Ernest Becker was a mid-20th century cultural anthropologist and prolific writer. It is a potent irony that The Denial of Death was the last book he published before dying of cancer in 1974 at the too-young age of 49.
From a 21st century standpoint, Becker’s perspective on human psychology seems hopelessly backward and out of date, part of the long death rattle of Freudian psychoanalytic mysticism whose echoes still reverberate in the clichéd advice offered by “experts” on daytime television talk shows. But Becker was no champion of Freud, and the “denial” he speaks of is something more than a simple defense mechanism.
His main thesis starts with the existential condition of human beings. In trying to make sense of our lives, we confront a fundamental dualism. On the one hand, we are vulnerable animals perpetually at risk from the larger and uncontrollable universe—creatures with bodies susceptible to accidents and disease, bodies that are destined to decay and disappear forever. On the other hand, we are meaning-making beings with an unlimited capacity to create symbolic worlds. We are at once restricted by our bodies and the physical reality of our inevitable death, and at the same time we inhabit an abstract world of cultural meanings in which we can imagine ourselves as part of something transcendent and immortal.
For us to see reality for what it is, including our own complete dependency on external things and our own complete and thoroughgoing powerlessness and ultimate meaninglessness, would be too terrifying. Fortunately, culture provides us with all kinds of ways to disguise the truth. According to Becker, culture is nothing other than a reservoir of meanings for hiding ourselves from the truth—culture is a gigantic ego defense mechanism.
Our lifestyles are “vital lies” that include “a necessary and basic dishonesty about oneself and one’s whole situation.” The vital lies we tell involve a heroic component: we see ourselves as heroes of one sort or another. Society has a hero structure throughout, with ready-made storylines so that people can fit themselves snuggly into the tale of immortality. “In other words, men use the fabrications of culture, in whatever form, as charms with which to transcend natural reality.”
The need to be a hero, to stand out as an individual, is a means to deny the truth of our status as contingent beings, the truth that nothing that we do is really in our control. We need the illusion of being self-caused beings. “As one’s whole life is a style or scenario with which one tries to deny oblivion and to extend oneself beyond death in symbolic ways, one is often untouched by the fact of death because he has been able to surround it by larger meanings.” As a consequence, we live lives of cultivated and ultimately destructive ignorance. “Even if the average man lives in a kind of obliviousness of anxiety, it is because he has erected a massive wall of repressions to hide the problem of life and death…but all through history it is the ‘normal average men’ who, like locusts, have laid waste to the world in order to forget themselves.”
But Becker is talking about life within the oppressive grip of civilization. The need for immortality—or the desire to extend life beyond its earthly allotment—seems a natural result of the emptiness of civilized existence and the sense we get that something is missing, the feeling we have that life should be something more than what it is. A hunter-gatherer is surely as aware of the transient nature of her own life as I am—and perhaps even more so, with the regular exposure to death in close proximity and unsheltered by slaughterhouse or mortuary. But the transience itself is absorbed as part of a complete and fulfilling existence. Immortality is built-in from the start, in a sense: as a part of the land, as a part of the ongoing life-and-death coming-and-going that is all around at all times. There is never a chance for the experience of separation—alienation—to find foothold. Mere transient authentic human existence is immortality. The possibility for anything else is incomprehensible.