The Denial of Death (1974) Ernest Becker

Underconsumed Knowledge
13 min readSep 25, 2021

“When you put all your eggs in one basket you must clutch that basket for dear life”

A cultural anthropologist’s take on psychology and largely an evolution of Freudianism, but says that our primary motivation as humans is our fear of death, not innate sexual repression. The human motivation is to attain immortality, self-perpetuation, leading to organized religion, procreation, and the desire for fame and notoriety (lasting worth), thus transcending death, via societal hero systems. From Preface by Sam Keen, “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.” “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.” “for the time being I gave up writing — there is already too much truth in the world — an overproduction which apparently cannot be consumed!” Otto Rank. Our hero systems have various roles and degrees, I.e. Mao, Churchill, Buddha, vs. The coal miner, the peasant, the simple priest, the father defending his family. We want to become special, attain meaning, and be useful to creation. We produce multi-generational families, buildings, both secular and religious. “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.” That which troubles neurotics is their powerlessness against everything. “Take stock of those around you and you will… hear them talk in precise terms about themselves and their surroundings, which would seem to point to them having ideas on the matter. But start to analyze those ideas and you will find that they hardly reflect in any way the reality to which they appear to refer, and if you go deeper you will discover that there is not even an attempt to adjust the ideas to this reality. Quite the contrary: through these notions the individual is trying to cut off any personal vision of reality, of his own very life. For life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality, and tries to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything Is clear. It does not worry him that his “ideas” are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defense of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality.” -Jose Ortega Y Gasset Revolt Of the Masses 1957. Humans think we have no authority, since meanings come from the outside, from social conditioning; thus, there is no courage to face the awe and magnitude of creation. Freud said one of the greatest causes of psychological illness is the fear of knowledge of the self — emotions, impulses, memories, etc. “…this kind of fear is defensive, in the sense that it is a protection of our self-esteem… We tend to be afraid of any knowledge that could cause us to despise ourselves or to make us feel inferior, weak… we protect ourselves and our ideal image of ourselves by repression…” -Abraham Maslow. We have to repress our feeling of insignificance in the face of existence. “…the lie we need in order to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours.” “Neurosis is another word for describing a complicated technique for avoiding misery, but reality is the misery.” Thus, people need belief systems, and they never really look inward, never contemplate, because it is too risky and painful to know what we are without disguise and defenses against fear; in a way, everyone suffers a neurosis, but only those who cease to function in society are labeled as such, we “tranquilize with the trivial.” “Most men figure out how to live safely within the probabilities of a given set of social rules.” …”the neurotic who has had therapy is like a member of [AA]: he can never take his cure for granted, and the best sign of the genuineness of that cure is that he lives with humility.” Thus, those who achieve some sort of peace or self-knowledge realize how much they do not know, how they do not have the answers, and there are humbled. Many are perfectly happy shying away from the potentialities of life, fulfilling preordained roles. “Sartre has called man a ‘useless passion’ because he is so hopelessly bungled, so deluded about his true condition. He wants to be a god with only the equipment of an animal, and so he thrives on fantasies.” Thus, we want to CRUSH LIFE, show how godlike we are, how we BEAT DOWN existence like Grant Cardone piloting a Mercedes G-Wagon. We erect human character so we do not have to confront the truth of living, the truth of death. “A partisan of the most rigid orthodoxyknows it all, he bows before the holy, truth is for him an ensemble of ceremonies… he knows everything the same way as does the pupil who is able to demonstrate a mathematical proposition with the letters ABC, but not when they are changed to DEF. He is therefore in dread whenever he hears something not arranged in the same order.” -Søren Kierkegaard 1844. One does not understand when they are orthodox, they merely parrot, and they are a slave to the orthodoxy. Kierkegaard says the good is what which opens to new possibility, choice, perceptions, experiences. People develop their character lie as children, and learn how to respond to the world — or not — and have the potential to become fearful of the world. The inauthentic do not belong to themselves, they are not their own person, do not see reality. “But in spite of the fact that a man has become fantastic in this fashion, he may nevertheless… be perfectly well able to live on, to be a man, as it seems, to occupy himself with temporal things, get married, beget children, win honor and esteem — and perhaps no one notices that in a deeper sense he lacks a self” -Kierkegaard. Thus, the cultural roles fulfilled can, for many people, be just fine, in the safety of social and cultural obligations and duties. Such an uncritical man, “does not dare to believe in himself, finds it too venturesome a thing to be himself, far easier and safer to be like the others, to become an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd.” -Kirkegaard. “Depressive psychosis is… too much necessity… not enough freedom of the inner self… a bogging down, [not seeing] alternatives… [with] obligations no longer [giving] a sense of self-esteem.” The “normal” person derives meaning from fulfilling their obligations, but the depressed person is so overwhelmed that they no longer provide any meaning. The depressive, “cannot seem to understand the situation he is