The Denial of Death
Cover: Paperback, Free Press; 1 edition (May 8, 1997) w/ Foreword by Sam Keen
The Denial of Death is a 1973 work of psychology and philosophy by Ernest Becker. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1974, two months after the author's death. Becker builds on the works of Søren Kierkegaard, Sigmund Freud, Norman O. Brown and Otto Rank.
The basic 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 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 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), 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.
Becker argues that 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, such as in wars, bigotry, genocide, and racism.
Another theme running throughout the book is that 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, 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.
From this premise, mental illness is described as opposite, dysfunctional extremes in one's relationship with their own immortality project.
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 being when someone becomes so obsessed with their personal immortality project that they altogether deny the nature of all other realities. The schizophrenic creates 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.
Sex, gender, and relationships
Becker argues that the existence of two biological sexes is a serious threat to heroism. Whether someone is born as male or female appears to be completely random and arbitrary. And so biological sexual identity serves not only as a disturbing reminder of physical, biological existence, but an arbitrary biological existence. This naturally makes people uncomfortable and ashamed.
On one hand, this discomfort is a fundamental driver of the need to symbolize sex in terms of gender (e.g. male vs. female "roles"). For example, it may drive the need to mask the biological differences between the sexes (e.g. clothes), and to instead give each gender non-biological differences in appearance (e.g. dresses vs. pants). Similarly, giving each sex distinct personality characteristics (e.g. aggressive vs. nurturing; in the form of stereotypes) provides each gender with a symbolic identity that is superior to sexual identity alone. On the other hand, gendered behaviors are symbolic immortality projects that are given to children before they are old enough to contemplate such matters. Thus the arbitrariness of biological sex becomes even more horrifying: People have spent their entire lives fulfilling different gender expectations, and so it is difficult to accept that the only reason for this is an arbitrary difference in biological sex.
Naturally, the physical act of sex highlights the problem of biological arbitrariness. One "normal" solution to this problem is belief in love. By making the relationship between the sexes valuable in terms of something symbolic and transcendent, as completing a meaningful whole, sexual activity seems less arbitrary.
As well, Becker argues that the female biological sexual role causes particular stress for women. Women are naturally and frequently reminded of their biological sexual role, besides being constantly socially reminded of their greater reproductive value (e.g. by sexual advances). This would predispose women to depression (see above), as sexual value alone does not provide a meaningful symbolic identity. Consequently, women are most frequently reminded that they need to develop a worthwhile immortality project and symbolic identity.
Becker describes homosexuals and cross-gendered individuals as being more in touch with the arbitrariness of biological sex than heterosexuals. For example, in the case of homosexuals, realizing the arbitrariness of their biological sex may make them desire for their own sex to be always worthy of love, despite its biological arbitrariness. In the case of cross-gendered individuals, they might wish to emulate an opposite-sex figure that they admire (e.g. one's mother). They might do this either to use that figure's respected gender identity to overcome their own sense of biological arbitrariness, or to raise the admirable figure above its own biological arbitrariness. Since they cannot emulate the figure biologically, they instead emulate the figure in terms of gendered-type behaviors.
The Denial of Death helped to inspire a revival of interest in the work of Otto Rank. Becker's work 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. Ayad Akhtar mentions it in his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced.
- Flight from Death
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces
- 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.
- Pulitzer Prizes website
- 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". Retrieved 2009-08-05.