The Denial of Death: Human Character as a Vital Lie

First, here are the links to the previous posts on The Denial of Death:

Styx in Denial
The Terror of Death
Existential Dualism and You

Second, note the label on this post of 'profanity'.

Third, this post, which will cover the fourth chapter of the book (the title of which being whence I got the title of my post: 'Human Character as a Vital Lie'), will be the last I write on The Denial of Death for a while. It is a lot of work to comment upon a book of this nature, and the posts have been getting longer and longer as I have been going along. We could all use a break from so heavy a subject; on the other hand, it is quite appropriate for Holy Week.


The Denial of Death: Existential Dualism and You

First, some housekeeping: the links to my previous posts on Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death are here and here. You do not have to read these in order, of course; but you may find it helpful. Also note the 'profanity' label; Becker uses some straightforward words from time to time, and as his use of them often illustrates what he is trying to say, I'll be quoting him.

The third chapter of The Denial of Death (entitled 'The Recasting of Some Basic Psychoanalytic Ideas') focusses on key psychoanalytic concepts, some of which you may be familiar with, including the Oedipus complex and anality. Becker re-casts these concepts, moving them from out of the Freudian framework of sexuality (since for Becker sexuality is not the basic anxiety) and, following Norman O. Brown (from whose work Becker draws upon heavily in this chapter), putting them in a more existential framework.

In case you are wondering, I have been more or less commenting upon the book marginally as I read it. So after two chapters of Becker arguing about the importance of the fear (or terror) of death, it came as a bit of surprise to me when he seems to change course in the third chapter and argue, or so it seems to me, for something behind even the terror of death. Perhaps he returns to it later in the book.

A summary of Becker's argument in this chapter follows after the break; for now, suffice it to say that I find what he has to say here less convincing than what he had to say in the first two chapters.


The Denial of Death: The Terror of Death

As I wrote at the end of my last post on The Denial of Death:
Becker is going to explore the relationship between the idea of heroism, which he considers to be the driving force of human activity and social life, and the fact of death.
In the second chapter of the book, Becker's first step is to try to show that one of the motive forces of heroism is humankind's fear of death:

[O]f all things that move man, one of the principal ones is his terror of death. ... [H]eroism is first and foremost a reflex of the terror of death. We admire most the courage to face death[.] [p. 11]


The Denial of Death: Styx in Denial

Is the title of this post a clever riverine pun with regard to the book I will be commenting upon? And am I allowed to use 'riverine' in this fashion? You decide!

This is going to be a post of marginal commentary on a book which is, apparently, one of the most influential of the twentieth century, at least in terms of psychology. Since I want to be able to comment in depth, I will be looking at this book over the course of a number of posts, rather than try to get everything in all in one go.

The book in question is The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker. The book won the Pullitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1974, which, as it happens, is the year Dr. Becker died: he won the award for the book posthumously. What a coincidence, eh? And my 'Canadianism' leads me to another interesting fact: Dr. Becker taught at Simon Fraser University (in Burnaby, B.C.; the school's diminutive is, happily, 'SFU').

Why did I choose this book? It was recommended to me to read during CPE, as I came to acknowledge that I have a certain amount of anxiety about death. Who doesn't? I think it will help me get through the book if I have a forum to write about it as I go along. I'm not sure what I am going to learn from it, but it should be an interesting read.

I probably won't write posts about every part of the book; we shall see. The edition I shall be quoting from or referring to is the paperback edition published by the Free Press in 1973.


Update: Back in the Habit

Now that my CPE unit at the Civic has finished, I will be getting back to marginal commentary and looking at books. I have some reader recommendations to finish, and I've read a few books during CPE which, if I can get my hands on them, will make for some interesting commenting.