Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death is one of those books whose title always attracted me, but I had to muster up a certain mood to tackle.
This mood finally struck me a few weeks ago, and I loved this.
I tend to be skeptical of “theories of everything,” but if you are going to try to explain human behavior, this one rings really true to me.
The burden of consciousness, specifically our knowledge of our own death. In Becker’s words, which I adore: “It is appalling, the burden that man bears, the experiential burden.”
I think this is what the book of Genesis / the story of Adam and Eve is about. Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus. Sarah Perry’s Every Cradle is a Grave. Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.
What I like about Becker is just how plain and simple his language is, eg, “In the face of the terror of the world, the miracle of creation, the crushing power of reality, not even the tiger has secure and limitless power, much less the child.”
All his talk of heroism as our attempt to transcend our mortality also rings true to me.
And I like the way he “rescues” Freud – there was always so much to me that Freud got right about human behavior and trauma, but the idea that everything was grounded in sex never felt right to me personally. I thought it was great how Becker explained the Oedipal complex etc all in terms of fear of death at the root.
Here are some of my favorite bits…
The main task of human life is to become heroic:
23 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…. 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…. Our heroic projects that are aimed at destroying evil have the paradoxical effect of bringing more evil into the world. Human conflicts are life and death struggles – my gods against your gods, my immortality project against your immortality project. The root of humanly caused evil is not man’s animal nature, not territorial aggression, or innate selfishness, but our need to gain self-esteem, deny our mortality, and achieve a heroic self-image.
More appropriate to condemn societies than individual actors:
49 We may shudder at the crassness of earthly heroism, of both Caesar and his imitators, but the fault is not theirs, it is in the way society sets up its hero system and in the people it allows to fill its roles. The 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 as they now are. The fact is that this is what society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism.
The youth no longer feel heroic – rings just as true in 2021 as it must have in 1973:
53 Everything painful and sobering in what psychoanalytic genius and religious genius have discovered about man revolves around the terror of admitting what one is doing to earn his self-esteem…. 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. We are living a crisis of heroism that reaches into every aspect of our social life: the dropouts of university heroism, of business and career heroism, of political-action heroism; the rise of anti-heroes, those who would be heroic each in his own way or like Charles Manson with his special “family”, those whose tormented heroics lash out at the system that itself has ceased to represent agreed heroism. The great perplexity of our time, the churning of our age, is that the youth have sensed—for better or for worse—a great social-historical truth: that just as there are useless self-sacrifices in unjust wars, so too is there an ignoble heroics of whole societies: it can be the viciously destructive heroics of Hitler’s Germany or the plain debasing and silly heroics of the acquisition and display of consumer goods, the piling up of money and privileges that now characterizes whole ways of life, capitalist and Soviet.
The problem of heroics is the central one, and society itself is a hero-system:
57 [T]he problem of heroics is the central one of human life, that it goes deeper into human nature than anything else because it is based on organismic narcissism and on the child’s need for self- esteem as the condition for his life. Society itself is a codified hero system, which means that society everywhere is a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning. Every society thus is a “religion” whether it thinks so or not: Soviet “religion” and Maoist “religion” are as truly religious as are scientific and consumer “religion,” ho matter how much they may try to disguise themselves by omitting religious and spiritual ideas from their lives. As we shall see further on, it was Otto Rank who showed psychologically this religious nature of all human cultural creation; and more recently the idea was revived by Norman O. Brown in his and by Robert Jay Lifton in his Revolutionary Immortality.
Because the human child is helpless and depends on parents for survival, as he learns to get what he needs by signalling to them, he feels a sense of omnipotence:
80 Now, what is unique about the child’s perception of the world? For one thing, the extreme confusion of cause-and-effect relationships; for another, extreme unreality about the limits of his own powers. The child lives in a situation of utter dependence; and when his needs are met it must seem to him that he has magical powers, real omnipotence. If he experiences pain, hunger, or discomfort, all he has to do is to scream and he is relieved and lulled by gentle, loving sounds. He is a magician and a telepath who has only to mumble and to imagine and the world turns to his desires. But now the penalty for such perceptions. In a magical world where things cause other things to happen just by a mere thought or a look of displeasure, anything can happen to anyone. When the child experiences inevitable and real frustrations from his parents, he directs hate and destructive feelings toward them; and he has no way of knowing that malevolent feelings cannot be fulfilled by the same magic as were his other wishes.
