The Denial of Death Summary
Becker argues, convincingly, that evolution has brought man to a point where he is trapped between his “creatureliness” and “symbolic self.” Consciousness has made man aware of his own powers, but also of his miserable creatureliness and his destiny to die.
This insight allows Becker to explain and re-interpret human nature and history in a new and fruitful light.
Interested in how to get through more dense books like Denial of Death? Enter your email below and I’ll send you my eight strategies to read more books, as well as my best books for anyone looking to be more productive.
My Favorite Deanial of Quotes and Notes
Note: All the “Notes:” are my own additions and can be ignored if they don’t make sense. All bolding is mine, not the author’s.
corporations and nations may be driven by unconscious motives that have little to do with their stated goals. Making a killing in business or on the battlefield frequently has less to do with economic need or political reality than with the need for assuring ourselves that we have achieved something of lasting worth.
warfare is a social ritual for purification of the world in which the enemy is assigned the role of being dirty, dangerous, and atheistic.
Emerson and Nietzsche—which is why we still thrill to them: we like to be reminded that our central calling, our main task on this planet, is the heroic
Notes: 1) thoreau also
One of the key concepts for understanding man’s urge to heroism is the idea of “narcissism.”
In man a working level of narcissism is inseparable from self-esteem, from a basic sense of self-worth.
urge to heroism is natural, and to admit it honest. For everyone to admit it would probably release such pent-up force as to be devastating to societies as they now are. The fact is that this is what society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism.
suggested that if everyone honestly admitted his urge to be a hero it would be a devastating release of truth. It would make men demand that culture give them their due—a primary sense of human value as unique contributors to cosmic life. How would our modern societies contrive to satisfy such an honest demand, without being shaken to their foundations? Only those societies we today call “primitive” provided this feeling for their members.
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.
Notes: 1) explains sjw and alt right and free speech.
to become conscious of what one is doing to earn his feeling of heroism is the main self-analytic problem of life.
The crisis of modern society is precisely that the youth no longer feel heroic in the plan for action that their culture has set up.
Notes: 1) without religion and with larger societies this is harder.. when you see someone on the cover off Forbes you feel impotent to live up to them
What I have tried to do in this brief introduction is to suggest that the problem of heroics is the central one of human life, that it goes deeper into human nature than anything else because it is based on organismic narcissism and on the child’s need for self-esteem as the condition for his life. Society itself is a codified hero system, which means that society everywhere is a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning. Every society thus is a “religion” whether it thinks so or not: Soviet “religion” and Maoist “religion” are as truly religious as are scientific and consumer “religion,” no matter how much they may try to disguise themselves by omitting religious and spiritual ideas from their lives.
Notes: 1) eternalism is built into our biology
The divine hero of each of these cults was one who had come back from the dead.
Notes: 1) this is part of thee fundamental religious substructure of man
The very term “self-preservation” implies an effort against some force of disintegration; the affective aspect of this is fear, fear of death.
the ever-present fear of death in the normal biological functioning of our instinct of self-preservation, as well as our utter obliviousness to this fear in our conscious life:
Notes: 1) we always have the fear subconsciously because it drives us to survive as long as it’s not debilitating
Animals in order to survive have had to be protected by fear-responses, in relation not only to other animals but to nature itself. They had to see the real relationship of their limited powers to the dangerous world in which they were immersed. Reality and fear go together naturally. As the human infant is in an even more exposed and helpless situation, it is foolish to assume that the fear response of animals would have disappeared in such a weak and highly sensitive species.
Notes: 1) animals need fear to drive them to survive. humans doubly so because we are physically weak relative to other animals.
early men who were most afraid were those who were most realistic about their situation in nature, and they passed on to their offspring a realism that had a high survival value. The result was the emergence of man as we know him: a hyper-anxious animal who constantly invents reasons for anxiety even where there are none.
On the most elemental level the organism works actively against its own fragility by seeking to expand and perpetuate itself in living experience; instead of shrinking, it moves toward more life. Also, it does one thing at a time, avoiding needless distractions from all-absorbing activity; in this way, it would seem, fear of death can be carefully ignored or actually absorbed in the life-expanding processes.
his repression of the idea of his own death is made easy for him because he is fortified against it in his very narcissistic vitality.
Notes: 1) the more narcissistic a society or person then the more they fear death?
At times like this, when the awareness dawns that has always been blotted out by frenetic, ready-made activity, we see the transmutation of repression redistilled, so to speak, and the fear of death emerges in pure essence. This is why people have psychotic breaks when repression no longer works, when the forward momentum of activity is no longer possible.
Notes: 1) people freak out after selling their company or big life events because they no longer can use that thing to hide from death
Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.
those who speculate that a full apprehension of man’s condition would drive him insane are right, quite literally right.
“Men are so necessarily mad that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness.”
To grow up at all is to conceal the mass of internal scar tissue that throbs in our dreams.
Stanley Kubrick jarred audiences when he showed in 2001 how man stepped out into space like an ape dancing to schmaltzy Strauss waltz music; and again in A Clockwork Orange he showed how naturally and satisfyingly a man can murder and rape in tune with the heroic transcendence of Beethoven’s Ninth.
