[Work: The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker, 1973]
The Denial of Life:

A Critique of Pessimism, Pathologization, and Structuralism in Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death


Ernest Becker Sketch by M.R.P. - The Denial of Death - critique, criticism, analysis

Caricature Sketch by M.R.P.


One of my more unexpectedly disappointing experiences in recent memory was reading Ernest Becker’s seminal work of psychoanalytic theory and cultural anthropology, The Denial of Death. Humanity’s obsessive self-distraction and self-delusion on the topic of mortality is something in which I am deeply interested, which is why numerous people had recommended the book to me over the years. With the unmitigated praise (and prestigious accolades) the work has received, I was excited to read what I assumed would be a stirring philosophical and cultural analysis of the titular concept.

The Denial of Death does make a very good first impression, as Becker is an erudite scholar and (drawing on the work of Otto Rank) a subtle interpreter of the theories of Sigmund Freud. But concealed behind the parade of theorists and the solid analytical prose (seemingly consciously concealed) is an old-fashioned, moralizing, pessimistic set of theses: that humanity is in denial of mortality because of a ‘necessary’ denial of the human body and reality; that humanity can only exorcise the dread of death by embracing blind faith and rooting out ‘aberrant’ thoughts and behaviors; and that death can only be truly faced by those who approach the study of humanity and society through a (reductive) structuralist lens.

I think all three notions are shockingly misguided and false, to the extent that I almost see the widespread adoration of the work as either a defensive scenario (where folks who are unable to follow the thread of Becker’s argument praise it, for fear of having to admit their ignorance) or an ironic phenomenon of self-assured conservatism (where tradition-biased academics embrace the work because it pats them on the back and insists that only they have already conquered death). While The Denial of Death does certainly have praiseworthy merits, those merits have been stated and overstated across the decades. Thus, in this article I shall explain Becker’s project with special emphasis on its flaws, by addressing each of those three aforementioned theses in turn.

Unjustified Pessimism in The Denial of Death:

One might be tempted to think that there is no such thing as too much pessimism in a work so obsessed with mortality; The Denial of Death’s problematic pessimism, however, is not derived from its fascination with death, but from its two primary considerations of life.

The first consideration to cover is Becker’s deeply critical assessment of the human body, whereby he considers it (and its processes) to be principally, above all, an emblem of death in daily existence. This is apparent in his discussions of digestion, “anality,” birth, and sexuality:

Excreting is the curse that threatens madness because it shows [humans their] abject finitude, [their] physicalness, the likely unreality of [their] hopes and dreams. But even more immediately, it represents [humanity’s] utter bafflement at the sheer non-sense of creation: to fashion the sublime miracle of the human face, the mysterium tremendum of radiant feminine beauty, the veritable goddesses that beautiful women are; to bring this out of nothing, out of the void, and make it shine in noonday; to take such a miracle and put miracles again within it, deep in the mystery of eyes that peer out—the eye that gave even the dry Darwin a chill: to do all this, and to combine it with an anus that shits! It is too much. Nature mocks us, and poets live in torture. (33-34)

Melodrama aside, the most notable aspect of this passage is that it consciously retreads a millenia-old anti-feminist notion: that women would be ethereal angelic perfections if not for the fact that they must periodically use the restroom.[1] But it doubles down on this error by extending it to all of humanity: we would all be gods and goddesses, contends Becker, if not for the pesky fact that we bleed and have flatulence. He is borrowing the diction of the writer Jonathan Swift to make a general point, that humanity is incongruous, poised between its lowly aspects (eating and aging) and its heavenly aspects (thoughts and beauty).

Stomach Diagram - Ernest Becker - The Denial of Death - critcism, critique, analysisErnest Becker puts humanity on an unnatural pedestal just so that he can hit the pedestal with a sledgehammer and watch humanity fall. Becker speaks of the in-built horror of excreting liquid and solid waste (30-34), the inherent guilt and confusion of engaging in sexual intercourse (44-45), and the necessary discouragement of menopause (214-215)—without noticing that there is nothing remotely in-built, inherent, or necessary about such emotional evaluations of bodily functioning. Such ideas about the body are cultural and/or religious, and do not derive logically from the fact that those functions exist.[2]

Concealed within such a depiction of the human condition is an implicit acceptance of mind-body dualism—the idea that we have two parts as people, mind and body, which are entirely distinct. He sees the mind as wonderful (expansive, pure, philosophically ambitious), and the body as terrible (limiting, disgusting, doomed to break and die). To Becker, all examples of obvious overlap between the two—that human beauty is a quality of human flesh, that the achievements of mind and body are fueled by digestion, that one simply is one’s body—are woeful reminders of the incongruity within each human. But it is Becker who is creating (or at least perpetuating) this painful incongruity, by attempting to drive a wedge between mind and body, through a gap that isn’t there.

