Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death


Alan Gullette

University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Fall 1979

Psychology 4103: Independent Study

Dr. Shrader


Ernest Becker's purpose in writing The Denial of Death (New York: The Free Press, 1973) was to provide a summation of psychology after Freud, with especial reference to his unrecognized hero Otto Rank, and, by drawing parallels with the earlier Kierkegaard, to move toward a "merger of psychology and the mythico-religions-perspective" (xi).  His focal point is the fear of death, and what he takes to be the universality of this fear provides a common focus for religious and psychological activity: it is the universality of the fear of death that the psychology of man – cultural and religious man – reveals; and Becker hopes that a religious psychology will allow man to solve the problem of fear without recourse to neurosis.

In his argument, Becker relives heavily on ontological assumptions in formulating the "problem" to which he tries to provide a "solution."  It seems to me that he sets up his problem in such a way that its solution is nearly impossible, logically speaking.  In discussing this, I will state my own ontological prejudices and suggest how the "problem" at issue might be solve or dissolved.  This will entail criticism of the basic assumption of the universality or necessity of the fear of death.  I will allow criticize Becker's ontological biases, expose his ignorance of mysticism and Eastern religious philosophy, and defend the latter against his criticism.

Becker's basic ontological stance (which I will later question and which he himself does not seem too be too clear about is that the human being is "paradoxical" or "ambiguous" in being both an animal and a mind.  He thus holds a mind-body dualism (76).  Corresponding to this dualism are the "twin ontological motives" of Eros and Agape, both of which are organismic in nature (151).  Eros is a natural narcissistic tendency to expand limitlessly, to stand out as unique in nature.  Agape is the natural urge to yield or merge with nature and the cosmic process.  Eros operates on the symbolic level or psychological level by constituting the symbolic self.  This constitution seems to be an act of self-separation from nature, an act of "heroism" by which the organism seeks to fool itself through a "character lie" that involves the denial of being organic – i.e., of being mortal ("heroism is first and foremost a reflect of the terror of death" (11)).  The causa sui project or immortality project is the attempt to grant distinct ontological status to the symbolic self, so as to deny the finality of organic death.  But  Becker also says that the "urge to immortality is not a simple reflex of death-anxiety gut a reaching out by one's whole being toward life" (152-3), or the instinct to survive.  Although Becker claims that Agape is, by some "sublime mystery," "inherent in the life force" (153), it is an urge to yield up this very separate self that Eros produces.  Agape "comes from the horror of isolation" (152).  To make sense of this, Agape must be seen as a natural response to the isolation created by a natural urge.

In the above analysis, the dualistic ontology of mind/body is neither distinct in itself nor distinctly related to the twin ontological motives of Eros/Agape.  Apart from this objection, the ontological assumptions are themselves open to question.  For example, it is not clear why we should think it ontologically predetermined (i.e., natural and necessary) for the organism to create a symbolic self and to thus distinguish itself (in its own mind) from the rest of existence; and it is only this urge to "heroism" that makes Eros seem to be a movement of separation, an attempt to stand out, to stand alone self-sufficiently, rather than simply being "the life force" and not at odds with Agape.  If, as Becker thinks, it is the perception of finitude that encourages the organism to deny its organic nature through the conception of an immortal self, and if the urge to yield this self is not simply a reflect of the "horror of isolation " but a natural response to re-unite the mind with the body and this with the whole of natural life, then it would seem that the initial self-separation is unnatural.  Of course, it is the view of Becker (and of Norman Brown and psychoanalysts generally, since Freud) that man is unnatural, sick – the neurotic animal; and that he is neurotic as a result of being unable to cope with his own self-awareness, which uncovers his own mortality.  Becker binds us to the problem, however, just as pessimistically as did Freud, by insisting that it is absolutely necessary that the perception of our true situation (thus of death) affect us with anxiety and fear, even terror (87).  As long as man is ambiguous (i.e., a mortal animal and symbolically self-aware of it), he says, there must be anxiety (91); and anxiety must be clocked out or reduced through the defense mechanisms(s) of the character life, the illusion of the immortal self.