Notes: 1) society vacillates between animality and higher nature of man. We are probably in an era where we vastly overestimate mans higher nature.
all these things reflect man’s horror of his own basic animal condition, a condition that he cannot—especially as a child—understand and a condition that—as an adult—he cannot accept.
Notes: 1) man is a paradox within a paradox. to resolve the paradoxes is to remove the tension inherent in nebulosity. a tension man needs, but can not bear
the Oedipus complex is the Oedipal project, a project that sums up the basic problem of the child’s life: whether he will be a passive object of fate, an appendage of others, a plaything of the world or whether he will be an active center within himself—whether he will control his own destiny with his own powers or not.
To put it paradoxically, “children toilet train themselves.” The profound meaning of this is that there is no “perfect” way to bring up a child, since he “brings himself up” by trying to shape himself into an absolute controller of his own destiny. As this aim is impossible, each character is, deeply and in some way, fantastically unreal, fundamentally imperfect. As Ferenczi so well summed it up: “Character is from the point of view of the psychoanalyst a sort of abnormality, a kind of mechanization of a particular way of reaction, rather similar to an obsessional symptom.”
It all centers on the fact that the mother monopolizes the child’s world; at first, she is his world. The child cannot survive without her, yet in order to get control of his own powers he has to get free of her. The mother thus represents two things to the child, and it helps us understand why the psychoanalysts have said that ambivalence characterizes the whole early growth period. On the one hand the mother is a pure source of pleasure and satisfaction, a secure power to lean on. She must appear as the goddess of beauty and goodness, victory and power; this is her “light” side, we might say, and it is blindly attractive. But on the other hand the child has to strain against this very dependency, or he loses the feeling that he has aegis over his own powers. That is another way of saying that the mother, by representing secure biological dependence, is also a fundamental threat.
This is why it is so difficult to have sex without guilt: guilt is there because the body casts a shadow on the person’s inner freedom, his “real self” that—through the act of sex—is being forced into a standardized, mechanical, biological role.
Love is one great key to this kind of sexuality because it allows the collapse of the individual into the animal dimension without fear and guilt, but instead with trust and assurance that his distinctive inner freedom will not be negated by an animal surrender.
Notes: 1) love lets us feel that the other person recognizes and respects or symbolic self even as they see us at our most animalistic
he seems not to have realized that this kind of play is already a very serious attempt to transcend determinism, not merely an animal search for a variety of body-zone pleasures.
Notes: 1) stage 3 keganism is animality. stage 4 is higher self and stage 5 is being able to shift between the two?
fear of realizing one’s own fullest powers. He called it the “Jonah Syndrome.” He understood the syndrome as the evasion of the full intensity of life:
The great boon of repression is that it makes it possible to live decisively in an overwhelmingly miraculous and incomprehensible world, a world so full of beauty, majesty, and terror that if animals perceived it all they would be paralyzed to act.
The individual has to repress globally, from the entire spectrum of his experience, if he wants to feel a warm sense of inner value and basic security.
Notes: 1) we need repression to be able to function in society
the human animal is characterized by two great fears that other animals are protected from: the fear of life and the fear of death.
The only way he could securely oppose them would be to know that he is as godlike as they, but he can never know this straightforwardly and unambiguously.
Notes: 1) watching your parents get old and die is scary because it calls into question the fundamentals of the universe. it is to watch gods die.
We enter symbiotic relationships in order to get the security we need, in order to get relief from our anxieties, our aloneness and helplessness; but these relationships also bind us, they enslave us even further because they support the lie we have fashioned.
the lie we need in order to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours.
It was not until the working out of modern psychoanalysis that we could understand something the poets and religious geniuses have long known: that the armor of character was so vital to us that to shed it meant to risk death and madness. It is not hard to reason out: If character is a neurotic defense against despair and you shed that defense, you admit the full flood of despair, the full realization of the true human condition, what men are really afraid of, what they struggle against, and are driven toward and away from. Freud summed it up beautifully when he somewhere remarked that psychoanalysis cured the neurotic misery in order to introduce the patient to the common misery of life. Neurosis is another word for describing a complicated technique for avoiding misery, but reality is the misery. That is why from earliest times sages have insisted that to see reality one must die and be reborn. The idea of death and rebirth was present in shamanistic times, in Zen thought, in Stoic thought, in Shakespeare’s King Lear, as well as in Judeo-Christian and modern existential thought. But it was not until scientific psychology that we could understand what was at stake in the death and rebirth: that man’s character was a neurotic structure that went right to the heart of his humanness. As Frederick Perls put it, “To suffer one’s death and to be reborn is not easy.” And it is not easy precisely because so much of one has to die.
Notes: 1) archetypal structure of death and rebirth central to humans. simplicity on the far side of complexity?
The person gives up something restricting and illusory, it is true, but only to come face to face with something even more awful: genuine despair.
It can’t be overstressed, one final time, that to see the world as it really is is devastating and terrifying. It achieves the very result that the child has painfully built his character over the years in order to avoid: it makes routine, automatic, secure, self-confident activity impossible. It makes thoughtless living in the world of men an impossibility. It places a trembling animal at the mercy of the entire cosmos and the problem of the meaning of it.
