The Denial of Death
These are my reading notes and summary for the book The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. I wrote them in 2010. The notes may contain mistakes and omissions; I have not reread the book or checked them for accuracy since.
Immortality projects are what motivates people. People desire to be heroes. Man consists of a physical body and a symbolic Self. Symbols = freedom, body = fate. Feces are death. Anality is an overly strong concern with preventing contingencies. To a child more body means more power. Sex binds a human individual to a simple animal role; this is why it is so confusing. Fear of extraordinary achievement as it might be (and for some has been) overwhelming. To be superlative means to have excelled the father. The world is overwhelming, too. Character is a lie a person tells about himself to both himself and others. To see the world as it really is devastating and terrifying. The deepest human desire is to be free of fear of death, yet it is life itself that awakens it. Philistinism celebrates the triumph over possibility, over freedom as freedom is dangerous. Psychosis is neurosis pushed to the limit. Oedipus complex (= character armor) is what the child has built to protect himself from reality. The goal of the Oedipal project for a man is to become “his own father” and so be in control of his destiny. Creatureliness is the terror. A self-conscious animal is a ludicrous, even a monstrous, idea. Freud was wrong: the terror of death is the basic repression. Protest against death is what defines humans as different than other animals. Guilt is a function of fear (Rank). If you abandon the causa sui project, you stay an eternal child in the world of elders. In terms of Enlightenment immortality is being loved my many anonymous people, it is the esteem of the yet-unborn.
Neurosis and psychosis are modes of expression for human beings who have lost courage (Adler). Transference is the transferring to the therapist of the sort of feelings the patient had towards his parents as a child. It manifests as him being intensely fascinated with the therapist. The patient thus distorts reality for a feeling of safety, a relief of helplessness and fears. The same surrender makes hypnosis possible.
Narcissistic personalities have a special “aura”. Obedience to authority is transference of the same sort, it is the need for a father. Man has an extreme passion for authority. In a group the group’s leader assumes the role of the parent (to each member), freeing them from responsibility and enabling guiltless expression of forbidden impulses (by simply okaying it). A man gains omnipotence through the godlike leader, his narcissism (the feeling that the guy next to him can die, but not he) is also reinforced. The group demands illusions because the real world is too terrible to admit. Unconflicted people are “infectious”. The leader takes the risk and the guilt by committing the initiatory act. The group also forces its leader to be the leader it needs. This is their symbiosis. Transference indicates a need to exert complete control over external circumstances (Silverberg) through an object/idol (Fromm). It is a way to prolong a familiar way of existence. Problems of power and control are the basic problems of organismic life. Transference can also be negative (hate). Humans have a fear of life, of freedom, of emerging out of embeddedness. Transference grants the universe’s powers to one being, makes the object ones whole world. The emptier you are, the more you populate your world with omnipotent father figures. Terror is always holy terror. All organisms want to feel good about themselves; they push themselves to maximize this feeling. Man can expand both organismically and symbolically. Humans are endowed with a desire for both a cosmic unity and individuation; it is a conflicted desire to become one with the world and at once an outstanding creature. One of man’s chief characteristics is his dissatisfaction with himself, constant self-criticism. He criticizes himself for failing to meet the heroic levels. Transference is the urge to higher heroism, a “marvelous talent”. The much-elevated value of love in our age is due to the weakening of faith in God; the loved one now plays the role of the stronger transference object. There’s a connection between sex and death: “sex is of the body and the body is of death”. Sex also negates individuality because in sex in partners are interchangeable. Sexual taboos are meant to affirm human personality over animal sameness. One feels guilty over the body because the body is a bind. Sex is a disappointing answer to life’s riddle. Safe heroics fails when they become too safe. Guilt results from unused life, from the unlived in us. Obsession in neurosis is analogous to transference. The neurotic lives though his symptom, his obsession or phobia serves to distract him from the real problems of death, guilt, and meaninglessness. This narrows down the world; he avoids death by avoiding life. The creative person, on the other hand, has a problem fetishizing and narrowing down. He takes too large a chunk of the world, and so is also neurotic. To have difficulty partializing experience is to have difficulty living; not being able to fetishize makes one susceptible to the world as a whole problem. The neurotic makes the reality surrounding him a part of his ego (Rank). Some are unable to separate and others are unable to unite. Taking in the whole world might seem heroic but this is also a defense against engaging in it. The neurotic type wants guarantees of life where there are none. He ideates experience instead of living it. Neurosis is living symbolically instead of biologically; it’s a peril of the symbolic animal. The artist is most affected by this as he makes the world into largely a symbolic problem. He escapes neurosis by being creative in an objective, ideological way. Any long-term conviction must come from outside the person. The normal man is the one who had multiple times laid waste to the world in order to forget himself. The neurotic perceives himself as a small, weak, helpless creature, which he is. Unlike the artist he cannot create new illusions. Illusions are human meaning; talking of the need for illusion is not cynical.