Though distinct as concepts, body and mind are inextricably linked in a way that is not inherently tragic by any means. The human is the human body; they are codependent. One can not be one without being the other, and one only gets the chance to be a mind because one is a body. That is a matter of fact. How one feels about that idea, though, is a matter of opinion. To wallow in grief and say that being a human body produces an insurmountable obstacle to living happily is a choice that one can make, but it is not the choice that I myself make. It is a pessimism that is culturally informed, not logically informed.

The second consideration to cover in this section is how Becker talks about living—that is, about topics like childhood and societal matters. Much like his pessimistic take on the expansive human mind and the mortal human body, Becker constantly organizes the world according to other false dichotomies: between the good in life and the bad in life, the overwhelming terror of early childhood and the repression of adulthood, and so on:

What exactly would it mean to be wholly unrepressed, to live in full bodily and psychic expansiveness? It can only mean to be reborn into madness. [. . .] it is enough to invoke Marcia Lee Anderson’s complete scientific formula: ‘Stripped of subtle complications {i.e., of all the character defenses—repression, denial, misperception of reality}, who could regard the sun except with fear?’ (66)

To understand what Becker is saying here, it will be necessary to summarize one of his overall theses: Becker feels that all of 20th-century psychoanalysis (first in a misleading sense under Freudian sexual theories, then in a true sense under Otto Rank’s existential theories) has been accurately describing a rather sorry state into which each person is born. Each person exists in an overwhelming and incomprehensible reality, so they build up lies in the form of character traits, careers, romantic pursuits, and other ‘innocuous psychoses’ that allow them to continue living without slipping into crushing despair at their terror of reality.

Genesee Scenery by Thomas Cole - Ernest Becker - The Denial of Death - critcism, critique, analysis

Genesee Scenery by Thomas Cole

Reality, devoid of applied human interpretation, would be incomprehensible. That is almost a tautology, and so of course I agree with it. But to then say that something not being understandable makes it by definition a source of terror and dread, there I must object. What reality would be to us if we could truly experience it in its manifold particulars, not at the scale we do, not through the lens we do, but entirely and thoroughly—that is an unsolved (probably unsolvable) mystery.

But this is merely one of the many mysteries one can discover when working at the edges of philosophy and science, and while it could lead to certain dark conjectures concerning the deeply arbitrary nature of existence, it is not in itself an unquestionably horrific thing to consider. And within our interpretation, that reality contains injury and war and decay and death need not lead us to consider it a monstrous evil unless we are fixating needlessly on cynicism, because reality also contains health and peace and growth and life.

More generally, though, the issue with Becker’s line of thinking as regards repression is that it traps him in a thematic balancing act for much of the second half of his text: between repression as the way to overcome overwhelming nature and lead a ‘normal’ life, and repression as a weight upon humanity that stymies progress and gives birth to neuroses.

In order to function normally, [a person] has to achieve from the beginning a serious constriction of the world and of [themselves]. We can say that the essence of normality is the refusal of reality. What we call normal enters precisely at this point: Some people have more trouble with their lies than others. [. . .] But we can also see at once that there is no line between normal and neurotic, as we all lie and are all bound in some ways by lies. (178-179)

He marvels at this problem, calling it a deep irony (66) and an “immensely fertile horizon” for analysis (178). But he created the problem himself, by assigning such a negative emotional component to the emotionless universe. And, as the passage just quoted shows, the problems are indeed far-reaching!

