The Denial of Death Summary- Unearned Wisdom

The Denial of Death is about man’s primal repression. Freud believed that man’s basic repression is sexual, but Becker argued that it is the denial of finitude, creatureliness, and mortality. Becker makes this argument based on the work of Otto Rank, Norman Brown, Soren Kierkegaard and Sigmund Freud.

Freud observed that man’s neurosis was a result of the repression of sexual instincts since childhood.

Social rules are strict and dogmatic and people are forbidden from expressing their animal instincts, more specifically sexuality and aggression, so they are doomed to live a life that is limited and guilt-ridden. But man does not stop here, he creates a cultural hero system so that life can be meaningful, and so the purpose of life is to be of service to the rest of society, to fit into the culture’s hero archetype.

While Becker agrees that a cultural hero system has been invented to erase feelings of guilt, he observes that this guilt and anxiety does not come from repressed sexuality only, but it comes from an unlived life, from unexplored opportunities. The person who denies their own mortality is afraid to live, but because of this fear, life becomes impossible — and here there is poetic justice. You cannot escape death by controlling life, no matter how hard you try.

The difference between Freud and Becker is based on a key assumption about human nature. Freud thought that man was basically an animal. Becker thought that man is an animal, but he is also a small god. He is a unique creature — he has the capacity to imagine new possibilities, and to change the world with this imagination, and yet he is a defecating, weak, trembling creature.

So, unlike Freud who thought that man’s basic anxiety came from sexual repression (a basic animal instinct), Becker thought that the anxiety was a result of man’s dualism. Because he is both a god and an animal, he must content himself with a disturbing paradox, that no matter what he creates and does, he is susceptible to the accidents of fate and will inevitably die. It is this thought that is unreconcilable, and so, it is repressed — that is the real source of dread.

Man reacts by creating defense mechanisms, these allow him to forget about his mortality, by allowing him to act strong and confident. But these same mechanisms limit the possibilities of his life, which endows him with more guilt.

Rank observed that the solution to the problem of man’s anxiety was to live creatively, to make sacrifices to the realm of possibilities. Kierkegaard believed that the answer was to become a Knight of Faith, to renounce early desires, and to worship the absolute. Brown thought that man should live an unrepressed life, that his ego should be fully identified with his body.

Becker never gives a clear answer to this problem, at times suggesting that the Kierkegaard’s solution, while impossible to most because grace cannot be forced, is the only absolute beyond that can cure man’s anxiety, and at other times siding with Rank, and suggesting that creative work is the way out of the paradox, although not a complete solution.

There are some holes with this idea, such as the fact that it is not only the psychological idea of death that gives people anxiety, but it is the world itself, with its real, immediate problems. But this does not negate the convincing argument that Becker makes. It is undeniable that the skyscrapers, totem poles, the synagogues, and more recently, modern science, are all reactions against the mortality of man. But with his conclusion, Becker offers a pyrrhic victory, that since all men cannot escape this basic anxiety, then you have nothing to worry about, you will not suffer alone.

What I think is more valuable in this book, is not the conclusion, but the reminder that the greatest psychoanalysts have fundamentally disagreed on the basic nature of man, so it may be futile to try to ascertain the truth.

What has been constant across time has been man’s solution to this guilt — it has always been a creative one. Whether the creator gives credit to a supernatural being, to his childhood circumstances, or to his own genius, it has always been the creative act that has fought against the feeling of dread that is universal.

Becker criticizes the artist because no matter what he creates, it is static and limited, it will never be enough. But if creativity can counter man’s basic anxiety, then it should be embraced.

Of course, the creative act, only belongs to some — there are many neurotics who cannot be creative, so they find their cultural heroisms in compulsions and repetitive acts. There is also the path of Kierkegaard’s philistine or immediate man — to live simply life where you are satisfied with life’s basic pleasures, such as the shopping mall, the fast car, and the two-week summer vacation. This person, who represents the normal man of society, is Kierkegaard’s sick healthy person. Even the “normal” individual can be pathological in his normalcy.

There is no perfect solution, and that is the other fundamental insight. We only have approximations of the truth, and they are neither simple to implement, nor are they safe. Becker reminds us that that a life that is completely unrepressed either has the potential to make us subhuman, if we become too much like animals, or to become schizophrenic, if we refuse to use any defence mechanisms and open ourselves too much to the realm of possibility. Or depressed, if we choose to withdraw from life and focus too much on the truth of out mortality.

If the best possible solution is somewhere in the middle, between being wholly identified with your animal side, and your god side, between being completely open to possibilities, and closed to all of them, then your task must be to locate which space in the middle you like to occupy, approximately.

Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1: Human Nature and the Heroic

Full Summary

We live in a time when easy answers are given to complex questions about man’s purpose in life. Embedded in every society is a hero system.

Chapter 2: The Terror of Death

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One of the main things that move man is the fear of death and heroism is a direct response to this modern rediscovery.

Chapter 3: The Recasting of Some Basic Psychoanalytical Ideas

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Philosophers have tried to figure out the core nature of man, but perhaps this eluded them because man does not have only one core nature. As Erich Fromm put it, the essence of man is really his paradoxical nature.

Chapter 4: Human Character as a Vital Lie

Full Summary

Maslow wrote about the impediments that stand in the way of man’s self-actualization — why man is afraid of his own greatness and of his own destiny, even though in some moments

Chapter 5: The Psychoanalyst Kierkegaard

Religion and psychoanalysis are related. Kierkegaard can be considered a psychologist, even though he was a theologian and a philosopher.

Chapter 6: The Problem of Freud’s Character

Full Summary

Freud was an atheist but when it came to the nature of man, he was as religious as the theologian Kierkegaard. He thought that man’s creatureliness was his fundamental nature.

Chapter 7: The Spell Cast by Persons — the Nexus of Unfreedom

Full Summary

Within man, there is a kind of innate slavishness, a need to worship something bigger than themselves. Many people later question how they could have been fooled by the magnetism or aura of someone great.

Chapter 8: Otto Rank and the Closure of Psychoanalysis

What we learn from history is that man’s awareness of his animal nature has been absorbed by culture.

Chapter 9: The Present Outcome of Psychoanalysis

Otto Rank’s insight into neuroticism is a key argument in Becker’s book. According to Rank, the neurotic is close to the truth, spiritually. Psychoanalysis tries to get people to see beyond the illusions of their senses, but with the neurotic, it is a different kind of problem.

Chapter 10: A General View of Mental Illness

Full Summary

This chapter is an attempt by Becker, who is not a psychologist, to distill what we have learned about mental illnesses in a simple and general way. So far, we have learned about the neurotic, who has failed to surround his anality with convincing illusion, he could not stand his own creatureliness.

Chapter 11: Psychology and Religion

Full Summary The Denial of Death

When we are young, we are puzzled by how each person has a different idea of how to live. This idea even disturbs and disheartens us.

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