[excerpts] Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death


[excerpts] Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death


The man with the clear head is the man who frees himself from those fantastic “ideas” [the characterological lie about reality] and looks life in the face, realizes that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost. And this is the simple truth—that to live is to feel oneself lost—he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life. These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost, is without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality.45”


“The truly open person, the one who has shed his character armor, the vital lie of his cultural conditioning, is beyond the help of any mere “science,” of any merely social standard of health. He is absolutely alone and trembling on the brink of oblivion—which is at the same time the brink of infinity. To give him the new support that he needs, the “courage to renounce dread without any dread… only faith is capable of,” says Kierkegaard. Not that this is an easy out for man, or a cure-all for the human condition—Kierkegaard is never facile. He gives a strikingly beautiful idea: not that [faith] annihilates dread, but remaining ever young, it is continually developing itself out of the death throe of dread.48 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. Faith poses a new life task, the adventure in openness to a multidimensional reality.”


“Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing. As awareness calls for types of heroic dedication that his culture no longer provides for him, society contrives to help him forget. Or, alternatively, he buries himself in psychology in the belief that awareness all by itself will be some kind of magical cure for his problems. But psychology was born with the breakdown of shared social heroisms; it can only be gone beyond with the creation of new heroisms that are basically matters of belief and will, dedication to a vision. Lifton has recently concluded the same thing, from a conceptual point of view almost identical to Rank’s.43 When a thinker of Norman Brown’s stature wrote his later book Love’s Body, he was led to take his thought to this same point.

He realized that the only way to get beyond the natural contradictions of existence was in the time-worn religious way: to project one’s problems onto a god-figure, to be healed by an all-embracing and all-justifying beyond. To talk in these terms is not at all the same thing as to talk the language of the psychotherapeutic religionists. Rank was not so naive nor so messianic: he saw that the orientation of men has to be always beyond their bodies, has to be grounded in healthy repressions, and toward explicit immortality-ideologies, myths of heroic transcendence.†

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.”

Excerpt From: Ernest Becker. “The Denial of Death.” iBooks.