The Denial of Death

The Denial of Death is a 1973 work by Ernest Becker. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1974,  a few months after his death. (In the above scene Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer buys the book for Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall in the Academy award-winning movie “Annie Hall.”)

The book’s basic premise is that human civilization is a defense mechanism against the knowledge that we will die. Becker argues that humans live in both a physical world of objects and a symbolic world of meaning. The symbolic part of human life engages in what Becker calls an “immortality project.” People try to create or become part of something which they believe will last forever—art, music, literature, religion, political movements, institutions, nations, etc. This connection with the eternal, they believe, gives their lives meaning.

Becker argued that mental illness, especially depression, results from lacking a project that gives people lives meaning. Without one we are reminded of mortality and meaninglessness. He also argued that schizophrenia results from a lack of defense mechanisms against mortality, causing sufferers to create their own reality. These notions are reminiscent of Victor Frankl’s claim in Man’s Search for Meaning that mental illness often results from a lack of meaning.

Moreover Becker believed that conflicts between contradictory immortality projects, especially religious ones, is the main cause of wars, bigotry, genocide, racism, nationalism. Our particular immortality projects are so important to us, that we can’t tolerate others suggesting that they are misguided. He also believed that religion no longer offers convincing arguments for immortality or meaning in life. But science does little better.

So Becker suggests that we need new comforting “illusions” to enable us to feel eternally important. He doesn’t tell us what these new illusions will be, but he hoped that an honest look at our innate motivations might help to create a better world. For now though we feel mortality deep in our bones. As Becker put it:

This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-­expression—and with all this yet to die.

2 thoughts on “The Denial of Death

  1. I think Becker is definitely on the right track in his book. We as humans definitely seem to feel the need to “matter” after we are gone, to leave a lasting legacy as it were. It would seem that having a family is in this very same vein. Your children being your genetic legacy to the world (whether that is for the good or the bad is up to debate depending on your kids I suppose!).

    His arguments for metal illness being brought about due to an inability to defend oneself against the onslaught of reality are superficial and been proven incorrect: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/schizophrenia/index.shtml

    I do enjoy the way he describes nations, religions etc as “immortality projects” thought. It’s pretty darn accurate, and silly when you think hard about it!!

    All in all I can get behind this work, wish we had more time to cover some of this type of material in school.

  2. Why are “immortality projects” more important or more meaningful than taking into account (the fact of) mortality. “Forever is our today” (Who wants to live for ever, Queen).

    In another sense the (enforcement of) “immortality projects” along with its superstitious parts, deny the everyday happines and meaning that life can provide to people. This furthermore acts as a justification for unnecesary suffering and exploitation. This renders them susceptible and obedient. And this also brings forth the suppression of questioning the whole edifice which includes among others, vague notions like “mental illness” (see, for example, history of madness, meaningless tags used in manuals and so on), which have the purpose of social control (what is contemporarily criticised as the “medical model of society”, for example).

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