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The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

The Denial of Death (1973)

by Ernest Becker (Author)

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» See also 17 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 12 (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 |
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 |
“Do not try to live forever. You will not succeed.” – George Bernard Shaw

This is an excellent psychology book, which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1974, the same year that Becker died. You can view that as ironic or not, but it is also poignant. The book is concerned with dispelling many of the myths concerning psychology, especially Freud’s views on sexuality as the bedrock of psycho-analysis. Using psychological data and philosophical insights, Becker posits a radical revision of the psychological field. According to Becker, it is not so much sex, as our fear of death that shapes our psychology, and which leads to neurosis and psychosis. Of course, he does not deny that sex has a role to play, as well as biology, but he contends that Freud made a huge mistake (which has been perpetuated ever since) by making it the be-all and end-all of psychology.

Becker’s main pre-cursor was [[Otto Rank]], whom Becker quotes extensively in support of his argument. He also makes use of the philosophical work of [[Soren Kierkegaard]], whose theories concerning existential dread predated Freud by a more than a hundred years. Kierkegaard is also one of my favourite authors, so I found the section on him fascinating. Rank also seems to have been a brilliant writer, who is sadly neglected. [[Carl Gustav Jung]]’s work is also considered and, although Becker does not agree with all Jung’s arguments, he does prefer him to Freud. It seems that Freud gets bashed a lot nowadays, which is not what Becker does. He carefully examines his theories, without insulting Freud or the reader’s intelligence. He points out where he thinks Freud went wrong, but he also salvages a lot of useful things from him. Becker also investigates Freud’s own psychology, which is intriguing.

Becker shares wonderful insights into the psychology of anxiety towards death, and how this is impacted by our dual nature of embodiment and selfhood. Because we are evolutionarily programmed towards survival, we create symbolic defences against our own mortality. If one thinks about it, these are obviously always inadequate, but they do lead to a lot of unfortunate outcomes. We deny death, yet become inured to displacement tactics like war, racism, and bigotry. Our hate is often merely a way of disavowing death, which is a pointless endeavour. We also construct “hero-systems” to cope with death, as our heroes (exemplified by temporal and religious leaders) allow us to evade thinking on death (well, to a degree; it is more complex than that). According to Becker, these systems are necessary illusions: too much reality would lead to madness. Actually, and perversely, we are all mad, because we deny reality to such a degree. We are so afraid of death, that we construct vast edifices and emotional and intellectual pursuits to avoid thinking about our mortality. If we faced the truth, that would be sanity, but it would overwhelm us, leading to what we traditionally describe as “madness”.

Having been published in the 1970s, the book does share some faults that originate from its context. I actively disliked the chapter on “perversions”, for instance, as homosexuality is included here. Other than that, though, the book has few obvious faults. I am not a psychologist, so I cannot really comment on its insights in any depth, but I can say that it was very convincing and clearly written. I could write a lot more about this book; it really jolted me. Let me just end by quoting from its Wikipedia page, to show what an impact it has had:

Becker's work has 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. Bill Clinton quoted it in his autobiography; he also included it as one of 21 titles in his list of favourite books. ( )
2 vote dmsteyn | Feb 5, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 12 (next | show all)
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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
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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