certainly be "The Denial of Death". If there were two such recommended books, I would add "Escape From Evil" to it.