Insights From "The Denial of Death"

The Denial of Death is book by Ernest Becker that earned the Pulitzer for non-ficiton in 1974. The basic premise of the book is that man is trapped in between his "creatureliness" and "symbolic self". Consciousness has made man aware of his own powers, but also of his miserable creatureliness and his destiny to die.

I didn't read the book, but found a lot of gems in this compilation of selected quotes made by Taylor Pearson. I also drew from the Wikipedia page.

Below is a summary of some interesting points made by the book.

The Urge to Heroism

Our motivations have often more to do with the need to achieve than with the matter at hand. Making a killing in business or on the battlefield frequently has less to do with economic need or political reality than with the need for assuring ourselves that we have achieved something of lasting worth.

In man a working level of narcissism is inseparable from self-esteem, from a basic sense of self-worth.

Urge to heroism is natural, and to admit it honest. For everyone to admit it would probably release such pent-up force as to be devastating to societies.

Societies, except primitive ones, cannot provide to men a path to heroism.

Christianity achieved it to some extent, by mere participation: it could take the simple and the mighty, and make them all secure heroes, simply by taking a step back from the world into another dimension: that of heaven. Christianity took creature consciousness — the thing man most wanted to deny — and made it the very condition for his cosmic heroism.

But humanity's traditional "hero-systems", such as religion, are no longer convincing in the age of reason. Science attempts to serve as an immortality project (see below), something it can never do, because it is unable to provide agreeable, absolute meanings to human life.

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.

Modern man cannot find his heroism in everyday life any more, as men did in traditional societies just by doing their daily duty of raising children, working, and worshipping. He needs revolutions and wars and "continuing" revolutions to last when the revolutions and wars end. That is the price modern man pays for the eclipse of the sacred dimension. When he dethroned the ideas of soul and God he was thrown back hopelessly on his own resources.

The Immortality Project

Since humanity has a dualistic nature consisting of a physical self and a symbolic self, we are able to transcend the dilemma of mortality through heroism, by focusing our attention mainly on our symbolic selves.

This symbolic self-focus takes the form of an individual's "immortality project" (or "causa sui project"), which is essentially a symbolic belief-system that ensures oneself is believed superior to physical reality. By successfully living under the terms of the immortality project, people feel they can become heroic and, henceforth, part of something eternal; something that will never die as compared to their physical body. This, in turn, gives people the feeling that their lives have meaning, a purpose, and are significant in the grand scheme of things.

The arbitrariness of human-invented immortality projects makes them naturally prone to conflict. When one immortality project conflicts with another, it is essentially an accusation of 'wrongness of life', and so sets the context for both aggressive and defensive behavior. Each party will want to prove its belief system is superior, a better way of life. Thus these immortality projects are considered a fundamental driver of human conflict.

Anxiety, Fear of Death and Illusions

In nature fear and anxiousness improve survival, hence today we still are anxious, even though the environment does not justify it.

Man works against his fragility by seeking living experiences, moving towards more life. Or he plunges in self-absorbing activities. Fear of death can be ignored and sometimes absorbed into the life-expanding process: this is called repression.

How can people stand the really demonic activity of working behind those hellish ranges in hotel kitchens, the frantic whirl of waiting on a dozen tables at one time, the madness of the travel agent’s office at the height of the tourist season, or the torture of working with a jack-hammer all day on a hot summer street. The answer is that the craziness of these activities is exactly that of the human condition. They are "right" us because the alternative is natural desperation. The daily madness of these jobs is a repeated vaccination against the madness of the asylum. Look at the joy and eagerness with which workers return from vacation to their compulsive routines. They plunge into their work with equanimity and lightheartedness because it drowns out something more ominous. Men have to be protected from reality.

Which poses another gigantic problem to a sophisticated Marxism (or universal basic income): What is the nature of the obsessive denials of reality that a Utopian society will provide to keep men from going mad?

When the awareness of mortality dawns beyond the frenetic activity, it emerges in pure form. Things like psychotic break can issue when repression is no longer possible.

Man is horrified by his own basic animal condition, a condition that, especially as a child, he cannot understand and that, as an adult, he cannot accept.

There is a need for illusion — without being cynical. There is a great deal of falseness and self-deception in the cultural immortality project, but there is also the necessity of this project. Man needs a second world, a world of humanly created meaning, a new reality that he can live, dramatize, nourish himself in. We need new convincing illusions that enable us to feel heroic in ways that are agreeable.