Neurosis can be viewed as a problem of character or one of illusion. It can also be viewed as historical. History is a succession of immortality projects. The modern man can no longer find heroism in everyday life, so he needs revolutions and wars. Не started looking inward in the 19th century. Lover, parents, therapist, and God all have the play role. That is why terminating transference is so hard. Man must give meaning to his littleness. Neurosis is Kierkegaardian sin, thus the cure for it is not medicine but religion. Ritual places creative obsession within the reach of the everyman. Ritualization of control creates safety and banishes despair by narrowing people’s focus. Despair is helped by self-stimulation via movement. “Beyond a certain point man is not helped by more knowing but only by living and doing in partly self-forgetful way.” “We must plunge into experience and then reflect on the meaning of it. All reflection and no plunging is drives us mad. All plunging and no reflection, and we become brutes.” (Goethe)
The lack of tradition makes religion a very personal matter like a private fantasy accepted out of weakness. Kierkegaard’s leap into faith is impossible; the Church and the Community do not exist or don’t carry much conviction. True has now to be visible; that leads to external artifacts of faith. (This is why converts promote their convictions; they need the conviction of numbers.) The modern mind banishes mystery, naive belief, simple-minded hope. The neurotic is the same; he knows his situation vis-a-vis reality. The characteristics the modern man prides himself upon are exactly those of madness. No one is more concerned with cause and effect than the madman; he has lost the ability to laugh at the absurdities of life, to be careless. For the modern man there is no collective drama that makes fantasy seem real. Childlike foolishness is the calling of mature man. Neurosis is the need for legitimate foolishness. The quality of illusion depends on how much freedom, dignity and hope it provides.
Transference fetishizes mystery, terror and power. Religion moves these to the cosmos, where they belong. Self-justification is taken beyond the immediate surroundings. God, as an abstraction, does not oppose the individual. Religion makes creatureliness a condition of hope. It allows for heroism without victims. Real religions fall short of these ideals, though. Can a man justify himself in the absence of a higher justification? If so, at what cost? This is the main question. The creative person in this case is too full, both of himself and the world.
The more you know about a complex subject, the harder it becomes to say anything about it. Today simple-mindedness is required to say anything at all. This is specialization-bred imbecility.
Mental illness is the loss of courage, a failure of heroism. Low self-esteem is the central problem of mental illness (Adler). It represents styles of bogging down in the denial of creatureliness.
Depression: Fear of life leads to a fear of death. The less you do, the less you can do. Having nowhere to retreat to after a series of silent retreats is depression. It ends up with the patient refusing to take any risk, refusing to move. Not willing to commit to the risks of life one ends up as though dead. Having avoided the possibilities of life that would result in him acquiring an genuine self, the depressed person has no standing of his own and continuously falls prey to the demands, wishes and expectations of others. The transference object is the primary miracle. The guilt felt by the depressed represents failure to live one’s own life because of conforming to the other. Relationship is thus always slavery of a kind that leaves a residue of guilt. Guilt is used to hold on to one’s objects and to keep the situation unchanged. The evil must be in yourself and not your god so that you may live.
One of the crucial projects of a person’s life, of true maturity is to resign oneself to the process of aging. It is important gradually to gradually assimilate one’s true age. Self-mourning, the mourning of one’s own death is necessary for emotional maturity. Societies that lie to the person about the stages of life produce menopausal depression. Without an ideology of justification people naturally bog down and fail.
Schizophrenia: The right reaction to the horrors of organismic life is the psychotic one (James). For the schizophrenic nothing is able to overcome the horrors of life and death, except for his fantastic ideational system. In some people the symbolic and the physical modes of existence are unintegrated. Those people we call schizophrenic. Schizophrenia embodies risk of evolution producing a man who comes to understand his body as a menace. Each object presents a problem because one has no response within his body that he can marshal in order to react to it. If one has an ego to control his subjective experiences, he gives form to his unique perceptions, creating a work. The schizophrenic is not programmed neurally into automatic response to social meaning and cannot marshal an ego response.
Perversion: Perversions are the core problem of human action. Freud claimed that in fetishism the fetish represents the female penis, helping the fetishist overcome the horror of the castration complex and remain heterosexual. This represents the peculiar problem of psychoanalysis: the phrasing of the most acute truth in a language that makes it unrecognizable. In reality the horror of castration is one of life and death itself, expressed through the human body, not of punishment for incestual desire. The fantasy of the female phallus is a common one. The hermaphroditic image is an idea that reaches beyond sex; it embodies the protest against the genital determinism and incompleteness of the body. The parents’ sexuality threatens their godly nature, it makes them animal and inept for transference. Disgust arises when the straightforward meanings are undermined. The problem of the body explains all hypochondria. The nightmares children have about their bodies being altered have the message that they lack control over their fate. Children accept social norms related to bodily functions out of shame for their bodies. Fetishists often have an early trauma about bodily decay or death, for example, mutilation, abortion of birth at home. Early childhood issues like excessive traumas, disturbed mother-child relations, absent father, or weak fathers lead to weak body confidence. Fetishism is the result of low self-esteem. The hermaphroditic mother transcends the body. Self-esteem derives from the other (the parents), the secure possession of one’s body (determined in part by early family environment), and the cultural causa sui project. If the body is vulnerable then one fears dying by participating fully in its acts. Perversion can be looked at as protest against the submerging of individuality by species’ standardization, a means of control. Secrecy about sexuality also serves the goal of individualization. The Oedipus complex may be the way to transcend the role of the child (Rank). To understand all of this you need to keep in mind the key motive of man, self-perpetuation; it presents a problem because it can be accomplished either by body or by spirit, the self. The taboo on sexuality lifts it from the plane of physical fertilization to a spiritual one.