The creativity of people on the schizophrenic end of the human continuum is a creativity that springs from the inability to accept the standardized cultural denials of the real nature of experience. And the price of this kind of almost “extra human” creativity is to live on the brink of madness, as men have long known.
for Kierkegaard, the “good” is the opening toward new possibility and choice, the ability to face into anxiety; the closed is the evil, that which turns one away from newness and broader perceptions and experiences; the closed shuts out revelation, obtrudes a veil between the person and his own situation in the world.14 Ideally these should be transparent, but for the closed person they are opaque.
Notes: 1) roots of the organization man?
the “automatic cultural man”—
Notes: 1) roots of the organization man?
one of the great dangers of life is too much possibility, and that the place where we find people who have succumbed to this danger is the madhouse.
Depressive psychosis is the extreme on the continuum of too much necessity, that is, too much finitude, too much limitation by the body and the behaviors of the person in the real world, and not enough freedom of the inner self, of inner symbolic possibility.
As I once speculated, the schizophrenic is not enough built into his world—what Kierkegaard has called the sickness of infinitude; the depressive, on the other hand, is built into his world too solidly, too overwhelmingly.
Notes: 1) nebulosity as a solution.
the depressed person avoids the possibility of independence and more life precisely because these are what threaten him with destruction and death. He holds on to the people who have enslaved him in a network of crushing obligations, belittling interaction, precisely because these people are his shelter, his strength, his protection against the world.
This, after all is said and done, is the only real problem of life, the only worthwhile preoccupation of man: What is one’s true talent, his secret gift, his authentic vocation?
Notes: 1) this find your passion is an existentialist thing at its origin.
For a strong person it may become intolerable, and he may try to break out of it, sometimes by suicide, sometimes by drowning himself desperately in the world and in the rush of experience.
Notes: 1) nebulosity. We must be of this world and yet apart from it.
Carried to its demonic extreme this defiance gave us Hitler and Vietnam: a rage against our impotence, a defiance of our animal condition, our pathetic creature limitations. If we don’t have the omnipotence of gods, we at least can destroy like gods.
We have only to glance back at Kierkegaard’s confession in the epigraph to this chapter to see why. In the prison of one’s character one can pretend and feel that he is somebody, that the world is manageable, that there is a reason for one’s life, a ready justification for one’s action. To live automatically and uncritically is to be assured of at least a minimum share of the programmed cultural heroics—what we might call “prison heroism”: the smugness of the insiders who “know.” Kierkegaard’s torment was the direct result of seeing the world as it really is in relation to his situation as a creature.
Notes: 1) there is a dip. this is like shifting between kegans stages?
He who is educated by dread [anxiety] is educated by possibility…. When such a person, therefore, goes out from the school of possibility, and knows more thoroughly than a child knows the alphabet that he demands of life absolutely nothing, and that terror, perdition, annihilation, dwell next door to every man, and has learned the profitable lesson that every dread which alarms may the next instant become a fact, he will then interpret reality differently….
Notes: 1) memento mori
this is the simple truth—that to live is to feel oneself lost—he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively,
Notes: 1) the late postmodernists got lost and never found solid ground again. stuck in stage 4.5.
These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce.
if you admit that you are a creature, you accomplish one basic thing: you demolish all your unconscious power linkages or supports. As we saw in the last chapter—and it is worth repeating here—each child grounds himself in some power that transcends him. Usually it is a combination of his parents, his social group, and the symbols of his society and nation. This is the unthinking web of support which allows him to believe in himself, as he functions on the automatic security of delegated powers.
In other words, as long as man is an ambiguous creature he can never banish anxiety; what he can do instead is to use anxiety as an eternal spring for growth into new dimensions of thought and trust.
Notes: 1) ambiguity is uncertainty by another name. it cannot be banished but used as fuel for growth.
Freud could still keep his basic allegiance to physiology, chemistry, and biology and his hopes for a total and simple reductionist science of psychology.
Notes: 1) freud was a behavioralist and a determinist
in Freud’s own words he saw his hero as: … a man whose sexual need and activity were exceptionally reduced, as if a higher aspiration had raised him above the common animal need of mankind.
“Immortality means being loved by many anonymous people.”
Men show the “same attachment to the physician, the same overestimation of his qualities, the same adoption of his interest, the same jealousy against all those connected with him.” Freud saw that this was an uncanny phenomenon, and in order to explain it he called it “transference.” The patient transfers the feelings he had towards his parents as a child to the person of the physician. He blows the physician up larger than life just as the child sees the parents. He becomes as dependent on him, draws protection and power from him just as the child merges his destiny with the parents, and so on.
Notes: 1) why many doctors are egomaniacs
Man has “an extreme passion for authority” and “wishes to be governed by unrestricted force.” It is this trait that the leader hypnotically embodies in his own masterful person. Or as Fenichel later put it, people have a “longing for being hypnotized” precisely because they want to get back to the magical protection, the participation in omnipotence, the “oceanic feeling” that they enjoyed when they were loved and protected by their parents.
