The Denial of Death
|December 31, 1973|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover and Paperback)|
The Denial of Death is a 1973 book by American cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. The author builds on the works of Søren Kierkegaard, Sigmund Freud, Norman O. Brown, and Otto Rank to discuss the psychological and philosophical implications of how people and cultures have reacted to the concept of death. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1974, two months after the author's death. It is the main work responsible for the development of terror management theory.
The premise of The Denial of Death is that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality, which in turn acts as the emotional and intellectual response to our basic survival mechanism. Becker argues that a basic duality in human life exists between the physical world of objects and biology, and a symbolic world of human meaning. Thus, since humanity has a dualistic nature consisting of a physical self and a symbolic self, we are able to transcend the dilemma of mortality by focusing our attention mainly on our symbolic selves, i.e. our culturally-based self esteem, which Becker calls “heroism”: a “defiant creation of meaning” expressing “the myth of the significance of human life” as compared to other animals.
This symbolic self-focus takes the form of an individual's "causa sui project," (sometimes called an “immortality project,” or a “heroism project”). A person’s "causa sui project” acts as their immortality vessel, whereby a person creates meaning, or continues to create meaning, beyond their own life-span. By being part of symbolic constructs with more significance and longevity than one’s body—cultural activities and beliefs— one can gain a sense of legacy or (in the case of religion) an afterlife. In other words, by living up to (or especially exceeding) cultural standards, people feel they can become 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 significance in the grand scheme of things i.e. that they are “heroic contributors to world life” engaged in an “immortality project.”
Immortality projects are one way that people manage death anxiety. Some people, however, will engage in hedonic pursuits like drugs, alcohol, and entertainment to escape their death anxiety—often to compensate for a lack of “heroism” or culturally-based self-esteem—a lack of contribution to the “immortality project”. Others will try to manage the terror of death by “tranquilizing themselves with the trivial” i.e. strongly focusing on trivial matters and exaggerating their importance — often through busyness and frenetic activity. Becker describes the current prevalence of hedonism and triviality as a result of the downfall of religious worldviews such as Christianity that could take “slaves, cripples... imbeciles... the simple and the mighty” and allow them all to accept their animal nature in the context of a spiritual reality and an afterlife.
Humanity's traditional "hero-systems", such as religion, are no longer convincing in the age of reason. Becker argues that the loss of religion leaves humanity with impoverished resources for necessary illusions. Science attempts to serve as an immortality project, something that Becker believes it can never do because it is unable to provide agreeable, absolute meanings to human life. The book states that we need new convincing "illusions" that enable us to feel heroic in ways that are agreeable. Becker, however, does not provide any definitive answer, 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.
Becker argues that the conflict between contradictory immortality projects (particularly in religion) is a wellspring for the violence and misery in the world caused by wars, genocide, racism, nationalism and so forth since immortality projects that contradict one another threaten one’s core beliefs and sense of security.
Becker concludes the introductory section of a chapter where he offers "A General View of Mental Illness" with the summary observation that "mental illness represents styles of bogging-down in the denial of creatureliness" that is part and parcel of immortality projects.
At one extreme, people experiencing depression have the sense that their immortality project is failing. They either begin to think the immortality project is false or feel unable to successfully be a hero in terms of that immortality project. As a result, they are consistently reminded of their mortality, biological body, and feelings of worthlessness.
At the other extreme, Becker describes schizophrenia as a state in which a person becomes so obsessed with his or her personal immortality project as to altogether deny the nature of all other realities. Schizophrenics create their own internal, mental reality in which they define and control all purposes, truths, and meanings. This makes them pure heroes, living in a mental reality that is taken as superior to both physical and cultural realities.
Like the schizophrenic, creative and artistic individuals deny both physical reality and culturally-endorsed immortality projects, expressing a need to create their own reality. The primary difference is that creative individuals have talents that allow them to create and express a reality that others may appreciate, rather than simply constructing an internal, mental reality.
The book has also had a wide cultural impact beyond the fields of psychology and philosophy. The book made an appearance in Woody Allen's film Annie Hall, when the death-obsessed character Alvy Singer buys it for his girlfriend Annie. It was referred to by Spalding Gray in his work It's a Slippery Slope. Former United States President Bill Clinton quoted The Denial of Death in his 2004 autobiography My Life; he also included it as one of 21 titles in his list of favorite books. The playwright Ayad Akhtar mentions it in his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced.
- Flight from Death
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces
- Death anxiety
- Human condition
- Memento mori
- Terror management theory
- Uncanny valley
- Becker, Ernest (1973). The Denial of Death. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-83240-2.
- "The 1974 Pulitzer Prize Winner in General Nonfiction". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved January 22, 2020.
- "Becker's Synthesis – Ernest Becker Foundation". ernestbecker.org.
- Becker, Ernest, “The Denial of Death” Chapter 1.
- Becker, Ernest, “The Denial of Death” chapter 8.
- Podgorski, Daniel (October 22, 2019). "The Denial of Life: A Critique of Pessimism, Pathologization, and Structuralism in Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death". The Gemsbok. Retrieved January 22, 2020.
- "Becker's Synthesis – Ernest Becker Foundation". ernestbecker.org. Retrieved 2021-12-25.
- *Becker, Ernest (1973). The Denial of Death. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 208–210. ISBN 0-684-83240-2.
- *Becker, Ernest (1973). The Denial of Death. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 210–217. ISBN 0-684-83240-2.
- *Becker, Ernest (1973). The Denial of Death. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 217–221. ISBN 0-684-83240-2.
- *Becker, Ernest (1973). The Denial of Death. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 171–173. ISBN 0-684-83240-2.
- Broyard, Anatole (June 6, 1982). "Reading and Writing; Life before Death". The New York Times. Retrieved January 22, 2020.
- Lieberman, E. James; Kramer, Robert (2012). The Letters of Sigmund Freud & Otto Rank: Inside Psychoanalysis. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 285. ISBN 978-1-4214-0354-0.
- Gray, Spalding (1997). It's a Slippery Slope (Revised ed.). USA, New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux Inc. ISBN 978-0-374-52523-1.
- Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. "Biography — William J. Clinton". Archived from the original on 2010-12-04. Retrieved 2009-08-05.
- Witzig, Peter (February 10, 2016). "'Disgraced' Seeks To Raise The Discourse, But Discourse At An All-Time Low". The Emory Wheel. Retrieved January 22, 2020.