Now, it seems to me that it might be possible to experience truth without anxiety – or at least to go beyond the anxiety.  If one recognized the futility of denying death, then perhaps one would let go of the illusion of character.  If the self is a symbolic fabrication, it is not an entity but has only derivative ontological status (as a function of the brain, let's say).  Sensing its own insecurity, then, it bolsters itself through identification with religious and various other ideological causes, or simply through imaginary self-perpetuation through the family, in order to strengthen its sense of identity.  But if one is dependent for one's fragile psychological security on ideas (religious doctrines, ideologies, etc.), then this becomes actually dangerous to biological security, both of oneself and others; for one will value one's own ideas above the lives of the proponents of opposing ideas.  If one could see this danger, perhaps one would drop the illusion of the psychological entity.

Something that Becker fails to do, and which I think is important, is to distinguish between the organic fear of death and the symbolic fear of death.  Animals, it seems, are not afraid of death in the abstract; the human animal, owing to his ability to symbolize, is aware of the possibility of death at all times (unless this possibility is denied).  However, this awareness is symbolic; death is here an abstract possibility.  The fact of death would either be actually dying, or feeling the physical effects of entropy or decay on the body, or seeing someone or something die.  The anxiety that one experiences at the thought (note) of death would be anxiety over the thought of the cessation of the self (which gives security) and this anxiety would arise as long as one invested faith in the permanence and certain being of that self.  It is perhaps this sort of anxiety – inevitable, since the self is impermanent – that Becker feels when he thinks of death.  Logically, if one were able to live without the illusion of self, then one would be free of anxiety (for the self).  But Becker denies that we can do without the illusion of the self simply because he thinks that the self is not the cause of anxiety, but the response against it; he claims that the anxiety is organic and comes first.

The character structure that Becker thinks essential is a system of defenses, partializations, fetishizations, transferences, identifications, and projections.  The character lie just is the blocking out or repression of actuality, using various mechanisms.  Without such repression, Becker claims, "there has to be full and open psychosis" (66) in that one would be overwhelmed with the fear of death and incapacitated by awe, "paralyzed to act" (50).  Again, it is not clear why, in the absence of the illusory self, there would be any fear of death – unless, of course, one happened to e in physical danger at the time.  Further, it is not clear that unpartialized experience, or experiencing without blinders, would be unhealthy for the organism; animals don't partialize, as far as we know, and the human who lives without the symbolic self (though symbolic activity would be possible when necessary), would not have a self to be overwhelmed any more than the animal does.

This is my basic point of departure from Becker.  Perhaps he would think that is it s a matter of faith on my part, and at this point perhaps it is.  Becker, stuck with the illusion of self, tries to find a solution to this double-bind ontological problem (Eros/Agape and the conflicting urges to separate and to yield) by finding an "illusion that does not life about life, death and reality" (204), which is patently absurd.  He is in danger of schizophrenia by his own definition in separating the symbolic from the physical (218).  If, in fact, the symbolic self is merely symbolic, a fabrication of the brain , then to insist on its existence is to separate it; the next step would be to symbolize the body and to withdraw totally from the physical sphere.  This is the very danger that Becker warns against: a religious illusion that claims to solve "the problem of death" (203); but surely the religious insistence on the existence of the self is a denial of mortality? In symbols one finds a certain sense of continuity, a semi-permanence; the denial of death is the denial that one is oneself impermanent and discontinuous, a denial only possible through identification with a symbolic self.  The greatest danger comes with the idea that one can make an ideology "real" by believing it and living it to the point where an alteration comes about in one's very brain structure (a practice Becker suggests on pp. 219-21).  What will he not do to have his illusion?!

