I recently finished reading The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. This book won The Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction in 1974, and aims at answering the existential question through the refusal to acknowledge mortality.
Below are selected key excerpts from this work:
Society provides the second line of defense against our natural impotence by creating a hero system that allows us to believe that we transcend death by participating in something of lasting worth. We achieve ersatz immortality by sacrificing ourselves to conquer an empire, to build a temple, to write a book, to establish a family, to accumulate a fortune, to further progress and prosperity, to create an information-society and global free market. Since the main task of human life is to become heroic and transcend death, every culture must provide its members with an intricate symbolic system that is covertly religious. This means that ideological conflicts between cultures are essentially battles between immortality projects, holy wars.
When we appreciate how natural it is for man to strive to be a hero, how deeply it goes in his evolutionary and organismic constitution, how openly he shows it as a child, then it is all the more curious how ignorant most of us are, consciously, of what we really want and need.
And so we can understand what seems like an impossible Paradox: the ever-present fear of death in the normal biological functioning of our instinct of self-preservation, as well as our utter obliviousness to this fear in our conscious life.
The irony of man s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.
We can understand why anxiety “is the possibility of freedom,” because anxiety demolishes “all finite aims,” and so the “man who is educated by possibility is educated in accordance with his infinity.”Possibility leads nowhere if it does not lead to faith. It is an intermediate stage between cultural conditioning, the He of character, and the opening out of infinitude to which one can be related by faith. But without the leap into faith the new helplessness of shedding one’s character armor holds one in sheer terror. It means that one lives unprotected by armor. exposed to his aloneness and helplessness, to constant anxiety.
In other words, as long as man is an ambiguous creature he can never banish anxiety; what he can do instead is to use anxiety as an eternal spring for growth into new dimensions of thought and trust.
From this discussion of transference we can see one great cause of the large-scale ravages that man makes on the world. He is not just a naturally and lustily destructive animal who lays waste around him because he feels omnipotent and impregnable. Rather, he is a trembling animal who pulls the world down around his shoulders as he clutches for protection and support and tries to affirm in a cowardly way his feeble powers. The Qualities of the leader, then, and the problems of people fit together in a natural symbiosis.
The void of immortality-substance that would be left by the absolute abandonment of the leader is evidently too painful to support, especially if the leader has possessed striking mana or has summed up in himself some great heroic project that carried the people on.
One very interesting and consistent conclusion emerges from our overview of mental illness: that Adler was right to say that the mentally ill all have a basic problem of courage. They cannot assume responsibility for their own independent lives; they are hyper-fearful of life and death. From this vantage point the theory of mental illness is really a general theory of the failures of death-transcendence.
In the mysterious way in which life is given to us in evolution on this planet, it pushes in the direction of its own expansion. We don’t understand it simply because we don’t know the purpose of creation; we only feel life straining in ourselves and see it thrashing others about as they devour each other. Life seeks to expand in an unknown direction for unknown reasons. Not even psychology should meddle with this sacrosanct vitality, concluded Rank. This is the meaning of his option for the “irrational” as the basis for is the meaning of his opinion tor the irrational as the basis for me; it is an option based on empirical experience. There is a driving force behind a mystery that we cannot understand, and it includes more than reason alone.The urge to cosmic heroism, then, is sacred and mysterious and not to be neatly ordered and rationalized by science and secularism. Science, after all, is a credo that has attempted to absorb into itself and to deny the fear of life and death; and it is only one more competitor in the spectrum of roles for cosmic heroics.
We can conclude that a project as grand as the scientific-mythical construction of victory over human limitation is not something that can be programmed by science. Even more, it comes from the vital energies of masses of men sweating within the nightmare of creation—and it is not even in man’s hands to program. Who knows what form the forward momentum of life will take in the time ahead or what use it will make of our anguished searching. The most that any one of us can seem to do is to fashion something— an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force.
A recommended read in the areas of philosophy and psychology.