Reading Ernst Becker’s Denial of Death

200px-DenialofdeathcoverStill not quite sure what to make of it. The book is one of those far-out, associative psychology texts (not Campbellian or Freudian, but in the manner of Freud or Joseph Campbell) that makes very broad claims with little-to-no proof. It’s a style that doesn’t really seem to be as popular now as it was in the 20th century. Nowadays, I think that books like this are looked down upon, since they’re quite frequently, well, wrong.

This book is, in short, about how much of human behavior is motivated by the human desire to somehow evade our own knowledge of the fact that we’re eventually going to die.

I think the book is pretty worthwhile. It seems to describe life and the mind in a way that feels realistic to me. I wonder, though, about two things: a) Is this really such a terrible situation? and b) Is there any escape from it?

Most books about the human condition seem to start from the baseline assumption that it sucks. But I’m not sure the data backs them up on that. Most people (even poor people, disabled people, oppressed people) claim to be fairly happy. They could all be lying, of course, but what if they’re not?

Personally, I take a somewhat pessimistic view of life and of the human condition, but if I was to look at my own thoughts and  emotions and the way that I act, I’d have to say that life most of the time life is pretty good.

I think that’s the key difference between psychology and religion (this book straddles the line between both). Psychology assumes that there is a state of proper adjustment and normal functioning that a person can be guided towards. Whereas religion (or secular philosophy, if that’s your thing) assumes that our natural state is ignorance and despair, and that we need to be guided towards some state of grace.

And I also wonder whether that state of grace actually exists. Is it possible to be contented and at-peace with the fact of our own death in the way that Becker describes? I don’t know. I wonder if that contentment wouldn’t just be another form of repression. If a person truly understood the fact that they will someday die, how could they ever be alright with it?

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