Fromm has insisted, too, on the importance of what he calls “incestuous symbiosis”: the fear of emerging out of the family and into the world on one’s own responsibility and powers; the desire to keep oneself tucked into a larger source of power. It is these things that make for the mystique of “group,” “nation,” “blood,” “mother- or fatherland,” and the like.
the leader is as much a creature of the group as they of him and that he loses his “individual distinctiveness” by being a leader, as they do by being followers. He has no more freedom to be himself than any other member of the group, precisely because he has to be a reflex of their assumptions in order to qualify for leadership in the first place.
When they give in to the leader’s commands they can always reserve the feeling that these commands are alien to them, that they are the leader’s responsibility, that the terrible acts they are committing are in his name and not theirs. This, then, is another thing that makes people feel so guiltless, as Canetti points out: they can imagine themselves as temporary victims of the leader.
Notes: 1) true of both far right and far less
transference is fundamentally a problem of courage.
Notes: 1) we seek leaders because we lackk courage
The pains we feel, the illnesses that are real or imaginary give us something to relate to, keep us from slipping out of the world, from bogging down in the desperation of complete loneliness and emptiness. In a word, illness is an object. We transfer to our own body as if it were a friend on whom we can lean for strength or an enemy who threatens us with danger. At least it makes us feel real and gives us a little purchase on our fate. From all this we can already draw one important conclusion: that transference is a form of fetishism, a form of narrow control that anchors our own problems. We take our helplessness, our guilt, our conflicts, and we fix them to a spot in the environment. We can create any locus at all for projecting our cares onto the world, even the locus of our own arms and legs.
Notes: 1) physical manifestations of psychological symptoms – Ssunday scaries?
This is how we can understand the essence of transference: as a taming of terror. Realistically the universe contains overwhelming power. Beyond ourselves we sense chaos. We can’t really do much about this unbelievable power, except for one thing: we can endow certain persons with it. The child takes natural awe and terror and focusses them on individual beings, which allows him to find the power and the horror all in one place instead of diffused throughout a chaotic universe.
Notes: 1) we try to make it deterministic. we create the illusion of control to allow our own psychological functioning.
We try to make them the sole repositories of our own unhappiness in a fundamentally demonic world. We seem to be pretending that the world does not contain terror and evil but only our parents. In the negative transference, too, then, we see an attempt to control our fate in an automatic way.
Notes: 1) all of this sort of reduces down to an attempt to make the world deterministic in order to maintain sanity? Nebulsity is unstable for real.
the more you fear death and the emptier you are, the more you people your world with omnipotent father-figures, extra-magical helpers.
Man is always hungry, as Rank so well put it, for material for his own immortalization. Groups need it too, which explains the constant hunger for heroes: Every group, however small or great, has, as such, an “individual” impulse for eternalization, which manifests itself in the creation of and care for national, religious, and artistic heroes… the individual paves the way for this collective eternity impulse…. This aspect of group psychology explains something that otherwise staggers our imagination: have we been astonished by fantastic displays of grief on the part of whole peoples when one of their leaders dies? The uncontrolled emotional outpouring, the dazed masses standing huddled in the city squares sometimes for days on end, grown people groveling hysterically and tearing at themselves, being trampled in the surge toward the coffin or funeral pyre—how to make sense out of such a massive, neurotic “vaudeville of despair”? In one way only: it shows a profound state of shock at losing one’s bulwark against death. The people apprehend, at some dumb level of their personality: “Our locus of power to control life and death can himself die; therefore our own immortality is in doubt.”
Here is a supposedly “secular” society that holds pilgrimages to a tomb and that buries heroic figures in the “sacred wall” of the Kremlin, a “hallowed” place. No matter how many churches are closed or how humanistic a leader or a movement may claim to be, there will never be anything wholly secular about human fear. Man’s terror is always “holy terror”—which is a strikingly apt popular phrase. Terror always refers to the ultimates of life and death.
Notes: 1) eternalism!
“For only by living in close union with a god-ideal that has been erected outside one’s own ego is one able to live at all.”
Notes: 1) we have the need to feel at once part of the cosmos but also special and apart from it.
God has never been a simple reflex of superstitious and selfish fear, as cynics and “realists” have claimed. Instead, it is an outgrowth of genuine life-longing, a reaching out for a plenitude of meaning—as James taught.
You might say that the urge to morality is based entirely on the physical situation of the creature. Man is moral because he senses his true situation and what lies in store for him, whereas other animals don’t. He uses morality to try to get a place of special belongingness and perpetuation in the universe, in two ways. First, he overcomes badness (smallness, unimportance, finitude) by conforming to the rules made by the representatives of natural power (the transference-objects); in this way his safe belongingness is assured. This too is natural: we tell the child when he is good so that he doesn’t have to be afraid. Second, he attempts to overcome badness by developing a really valuable heroic gift, becoming extra-special.
Culture is in its most intimate intent a heroic denial of creatureliness.
