Ernest Becker (VI) The Denial of Death (Sheldon Solomon)





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Published on May 24, 2011

Ernest Becker, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, wrote, "The last thing man can admit to himself is that his life-ways are arbitrary: this is one of the reasons that people often show derisive glee and scorn over the 'strange' customs of other lands—it is a defense against the awareness that his own way of life may be just as fundamentally contrived as any other. One culture is always a potential menace to another because it is a living example that life can go on heroically without a value framework totally alien to one's own."

Kierkegaard's torment was the direct result of seeing the world as it really is in relation to his situation as a creature. The prison of one's character is painstakingly built to deny one thing and one thing alone: one's creatureliness. The creatureliness is the terror. Once you admit that you are a defecating creature and you invite the primeval ocean of creature anxiety to flood over you. But it is more than creature anxiety, it is also man's anxiety, the anxiety that re­sults from the human paradox that man is an animal who is con­scious of his animal limitation. Anxiety is the result of the percep­tion of the truth of one's condition. What does it mean to be a self-conscious animal? The idea is ludicrous, if it is not monstrous.

What would the average man do with a full consciousness of ab­surdity? He has fashioned his character for the precise purpose of putting it between himself and the facts of life; it is his special tour-de-force that allows him to ignore incongruities, to nourish himself on impossibilities, to thrive on blindness. He accomplishes thereby a peculiarly human victory: the ability to be smug about terror. Sartre has called man a "useless passion" because he is so hopelessly bungled, so deluded about his true condition. He wants to be a god with only the equipment of an animal, and so he thrives on fantasies. As Ortega so well put it in the epigraph we have used for this chapter, man uses his ideas for the defense of his existence, to frighten away reality.

-Ernest Becker

The human will to significance can be problematic. Ideologies of self justification and self aggrandizing beliefs may be a human defense to its demise but it can lead to horrible realities. The transference of life and meaning to objects and symbols is a human trait that makes conflict more probable. It is no longer a piece of land, cloth, stone or building but my very life and existence. Two heroic systems that are born from this escape from oblivion and this will to significance, cannot stand to co-exist with one another because their mere existence points to the fallacy of their absolute superiority. Thus genocide is even justified kill the people to keep the ideology alive. Humans have often sacrificed real life for imaginary life.

The human ability to give meaning to colors, flags, stories, and symbols has often led to two or more movements to battle in a bloody conflict for hegemony.
The neurotic is having trouble with the balance of cultural illusion and natural reality; the possible horrible truth about himself and the world is seeping into his consciousness. The average man is at least secure that the cultural game is the truth, the unshakable, durable truth. "
"Man is a frightened animal who must lie in order to live."
"Societies are standardized systems of death denial."

-Ernest Becker

"The analysis of disgust and shame...shows us that human beings typically have a problematic relationship to their mortality and animality, and that this problematic relationship causes not just inner tension, but also aggression toward others. If ideals of respect and reciprocity are to have a chance of prevailing, they must contend against the forces of narcissism and misanthropy that these emotions so frequently involve."
-Hiding from Humanity by Martha Nussbaum

Myth is useful to man but truth is uncomfortable.

"A continuous fluttering around the solitary flame of vanity-is so much the rule and law among men that there is almost nothing which is less comprehensible than how an honest and pure drive for truth could have risen among them. The are deeply immersed in illusions...What does man actually know about himself?...even concerning his own body-in order to confine and lock him within a proud, deceptive consciousness, aloof from the coils of the bowels, the rapid flow of the blood stream, and the intricate quivering of the fibers!"
-Friedrich Nietzsche

"Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together."
- Eugene Ionesco

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