Beginning from this baseless characterization, Becker constructs his general theory of mental illness: that everyone is neurotic, but some are worse at it than others. This forces Becker down a path of mental gymnastics which ultimately concludes in a predictable way, that one must embrace one’s self-deception and practice this Becker-balancing in their everyday life according to some contingent standards. For Becker, ecstatic joy must always accept into itself pessimistic sadness; mental health must always accept into itself paranoid, defensive neurosis; and science and philosophy must always accept into themselves deistic religion:

I think that taking life seriously means something such as this: that whatever [one] does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything. Otherwise it is false. (283-284)

This is simply short-sighted; there is no mention here of people doing what they do on this planet in the lived truth of the calm or joy of creation, only the terror of creation. Reality is much more complex, multifarious, and elusive toward singular emotional definition than a portrait of it as straightforwardly terrifying will ever be able to show. Becker writes as though he is unaware of this gigantic pessimistic oversight in his argument.

The Denial of Death book cover - Ernest Becker - critcism, critique, analysisBut to fully justify my accusations here, and the negative character I’ve given them, one must understand Becker’s conception of the contingent standards according to which his text discusses balancing one’s life.

The Pathologization of Aberrance in The Denial of Death:

Perhaps what I intend to convey in this section is simply a basic flaw in the practice of some 20th-century psychoanalysis, but Ernest Becker’s categorization of certain individuals and groups as mentally unwell completes the flawed description of the world present in The Denial of Death. This comes across in two ways: in Becker assigning mental pathologies to thinkers whose work is aberrant with respect to his own conclusions, and in Becker assigning mental pathologies to groups of people whose behavior is aberrant with respect to his own conception of normality.

To take up one salient example of the first type, there is no greater individual victim of Becker’s tendency to employ extensive psychological diagnoses on those with whom he disagrees than Sigmund Freud himself:

The genius repeats the narcissistic inflation of the child; [they live] the fantasy of the control of life and death, of destiny, in the ‘body’ of [their] work. [. . .] But now the problem of the causa-sui project of the genius. [. . .] It is created specifically by a renunciation of the parents, a renunciation of what they represent and even of their own concrete persons—at least in fantasy—as there doesn’t seem to be anything in them that has caused the genius. Here we see whence the genius gets [their] extra burden of guilt: [they have] renounced the father both spiritually and physically. [. . .] It is no surprise, then, that Freud would be particularly sensitive to the idea of father-murder. [. . .] It is just such an interpretation that [Freud’s] fainting episodes point to. (109-110)

Part of Becker’s overall project is—following especially the work of Otto Rank—a reinterpretation of some of the most famous concepts in psychoanalysis (e.g. anality, castration complex, Oedipal project), removing them from their original sexual context and giving them a general existential context. In the pursuit of this reinterpretation of largely Freud-originating concepts, Becker apparently decides that it is not enough to showcase the analytical efficacy of his versions of these concepts; he elects to also trace why Freud must have made the mistakes he made in their original formulation.

In other words, Becker builds part of the support for his thesis with an argumentum ad hominem fallacy—targeting not the ideas themselves but their progenitor. No such diagnoses extend to other key figures in the book, such as Otto Rank, Carl Jung, or Søren Kierkegaard; there is no need, it seems, to understand their species of genius according to their personal health and well-being. And why should there be diagnoses of those figures? After all, Freud only requires such treatment to account for his errors of thought, and in Becker’s estimation these other three never made any such errors . . .

The character and mental health of significant forebears who would have disagreed with Becker’s conclusions are irrelevancies that Becker proudly includes. But it is also worth pointing out what (despite wasting pages on that fallacious diagnostic material) Becker nonetheless excludes. Namely, though it strays somewhat from the topic of this section, it is also notable just how many important voices on the topic at hand (with perspectives that differ from Becker’s) are simply excluded from the text, especially when it comes to the philosophy of existentialism.

For Becker, existentialism and its related philosophies begin and end with the proto-existentialist Søren Kierkegaard in the early-to-mid-1800s, particularly because of Kierkegaard’s creative, positive evaluation of faith. It is very telling, actually, how little time Becker spends doing any diagnosis or personal analysis of Kierkegaard in comparison to Freud, despite each having a dedicated chapter in The Denial of Death. The chapter on Kierkegaard is called “The Psychoanalyst Kierkegaard,” whereas the chapter on Freud is called “The Problem of Freud’s Character.” It is as though there is no need to pathologize a person when they may have agreed with Ernest Becker . . . but then I’m repeating myself.

