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The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker
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The Denial of Death (1973)

by Ernest Becker (Author)

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Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
An important book for all of us to read, though I bogged down a bit during the sex parts. It is possible I am not as familiar with all the so-called perversions and neurosis of sexuality and therefore the actually small bit of text referring to fetishes and homosexuality was lost on me. I know that most of what he wrote is true for me, without a smidgen of doubt. And those areas I admit ignorance of I will have to pass on my judgment, though those parts did seem a bit dated given our present social and political states regarding same-sex unions. But this book was not at all political. Becker was covering every possible neurosis in his study of our desire for immortality, and it was refreshing and freeing to read him say things such as, "…All living organisms are condemned to perversity, to the narrowness of being mere fragments of a larger totality that overwhelms them, which they cannot understand or truly cope with — yet must still live and struggle in." ( )
  MSarki | Jan 2, 2014 |
need to read this again.
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
Becker wants you to know you're going to die. He wants you to realize how terrifying this fact is and that your awareness of it makes your existence uniquely and inescapably tragic among living beings. Becker is the man to show us the right direction, to teach us to acknowledge our condition and to live more authentically. Or so I hoped, as I read. But he just keeps reminding us of the tragedy. For Becker, human life is a sham no matter how we live it. If we think we face the tragedy of life and death with dignity, we delude ourselves because the only possible response to the terror is to repress it; all lives are expressions of that necessity, as he explains:

"Neurosis is another word for the total problem of the human condition; it becomes a clinical word when the individual bogs down in the face of the problem--when his heroism is in doubt or becomes self defeating. Men are naturally neurotic and always have been, but at some times they have it easier than at others to mask their true condition." (198)

Becker, a PhD. in Anthropology, strongly advocates psychoanalytic theory, specifically the ideas of Otto Rank, who revised Freud and integrated Kierkegaard into psychoanalysis. He believes that, thanks to psychoanalysis, we know much more than has ever been understood before about human psychology, and the ideas compiled in Denial of Death reveal previously unknown truths about ourselves. These pretensions are foreign to me and I find them very hard to believe. However, I have no problem believing that these ideas contain truths--understood differently for millennia, but understood nonetheless--and that they had never been articulated this way before, only because nothing like modern society had ever existed. They had simply never found expression in this unique context.

The crux of the problem is that anthropology revolves around the assumption (which I share) that culture does not improve, that, contrary to our ethnocentric tendency, different cultures can only be understood in a relative way. And that goes for modern society and its component institutions like science as well as psychology and psychoanalytic theory. From Becker's inside, emic, perspective these institutions offer an unquestionable improvement over other ways of knowing ourselves. But to an ideal "outside", relative, etic observer, even these institutions can't be elevated in this way.

Regrettably, Becker forsakes any anthropological sensibilities he might have once learned and insists upon the universality of his ideas (and of psychoanalytic theory in general), completely neglecting the unique conditions of culture and modern human existence. It is clear that, to Becker, culture is only a peripheral concern to Western psychology (his true disciplinary affinity) and its sweeping proclamations about what humans are: conscious beings born unaware of their mortal, animal, "creaturely" basis but absolutely terrified by their discovery of it: a tragic dilemma personified. That would be an apt subtitle to the book.

This existential dilemma, though, is a product of a particular historical moment and a cultural context, as William Barrett (despite his flaws) is more than willing to admit in Irrational Man. It is not a discovery, as Becker would have it, but an experience of circumstances! And the modern experience (even in a clinical psychoanalytic setting) is, if anything, less typical of that of humans throughout history. Becker's analysis cannot be properly read as anything more than a systematization of aspects of a specific cultural experience.

Becker makes a powerful argument that the inescapable backdrop of human experience is tragic. That backdrop of an inevitable, incomprehensible death may still be perceived in different ways, however: for example, if it is sufficiently "repressed" (in Becker's words), does it matter or not? Existentialists (i.e. Becker, with Kierkegaard) can't imagine that it doesn't. But if there were no modern society to hear the existentialists, would they make a meaningful sound? Certainly not. ( )
  dmac7 | Jun 14, 2013 |
How do people deal with death? By wanting to do something which endures. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
I have never read a book that so matched my own beliefs as to what drives "evil" deeds, great and small, in the world around us. Many will no doubt find Becker's work deeply troubling, as it essentially describes the pillars of modern civilization (religion, government, social movements, and nearly all forms of human endeavor) as byproducts of our fear of death. Man-made mechanisms for coping with our awareness and fear of oblivion. Regardless, the sooner people understand this, the sooner we can hopefully REASON our way free of this fear. ( )
  AnonymousA | Feb 21, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Becker, ErnestAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Keen, SamForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere. (Not to laugh, not to lament, not to curse, but to understand.) - Spinoza
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To the memory of my beloved parents, who unwittingly gave me - among many other things - the most paradoxical gift of all: a confusion about heroism.
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The prospect of death, Dr. Johnson said, wonderfully concentrates the mind.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0684832402, Paperback)

Winner of the Pulitzer prize in 1974 and the culmination of a life's work, The Denial of Death is Ernest Becker's brilliant and impassioned answer to the "why" of human existence. In bold contrast to the predominant Freudian school of thought, Becker tackles the problem of the vital lie -- man's refusal to acknowledge his own mortality. In doing so, he sheds new light on the nature of humanity and issues a call to life and its living that still resonates more than twenty years after its writing.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:21:23 -0400)

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 and the culmination of a life's work, The Denial of Death is Ernest Becker's brilliant and impassioned answer to the ?why? of human existence. In bold contrast to the predominant Freudian school of thought, Becker tackles the problem of the vital lie: man's refusal to acknowledge his own mortality. In doing so, he sheds new light on the nature of humanity and issues a call to life and its living that still resonates more than thirty years after its writing.… (more)

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