On My Bookshelf: The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

Title: The Denial of Death
Author: Ernest Becker
Genre: Psychology, Philosophy
My Rating: 2/5

Becker posits that humans have a deep, innate fear of death and that all human action stems from attempts to mitigate this fear in various ways. I read this book ten years ago for a college class and thought I’d pick it up again to see what I could glean. I liked the premise because it seemed logical to me. The execution of the argument, however, left a lot to be desired. 

The introduction outlines Becker’s arguments and got me interested in reading further. After that, however, he spends an inordinate amount of time describing the theories of philosophers/psychologists like Freud, Kierkegaard, and Otto Rank (with whom he seems to have an unhealthy obsession). I didn’t choose this book to go through all Freud’s nonsense again. I slogged through the middle section in hopes that it would end soon and we’d get to the good stuff.

Towards the end of the book, Becker discusses how different “mental illnesses” are a result of the fear of death. If he hadn’t lost me before that point, he would have when he describes how being gay or trans is a mental illness. On top of that, throughout the book women are treated almost as a separate species, barely worth mentioning except to describe their penis envy and the fact that their place is in the home, pushing out children. Needless to say, the book aged very poorly.

Becker never really developed an “answer” to the problem of the fear of death. A close contender was religion, with its belief systems, rituals, and afterlife, but since it’s a mythology, humans would always have the knowledge that it is fake. Becker’s solution is to suggest that psychology itself should become a religion. I’m still not clear on how that would work, but I found it a dissatisfying answer.

I pretty much finished this book out of spite. Despite the numerous shortcomings of Becker’s arguments, there are a few gems hidden in the text.

I really liked the idea that humans are creatures of opposites. They are animals in possessions of “creaturely” bodies that defecate and that crave food, sleep, and sex. However, they are also symbolic creatures, “gods” within their own minds and it is this dichotomy they constantly try to reconcile. 

I also found interesting the idea that culture is an illusory creation of humanity, a way in which to make sense of both power over their surroundings and impotence in the face of death. Similarly, routines are a means of avoiding living in the world and not dealing with the awesomeness of it.

I gave this book 2 out of 5 stars because I hate-read it about 90% of the time (when it wasn’t putting me to sleep). Becker’s intriguing thoughts on the fear of death could have been consolidated to a few pages or maybe a chapter. The premise was fascinating, but his analysis was soporific, at best, and his “answer” to the fear of death was basically nonexistent.

“Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever.”

The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker

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