The later 1800s and most 20th-century voices of existential thought are silent: there are a few scant mentions of Nietzsche (86, 174) and Heidegger (12, 53), then not a word about Jaspers, Sartre, Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, or any other such personages across the work’s nearly 300 pages. He even uses a quote by Albert Camus as a chapter epigraph, but seriously engages with Camus’ philosophy zero times. In effect, existentialism—the movement of philosophy which spent by far the most time examining the exact questions which inform Becker’s entire project throughout the first half of the 20th century—is a topic which is nearly absent from The Denial of Death.

The only reasonable justification for existentialism’s very noticeable absence is presumably that all of its principal thinkers would disagree with Becker’s conclusions. Existentialists, by and large, are not to be taken in by the notion that one can overcome the realization of cosmic meaninglessness by cultivating the right kind of self-delusion or by spending every day thinking of reality as terrifying.[3] Rather than engaging with viewpoints opposed to his own which had been proffered by a prominent school of thought explicitly interested in mortality, Becker apparently thought it safer to simply pretend such voices were largely irrelevant.

Now, setting aside Becker’s treatment of individuals aberrant to his own thinking, it is time to take a look at Becker’s treatment of groups of people he thought of as aberrational. In the introduction to this article, I alleged that Becker was, among other things, old-fashioned and moralizing. This will be the part where I prove those allegations, with special attention to his misogyny and homophobia. And, as you will see, there is a general point to be made about Becker’s method of psychoanalysis as well.

First, here’s Becker on women:

Women are peculiarly caught up in this dilemma, that the now surging ‘feminine liberation movement’ has not yet conceptualized. [. . .] The woman, as a source of new life, a part of nature, can find it easy to willingly submit herself to the procreative role in marriage, as a natural fulfillment of the Agape motive. At the same time, however, it becomes self-negating or masochistic when she sacrifices her individual personality and gifts by making the man and his achievements into her immortality-symbol. [. . .] The reason that women are having such trouble disentangling the problems of their social and female roles from that of their distinctive individualities is that these things are intricately confused. [. . .] The problem is further complicated by something that women—like everyone else—are loathe to admit: their own natural inability to stand alone in freedom. (170)

What a fascinating parade of generalizations! All women lead lives “intricately confused” between being individual human beings and being machines that make babies. The big dilemma of contemporary womanhood is that women so naturally want to find a man, settle down, and pump out children—but that this may negate the personal identities of such women as their male mates become their entire focus. And women are having trouble achieving independence and freedom because psychologically no one can achieve independence and freedom.

Dans la salle à manger by Berthe Morisot - Ernest Becker - The Denial of Death - critcism, critique, analysis

Dans la salle à manger by Berthe Morisot

Where to begin with this?

First of all, an enmeshing of procreation and independence is something achieved by women everywhere, every day. Insisting that this is ‘clearly’ an intractable contradiction seems to just be an impression Becker has, with no data or evidence to back it up. Even the basic idea that finding a mate and mating with them is the “social and female role” of every woman comes from culture, religion, or biology—not from logic.

Second, a partnership between two people (who do not have to be a man and a woman, by the way, but we’ll get to Becker on homosexuality shortly) is in no way required to follow a template whereby the woman must “submit herself” and sacrifice “her individual personality and gifts” to fulfill a role as a procreative male-support-unit. A marriage can be (and, I would venture to say, should be) a commitment between two people who intend to support each other in equal measure, including when it comes to procreating and child-rearing.

And finally, I’m not aware of any prominent member of the women’s lib movement ever describing any difficulty with the achievement of equality and independence that was not related in some way to existing rules and laws put in place by previous generations (mostly by men). So the idea that women were collectively experiencing some kind of “natural inability to stand alone in freedom” that required a clinical explanation is laughably myopic. (At least he was good enough to throw in a “like everyone else” for that one, I suppose.)

Ultimately, like his discussion of bodily functions covered above, this is one of many passages in which Becker is tacitly accepting a set of baseless cultural assumptions, and then building his interpretation on top of them as though they are concrete foundations. But to see why this is such a problem for the book’s overall project, it will be necessary to dig deeper into this pattern.