in, cannot see beyond his own fears, cannot grasp why he has bogged down.” This makes him feel stupid, so afraid to be himself. “…the depressed person avoids the possibility of independence and more life precisely because these are what threaten him with destruction and death. He holds on to the people who have enslaved him in a network of crushing obligations, belittling interaction, precisely because these people are his shelter, his strength, his protection against the world. Like most everyone else the depressed person is a coward who will not stand alone on his own center… [so he draws strength from others]… his slavish, dependent, depersonalized life has lost its meaning…. one choose slavery because it is safe and meaningful; then one loses the meaning of it, but fears to move out of it.” Of simplicity in one’s understanding, “In the prison of one’s character one can pretend and feel that he is somebody, that the world is manageable, that there is a reason for one’s life, a ready justification for one’s action. To live automatically and uncritically is to be assured of at least a minimum share of the programmed cultural heroics — what we might call “prison heroism”: the smugness of the insiders who ‘know.’” “Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life. These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost, is without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality” -Ortega Y Gasset. Someone who feels lost can find their own truth; if they never feel this self-reflection, this search for truth, their ideas are not their own. My ideas in my early 20s were somewhat ideologically driven, imparted by family and weak observations, not deeply understood or probed, such as notions of the laziness of life’s losers without regard for other factors. “The truly open person, the one who has shed his character armor, the vital lie of his cultural conditioning, is beyond the help of any mere “science,” of any merely social standard of health. He is absolutely alone…” Kierkegaard says it is faith which can unite the person with creation. “…a scientific truth was a hypothesis which might be adequate for the moment but was not to be preserved as an article of faith for all time” -Jung, encouraging us not to burn the witches or hang Galileo. Written well before Steve Jobs’ premature death, “As for [Freud’s] dedication to his work, writing to the end with as little use of drugs as possible despite his pain… This kind of courage is not unusual in men who see themselves as historical figures; the self-image marshals the necessary dedication to the work that will give them immortality…” In other words, Steinbeck’s concept of glory from East of Eden. Man wants to ensure “victory” in his life through his actions; man protests that he is helpless or impotent. The genius lives a fantasy where they control life and death, godlikeness; “to relentlessly pursue the expression of that talent through the unswerving affirmation of the causa-sui project”, thus, a personal dogma or calling of sorts. “As you fear that life in this dimension may not count, may not have any real meaning, you relieve your anxiety by being especially scornful of the very thing that you wish for most, while underneath your writing desk you have your fingers crossed.” Thus, fame, reincarnation, defeating death. “Neurosis and psychosis are modes of expression for human beings who have lost courage. Anyone who has acquired this much insight… will thenceforth refrain from undertaking with persons in this state of discouragement tedious excursions into mysterious regions of the psyche” -Adler; one might save themselves much frustration by not arguing with people who are in such a state. “The continuing vogue of vampire movies may be a clue to how close to the surface our repressed fears are: the anxiety of losing control… of not really being in command of ourselves.” Hypnosis is easy because, deep down inside, we remain children in life; “the part of the father is transferred to teachers, superiors, impressive personalities; the submissive loyalty to rulers that is so wide-spread is also a transference of this sort.’” Ferenczi. People want to be protected, want to be part of omnipotence (like a father), back with the comfort of their parents; crave omnipotent father figures, magical helpers for existence; “secular” societies like the USSR embalm Lenin and put him in a tomb, immortal. The death of magical helpers (Fromm) make people see their own propensity for death, causing outpourings of grief in the streets from MJ to the Kennedys. Groups demand illusions, “give what is unreal precedence over what is real” -Freud. The real world is too terrible to admit; “the masses look to the leaders to give them just the untruth that they need.” Forbidden impulses, wishes, fantasies, are okayed by the group leader, and anything goes, as with Charles Manson. Transference, “’indicates a need to exert complete control over external circumstances… profound rebellion against reality and… stubborn persistence in the ways of immaturity.’” -Silverberg. We can use a love object, our partner, in place of lost spiritual ideologies, putting all meaning into that person; “We may have no other God and we may prefer to deflate ourselves in order to keep the relationship, even though we glimpse the impossibility of it and the slavishness to which it reduces us.” Morality allows humans to overcome badness, and thus safely belongs, and is good; we can also attempt to become extra-special by being extra good, developing our heroic gift for greater good. Sexual taboos enable man to achieve spiritual goodness, immortality in heaven, denying the body. Jung points out that the “average man” doesn’t have and couldn’t understand the courage-level to face existence, separating from the herd, from culture; one risks madness (as points out Peterson). The creative has to answer the burden of his extreme individualism with nothing on which to lean. Points out the relative lack of harm of a “neurotic” that must engage in compulsive behavior since the problem is isolated to the self. “When you put all your eggs in one basket you must clutch that basket for dear life.” Someone tries to control the world via perfectionism, or another obsession; “[H]is neurosis allows him to take control of his destiny.” “Playing the game of