In a word, man’s cosmic heroism was assured, even if he was as nothing. This is the most remarkable achievement of the Christian world picture: that it could take slaves, cripples, imbeciles, the simple and the mighty, and make them all secure heroes, simply by taking a step back from the world into another dimension of things, the dimension called heaven. Or we might better say that Christianity took creature consciousness—the thing man most wanted to deny—and made it the very condition for his cosmic heroism.
Notes: 1) the myth of religion. almost all successful myths let man reconcile the paradox at the heart of his condition
Modern man’s dependency on the love partner, then, is a result of the loss of spiritual ideologies, just as is his dependency on his parents or on his psychotherapist. He needs somebody, some “individual ideology of justification” to replace the declining “collective ideologies.
Notes: 1) this is the central problem of the modern condition onto which SJW and alt right are latching
sex and death are twins, if sex is a fulfillment of his role as an animal in the species, it reminds him that he is nothing himself but a link in the chain of being, exchangeable with any other and completely expendable in himself.
the sexual act represents a double negation: by physical death and of distinctive personal gifts.
Notes: 1) sex remind us we are a species that procreates and dies as well as reducing us to our base instinct
modern man tries to replace vital awe and wonder with a “How to do it” manual.
Notes: 1) this is true for so many things: determinism, scientism, reductionism
the body is the clear problem over which he must triumph in order to build a cultural personality at all,
Notes: 1) we are often antagonistic towards our bodies because it is the clear enemy in establishing our divinity
If the partner becomes God he can just as easily become the Devil; the reason is not far to seek.
Notes: 1) the problem is eternalism. it os neblosity.
This is the reason for so much bitterness, shortness of temper and recrimination in our daily family lives.
Notes: 1) when we see our partner as god and the causa sui project then any weakness in them becomes an existential threat to us. it reveals our creatureliness.
To want too little from the love object is as self-defeating as to want too much.
Notes: 1) nebulosity. the middle way?
The sensualist tries to avoid marriage with all his might, to defeat the species role by making sexuality a purely personal affair of conquests and virility. The romantic rises above marriage and sex by trying to spiritualize his relationship to women. Neither type can understand the other except on the level of elemental physical desire; and the film leaves us with the reflection that both are pitifully immersed in the blind groping of the human condition, the reaching out for an absolute that can be seen and experienced.
The key to the creative type is that he is separated out of the common pool of shared meanings. There is something in his life experience that makes him take in the world as a problem; as a result he has to make personal sense out of it. This holds true for all creative people to a greater or lesser extent, but it is especially obvious with the artist. Existence becomes a problem that needs an ideal answer; but when you no longer accept the collective solution to the problem of existence, then you must fashion your own. The work of art is, then, the ideal answer of the creative type to the problem of existence as he takes it in—not only the existence of the external world, but especially his own: who he is as a painfully separate person with nothing shared to lean on.
the work of art is the artist’s attempt to justify his heroism objectively, in the concrete creation. It is the testimonial to his absolute uniqueness and heroic transcendence. But the artist is still a creature and he can feel it more intensely than anyone else. In other words, he knows that the work is he, therefore “bad,” ephemeral, potentially meaningless—unless justified from outside himself and outside itself.
you are going to be a hero then you must give a gift. If you are the average man you give your heroic gift to the society in which you live, and you give the gift that society specifies in advance. If you are an artist you fashion a peculiarly personal gift, the justification of your own heroic identity, which means that it is always aimed at least partly over the heads of your fellow men. After all, they can’t grant the immortality of your personal soul. As Rank argued in the breathtaking closing chapters of Art and Artist, there is no way for the artist to be at peace with his work or with the society that accepts it. The artist’s gift is always to creation itself, to the ultimate meaning of life, to God. We should not be surprised that Rank was brought to exactly the same conclusion as Kierkegaard: that the only way out of human conflict is full renunciation, to give one’s life as a gift to the highest powers. Absolution has to come from the absolute beyond. As Kierkegaard, Rank showed that this rule applied to the strongest, most heroic types—not to trembling and empty weaklings. To renounce the world and oneself, to lay the meaning of it to the powers of creation, is the hardest thing for man to achieve—and so it is fitting that this task should fall to the strongest personality type, the one with the largest ego. The great scientific world-shaker Newton was the same man who always carried the Bible under his arm.
If man is the more normal, healthy and happy, the more he can… successfully… repress, displace, deny, rationalize, dramatize himself and deceive others, then it follows that the suffering of the neurotic comes… from painful truth…. Spiritually the neurotic has been long since where psychoanalysis wants to bring him without being able to, namely at the point of seeing through the deception of the world of sense, the falsity of reality. He suffers, not from all the pathological mechanisms which are psychically necessary for living and wholesome but in the refusal of these mechanisms which is just what robs him of the illusions important for living…. [He] is much nearer to the actual truth psychologically than the others and it is just that from which he suffers. —OTTO RANK
a thinker throws off too many unsystematic and rich insights, there is no place to grab onto his thought. The thing he is trying to illuminate seems as elusive as before. It is certain that Freud’s prominence is due to no small extent to his ability to make clear, simple, and systematic all of his insights and always to reduce the most complex theory to a few fundamentals.
cannot repeat too often the great lesson of Freudian psychology: that repression is normal self-protection and creative self-restriction—in a real sense, man’s natural substitute for instinct.
