According to Ernest Becker, the wellspring of human action is the fear of death: correction, the denial of the fear of death. In his Preface, he actually says that the “prospect of death . . . is the mainspring of human activity” (my italics). He makes short work of the real fear of real death, that natural and necessary instinct which man shares with the other animals. He mentions it right at the start, to make his point that man is driven by the notion of heroism, whose invariable purpose, he claims, is to deny one’s own fear of death. In this denial, he claims, spring all the world’s evils—crime, war, capitalism and so on. He reckons evolution made a creative leap in producing man, a huge leap riddled with defects. From birth we are beset with traumas and impossible demands. The only way we can cope with life and especially our imminent death, is through repression of our real feelings, that is, our terrors. (And if we argue with him, we prove him right, for we have repressed so well that we are unaware of our repression. So there!) For example, the fear of death can be repressed by heroism, proving that one is not afraid at all; or by personal distinction, proving one is superior to the others and attaining thereby a kind of immortality.
By way of support for his ideas, he quotes throughout from Freud, Ferenczi, Rank, Adler, Perls, William James, Jung, Fromm, Maslow, Kierkegaard and himself. Now, who is the odd one out in this list? Kierkegaard, you may say. He’s the only one who’s not a psychologist. Wrong! Becker has a chapter entitled “Psychoanalyst Kierkegaard”, despite the obvious fact that Kierkegaard never had any patients to analyse. So the odd one out is Becker himself, for he was certainly not a psychologist by trade. This doesn’t stop him writing a chapter entitled “The problem of Freud’s character, Noch Einmal [once again]”. Becker hero-worships Freud one minute; in the next he demonstrates his own superior understanding, or sometimes the definitive understanding of all the Freudian problems which, by the early nineteen-seventies, the best minds have finally achieved. This alternation, Freud-right, Freud-wrong, Freud-heroically-almost-right, provides a leitmotif throughout the book. Indeed, I’d suggest that it’s more of a topic than the title-theme. Becker’s heroic discovery about the denial of the fear of death, which is the cause of all the evil in the world, is merely the stick which he uses to beat the ghost of the late Sigmund Freud, to show who’s the new alpha-male. In my head, I keep calling him Boris Becker, not Ernest: recalling the men’s singles final at Wimbledon in 1985.
Ernest B. was actually Professor of Cultural Anthropology in a Vancouver university. Wikipedia says “Because of his breadth of vision and avoidance of social science specialization, Becker was an academic outcast in the last decade of his life.” But reading The Denial of Death I see tunnel vision, not breadth. It’s more likely he was an academic outcast for playing in the wrong court and refusing to admit it: a sort of John McEnroe of the professorial tournament. Wikipedia also calls him a “scientific thinker and writer”. There is no evidence in the book of scientific work done by Becker, or even a scientific approach. At best the book may be evidence that he thinks about the scientific work of others and reaches his own conclusions. But when you look more closely, you see that he reaches his conclusions first and then uses the quoted opinions of others as support. This allows him to be selective and choose some wild speculations, based on lifetimes of clinical work done by Freud and others, but none by Becker himself. He’s just the armchair detective who knows better than the real ones who pound the streets.
For Becker, every age in the human lifecycle is full of impossible conflict, confusion and agonising trauma, all based on Freudian notions of sex, Oedipus complex, repression, transference etc, which he updates in accordance with more recent thinking. He likes comparing man with the other animals. For the latter, it’s simple: you follow your instincts, and then you die. For man, you are driven by the demands of a mind which lives in symbols, by which means it can climb the highest peak, be infinite, rule the world, coruscate in glory; apart from the unfortunate physical reality: you are stuck with a body which excretes, and sex, which is almost as messy. And then you die.
It’s a little comical that in his preface Becker says “mainspring” because a mainspring is man-made, has to be wound up; but ultimately runs down. A wellspring (surely the word he actually meant) is created by Nature, and symbolises “a source or supply of anything, esp. when considered inexhaustible” (dictionary.com). As a Freudian slip it’s more sad than comical. Becker published The Denial of Death a year before his own death at 49 from colon cancer. I don’t know how long the interval might typically have been, in the early Seventies, between knowing one was ill and dying of cancer; but I wonder if it’s more than coincidence that his Preface starts with these words: “The prospect of death, Dr Johnson said, wonderfully concentrates the mind.”
I look through the entire volume for any personal note, any indication of Prof. Becker’s more-than-professional interest in his topic. But he hides behind the academic convention that the text is about the observed and not the observer. The closest he gets is when explaining why he has added yet another book to the great pile of literature: “Well, there are personal reasons, of course: habit, drivenness, dogged hopefulness. And there is Eros, the urge to the unification of experience, to form, to greater meaningfulness.”
I start to form a picture in my mind, of Becker himself as the unacknowledged subject of his own book: Becker the denier of his own imminent death; the ostracised academic; the upstart Oedipus whose idea of the erotic is to challenge Daddy Freud and mate with Mother Evolution, to beget offspring which will correct the great mistake; the pioneer in the eventual destruction of evil. Sadly, it is he who’s confused; who can’t see the difference between religion and psychology, Kierkegaard and psychoanalysts, morbid and healthy psychology.
I don’t know what family he left behind by his untimely death. I mean no disrespect to those who hold his memory and his books in high regard. In fact, I write this review only because Raymond Sigrist talked admiringly about the book. Will you forgive me, Raymond? But in the year of his death, 1974, The Denial of Death won the Pulitzer Prize.
You may also discover that there is an Ernest Becker Foundation, which would like your donation to enable it to “apply [Becker’s] principles to the mitigation of violence and suffering”. So, posthumously, he has his own cult: evidence of a crank, I think, rather than a researcher. Never mind, he succeeded in repressing death himself, by attaining personal distinction, proving superiority to the others and attaining a kind of immortality. What else is a Pulitzer Prize?