The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

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High-Level Thoughts

Phenomenal book on how our fear of death is the core of our psychological disturbances, and our motivation for life. It will make you think about why we do things and behave in certain ways in an entirely new fashion, and the language within it is delicious.

Summary Notes


“The man of knowledge of our time is bowed down under a burden he never imaged he would ever have: the overproduction of truth that cannot be consumed.”

Introduction: Human Nature and the Heroic

“… it is not that children are vicious, selfish, or domineering. It is that they so openly express man’s tragic destiny: he must desperately justify himself as an object of primary value in the universe, he must stand out, be a hero, make the biggest possible contribution to world life, show that he counts more than anything or anyone else.”

“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. The 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.”

“…to become conscious of what one is doing to earn his feeling of heroism is the main self-analytic problem of life.”

“The crisis of modern society is precisely that the youth no longer feel heroic in the plan for action that their culture has set up. They don’t believe it is empirically true to the problems of their lives and times. Kind of like in “The Power of Myth”

The Terror of Death

“(according to Shaler) heroism is first and foremost a reflex of the terror of death. We admire most the courage to face death.”

The hero was the man who could go into the spirit world, the world of the dead, and return alive… The divine heroes of each of these cults was one who had come back from the dead… Christianity.. too, featured a healer with supernatural powers who had risen from the dead.” [12] Power of myth again

“early men who were most afraid were those who were most realistic about their situation in nature, and they passed on to their offspring a realism that had a high survival value. The result was the emergence of man as we know him: a hyper-anxious animal who constantly invents reasons for anxiety even where there are none.” [17]

The Recasting of some Basic Psychoanalytic Ideas

“The person becomes, for a time, merely his physical self and so absolves the painfulness of the existential paradox and the guilt that goes with sex. Love is one great key to this kind of sexuality because it allows the collapse of the individual into the animal dimension without fear and guilt, but instead with trust and assurance that his distinctive inner freedom will not be negated by an animal surrender.” [42]

“This is one of the reasons for bigotry and censorship of all kinds of personal morality: people fear that the standard of morality will be undermined—another way of saying that they fear they will no longer be able to control life and death.” [46]

Human Character as a Vital Lie

“For life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality, and tries to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his “ideas” are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defense of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality. – Jose Ortega Y Gasset” [47]

“The defenses that form a person’s character support a grand illusion, and when we grasp this we can understand the full drivenness of man. He is driven away from himself, from self-knowledge, self-reflection. He is driven toward things that support the lie of his character, his automatic equanimity. But he is also drawn precisely toward those things that make him anxious, as a way of skirting them masterfully, testing himself against them, controlling them by defying them.” [56]

“every human being is…equally unfree, that is, we…create out of freedom, a prison… – Otto Rank” [62]

“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.” [66]

The Psychoanalyst Kierkegaard

“Kierkegaard is warning the parent to let the child do his own exploration o the world and develop his own sure experimental powers. He knows that the child has to be protected against dangers and that watchfulness by the parent is of vital importance, but he doesn’t want the parent to obtrude his own anxieties into the picture, to cut off the child’s action before it is absolutely necessary.  Today we know that such an upbringing alone gives the child a self-confidence in the face of experience that he would not have if he were overly blocked: it gives him an inner sustainment.” [72]

“This is the perfect description of the “automatic cultural man”—man as confined by culture, a slave to it, who imagines that he has an identity if he pays his insurance premium, that he has control of his life if he guns his sports car or works his electric toothbrush.” [74]

“the depressed person avoids the possibility of independence and more life precisely because these are what threaten him with destruction and death. He holds on to the people who have enslaved him in a network of crushing obligations, belittling interaction, precisely because these people are his shelter, his strength, his protection against the world. Like most everyone else the depressed person is a coward who will not stand alone on his own center, who cannot draw from within himself the necessary strength to face up to life.” [80]

“modern man’s defiance of accident, evil, and death takes the form of skyrocketing production of consumer and military goods. Carried to its demonic extreme this defiance gave us Hitler and Vietnam: a rage against our impotence, a defiance of our animal condition, our pathetic creature limitations. If we don’t have the omnipotence of gods, we at least can destroy like gods.” [85]

“each child grounds himself in some power that transcends him. Usually it is a combination of his parents, his social group, and the symbols of his society and nation. This is the unthinking web of support which allows him to believe in himself, as he functions on the automatic security of delegated powers.” [89]

“as long as man is an ambiguous creature he can never banish anxiety; what he can do instead is to use anxiety as an eternal spring for growth into new dimensions of thought and trust. Faith posses a new life task, the adventure in openness to a multidimensional reality.” [92]

The Problem of Freud’s Character, Noeh Einmal

“Consciousness of death is the primary repression, not sexuality.” [96]

“the basic task that the person cuts out for himself is the attempt to father himself—what Brown so well calls the “Oedipal project.” The causa-sui passion is an energetic fantasy that what we can now more pointedly call his hopeless lack of genuine centering on his own energies to assure the victory of his life.” [107]

“the genius can try to procreate himself spiritually through a linkage with gifted young men, to create them in his own image, and to pass the spirit of his genius on to them. It is as though he were to try to duplicate himself exactly, spirit and body.” [118]

“It is hard for a man to work steadfastly when his work can mean no more than the digestive noises, wind-breaking, and cries of dinosaurs—noises now silenced forever.” [122]

The Spell Cast by Persons—The Nexus of Unfreedom

“We must say that if there were no natural leaders possessing the magic of charisma, men would have to invent them, just as leaders must create followers if there are none available. If we accent this natural symbiotic side of the problem of transference we come into the broadest understanding of it…” [139]