Becker's "solution" to the problem of "heroics" is unsatisfactory.  His strict ontological assumptions force him to find some sort of balance between Eros and Agape, and he does so in which he calls "safe heroism" or "transference heroics" (155).  Transference involves the fetishization of an object (giving special attention and significance to it, whether human or nonhuman, animate or inanimate) and the appreciation, in that object, of the basic miraculousness of existence.  There is substitute gratification of the urge to heroism to be fond in the worship of another as one's hero.  Being a hero oneself would be much more difficult and would involve a self-separation or isolation unbearable to the weak ego and counter to the yielding instinct of Agape.  By focalizing, partializing the world around a few familiar objects, one protects oneself from the basic awesomeness and awfulness of the overwhelming universe, while at the same time taking a guarded appreciation of it through focusing on the fetish objects that thereby fill one's world.  Further, there is in the transference object a transcendent, objective being which can support one's character lie from without; one takes identity from focusing on the object and, to secure the relationship and the support it offers, one transforms oneself autoplastically to please the object.  Basically, the importance of "transference heroics" is that it allows an expression of heroism (through projection and vicarious participation) through yielding to the world or to a partialized representative (thus satisfying both Eros and Agape).  The highest such worship would be yielding to God, "the ground of creation" (91), and Kierkegaard's leap of faith (which Becker so studiously mystifies) is the finding of ultimate significance in God as the ultimate transference object to worship and identify with.

My objections to this "solution" are, I think, obvious ones.  First, it transference there is still the denial of death, the shutting out of reality.  Then there is a psychological dependence on something made fantastic through denying or ignoring its impermanence.  There is also the refusal to accept responsibility for oneself (a refusal or inability that Becker elsewhere identifies with mental illness (248)).  Further, there is still the causa sui or immortality project: the attempt to safeguard the symbolic self against the destitution of time and death.  With Kierkegaard, Becker treads the narrow rope-bridge of symbolic-conceptual structures that stretches across the yawning chasm of absolute meaninglessness.  Somehow (and we know how), he finds the "faith" to project a God (as the Father, the Creator, note) to lend him support from outside of himself and—he hopes and prays – from out side of his own illusion.  But Becker is forced to find such a project, myth, or cosmic scheme, since he has committed himself to living with the illusion of the symbolic self, which requires support.  Thus, Becker's "solution" is no solution at all.

Becker throughout this work belittles others for making ontological and metaphysical assumptions, yet he himself does the same.  He claims that the hope that others such as Norman Brown has for a psychological transformation, for a "new man," are "mere fancy," yet he assumes his own "illusions" to be true.  He has his own "creative myth," yet he insists that his symbol-systems are not mere symbols but express "the nature of the real world" (278).  He makes unfounded attacks on mysticism and Eastern religious philosophies that reveal his ignorance of the subject.  A key method in Zen, for example, is precisely the "skepticism" he claims it lacks (280) – in fact, the "Great Doubt" in Zen questions everything, even doubt itself, until there is a breakthrough (satori).  Essential to Zen and Buddhism generally is the experience of nothingness, of the emptiness of all things and thoughts, of the precise "meaninglessness" Becker claims they avoid facing.  Strictly speaking, the Zen master and the Buddhist mystic have no worldview (contrary to Becker, 274), but claim to have direct perception without the blinders that Becker insist we must have.  It is also false to claim that a Zen student is a "lifelong disciple" to his master; the true mystic has no spiritual authority and no need for one.  The mystic does not withdraw into illusion (which Becker obviously suggests that we should and must do), but experiences things exactly as they are, with no illusion of self.

I do think that Becker's book is interesting and provocative.  Any discussion of these issues and problems is interesting, though Becker tends to be dogmatic about his own ontological presuppositions.  The most value of the book is in its synthesis of ideas, and I was glad to be made more familiar with some of the basic themes of psychoanalysis and with the idea of Kierkegaard.  But I think there is little there that is not expressed in clearer form in Norman Brown's Life against Death.



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