society with automatic ease means playing with others without anxiety.” Thus, if you lack social skills, or if you do not value what society values, you cannot become engaged in the game; if lacking courage, you then are the problem. The artist and the neurotic/schizophrenic exist on the same level of life understanding (or lack thereof), but the artist can do something about it, the latter cannot; “Either you eat up yourself and others around you, trying for perfection, or you objectify that imperfection in a work”. Thus, the importance of meaningful work. “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… What is the nature of the obsessive denials of reality that a utopian society will provide to keep men from going mad?” Of types of people, “There are those who are too narrowly built-into their world, and there are those who are floating too freely apart from it.” with various kinds in between. If the middle path “avoids the psychiatric clinic”, but does he “[lay] waste to the world in order to forget [himself]”. What can increase understanding for the average person and also prevent the rise of the Adolf Hitler? “The average man is at least secure that the cultural game is the truth, the unshakeable, durable truth. He can earn his immortality in and under the dominant immortality ideology, period.” Enter fear, resentment, and dissonance when there are too many people disputing that the cultural game is truth. “What characterizes modern life is the failure of all traditional immortality ideologies to absorb and quicken man’s hunger for self-perpetuation and heroism. Neurosis is today a widespread problem because of the disappearance of convincing dramas of heroic apotheosis of man.” Thus, man craves revolution, war, heroic dramas; is positive humanism, “insipid rationalism” (Peterson) too bland for humanity? Perhaps if it was less judgmental and more inclusive? Becker tries to answer the question, “…some kind of affirmative collective ideology in which the person can perform the living drama of his acceptance as a creature. Only in this way can the neurotic come out of his isolation to become part of such a larger and higher wholeness as religion has always represented.” “The myth ritual complex is a social form for the channeling of obsessions. We might say that it places creative obsession within the reach of everyman, which is precisely the function of ritual… all social life is the obsessive ritualization of control in one way or another. It automatically engineers safety and banishes despair by keeping people focused on the noses in front of their faces. The defeat of despair is not mainly an intellectual problem for an active organism, but a problem of self-stimulation via movement. Beyond a given point man is not helped by more “knowing,” but only by living and doing in a partly self-forgetful way. As Goethe put it, we must plunge into experience and then reflect on the meaning of it.” Modern man needs Dostoevsky’s air, the living of life, going outside, not a quagmire of theories and dogma and knowledge without life’s active living in some way. “We still haven’t explained the inner forces of evolution that have led to the development of an animal capable of self-consciousness… the hysterical reaction [to Darwin]… shows the thinness and unimaginativeness of [believers]. They were not open to plain and ordinary awe and wonder…” We cannot explain creation, but believers of God demand that they have it right, all others be damned. Evangelists evangelize because they need the conviction of numbers in order to strengthen and externalize something that is private and personal, so it does not seem fantastic and unreal; to see others like oneself is to believe in oneself. “Childlike foolishness is the calling of mature men.” There is a, “[N]eed for legitimate foolishness” -Rank (thus, living with joy). So many people are so bottled up, so concerned of what people think, there is no joy. “[T]he only secure truth men have is that which they themselves create and dramatize; to live is to play at the meaning of life”. Man doubts his self-esteem when “he is not convinced that his having lived really makes any cosmic difference.” “The more you shrink back from the difficulties and the darings of life, the more you naturally come to feel inept, the lower is your self-evaluation.” People want to try to be heroic, “in the best and only way that he can; in our impoverished culture even — As Harrington so truly put it — ’if only for his skill at the pinball machine.’” Fetishism is linked to low self-esteem, a sense of inadequacy, fear of male role, and an attempt to take back control; people no longer have to feel like a guilty, disgusting human. “Guilt, self-torture, and accusations are always ways of coercing others… weak and frightened people lay especially hard upon others…. we are coerced… and they may not be our problems.” “The most one can achieve is a certain relaxedness, an openness to experience that makes him less of a driven burden on others” — not everything is possible, but how can people peacefully coexist. Repression is a necessary component of life, and of civilization; “a certain inner distance is achieved from the infantile desire to be and have everything.” (Rieff). Life requires limits, and culture makes human life possible. Psychology cannot heal all ails, cannot heal existence; but we can try to live with joy. We ought not promise the moon to everyone because sometimes life is not roses; people get hungry, tired, etc. People want paradise, but people must accept the limitations of life; we want more than life can deliver. “As a being, as an extension of all Being, man has an organismic impulsion: to take into his own organization the maximum amount of the problematic of life.” We bite off what we can chew; we should try to counter those things which want to negate life. We must simply have courage to be, be what we want to be. “Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping… awareness calls for types of heroic dedication that his culture no longer provides for him…” How does culture change?

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Underconsumed Knowledge

"For the time being I gave up writing -- there is already too much truth in the world -- an overproduction which apparently cannot be consumed!" Otto Rank, 1933