Becker does not provide any definitive answer as to what these illusions might be, mainly because he believes that there is no perfect solution. Instead, he hopes that gradual realization of humanity's innate motivations, namely death, can help to bring about a better world.

Sex, Love and the Body

It is difficult to have sex without guilt: the body casts a shadow on the person's inner freedom / real self that — through sex — is being forced into a standardized, mechanical, biological role.

Love lets us feel that the other person recognizes and respects or symbolic self even as they see us at our most animalistic.

The body is the clear problem over which he must triumph in order to build a cultural personality at all, as it is the clear enemy in establishing our divinity.

Character and Reality

Character is a neurotic defense against despair, and shedding character means risking death and madness. To see reality, one must die and be reborn, which means shedding character.

Kierkegaard: it's good to open toward new possibility and choice, to be able to face anxiety. To be closed is evil, it means shutting out revelations and giving up on reality.

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.

In the prison of one's character one can pretend and feel that he is somebody, that the world is manageable, that there is a reason for one's life, a ready justification for one's action. To live automatically and uncritically is to be assured of at least a minimum share of the programmed cultural heroics — what we might call "prison heroism" — feeling like an insider.

Authority & Delegated Power

If you admit that you are a creature, you accomplish one basic thing: you demolish all your unconscious power linkages or supports. 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.

Man has "an extreme passion for authority" and "wishes to be governed by unrestricted force". People have "a longing to be hypnotized" by a leader because they want to get back the magical protection and feeling of belongingness that they enjoyed from their parents.

The leader is a creature of the group, as are his followers. The leader has no more freedom to be himself, as he has to be a reflex of the group. The followers give in the leader's commands but can always retain the feeling that these commands are alien to them — the leader's responsibility. This can make people guiltless, as they can imagine themselves temporary victims of the leader.

Man uses morality to get to a place of belongingness and perpetuation in the universe. By conforming to the rules made by representatives of natural power (leaders), his safe belongingness is assured. This is natural: we tell the child when he is good so that he doesn’t have to be afraid.

This is the first way in which man attempts to overcome his own finitude and unimportance.

Heroic Gifts

The second way man attmepts to overcome his own finitude is by developing a really valuable heroic gift, becoming extra-special.

If you are the average man you give your heroic gift to the society in which you live, and you give the gift that society specifies in advance. If you are an artist you fashion a peculiarly personal gift, the justification of your own heroic identity, which means that it is always aimed at least partly over the heads of your fellow men. After all, they can’t grant the immortality of your personal soul.

The social hero-system into which we are born marks out paths for our heroism, paths to which we conform, to which we shape ourselves so that we can please others, become what they expect us to be. And instead of working our inner secret we gradually cover it over and forget it, while we become purely external men, playing successfully the standardized hero-game into which we happen to fall by accident, by family connection, by reflex patriotism, or by the simple need to eat and the urge to procreate.

The real problem of man: to find his true talent, his secret gift, his authentic vocation. This question may become so intolerable as to cause suicide and flight in the rush of experiences.

A person spends years coming into his own, developing his talent, his unique gifts, perfecting his discriminations about the world, broadening and sharpening his appetite, learning to bear the disappointments of life, becoming mature, seasoned—finally a unique creature in nature, standing with some dignity and nobility and transcending the animal condition; no longer driven, no longer a complete reflex, not stamped out of any mold. And then the real tragedy, as André Malraux wrote in The Human Condition: that it takes sixty years of incredible suffering and effort to make such an individual, and then he is good only for dying.

Repression and Partialization

The great lesson of Freudian psychology: that repression is normal self-protection and creative self-restriction—in a real sense, man’s natural substitute for instinct.

Life is impossible without partialization. What we call the well-adjusted man has just this capacity to partialize the world for comfortable action.

Partializing the world is biting off what an animal can chew. Not to have this talent means constantly biting off more than one can chew.

Why does the artist so often avoid clinical neurosis, when he is so much a candidate for it because of his vivid imagination, his openness to the finest and broadest aspects of experience, his isolation from the cultural world-view that satisfies everyone else?

The answer is that he takes in the world, but instead of being oppressed by it he reworks it in his own personality and recreates it in the work of art. The neurotic is precisely the one who cannot create — the "artiste-manqué". We might say that both the artist and the neurotic bite off more than they can chew, but the artist spews it back out again and chews it over in an objectified way, as an external, active, work project.