So on that subject, here’s Becker on homosexuality and Freud:

It is possible for any man to have specific homosexual urges, and Freud need be no exception. [. . .] [Biographer Ernest Jones] has honestly averaged the problem of homosexuality into his appraisal of Freud’s character, and I think gave it its proper weight. Jones says that this was part of the underside of dependency in Freud, a dependency that led him astray in some ways [. . .] Certainly Freud loathed this side of his nature and welcomed the self-dependence he earned when a part of his ‘homosexual’ dependency was revealed for the weakness that it was. (117-118)

And here’s Becker on homosexuality in general:

Routine perversions are protests out of weakness rather than strength; they represent the bankruptcy of talent rather than the quintessence of it. [. . .] the homosexual is often one who chooses a body like his own because of his terror of the difference of the woman, his lack of strength to support such a difference. [. . .] Perversions represent an impoverished and ludicrous claim for a sharply defined personality by those least equipped by their early developmental training to exercise such a claim. (232-233)

Again, a lot to consider: that homosexuality is a character weakness which may afflict any man (and never any woman); subtextually, that homosexuality is a mental illness which can be treated through therapy much like depression or bipolar disorder; and that a man who has had a proper upbringing will never be a homosexual.

A Holiday by Henry Scott Tuke - Ernest Becker - The Denial of Death - critcism, critique, analysis

A Holiday by Henry Scott Tuke

For most readers, this probably goes without saying, but there is no reason whatsoever to think that any of those ideas are accurate. In adolescence, as one begins to take notice of sexual attraction to other people, one may experience attracted feelings while looking at certain human traits and not when looking at others. Patterns and correlations among those experiences could lead to categorization of someone as heterosexual, homosexual, or another orientation. These feelings, like all preferences, may arise from some combination of nature and nurture—but they are not consciously chosen, do not result from problematic upbringings, are not exclusive to any one gender, and do not intrinsically obstruct a person’s ability to lead a happy, healthy life (even if they may extrinsically do so at times, through the prejudices of others).

Perhaps a more egalitarian Becker would have nevertheless insisted that women achieving equality in society will do nothing for their repression of the horrific nature of reality; that a mutually equal partnership is still vulnerable to being an inherently doomed immortality project (for both parties); and that homosexuality being a normal sexual orientation does not preclude it from being an analogy for human psychology regarding mortality. I find it likely that a hypothetical modernized Becker would say such things. But these obviously broken parts of the book are merely symptoms of a larger issue: Becker is willing to create his structural arguments and systems by any means necessary.

Humans are tremendously skilled at finding patterns, even when none exist. Becker must have scoured psychoanalytic texts for months (at least months) when working on The Denial of Death, and likely wanted to include into his analysis any discovered notion which seemed to fit into the pattern he was putting together. But many of those details he subsumed into his text were faulty, and their place in the pattern crumbles readily under close attention. Still, he bent them into service of his argument whether the ideas themselves were true or false, actually supported his argument or didn’t.

In effect, in noticing these more obvious cracks in Becker’s argument, this section and the previous section have built up to a path toward a well-known premise: that structuralist analysis is a fundamentally flawed practice. Not sure what I mean by that, or how it relates to this article? Read on.

How The Denial of Death Shares the Flaws of Structuralism:

In order to understand this section, it will be necessary to momentarily digress and discuss the topic of Theory, which is a general term for the philosophy (especially philosophy of language) that was popular in the humanities throughout nearly the entire 20th century: Literary Theory, Social Theory, Critical Theory, et cetera. This is relevant because Ernest Becker’s own field of study, cultural anthropology, was home to one of the rare foremost Theorists not under the umbrella of literature, linguistics, or philosophy: Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Claude Lévi-Strauss (Bert Verhoeff) - Ernest Becker - The Denial of Death - critcism, critique, analysis

Photo by Bert Verhoeff

Drawing on earlier linguistic theories, Lévi-Strauss championed a movement in Theory known as structuralism, whereby cultural objects (e.g. physical objects, pieces of writing, myths, oral traditions, etc.) could be analyzed in terms of their overall structural content. What this often meant, in practice, was that people would approach analysis (especially of texts) as the search for big oppositional concepts (oppositions like life and death, fast and slow, raw and cooked, low and high, love and hate, young and old, etc.) on which the object of analysis was apparently commenting. In a structural study of something, if you found the key oppositions and mapped their relationships, then you would have revealed the structure of that thing, and could from that structure derive interpretations and meanings. Lévi-Strauss went so far at times as to present this perceived structure in visible terms, with charts of key terms and diagrams of intricate, crystalline conceptual maps. From a broader perspective, the project of structuralism was to discover common structures underlying all human thought and activity.

But there is a problem with structuralism (analogous to the problems that tore down logical positivism within the field of philosophy earlier in the 20th century), and it is this: the neat and tidy way in which it translates stuff into structure and art into meaning breaks down on close inspection. To his credit, Lévi-Strauss had hinted at these greater complexities in some of his works. But the true death knell for structuralism was the work of Jacques Derrida, starting with his groundbreaking essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.”

In a simplified nutshell, critics (and developers of structuralism, like Derrida, naturally moving past its tenets) point out that the structures one might possibly draw in structuralist analysis are arbitrary—they could be drawn in an infinite number of subtly different (or even massively different) ways, and thus each analyzed work lacks a unifying center that holds the structure in place. Instead, there are as many possible centers that can be substituted for each other as there are possible structures: effectively infinite.

To believe that one can map a definite, final structure for each analyzable thing is to buy into a couple very old (and very persistent) mistaken beliefs: that one can gain access to true objectivity (completely external positioning relative to an object of study) and that one can gain access to things-in-themselves (not as they are perceived by people, but as they truly are). But a human can never escape their own point-of-view, and will always only be able to see things as they appear to be.[4]

The Denial of Death, although it never explicitly admits it, is a work of structuralist analysis. Becker’s objects of study are the psychology of denying mortality, and the field of psychoanalysis itself. Its chosen structural dichotomies are some of the big ones: life and death, health and illness, acceptance and denial. But much like any structuralist analysis, the way in which it delineates, charts, and categorizes those concepts is ultimately arbitrary. It is a bit of sleight-of-hand, built on thin air by Becker, the magician.

The Denial of Death tries to present a general theory of life (and death), but the closest it comes is simply by summarizing some of the more unfortunate aspects of life alongside lengthy elucidations of Ernest Becker’s confidently stated opinions on the matter. Some of these airy analyses are more transparently arbitrary than others, because their literal subject matter includes stuff that is now noticeably false: that the human body and nature itself are basically disgusting and horrifying, and that homosexuals and independent women are experiencing forms of mental illness. But after noticing such cracks, one can see how Becker’s entire conclusion falls apart:

[Otto Rank] saw that the orientation of [people] has to be always beyond their bodies, has to be grounded in healthy repressions, and toward explicit immortality-ideologies, myths of heroic transcendence. (285)

That Becker quote paraphrased: one must lie to oneself, but not too much, and only in the proper deistic and poetic way; deny the grotesque human body, but still live in it; focus on ideologies and myths of transcendence that you know are false; develop “healthy repressions” that let you deny death just enough to keep functioning.

Otto Rank - Ernest Becker - The Denial of Death - critcism, critique, analysisThis is not a general formula for every person to achieve a joyous life. This is Becker hoping that his personal path to happiness and belief can apply to everyone. This is why I took him to task for trapping himself in a loop on the subject of repression in the first section above: he must posit “healthy repressions,” because he has classed nearly all of human activity as repression. That is a definition which does not stand up to scrutiny, because it—like all of his structuralist maneuvering—can be as easily formulated in an opposing way and with equal erroneous validity: that life and human bodies are overwhelmingly wonderful, that humans have to be grounded in healthy acknowledgments and acceptances of that wonderfulness, that humans must therefore put aside all immortality-ideologies and myths, et cetera.

Many commenters have referred to Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death as a synthesis, because of the way that it builds its argument out of the work of so many earlier psychoanalysts, philosophers, cultural anthropologists, and artists. I would agree that it is synthetic in that sense, but would also contend that it is synthetic in the other sense: false, manufactured. Much like the charts and crystalline diagrams of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the combination of those prior works in The Denial of Death constitutes an arbitrary structure intended to imply the existence of a definitive answer and meaning where there isn’t one.

