The Denial of Death is a work by Ernest Becker which 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, nation-states, social and political movements, etc. Such connections, they believe, give their lives meaning.
And Becker believed that mental illness, especially depression, results when we don’t believe we are connected to some meaningful project. Furthermore, lacking such a project reminds us of our mortality. He also argued that schizophrenia results from not having defense mechanisms against mortality, causing sufferers to create their own reality. (These ideas remind me of Viktor Frankl’s claim, in Man’s Search for Meaning, that mental illness most often results from a lack of meaning.)
Moreover, Becker believed that conflicts between contradictory immortality projects, especially religious ones, are 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 our beliefs are misguided. But, Becker argued, religion no longer offers convincing arguments for immortality or meaning in life. Unfortunately, for most people, science doesn’t fill the void.
In response, Becker suggests that we need new comforting “illusions” to give life meaning. He doesn’t know what these new illusions will be, but he hoped that having them might help us create a better world. Still, deep in our bones, we know that we are mortal. 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.