“partialization” and very rightly sees that life is impossible without it. What we call the well-adjusted man has just this capacity to partialize the world for comfortable action.
We call a man “neurotic” when his lie begins to show damaging effects on him or on people around him and he seeks clinical help for it—or others seek it for him. Otherwise, we call the refusal of reality “normal” because it doesn’t occasion any visible problems.
To lie to oneself about one’s own potential development is another cause of guilt. It is one of the most insidious daily inner gnawings a person can experience. Guilt, remember, is the bind that man experiences when he is humbled and stopped in ways that he does not understand, when he is overshadowed in his energies by the world. But the misfortune of man is that he can experience this guilt in two ways: as bafflement from without and from within—by being stopped in relation to his own potential development. Guilt results from unused life, from “the unlived in us.”
Notes: 1) Why many young people most ot big cities
We said that partializing the world is biting off what an animal can chew. Not to have this talent means constantly biting off more than one can chew.
Notes: 1) I do this
It may seem courageous to take in the whole world, instead of just biting off pieces and acting on them, but as Rank points out, this is also precisely a defense against engagement in it: … this apparent egocentricity originally is just a defense mechanism against the danger of reality…. [The neurotic] seeks to complete his ego constantly… without paying for it.
Notes: 1) By biting off too much i am able to ignore the details, to spend too much time in the clouds and not enough in the dirt.
To live is to engage in experience at least partly on the terms of the experience itself. One has to stick his neck out in the action without any guarantees about satisfaction or safety. One never knows how it will come out or how silly he will look, but the neurotic type wants these guarantees. He doesn’t want to risk his self-image. Rank calls this very aptly the “self-willed over-valuation of self whereby the neurotic tries to cheat nature. He won’t pay the price that nature wants of him: to age, fall ill or be injured, and die. Instead of living experience he ideates it; instead of arranging it in action he works it all out in his head.
Notes: 1) this is my tendency
Rank asked why the artist so often avoids clinical neurosis when he is so much a candidate for it because of his vivid imagination, his openness to the finest and broadest aspects of experience, his isolation from the cultural world-view that satisfies everyone else. The answer is that he takes in the world, but instead of being oppressed by it he reworks it in his own personality and recreates it in the work of art. The neurotic is precisely the one who cannot create—the “artiste-manqué,” as Rank so aptly called him. We might say that both the artist and the neurotic bite off more than they can chew, but the artist spews it back out again and chews it over in an objectified way, as an external, active, work project.
Notes: 1) writing lets me be neurotic without losing my shit. The Resistance plays in here
the more totally one takes in the world as a problem, the more inferior or “bad” one is going to feel inside oneself. He can try to work out this “badness” by striving for perfection, and then the neurotic symptom becomes his “creative” work; or he can try to make himself perfect by means of his partner. But it is obvious to us that the only way to work on perfection is in the form of an objective work that is fully under your control and is perfectible in some real ways. Either you eat up yourself and others around you, trying for perfection; or you objectify that imperfection in a work, on which you then unleash your creative powers. In this sense, some kind of objective creativity is the only answer man has to the problem of life. In this way he satisfies nature, which asks that he live and act objectively as a vital animal plunging into the world; but he also satisfies his own distinctive human nature because he plunges in on his own symbolic terms and not as a reflex of the world as given to mere physical sense experience. He takes in the world, makes a total problem out of it, and then gives out a fashioned, human answer to that problem. This, as Goethe saw in Faust, is the highest that man can achieve.
Notes: 1) making some sort of creative work is the only way to deal with the neurosis created by trying to bite off the whole world.
The artist, on the other hand, overcomes his inferiority and glorifies himself because he has the talent to do so.
Notes: 1) red queen race between biting off more of the world and having talent keep up enough to not go crazy
I used to wonder how people could stand the really demonic activity of working behind those hellish ranges in hotel kitchens, the frantic whirl of waiting on a dozen tables at one time, the madness of the travel agent’s office at the height of the tourist season, or the torture of working with a jack-hammer all day on a hot summer street. The answer is so simple that it eludes us: the craziness of these activities is exactly that of the human condition. They are “right” for us because the alternative is natural desperation. The daily madness of these jobs is a repeated vaccination against the madness of the asylum. Look at the joy and eagerness with which workers return from vacation to their compulsive routines. They plunge into their work with equanimity and lightheartedness because it drowns out something more ominous. Men have to be protected from reality.
All of which poses another gigantic problem to a sophisticated Marxism, namely: What is the nature of the obsessive denials of reality that a Utopian society will provide to keep men from going mad?
Notes: 1) also a problem for UBI. We can pay people, but how will they manage their fear of death without work?
when we talk about the need for illusion we are not being cynical. True, there is a great deal of falseness and self-deception in the cultural causa-sui project, but there is also the necessity of this project. Man needs a “second” world, a world of humanly created meaning, a new reality that he can live, dramatize, nourish himself in. “Illusion” means creative play at its highest level.
