Books

Book Review: The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

I have mixed feelings about this book. While it provoked me to think and ponder how we find meaning in life, it also made me wince to the outdated ideas of psychoanalysis and to the statements that all that is to know about human psyche is known (when the book was written, and clearly the book shows that not to be the case.) I agree with Ernest Becker’s statement that to find life bearable, we need to have meaning, and it has to have value. And I agree that modern individualistic and material cultures make it difficult to achieve that meaning in a way that it doesn’t leave us sick and alienated from others. But the thought of this heroic quest and the fear of death to be the dominant underlying movers in our (sub)consciousness seems too one-sided analysis of human life and reason why we do what we do and why we are what we are. It’s like this holy grail theory the writer uses to explain the whole human condition. And I wasn’t entirely convinced.

Yet, I find some of his argumentation spot on like this one: “This is a perfect description of the ‘automatic cultural man’ —man as confined by culture, a slave to it, who imagines that he has an identity if he pays his insurance premium, that he has control of his life if he guns his sport car or works his electric toothbrush. Today the inauthentic or immediate men are familiar types, after decades of Marxist and existentialist analysis of man’s slavery to his social system. But in Kierkegaard’s time it must have been a shock to be a modern European city-dweller and be considered a Philistine at the same time.” This quote is from the Psychoanalyst Kierkegaard chapter. It was one of those which I loved and provoked thoughts in me. As there are sentences like this: “What does he mean by such a condensed image? To me he means that one of the great dangers of life is too much possibility…” In the same chapter, he writes about the cultural norms and dangers of being true to our own needs and wants, and how we suffocate them and follow the pre-laid path and suffer, yet, think with following the cultural obligations and duties we are safe from life and death.

But to jump into the later chapters about neurosis and futility of life. Ernest Becker writes that through neurotic behaviors, these ritualistic patterns, we try to find meaning and secure our life against the grim view of life’s pointlessness. And such action will only increase as the modern man has banished naive belief and embraced individual destinies, finding it difficult to find meaning in their lives (heroic needs) and this way come frustrated and mad. But in this neurotic disillusioned behavior of human existence also lies creativity which is the salvation of those with enough imagination to escape and propose their own views and ideas to the world. Ernest Becker writes that this imagination and illusion (art, religion, philosophy, science, love…) is what is keeping them functional. That we all need fantasies to make our lives bearable, to make us go on in this mad, meaningless world. (Think the rise of ideologies! And other movements. And charismatic leaders and their simple laid plans and ways to view ourselves and others.)

Despite those fantasies can we be true to ourselves and to others, can we find meaning and feel satisfied? “Rank posed the basic question: he asked whether the individual is able to all ‘to affirm and accept himself from himself.’ But he quickly sidestepped it by saying that it ‘cannot be said.’ Only the creative type can do this to some extent, he reasoned, by using his work as a justification for his existence.” And I have to agree, creativity might not be the path to many, but to me, writing has given me the most purpose in life than anything else. And with that purpose, I need not feel restless in search of the meaning of life or value or acceptance.

Lastly, the book dives into religion and its purpose in our societies and psyche and criticizes who psychology has become a religion of some sort. It has become a fix to these feelings of anxiety over death, life, neurosis, and meaning, yet, he writes psychoanalysis cannot fix it because it lacks the divine higher power which justifies and simplifies our existence. All comes back to the fact that if life is meaningless and if it has no purpose why to go on? A difficult question to answer, especially to the modern man who is swamped with useless plastic gadgets which don’t seem to make his life happy.

As you see, the book has a lot to offer. I’m scratching the surface here. And I had fun reading the book and writing this review as it made me have to think the points again. I would say, read this book despite outdated ideas of the human condition because there is a lot which hasn’t lost its appeal or explanatory power. But there is a lot which will or might make you wince (one of them being Freud who the writer criticizes, but still leans on too many times.) I leave you with this quote: “How all social life is the obsessive ritualization of control in despair by keeping people focussed on the noses in front of their face.”

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