Review of The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

This is an existential classic and must read for anyone interested in existential theory. However, most people do not understand the profoundness of this book in their first reading. This, in part, is due to the the complexities of the thought in this book. Yet there is more to it than that. This book is a difficult emotional read. Becker, writing not long before his own death, directly deal with an issue most people wish would just go away. Yet, Becker approaches the issue in a manner that makes it impossible for it to go away. In approaching the topic, Becker provides a powerful overview and synthesis of the work of Otto Rank and Soren Kierkegaard. Ranks idea of the heroic serves as an ongoing theme throughout the book and carries over into his next book, The Escape from Freedom, which is an important companion volume to The Denial of Death. The heroic is part of our nature, but also part of our demise. Becker helps for us to be able to see the heroic desire in ourselves — in its beauty and its ugliness. Reading tips for The Denial of Death: 1. It is common for people to complain that Becker is both attacking and complimenting Freud at the same time. While this is accurate, it is generally tied to a misperception. Becker is complimenting Freud’s frame or structure of psychoanalysis while critiquing his content. In essence, part of what Becker does is  take Freud’s frame, remove Freud’s sexual theory, and replace it with Becker’s own death theory. 2. Don’t read “death” as being used only literally. While Becker certainly does use it in a literal sense and arguably never goes beyond that. However, there is much which can be added to Becker’s theory if it is also interpreted symbolically. Death is a symbol of human finiteness and limitedness. If Becker can be read in this context, the power of his book is greatly expanded.3. Read this book slowly and discuss it as you go. Better yet, read it with a group of other people interested in the topic. Many find this book to be terribly depressing and, at times, overwhelming. I’ve found that through time I’ve come to see it as a book full of hope, but this was not my first read of the book. Maybe Becker’s own theory could help explain why this book is such a difficult read for many readers. Maybe the audience of the 70’s, when the book was first published, was more open to the issue of death. However, now, maybe our culture has lived in an ever-increasing denial of death that makes a book like this so much more of a difficult read.

 

Original Version added 2004. Never been updated.

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