“In order to overcome his sense of inner emptiness and impotence, [man] chooses an object onto whom he projects all his own human qualities: his love, intelligence, courage, etc. By submitting to this object, he feels in touch with his own qualities; he feels strong, wise, courageous, and secure. To lose the object means the danger of losing himself. This mechanism, idolatric worship of an object, based on the fact of the individual’s alienation, is the central dynamism of transference, that which gives transference its strength and intensity. – Erich Fromm” [143]

“From all this we can already draw one important conclusion: that transference is a form of fetishism, form of narrow control that anchors our own problems. We take our helplessness, our guilt, our conflicts, and we fix them to a spot in the environment.” [144]

“This use of the transference object explains the urge to deification of the other, the constant placing of certain select persons on pedestals, the reading into them of extra powers: the more they have, the more rubs off on us. We participate in their immortality, and so we create immortals… Man is always hungry for material for his own immortalization.” [148]

Man needs to infuse his life with value so that he can pronounce it “good.” The transference-object is then a natural fetishization for man’s highest yearnings and strivings.” [155]

“People create the reality the need in order to discover themselves.” [158]

“projection is a necessary unburdening of the individual; man cannot live closed upon himself and for himself. He must project the meaning of his life outward, the reason for it, even the blame for it. We did not create ourselves, but we are stuck with ourselves.” [158]

Otto Rank and the Closure of Psychoanalysis on Kierkegaard

“Man reached for a “thou” when the world-view of the great religious community overseen by God died. Modern man’s dependency on the love partner, then, is a result of the loss of spiritual ideologies, just as is his dependency on his parents or on his psychotherapist. He needs somebody, some “individual ideology of justification” to replace the declining “collective ideologies.””[162]

“We might say that modern man tries to replace vital awe and wonder with a “How to do it” manual. We know why: if you cloak the mystery of creation in the easy steps of human manipulations you banish the terror of the death that is reserved for us as species-sexual animals.” [164]

We see that our gods have clay feet, and so we must hack away at them in order to save ourselves, to deflate the unreal over-investment that we have made in them in order to secure our own apotheosis. In this sense, the deflation of the over-invested partner, parent, or friend is a creative act that is necessary to correct the lie that we have been living, to reaffirm our own inner freedom of growth that transcends the particular object and is not bound to it. But not everybody can do this because many of us need the lie in order to live.” [167]

“You can ask the question: What kind of beyond does this person try to expand in, and how much individuation does he achieve in it? Most people play it safe: they choose the beyond of standard transference objects like parents, the boss, the leader; they accept the cultural definition of heroism and try to be a “good provider” or a “solid” citizen… It represents both the truth and the tragedy of man’s condition: the problem of the consecration of one’s life, the meaning of it, the natural surrender to something larger—these driving needs that inevitably are resolved by what is nearest at hand.” [170]

The Present Outcome of Psychoanalysis

“Most men spare themselves this trouble by keeping their minds on the small problems of their lives, just as their society maps these problems out for them… They “tranquilize themselves with the trivial” and so they can lead normal lives.” [178]

To live is to engage in experience at least partly on the terms of the experience itself. One has to stick his neck out in the action without any guarantees about satisfaction or safety. One never knows how it will come out or how silly he will look, but the neurotic type wants these guarantees. He doesn’t want to risk his self-image. Rank calls this very aptly the “self-willed over-valuation of self” whereby the neurotic tries to cheat nature… Instead of living experience he ideates it; instead of arranging it in action he works it all out in his head.” [183]

Either you eat up yourself and others around you, trying for perfection, or you objectify that imperfection in a work, on which you then unleash your creative powers. In this sense, some kind of objective creativity is the only answer man has to the problem of life… He takes in the world, makes a total problem out of it, and then gives out a fashioned, human answer to that problem. This, as Goethe saw in Faust, is the highest that man can achieve.” [185]

“Man needs a “second” world, a world of humanly created meaning, a new reality that he can live, dramatize, nourish himself in. “Illusion” means creative play at its highest level. Cultural illusion is a necessary ideology of self-justification, a heroic dimension that is life itself to the symbolic animal.” [189]

“Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.” [196]

Beyond a given point man is not helped by more “knowing” but only by living and doing in a partly self-forgetful way… we must plunge into experience and then reflect on the meaning of it. All reflection and no plunging drives us mad; all plunging and no reflection and we are brutes.” [199]

A General View of Mental Illness

The more you shrink back from the difficulties and the darings of life, the more you naturally come to feel inept, the lower is your self-evaluation. It is ineluctable. If one’s life has been a series of “silent retreats,” one ends up firmly wedged into a corner and has nowhere else to retreat. This state is the bogging-down of depression. Fear of life leads to excessive fear of death…” [210]

“The debt to life has to be paid somehow; one has to be a hero in the best and only way that he can; in our impoverished culture even—as Harrington so truly put it—“if only for his skill at the pinball machine.”[217]

Psychology and Religion: What is the Heroic Individual?

“Each person thinks that he has the formula for triumphing over life’s limitations and knows with authority what it means to be a man, and he usually tries to win a following for his particular patent.” [255]

Manipulative, utopian science, by deadening human sensitivity, would also deprive men of the heroic in their urge to victory. And we know that in some very important way this falsifies our struggle by emptying us, by preventing us from incorporating the maximum of experience. It means the end of the distinctively human—or even, we must say, the distinctively organismic.” [284]

Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing. As awareness calls for types of heroic dedication this his culture no longer provides for him, society contrives to help him forget. Or, alternatively, he buries himself in psychology in the belief that awareness all by itself will be some kind of magical cure for his problems.” [284]

“Who knows what form the forward momentum of life will take in the time ahead or what use it will make of our anguished searching. The most that any 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.” [285]

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