Ernest Becker was already dying when “The Denial of Death” was published 50 years ago this past fall. “This is a test of everything I’ve written about death,” he told a visitor to his Vancouver hospital room. Throughout his career as a cultural anthropologist, Becker had charted the undiscovered country that awaits us all. Now only 49 but losing a battle to colon cancer, he was being dispatched there himself. By the time his book was awarded a Pulitzer Prize the following spring, Becker was gone.
These grim details may seem like the makings of a downer, to put it mildly, and another downer is the last thing anyone needs right now. But there is no gloom in “Denial,” no self-pity, not even the maudlin wisdom today’s illness memoirs have primed us to expect. A rare mind is at work, and you get to hang out in the workshop. Writing against the hardest stop of all, Becker managed to produce “a kind of cosmic pep talk,” as the literary critic Anatole Broyard put it in The New York Times.
For a book published in the early 1970s, “Denial” includes remarkably little discussion of the liberation movements of the ’60s. But holding back on context allowed Becker a measure of freedom. He transmits on what Ralph Ellison called “the lower frequencies.” To tune into those frequencies today is to discover that age has not robbed Becker’s ideas of their power. “I’m surprised at how new it seems to me,” Broyard wrote in 1982. Readers continue to revel in the same surprise.
Only by confronting our own mortality, Becker argued, could we live more fully. To hold that terror is to see more clearly what matters and what does not — and how important it is to grasp the difference. Contemplating death is like a cold plunge for the soul, a prick to the amygdala. You emerge renewed, your vision clarified. “To talk about hope is to give the right focus to the problem,” Becker wrote.
The book is famous for a cameo in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” where, in a scene filmed in the bygone Doubleday Book Shop on Fifth Avenue, Allen’s Alvy Singer buys a copy for his girlfriend Annie (Diane Keaton). As he does so, Alvy discourses on how “life is divided up into the horrible and the miserable.” I get the desire to impress Annie, but Alvy clearly didn’t read the book, for Becker has no patience with such self-defeating pessimism.
Allen got closer to the heart of the matter when he joked that instead of achieving immortality through his work, he’d rather simply avoid dying. Alas, that’s not an option. So we create elaborate distraction in the form of what Becker called “causa-sui” — or self-caused — “projects” (also known as “immortality projects”) that convince us we have the means to leave a lasting mark on the world: Yes, I know I’m just an oxygenated carbon sack clinging to a rock hurtling through the unfeeling infinity of dark matter, but did you hear that my kid got into Princeton?
We may leave behind large families, or a corporation that lasts for generations, but in the end we are subject to the same “creatureliness” (a favorite Becker word) as the common gnat. The gnat may even be better off, unaware that it is about to meet the business end of a fly swatter. For us, the swatter is always there, hovering in the periphery. Will it come down because of bad sushi on a cruise ship? Will we make it to old age? Are those new studies about diet soda and cancer true?
An anthropologist who refused to stay within the bounds of his discipline, Becker understood society as “a vehicle for earthly heroism,” allowing each of us to engage in an immortality project that endows our lives with significance. In the postindustrial West, he believed, that vehicle was breaking down. Along with thinkers like Lewis Mumford and Neil Postman, he saw the emergent American culture as tending to strip away individual agency, turning would-be heroes into passive receptacles for consumer goods. “Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing,” Becker wrote a half-century before marathon Netflix sessions became a common salve for braving an increasingly bewildering world.
Becker is interested in the moment right after your “Suits” binge has run its course and you are alone in your apartment, just you and your thoughts, a vague unease sharpening into an ever finer point. Instead of pacifying your dread, he wants to cultivate it, to use it as fuel for better living.
He was born in 1924 in Springfield, Mass., two decades after the city’s most famous native: Theodor Geisel, or Dr. Seuss. It is hard to imagine two books more superficially different than “Denial” and “The Lorax,” but both writers were interested in dismantling the artifice and casual cruelty of the adult world. The chase after wealth and power that had come to rule postwar America was enforcing a “blind drivenness that burns people up,” Becker wrote. We’d rather be followers instead of explorers, hoarders instead of heroes. He wanted us to live at a Cat-in-the-Hat tempo: “Childlike foolishness is the calling of mature men,” he declared.
As an infantryman still in his teens, he fought in World War II, seeing the horrors of the Holocaust up close. The works he later wrote retain a hint of postwar French existentialism, which struggled to make sense of a world that had obliterated the Enlightenment’s optimism about the human condition.
Becker studied at Syracuse and taught at Berkeley, but he never stayed in one place for long, finally landing at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. He consistently refused to settle for easy conclusions, or to confine himself to a single discipline. In one of his first books, “The Birth and Death of Meaning” (1962), Becker introduced his concept of heroism as a contradictory notion, at once pointless and central to human society. “The world of human aspiration is largely fictitious,” he wrote. But what else is there?
Becker saw the civil rights movement as a bid for people of color to engage in heroic projects long available to white Americans. “The minority groups in present-day industrial society who shout for freedom and human dignity are really clumsily asking that they be given a sense of primary heroism of which they have been cheated historically,” he observes in “Denial”’s brief nod to current events. Just because most human heroics are artificial makes them no less seductive.
According to this framework, to exclude a group of people — through discriminatory hiring, redlining, college admission quotas — is to tell them that they can never be heroes, that their lives can never have meaning. The horrific Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas in Israel might have been seen by Becker as an exercise in depraved heroics undertaken by desperate Palestinians for whom mundane immortality projects have not been possible for decades.
For all its relevance, “The Denial of Death” has not aged perfectly. There are too many references to Otto Rank, a once influential disciple of Freud who has lapsed into obscurity, as well as turns of phrase that would be considered sexist or homophobic today.
Becker began his career as therapy was shedding its severe Freudian past. Dr. Joyce Brothers started dispensing psychological advice on television in 1958; three years later, The Atlantic devoted most of an issue to “psychiatry in American life.” But the discipline could also fall for suspect practices like primal scream therapy, which its founder (an Angeleno, naturally) touted as “the most important discovery of the 20th century.”
“Therapeutic megalomania” bothered Becker almost as much as hollow heroism. He wanted psychiatry to strip away illusions, not erect new ones. Thinking about death could build “new forms of courage and endurance,” he believed, if the mind were properly trained. Once we got real about the looming fly swatter, and the utter futility of pretending we could do anything about it, we could learn to approach our brief time on this overheated planet with “a certain relaxedness, an openness to experience.”
Tech billionaires are currently looking for ways to use artificial intelligence to help humans achieve immortality, and while living past 100 does sound nice, it is our mortality that gives our lives meaning. “The problem with all the scientific manipulators is that somehow they don’t take life seriously enough,” Becker wrote, arguing that “by deadening human sensitivity,” science “would also deprive men of the heroic in their urge to victory.”
That criticism was directed at peers in his field, but it just as readily applies to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who have helped popularize dopamine fasting — a literal deadening of human sensitivity that involves depriving both mind and body of all stimulation by sitting in a room that essentially functions as a coffin.
Meanwhile, the real world is waiting, as desperate for heroes as ever.
Alexander Nazaryan has written about politics and culture for The Atlantic, The New Republic and The New Yorker, among other publications.