A book summary by Marin Mikulic

Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker

Denial of Death by Ernest Becker - cover

My rating: 10/10

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Denial of Death is a difficult, mindblowing read. You will never look at the human condition in the same way. Equal parts fascinating and disturbing, this summary of psychology and psychotherapy gave something to think about for years to come.

Book Notes

  • Core idea is that we are unable to accept the reality of our mortality, as well as to resolve the conflict between our symbolic tendencies and our ‘creatureliness’. We fear death and almost all we do is an attempt to deny it. 
  • Creatureliness – the fact that we are born between urine and feces (inter urinas et faeces nascimur), that we are of this word, born in it, decay, and eventually vanish.
  • From this basic conflict and fear of death arise many characteristics and neuroses of a human being. They are our many ways to deal with the terrifying confusion of existence.
  • All people use some kind of transference. The transference is the human tendency to endow something (objects or other human being) with the qualities we want to see in ourselves.
  • This in turn allows us to find validation and a mode of conduct that is not constantly subject to questioning. Examples: totems, the rosary, dictators, loved ones, etc. The basic idea is that a human being cannot justify its own existence, so has to find that justification and validation elsewhere.
  • That is the reason for the existence of religions – they provide us with a great beyond onto which we can entrust our fears, hopes, neuroses, and such, a source of strength and vitality that does not exist in an individual. It’s also probably the reason why any version of a ‘god’ seems aligned with ones character. 
  • Neuroses are our responses to the terrible reality of existence. Because reality is constant decay and renewal, we find no stability in it and so we form different defense mechanisms to cope – different neuroses, some of which are more normal than others. “Normality” simply means that most people have a certain kind of neurosis.
  • Madness, then, is comprised of all the neuroses that are not widely held. 
  • A condition like schizophrenia is the state of being so aware of sheer reality that one is completely overwhelmed. Because of being constantly aware of everything, one can only function by creating ludicrous fantasies and paranoias.  
  • A human being needs to narrow down the magnitude of reality to be able to function. The important question is what is the best/good way of narrowing, which neuroses are best to cultivate and when.