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.