Rethinking Freud’s Oedipal complex:
119 If the child’s major task is a flight from helplessness and obliteration, then sexual matters are secondary and derivative, as Brown says: Thus again it appears that the sexual organizations, pregenital and genital, do not correspond to the natural distribution of Eros in the human body: they represent a hypercathexis, a supercharge, of particular bodily functions and zones, a hypercathexis induced by the fantasies of human narcissism in flight from death.11 Let us take these technical gems and spread them out a bit. The Oedipal project is the flight from passivity, from obliteration, from contingency: the child wants to conquer death by becoming the father of himself, the creator and sustainer of his own life.
The experiential burden is appalling:
149 He lives not only on a tiny territory, nor even on an entire planet, but in a galaxy, in a universe, and in dimensions beyond visible universes. It is appalling, the burden that man bears, the experiential burden.
The fundamental childhood trauma is learning your powerlessness:
155 The great scientific simplification of psychoanalysis is the concept that the whole of early experience is an attempt by the child to deny the anxiety of his emergence, his fear of losing his support, of standing alone, helpless and afraid. The child’s character, his style of life, is his way of using the power of others, the support of the things and the ideas of his culture, to banish from his awareness the actual fact of his natural impotence. Not only his impotence to avoid death, but his impotence to stand alone, firmly rooted on his own powers. In the face of the terror of the world, the miracle of creation, the crushing power of reality, not even the tiger has secure and limitless power, much less the child. His world is a transcendent mystery; even the parents to whom he relates in a natural and secure dependency are primary miracles. How else could they appear? The mother is the first awesome miracle that haunts the child his whole life, whether he lives within her powerful aura or rebels against it.
The child abandons ecstasy in order to cope with the despair of the human condition:
157 [O]ne of the first things a child has to do is to learn to “abandon ecstasy,” to do without awe, to leave fear and trembling behind. Only then can he act with a certain oblivious self- confidence, when he has naturalized his world. We say “naturalized” but we mean unnaturalized, falsified, with the truth obscured, the despair of the human condition hidden, a despair that the child glimpses in his night terrors and daytime phobias and neuroses. This despair he avoids by building defenses; and these defenses allow him to feel a basic sense of self-worth, of meaningfulness, of power. They allow him to feel that he controls his life and his death, that he really does live and act as a willful and free individual, that he has a unique and self-fashioned identity, that he is somebody— not just a trembling accident germinated on a hothouse planet that Carlyle for all time called a “hall of doom.” We called one’s life style a vital lie, and now we can understand better why we said it was vital: it is a necessary and basic dishonesty about oneself and one’s whole situation.
Poverty is helplessness:
277 The crux of our whole discussion is contained in one confession of Freud’s to Karl Abraham: that helplessness was one of the two things that he always hated most.49 (The other was poverty—because it means helplessness.) Freud hated helplessness and fought against it, and the emotional feeling of utter helplessness in the face of experience was too much for him to stand.