Homosexuality represents a struggle to create one’s own rebirth in the closest possible likeness. Perversion offers a total freedom from the castration complex. The pervert is a clumsy artist trying desperately for a counter-illusion that preserves his individuality. The homosexual often chooses a body like his own out of terror of the difference of the woman. There are several ways to over come the sense of sex as a species standardization threat; the most ideal of these is love. In love one identifies with the partner totally; the body becomes the treasured vehicle for one’s apotheosis and one experiences real gratitude to the species sameness. Even without love desire can serve to defuse the threat of sameness, this is seen in nymphomania. It is often a counter-phobic attitude, one of embracing what the person dreads. The fetish may represent different things to different fetishists, but it gives the courage to perform the sexual act; it weaves a special spell around the species’ meat. All cultural contrivances are self-hypnotic devices, from motorcars to moon rockets (Freud). The magical charm of the fetish partakes of the qualities of magic in that in has to resemble the thing it is meant to control. The sexual fetish thus has to have a relation to the the body, have an impress of its form, bear its smell. The foot is unmatched in claiming our animality; the shoe provides its very contrasting denial. It takes one a safe world away from the body while remaining intimately connected to it. If the fetish is magical it also has to be secret. Secrets allow to control reality in arcane ways; the secret implies, above all, power to control the given by the hidden. The activities of fetishists have always fascinated observers because they are dramatized. The gratification of the fetishist depends on the drama being staged just right. The drama of transcendence is especially rich in the transvestism; nowhere can the dualism of culture and nature be seen so strikingly. The transvestite believes that he can transform the animal reality of his sex by dressing it in cultural clothing. The fetishist is overwhelmed by the sexual act, the demand that he do something responsible to someone else with his entire body. The fetish is a manageable miracle while the partner is not. The awesomeness of the object is overcome in two ways: by achieving the sense of our own power and by fetishizing the desire itself to cut down the object to a manageable size by using the standard cues of attractiveness. Man fetishizes because he has to perform; women that shrink at the physical aspect of love can react with total frigidity that can also be concealed. Both sadism and masochism are natural. One comes from man’s smallness, the other from his drives. There is a natural connection between sadism and sexuality since sexuality makes the expression of our energies appropriate. Masochism transforms pain, a sign of death, into both a source of pleasure and a totally controlled experience, thus overcoming the death fear. All heroism is relative to some kind of beyond. The sadomasochist plays out his drama vis-a-vis one person only, making his heroism very small. One can speak of “mature masochism” (Rank), depending on the object towards which it was directed and how much in possession of himself the masochist was. Masochism is not in itself neurotic but false submissiveness of a masochist, for instance, would be. The reason women object to perverse relations is that they deny their existence as whole persons or as persons at all. What links all the perversions is the inability to be a responsible human animal. Masochism is an attempt to get rid of the burden of freedom. Some go as far as to fear good health. Perversions show better than anything how fear and weakness can lead to unlived life.
It is impossible to advise anyone else on the problem of how to be a man. Each person’s life is a unique problem needing individual kinds of solutions (James). The child denies the reality of his world as miracle and as terror. Guilt is a function of real overwhelmingness, the stark majesty of the objects in the child’s world. The child must be blocked in his experience in order to be able to register it. Those who are not stopped like this develop as automata, become psychopaths. A new world is impossible to bring about only through societal structure. Total freedom that revolutionaries dream of is impossible because of transference. Throughout life an individual becomes “painfully unique” only to die. With psychotherapy it is possible for a person to become less fragmented, less blocked and bottled up to experience real joy, the joy of finding himself, of the release from armor and binding reflexes, intense experience of the present moment that is now freer of fixes perceptions, etc. Still, psychotherapy cannot do everything and often seems to promise the Moon. Perfect love and freedom is impossible to achieve through self-knowledge. Honest promisers of awareness should also warn of a real probability of awakening of terror and dread. But one can’t be a prophet with a message he half takes back, especially if he needs paying customers. Psychology cannot become a religion without daily rituals, as a religion has to be lived. Freud’s ideas became so prominent in the twentieth century in part because many of the leading thinkers underwent Freudian analysis and came away with a personal emotional stake in the Freudian worldview. Mysticism is a denial of creatureliness. The problem with the scientific manipulators is that, somehow, they do not take life seriously enough; in this sense all science is bourgeois. Taking life seriously means that whatever man does must be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything.
Back to index: Notes.
Tags: book, literature, nonfiction, notes, philosophy, psychology.