The Denial of Death
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 and the culmination of a life’s work, The Denial of Death is a brilliant and impassioned answer to the ‘why’ of human existence.
The author, Ernest Becker’s, main thesis is that the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animals like nothing else. It is a driving force of human activity. Activity designed to avoid the fatality of death. To overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of mankind.
The world is terrifying. It is, as Becker put it, appalling, the burden that man bears. Modern man lives not only in this moment but also to yesterday. He expands his curiosity to centuries ago. His fears to five billion years from now. And his hopes spread to an eternity. He lives not only on this territory, nor even on an entire planet. He lives in a galaxy, in a universe and in dimensions beyond visible universes.
She is aware of herself, she is conscious of being alive, of being superior to other animals. Yet that existence is a mystery, a miracle. The superiority of our conscious thought leads to the basic human predicament, that we are food for worms and Gods. We are Gods with anuses as Becker put it, defecating corporal selves.
“Thus man is split in two. He has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty. And yet he goes back into the ground a few feet to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever.”
“This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression — and with all this yet to die.”
It is a terrifying dilemma to be and to have to live with. It gives rise to the basic motivation for human behaviour. That is our need to control our anxiety, to deny the terror of death.
One way we cope is repression. Man seeks to repress the entire spectrum of her experience, to deny her corporality, her compromising bodily functions that spell her mortality. She creates myths of the significance of human life, creating societies of hero systems, where man’s nature and civilization’s projects are worshipped as a religion.
Since the terror of death is so overwhelming we conspire to keep it unconscious. “The vital lie of character” is the first line of defence that protects us from the painful awareness of our helplessness.
So long as we stay within the defence mechanisms of our personality, what Wilhelm Reich called “character armour” we feel safe and are able to pretend that the world is manageable. But the price we pay is high.
We repress our bodies to buy a soul that time cannot destroy. We sacrifice pleasure to buy immortality. And we encapsulate ourselves to avoid death. Life escapes us while we huddle within the defended fortress of character.
We are reluctant to move out into the overwhelmingness of the world. And we lose ourselves in the all-consuming appetites of others. Drawing empty courage from a god, a string of sexual conquests, a Big Brother, a flag, the proletariat and the fetish of money and the size of a bank balance.
The defences that form a person’s character support a grand illusion, and when we grasp this we can understand the full drivenness of man. She is driven away from herself, from self-knowledge, self-reflection. She is driven toward things that support the lie of her character, her composure.
But she is also drawn toward those things that make her anxious, as a way of skirting them, testing himself against them, controlling them by defying them.
Yet, even in our flirtations with anxiety we are unconscious of our motives. We seek stress, we push our own limits, but we do it within our screen against despair and not with despair itself.
We do it with the stock market, with sports cars, with atomic missiles, with the success ladder in the corporation or the competition in the university. And we do it in the prison of a dialogue with our own family, by marrying against their wishes or choosing a way of life because they frown on it, and so on.
Hence the complicated and second-hand quality of our entire drivenness. A struggle within our own armour against the truth.
Society provides the second line of defence against our natural impotence. It does so by creating a hero system that allows us to believe that we transcend death by participating in something of lasting worth.
We achieve a fake immortality by sacrificing ourselves to conquer an empire, to build a temple, to write a book, to establish a family, to accumulate a fortune, to further progress and prosperity, to create an information-society and global free market.
Since the main task of human life is to become heroic and transcend death, every culture must provide its members with an intricate symbolic system that is covertly religious. This means that ideological conflicts between cultures are essentially battles between immortality projects, holy wars.
Modern man’s defiance of accident, evil, and death takes the form of skyrocketing production of consumer and military goods. Carried to its 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.