Groups and leaders:
309 It is this trait that the leader hypnotically embodies in his own masterful person. Or as Fenichel later put it, people have a “longing for being hypnotized” precisely because they want to get back to the magical protection, the participation in omnipotence, the “oceanic feeling” that they enjoyed when they were loved and protected by their parents.16 And so, as Freud argues, it is not that groups bring out anything new in people; it is just that they satisfy the deep-seated erotic longings that people constantly carry around unconsciously. For Freud, this was the life force that held groups together. It functioned as a kind of psychic cement that locked people into mutual and mindless interdependence: the magnetic powers of the leader, reciprocated by the guilty delegation of everyone’s will to him. No one who honestly remembers how hazardous it could be to look certain people in the face or how blissful to bask trustingly in the glow of another’s power can accuse Freud of psychoanalytic rhetoric, py explaining the precise power that held groups together Freud could also show why groups did not fear danger. The members do not feel that they are alone with their own smallness and helplessness, as they have the powers of the hero-leader with whom they are identified. Natural narcissism—the feeling that the person next to you will die, but not you—is reinforced by trusting dependence on the leader’s power. No wonder that hundreds of thousands of pen marched up from trenches in the face of blistering gunfire in World War I. They were partially self-hypnotised, so to speak. No wonder men imagine victories against impossible odds: don’t their have the omnipotent powers of the parental figure? Why are groups so blind and stupid?—men have always asked. Because they demand illusions, answered Freud, they “constantly give what is unreal precedence over what is real.”17 And we know why. The real world is simply too terrible to admit; it tells man that he is a small, trembling animal who will decay and die. Illusion changes all this, makes man seem important, vital to the universe, immortal in some way. Who transmits this illusion, if not the parents by imparting the macro-lie of the cultural causa sui? The masses look to the leaders to give them just the untruth that they need; the leader continues the illusions that triumph over the castration complex and magnifies them into a truly heroic victory. Furthermore, he makes possible a new experience, the expression of forbidden impulses, secret wishes, and fantasies. In group behavior anything goes because the leader okays it.
325 If, as we have seen, the group comes ready-made to the leader with the thirst for servitude, he tries to deepen that servitude even further. If they seek to be free of guilt in his cause, he tries to load them up with an extra burden of guilt and fear to draw the mesh of his immorality around them. He gets a really coercive hold on the members of the group precisely because they follow his lead in committing outrageous acts. He can then use their guilt against them, binding them closer to himself. He uses their anxiety for his purposes, even arousing it as he needs to; and he can use their fear of being found out and revenged by their victims as a kind of blackmail that keeps them docile and obedient for further atrocities. We saw a classic example of this technique on the part of the Nazi leaders. It was the same psychology that criminal gangs and gangsters have always used: to be bound closer together through the crime itself. The Nazis called it blood cement (Blutkitt), and the SS used it freely. For the lower echelons, service in the concentration camps accomplished this loyalty; but the technique was also used on the highest levels, especially with reluctant persons of prominence and talent whom they wanted to recruit. These they induced to commit extra atrocities that indelibly identified them with the SS and gave them a new, criminal identity.
It is unbearable to be God:
363 In the long run, such symbiotic relationship becomes demoralizing to both parties, for it is just as unbearable to be God as it is to remain an utter slave.
417 In this sense, what we call a creative gift is merely the social license to be obsessed.
Compulsive routines and the problem with Utopias:
417 I used to wonder how people could 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 so simple that it eludes us: the craziness of these activities is exactly that of the human condition. They are “right” for 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. All of which poses another gigantic problem to a sophisticated Marxism, namely: What is the nature of the obsessive denials of reality that a Utopian society will provide to keep men from going mad?
One cannot justify his own heroism:
437 The neurotic loses every kind of collective spirituality, and makes the heroic gesture of placing himself entirely within the immortality of his own ego, as the observations and cosmic fantasies of psychotics so clearly show.39 But we know that this attempt is doomed to failure because man simply cannot justify his own heroism; he cannot fit himself into his own cosmic plan and make it believable. He must live with agonizing doubts if he remains in touch at all with the larger reality. Only when he loses this touch do the doubts vanish—and that is the definition of psychosis: a wholly unreal belief in the self-justification of cosmic heroism.
Psychology can not give us what we want, which is immortality:
586 “Psychology as self-knowledge is self-deception,” he said, because it does not give what men want, which is immortality. Nothing could be plainer. When the patient emerges from his protective cocoon he gives up the reflexive immortality ideology that he has lived under—both in its personal-parental form (living in the protective powers of the parents or their surrogates) and in its cultural causa-sui form (living by the opinions of others and in the symbolic role-dramatization of the society).
Shopping is another drug:
611 Science, after all, is a credo that has attempted to absorb into itself and to deny the fear of life and death; and it is only one more competitor in the spectrum of roles for cosmic heroics. Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing.
– excerpts from The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker