Once in a while you come across a book that has a complete worldview, or let me call it lifeview, of a subject that otherwise sounds unfathomable. Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death (The Free Press, 1973) is one such book—a masterpiece of knowledge, insight, and reason squeezed into nearly 300 pages.
Becker explores the subject of psychology of death, drawing mainly from psychoanalysis then delving deeper into the existential philosophy of Kierkegaard and relating both to what he calls “cultural heroism” to explain human character development and the issue of mental illness as a response to the existential anxiety of mortality. Along the way, the author illustrates how various social institutions as well as individual human behavior work in the context of un/sub-conscious denial of death.
Becker’s analysis of the human dilemma rooted in fear of death is thorough; his reasoning comes with clarity of language; and this makes the book a very interesting read despite its very serious, sensitive, and somewhat disturbing subject matter. After all, we have our “creatureliness” at heart as readers. But that probably adds to the appeal of the book. It takes us to the center of our core and lets us feel what it’s like there.
I would absolutely recommend The Denial of Death for any lover of philosophy and/or psychology. It’s ironic that Becker passed in a year of writing the book and won the Pulitzer Prize posthumously for his work—likely showing how the creaturliness of even a great mind doesn’t wait for the literary heroics of any society.