- The Denial of Death
The Denial of Death Author(s) Ernest Becker Country United States Language English Subject(s) philosophy/psychology Genre(s) non-fiction Pages 336 ISBN 0684832402 (ISBN13: 9780684832401)
The Denial of Death is a work of psychology and philosophy written by Ernest Becker and published in 1973. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1974, two months after the author's death. The book builds largely on the works of Søren Kierkegaard, Sigmund Freud, and one of Freud's colleagues, Otto Rank.
The basic premise of The Denial of Death is that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality, which in turn acts as the emotional and intellectual response to our basic survival mechanism. Becker argues that a basic duality in human life exists between the physical world of objects and a symbolic world of human meaning. Thus, since man has a dualistic nature consisting of a physical self and a symbolic self, man is able to transcend the dilemma of mortality through heroism, a concept involving his symbolic half. By embarking on what Becker refers to as an "immortality project" (or causa sui), in which he creates or becomes part of something which he feels will last forever, man feels he has "become" heroic and, henceforth, part of something eternal; something that will never die, compared to his physical body that will die one day. This, in turn, gives man the feeling that his life has meaning; a purpose; significance in the grand scheme of things.
From this premise Becker argues that mental illness is most insightfully extrapolated as a bogging down in one's hero system(s). When someone is experiencing depression, their causa sui (or heroism project) is failing, and they are being consistently reminded of their mortality and insignificance as a result. Schizophrenia is a step further than depression in which one's causa sui is falling apart, making it impossible to engender sufficient defense mechanisms against their mortality; henceforth, the schizophrenic has to create their own reality or "world" in which they are better heroes. Becker argues that the conflict between immortality projects which contradict each other (particularly in religion) is the wellspring for the destruction and misery in our world caused by wars, bigotry, genocide, racism, nationalism, and so forth, since an immortality project which contradicts others indirectly suggests that the others are wrong.
Another theme running throughout the book is that humanity's traditional "hero-systems" i.e. religion, are no longer convincing in the age of reason; science is attempting to solve the problem of man, something that Becker feels it can never do. The book states that we need new convincing "illusions" that enable us to feel heroic in the grand scheme of things, i.e. immortal. Becker, however, does not provide any definitive answer, mainly because he believes that there is no perfect solution. Instead, he hopes that gradual realization of man's innate motivations, namely death, can help to bring about a better world.
Becker's work has had a wider cultural impact beyond the fields of psychology and philosophy. The book made an appearance in Woody Allen's film Annie Hall, when the death-obsessed character Alvy Singer buys it for his girlfriend, Annie Hall. It was referred to by Spalding Gray in his work, It's a Slippery Slope. Bill Clinton quoted it in his autobiography; he also included it as one of twenty one titles in his list of favourite books.
- Flight from Death
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces
- Human condition
- Memento mori
- Otto Rank
- Terror management theory
- Uncanny valley
- ^ *Becker, Ernest (1973). The Denial of Death. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-83240-2.
- ^ Pulitzer Prizes website
- ^ Gray, Spalding (Revised ed. (1997)). It's a Slippery Slope. USA, New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux Inc. ISBN 978-0374525231.
- ^ Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. "Biography — William J. Clinton". http://www.clintonlibrary.gov/william-j.-clinton-bio.html. Retrieved 2009-08-05.
Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction (1962–1975)
- The Making of the President, 1960 by Theodore White (1962)
- The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman (1963)
- Anti-intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter (1964)
- O Strange New World by Howard Mumford Jones (1965)
- Wandering Through Winter by Edwin Way Teale (1966)
- The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture by David Brion Davis (1967)
- Rousseau and Revolution, vol. 10 of The Story of Civilization, by Will and Ariel Durant (1968)
- So Human an Animal by Rene Jules Dubos/The Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer (1969)
- Gandhi's Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence by Erik H. Erikson (1970)
- The Rising Sun by John Toland (1971)
- Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 by Barbara W. Tuchman (1972)
- Fire in the Lake by Frances FitzGerald (1973)
- The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker (1974)
- Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (1975)
- Complete list
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