Every month we will review a book that influences, or has influenced, research on culture and end-of-life care. To kick off our book club series we’ll be having a look at Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize–winning, ‘The Denial of Death’.
In Denial of Death, published nearly 40 years ago, Becker builds on previously developed ideas (in his earlier books, “The birth and death of meaning: a perspective in psychiatry and anthropology” and “The escape from evil”) to eloquently argue that fear of death is the primary, unconscious, motivating force underpinning all human action.
Becker reinterprets the theories of Freud: taking inspiration from the works of the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and the psychologist Otto Rank, he uses an ‘existential’ rather than sexual framework.
Becker argues that humans are caught in an existential dilemma: we are mortal beings conscious of our own mortality. Differentiated from the animal kingdom due to our symbolic identity, we are nonetheless consigned to the same fate as every animal. Hence this is our core problem: we are “simultaneously worms and Gods”.
As they grow, children become aware of their bodily, and hence mortal, nature. This awareness produces anxiety – a ‘terror’ – that must be repressed in order to continue as a member of society. Repression of the fear of death is therefore innate and universal; as Becker puts it, ‘Everything man does in his symbolic world is an attempt to deny and overcome his grotesque fate’.
‘Heroism’ is a reflex response to this ‘terror’: the need to triumph over death through forming part of something larger and immortal. Not only is our character formed to repress awareness of death, but also culture is described as a symbolic action system designed to serve human heroism.
Such a description of human society sounds, from the outset, rather noble: a system that supports heroic intentions. Becker however argues that from these noble intentions, ‘evil’ develops: conflicts and wars are, essentially, battles over immortality projects.
In addition to developing a theory of character, culture and even evil, Becker convincingly reinterprets Freud’s most famous theories, applying his existential ‘death anxiety’ framework, and outlines how mental illness is linked to too little or too much repression of the terror of death. ‘Good’ mental health is associated with not having too many, or the wrong sorts, of repressions. However, as everyone experiences death anxiety, freedom from repression is impossible. The most anyone can hope for is ‘a kind of relaxed openness to experience that makes him less of a burden on others’. This openness can be achieved by exploring the fear of death to get closer to the ‘authentic self’
Becker’s theory of culture can be seen as functionalist: immortality projects are a latent function of cultural-systems. Critiques of sociological functionalist perspectives are therefore also applicable to Becker’s work. Even though functionalist approaches remain unfashionable, the influence of the Denial of Death is still huge; a quick search in google scholar reveals over 10,000 articles published on terror management theory (directly derived from Becker’s work) in 2012 alone.
The enduring appeal of Becker’s work may lie in its hopeful message: facing our fear of death can, ultimately, lead to better lives and better societies.
Reviewer: Natalie Evans
Next month’s book club choices look at the end of life from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective. Natalie will review ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’ by Sogyal Rinpoche and ‘Life, Death and the After Death’ by Lama Yeshe on December 20th.
If you would like to suggest a book for review, or indeed review a book yourself, please get in contact with Natalie – firstname.lastname@example.org