We saw that neurosis could be looked at at a basic level as a problem of character and, at another level, as a problem of illusion, of creative cultural play. The historical level is a third level into which these two merge.
the individual can more easily cross the line into clinical neurosis precisely where he is thrown back on himself and his own resources in order to justify his life.
Notes: 1) so much agitation today because there is no great cause. Similar to lead up to World War I.
Interested in how to get through more dense books like Denial of Death? Enter your email below and I’ll send you my eight strategies to read more books, as well as my best books for anyone looking to be more productive.
Neurosis is today a widespread problem because of the disappearance of convincing dramas of heroic apotheosis of man. The subject is summed up succinctly in Pinel’s famous observation on how the Salpêtrière mental hospital got cleared out at the time of the French Revolution. All the neurotics found a ready-made drama of self-transcending action and heroic identity. It was as simple as that.
modern man cannot find his heroism in everyday life any more, as men did in traditional societies just by doing their daily duty of raising children, working, and worshipping. He needs revolutions and wars and “continuing” revolutions to last when the revolutions and wars end. That is the price modern man pays for the eclipse of the sacred dimension. When he dethroned the ideas of soul and God he was thrown back hopelessly on his own resources, on himself and those few around him.
Notes: 1) jordan peterson
the psychoses are a caricature of the lifestyles of all of us—which is probably part of the reason that they make us so uncomfortable.
the fact that human experience is split into two modes—the symbolic self and the physical body—and that these two modes of experience can be quite distinct. In some people they are so distinct as to be unintegrated, and these are the people we call schizophrenic.
Notes: 1) imposter syndrome is when you are in your creatureliness self. Zone of genius is when you are in your symbolic self?
He relies instead on a hypermagnification of mental processes to try to secure his death-transcendence;
Notes: 1) there is an overlap with aspy entrepreneurs and schizophrenia
By pushing the problem of man to its limits, schizophrenia also reveals the nature of creativity. If you are physically unprogrammed in the cultural causa-sui project, then you have to invent your own: you don’t vibrate to anyone else’s tune. You see that the fabrications of those around you are a lie, a denial of truth—a truth that usually takes the form of showing the terror of the human condition more fully than most men experience it.
Notes: 1) this sounds like steve jobs
The genius too is not programmed in automatic cultural meanings; but he has the resources of a strong ego, or at least a sufficient one, to give his own personal meanings a creative form.
Notes: 1) jobs, musk, etc.
How apt was Tolstoy’s observation that so much separates him from the newborn babe, and so little from the child of five; in those five years the child must shoulder the whole existential burden of the human condition.
Notes: 1) first five years matter so much
the turd is mankind’s real threat.
Notes: 1) anything fecal is usually a symbol of creatureliness
the whole problem of fetishism to low self-esteem, the sense of inadequacy, and hence fear of the male role derives first from the power of the other—from the mother when she is a dependable support and does not interfere too much with the child’s own activity and from a strong father with whom the child can identify.
Notes: 1) attachment theory
we could look at all perversion as a protest against the submergence of individuality by species standardization. Rank developed this idea all through his work. The only way in which mankind could actually control nature and rise above her was to convert sexual immortality into individual immortality.
All perversions, then, can truly be seen as “private religions,” as attempts to heroically transcend the human condition and to achieve some kind of satisfaction in that condition. That is why perverts are forever saying how superior and life-enhancing their particular approach is, how they cannot understand why anyone would not prefer it. It is the same sentiment that animates all true believers, the trumpeting of who is the true hero and what is the only genuine path to eternal glory.
the masochist doesn’t “want” pain, he wants to be able to identify its source, localize it, and so control it. Masochism is thus a way of taking the anxiety of life and death and the overwhelming terror of existence and congealing them into a small dosage.
In Rank’s view, a person would be neurotic not because he was masochistic but because he was not really submissive, but only wanted to make believe that he was.
Notes: 1) we need the right balance of sadism and masochism to overcome and manage the tension
the mentally ill all have a basic problem of courage.
Notes: 1) Pressfield!
From this point of view, we can see that the perversions of “private religions” are not “false” in comparison to “true religions.” They are simply less expansive, less humanly noble and responsible.
Guilt is not a result of infantile fantasy but of self-conscious adult reality. There is no strength that can overcome guilt unless it be the strength of a god; and there is no way to overcome creature anxiety unless one is a god and not a creature.
Brown’s whole vision of some future man falls flat on the one failure to understand guilt.9 It does not derive from “infantile fantasy” but from reality.
Notes: 1) guilt is a result of sensing our creaturelinessnd being overcome by bit.
the child’s problems are existential: they refer to his total world—what bodies are for, what to do with them, what is the meaning of all this creation. Repression fulfills the vital function of allowing the child to act without anxiety, to take experience in hand and develop dependable responses to it. How could we ever get a new man without guilt and anxiety if each child, in order to become human, necessarily put limits on his own ego?
Notes: 1) the world is so overwhelming for our creature selves that we develop repression to not go into depression at our own insignificance.
when evolution gave man a self, an inner symbolic world of experience, it split him in two, gave him an added burden. But this burden seems to be the price that had to be paid in order for organisms to attain more life, for the development of the life force on the furthest reach of experience and self-consciousness.
