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The Denial of Death Paperback – May 8, 1997
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New York Times Book Review ...a brave work of electrifying intelligence and passion, optimistic and revolutionary, destined to endure...
Albuquerque Journal Book Review ...to read it is to know the delight inherent in the unfolding of a mind grasping at new possibilities and forming a new synthesis. The Denial of Death is a great book -- one of the few great books of the 20th or any other century.
The Chicago Sun-Times It is hard to overestimate the importance of this book; Becker succeeds brilliantly in what he sets out to do, and the effort was necessary.
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Becker's philosophy seems to centre on four pillars that he further goes onto detail in the remainder of the book: one, that the world is much more terrifying than we observe and admit.
Two, that the basic motivation for human behaviour is our biological need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death. Terror being, to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, a conscious of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self expression -- and with all this yet to die.
Three, that we conspire to keep death unconscious. Mainly through two lines of defense: the vital lie of character and a hero system that allows us to believe that we transcend death by participating in something of lasting worth.
And four, our heroic projects that are aimed at destroying evil have the paradoxical effect of bringing more evil into the world.
One of Becker's early prescriptions is contemplation of the horror of our inevitable death, paradoxically, this may just be the tincture that adds sweetness to mortality.
The following quotes most resonated with me in the book:
"As Aristotle somewhere put it: luck is when the guy next to you gets hit with the arrow. Twenty five hundred years of history have not changed man's basic narcissism; most of the time, for most of us, this is still a workable definition of luck."
"As Montaigne said, the peasant has a profound indifference and a patience towards death and the sinister side of life; and if we say that this is because of his stupidity, the let's all learn from stupidity."
"Immortality: living in the esteem of men yet unborn, for the works that you have contributed to their life and betterment."
"...that it takes sixty years of suffering and effort to make such an individual, and then he is good only for dying. This painful paradox is not lost on the person himself - least of all himself. He feels agonizingly unique, and yet he knows that this doesn't make any difference as far as the ultimates are concerned. He has to go the way of the grasshopper, even if takes longer.
Becker throughout the book builds on the works of earlier giants in the field of psychology, most notably, Freud, Jung, Rank and Kierkegaard.
In the end of the book, Rank's insight is brought to light: what new immortality ideology can the self knowledge of psychotherapy provide to replace this? Obviously, none from psychology - unless psychology itself becomes the new belief system.
The author makes a sombre concluding remark that I found quite revealing: creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures. The soberest conclusion that we could make about what has been taking place on the planet for about three billion years is that it is being turned into a vast pit of fertilizer. But the sun distracts our attention, always baking the blood dry, making things grow over it, and with its warmth giving the hope that comes with the organism's comfort and expansiveness.
Despite the awareness that psychology has brought bare from the chapters of the book, I'm still left in agreement with Rank's realization that the only way to get beyond the natural contradictions of existence is in the time-worn religious way: to project one's problems onto a god figure, to be healed by an all embracing and all justifying beyond.
I recommend this book to those in search of healthier questions about our existence and a more meaningful life.
Becker, who ironically died shortly after it was published received a posthumous Pulitzer for the book. It sets out to acknowledge the incredible, though somewhat misguided, effort of Freud to create a system of psychiatric enquiry from thin air. His major critique of Freud is twofold: that he stopped too soon (or, rather, didn’t go deep enough) and that psychoanalysis must become, in essence, another form of mortality-denying religion (not necessarily a criticism).
Freud stopped to soon because, in Becker’s mind, all the mother-hating and inappropriate sexualizing loving and fear of castration and anal concerns and weird sexual stuff is really just a patina over the ACTUAL problem: fear of death and the fact that, to be successful, we must pretend to overcome — or fool ourselves into ignoring — that fear.
The religion part is related to the balm religious frameworks provide in giving us an immortality project and sense of comfort in the world. Psychoanalysis, and specifically the accidental worship of the analyst — transference — is in essence, a surrogate religion. Again, he’s not saying that’s a bad thing — religion, in his opinion (and he uses Kierkegaard as the channel of thought here) can help us effectively compartmentalize our fear of death and the potential paralysis and damage that comes with it. However, worshiping your therapist can be detrimental to progress.
But, oddly, progress itself can be detrimental to progress.
If, as Becker believes, neuroses actually are challenges to our necessary immortality projects — the lies we tell ourselves to act as if we are immortal when, in fact, we know we’re not and are greatly affected by that subsumed knowledge — “curing” a condition requires helping people lie more effectively to themselves. Depression, fetishes, schizophrenia, etc., it seems, are all perfectly “rational” responses to the existential angst that defines human existence. Psychoanalysts, he argues, should help people repair damages to the their self-constructed shields and not strip away the defenses we need to function.
It’s fascinating stuff, but now 40 years later, it’s hard to reconcile some of the core concepts in this book with the latest in cognitive research — using tools that were simply unimaginable at the time. While current thought still points to the denial of death (or, perhaps, to an affirmation of successful reproductive strategies) as a motivating factor in the concept of self, it’s grounded in much harder science — neurochemical imbalances, heuristic systems, developmental origins of health and disease, brain imagining, structural abnormalities, genetics and so forth.
I’m an unabashed materialist — I believe the answers, and sources of problems, can be found in our biology and the systems we use to move through the world ¬— but this reductionism in no way degrades my sense of wonder: these biologic systems, these bodies, the disembodied forces shared between humans (though still generated by biology), are truly amazing and sources of wonder and awe.
Becker stands on the shoulders of Freud and Kierkegaard, Carl Jung and Otto Rank, people who excavated the ethereal world of the human condition using only their own intellect and powers of observation. They helped create the science of psychology and continue to shape the thinking around it today, even as that science has moved ahead by light years.
Here are a few of my favorite lines:
“… ‘civilized’ society is a hopeful belief and protest that science, money and goods make man count for more than any other animal.”
“ … the emergence of man as we know him: a hyperanxious animal who constantly invents reasons for anxiety even where there are none.”
“Sex is an inevitable confusion over the meaning of his life, a meaning split hopelessly into two realms—symbols (freedom) and body (fate).
“We don’t want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do no really control our own lives. We don’t want to admit that we do not stand alone, that we always rely on something that transcends us, some system of ideas and powers in which we are embedded and which support us.”
This is a satisfying foundational book that, even though it seems to have weathered a bit in the passage of time, is well-worth the read.
Top international reviews
I would recommend for anyone wanting to read this, when finished. Engage in at least 30 mins of meditation, or something of similar ilk that suites your way, or cultural way of being, you might need the space to breathe afterwards.
Can't complain about shipping, service etc, all went swimmingly well
Absolutely brilliant book. Very heavy going and may require some knowledge of psychology to get it.
It gets right to the core of what it means to be human, how we ignore really and what we can do about it.
If the purpose of reading is to expand knowledge and further personal development, this book surely ticks all the right boxes.