Review of The Denial of Death

We leave a worryless life and emerge from our mother’s womb and learn many new sensations that must at first feel rude and grating. We scream as we gasp air for the first time, are dried, are held by not all sides. Somehow we innately now knowing that we must eat to continue to exist in this world. To quell this state of terror we transfer onto our parents our own sense of self. We map what symbolic values they and the culture associated with them onto ourselves, while repressing the arbitrariness of it through psychological repression that people who do not practice mindfulness techniques rarely notice. Thus begins a critical response to Freud through the lens of Soren Kirkegaard and Otto Rank, Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death.

I found much of the commentary by Becker on Freud’s character similar to that of Walter Kauffman’s. They diverge, however, in their appraisal of Freud’s correctness in the base cause for the manifestation of anxieties in human character and thus what at base most motivates us as humans. Becker discount’s what he sees as Freud’s hedonistic interpretation and instead proffers one based on heroism of personal expression rather than inherited cultural roles, religious roles or the pursuit of wealth by explicating Soren Kirkegaard’s novelistic insights to human’s self-motivation and Otto Rank’s reflections on his own therapy practice.

The divergence of perspective has a number of large effects but the most important could perhaps be summed up as follows: whereas psychoanalysis seeks to alleviate as much as possible the neurosis that prevents the normal functioning of areas in life which the patient seeks greater control; a more appropriate means for achieving fulfilment, gratification and community is through the pursuit of a heroic ideals. Depression thus becomes a matter of courage, the inner artist failing to must their talents and energies. The neurotic, born through the choking off of action, need only keep acting in the manner that takes them on what they most want. The manner that Becker puts it is, I think, better: “When the person can no longer convincingly perform his safe heroics or cannot hide his failure to be his own hero, then he bogs down in the failure of depression and terrible guilt.”

As the human begins to develops to its highest potential, rather than just along the axis of its neurosis as process begin, the following begins to become the inner drive of our consciousness: “The self must be destroyed, brought down to nothing, in order for self-transcendence to begin. Then the self can begin to relate itself to powers beyond itself. It has to thrash around in its finitude, it has to “die,” in order to question that finitude, in order to see beyond it.” Having recently read the Seducer’s Diary I was pleasantly gratified when reading Becker’s commentary on the story of Coredelia and K in Either/Or as it was aligned with my own thoughts about his depiction of a weak spiritual fortitude. Becker even has a name for it, which is important as it becomes the point at which he turns his attention from desire, fulfilment, anxiety and character to develop his model of human health.

Jonah Syndrome is a state of consciousness that leads one to believe that lasting happiness is not only something that is impossible but that proximity to it will lead to one to be ”shattered, disintegrated and even killed by the experience”. To guard from this they pull back and away from what would in a better adjusted view would be a fount of. As it is the destruction of the self that is actually a pre-requisite to being able to achieve lasting happiness, that person soon lapses into depression and neurosis. The solution to the problem of neurosis is Goetheian: Make a game of the world and play it in the fashion that one most wishes. One may not like the cards they are dealt, but grit and perseverance will get one there.

Becker’s extensive exposition of Rank’s views of the artist are both profoundly insightful and beautifully written. Rank, like Hubbard, exalted the artist as the highest embodiment of human potential. Establishing a balance between the self and the world means thus following one’s hero project wherever it may lead for the whole of one’s life. The creative solutions that we come up to get that is the genius possible within our species being and truly being dedicated and convicted people may come to know the artists that are inside them.