It is perfectly understandable that a person inducted into cultural anthropology in the mid-twentieth century would produce a structuralist analysis, and is even forgivable because it seems unlikely that Ernest Becker could have had access to the big 1970s teardowns of structuralism (especially by Jacques Derrida) when working on his book.[5] But understanding why it was written in that way and forgiving Becker for writing it in that way do not require that one praises or affirms it.

The Denial of Death is a staggering achievement of analysis and scholarship, but only if you consider it an interesting exercise in the structural study of psychoanalysis; as a means toward understanding mortality, it holds only marginally more value than the average self-help book peddling some random ideology as a totalizing path toward contentment and mental health.


The Denial of Death certainly has numerous aspects that make it a valuable and worthwhile text: many of its interpretations and reinterpretations of the work of Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank, and Søren Kierkegaard; its criticisms of contemporary utopian psychoanalytic work by Norman Brown and Herbert Marcuse; and its basic foregrounding of the fact that one of the least escapable and psychologically largest motivators of human activity is the denial of mortality. But it also has (perhaps no less numerous) aspects that are neither valuable nor worthwhile—aspects that operate via unfounded traditional assumptions, biased selective analysis, and unjustified pessimism.

I think the vast majority of people should spend more time contemplating their own mortality than they currently do. And if reading The Denial of Death helps some people to do that, then for those people I would consider the book to be a success. But I can’t help feeling that the book may have helped people think about mortality far less than it has helped them to think about other topics, such as the personal life of Sigmund Freud, the world as a disturbing mess of horrors, women as primarily fertile angels, and the innumerable potential evils of their anuses.

As for myself, I think there are numerous movements in philosophy—especially movements of the past century such as pragmatism, phenomenology, existentialism, and absurdism—which provide more fruitful work in that regard. Or, if that’s not your style, then there’s also fictional entertainment which covers the same with aplomb, by creatives like Tolstoy, Sartre, Camus, and Hidetaka Miyazaki. So go forth, contemplate death, and have yourself a nice life!

Work Cited:

Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. The Free Press, 1973. Print.


[1] It is very telling that these proclamations come directly on the heels of Becker’s sincere endorsement of a particularly ugly (and fairly common) interpretation of Jonathan Swift’s poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room:” that Swift is sympathetic to the protagonist of his poem. To any but the most traditionally-minded, old-fashioned, misogynistic readers, however, a far preferable reading is possible—in which Swift is making fun of his character, and by extension satirizing the whole culture of 18th-century ‘chivalric’ sensibilities that are unable to cope with the biological realities of female human bodies. In the presented quote, Becker (at best semi-ironically) echoes the mental journey of Strephon in the poem.

[2] In fact, in a philosophical context, it is contentious whether anyone can ever logically derive a statement of how things should be from a statement of how things are. This is known as the is-ought problem.

[3] This is not to say that I think the realization of cosmic meaninglessness can’t be or shouldn’t be overcome. But the way of overcoming it can be by finding meaning on a smaller scale, or by prioritizing authenticity, or by cultivating a sense of irony about absurdity, or by realizing that cosmic meaninglessness does not possess a negative or positive characteristic at all (it is truly meaningless) . . . and maybe not by proceeding every day in “the lived truth of the terror of creation.”

[4] I should note that I am fully aware that my criticism of structuralism in this section of the article is itself reductive and dismissive. This is (although perhaps hard to believe) in the interest of brevity and concision, as the merits of structuralism are not relevant to my thesis. In actuality, I see structuralism as a necessary intellectual step between the Theory it followed and the Theory it preceded (some of which it very strongly influenced). Even within structuralism itself, though, there are analyses I respect and enjoy. Some, in fact, were written by Lévi-Strauss; other examples include Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault, and S/Z by Roland Barthes.

[5] The Denial of Death was published in 1973. “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” was technically available in English as early as 1970 due to the conference at which it was originally delivered, but the longer work in which its material was widely published (Writing and Difference) was not available in English until 1978. Derrida’s other major books in the 1970s, Speech and Phenomena and Of Grammatology, were published in 1973 and 1976, respectively.

[Work: The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker, 1973]
The Denial of Life:

A Critique of Pessimism, Pathologization, and Structuralism in Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death

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