Notes: 1) we have this great symbolic ability and the cost is guilt
Marcuse even turns his back wholly on living experience and gets carried away by his abstractions: “Men can die without anxiety if they know that what they love is protected from misery and oblivion [by the new Utopian society],”17 As if men could ever know that, as if you and I can be sure at any instant that our children will not be obliterated by a senseless accident or that the whole planet will not be smashed by a gigantic meteor.
If there is a tragic limitation in life there is also possibility. What we call maturity is the ability to see the two in some kind of balance into which we can fit creatively.
the “postponement of death is not a solution to the problem of the fear of death… there still will remain the fear of dying prematurely.” The smallest virus or the stupidest accident would deprive a man not of 90 years but of 900—and would be then 10 times more absurd. Condorcet’s failure to understand psychodynamics was forgivable, but not Harrington’s today. If something is 10 times more absurd it is 10 times more threatening. In other words, death would be “hyperfetishized” as a source of danger, and men in the utopia of longevity would be even less expansive and peaceful than they are today!
Notes: 1) longer life would lead to even greater urges for immortality becaise it seems more possible
primitive man put the highest priority on ways to avoid bad will and bad action, which is why he seems to have circumscribed his activities in often compulsive and phobic ways. Tradition has laid a heavy hand over men everywhere. Utopian man might live in the same “eternal now” of the primitives, but undoubtedly too with the same real compulsivity and phobia.
Notes: 1) seeing death as a final ritual made primitive man phobic. extending life would do the same.
there really was no way to overcome the real dilemma of existence,
Notes: 1) this is sort of the whole point. there is no answer and that’s ok.
person spends years coming into his own, developing his talent, his unique gifts, perfecting his discriminations about the world, broadening and sharpening his appetite, learning to bear the disappointments of life, becoming mature, seasoned—finally a unique creature in nature, standing with some dignity and nobility and transcending the animal condition; no longer driven, no longer a complete reflex, not stamped out of any mold. And then the real tragedy, as André Malraux wrote in The Human Condition: that it takes sixty years of incredible suffering and effort to make such an individual, and then he is good only for dying.
If repression makes an untenable life liveable, self-knowledge can entirely destroy it for some people.
A woman comes for consultation; what’s the matter with her? She suffers from some kind of intestinal symptoms, painful attacks of some kind of intestinal trouble. She had been sick for eight years, and has tried every kind of physical treatment…. She came to the conclusion it must be some emotional trouble. She is unmarried, she is thirty-five. She appears to me (and admits it herself) as being fairly well adjusted. She lives with a sister who is married; they get along well. She enjoys life, goes to the country in the summer. She has a little stomach trouble; why not keep it, I tell her, because if we are able to take away those attacks that come once in a fortnight or so, we do not know what problem we shall discover beneath it. Probably this defense mechanism is her adjustment, probably that is the price she has to pay. She never married, she never loved, and so never fulfilled her role. One cannot ever have everything, probably she has to pay. After all, what difference does it make if she occasionally gets these attacks of indigestion? I get it occasionally, you do too, probably, and not for physical reasons, as you may know. One gets headaches. In other words, it is not so much a question as to whether we are able to cure a patient, whether we can or not, but whether we should or not. No organismic life can be straightforwardly self-expansive in all directions; each one must draw back into himself in some areas, pay some penalty of a severe kind for his natural fears and limitations.
The problem of meaninglessness is the form in which nonbeing poses itself in our time; then, says Tillich, the task of conscious beings at the height of their evolutionary destiny is to meet and vanquish this new emergent obstacle to sentient life. In this kind of ontology of immanence of the New Being, what we are describing is not a creature who is transformed and who transforms the world in turn in some miraculous ways, but rather a creature who takes more of the world into himself and develops new forms of courage and endurance.
Notes: 1) meaning making
Tillich to argue so penetratingly that Eastern mysticism is not for Western man. It is an evasion of the courage to be; it prevents the absorption of maximum meaninglessness into oneself.
Notes: 1) same as stoicism. it holds you back from acting on the world.
Mysticism lacks precisely the element of skepticism, and skepticism is a more radical experience, a more manly confrontation of potential meaninglessness. When one lives in the liberation atmosphere of Berkeley, California, or in the intoxications of small doses of unconstriction in a therapeutic group in one’s home town, one is living in a hothouse atmosphere that shuts out the reality of the rest of the planet, the way things really are in this world.
When one lives in the liberation atmosphere of Berkeley, California, or in the intoxications of small doses of unconstriction in a therapeutic group in one’s home town, one is living in a hothouse atmosphere that shuts out the reality of the rest of the planet, the way things really are in this world.
Notes: 1) the elite bubble
Men are doomed to live in an overwhelmingly tragic and demonic world.
taking life seriously means something such as this: that whatever man 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.
Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same type of denial of death.
Awareness calls for types of heroic dedication that his culture no longer provides for him, society contrives to help him forget.
Notes: 1) science stripped man of his feeling of a place in the cosmos by removing religion an so is now trying to make him forget that he is enmeshed in a great struggle and to tranquilize him with commercialism?
Last Updated on April 18, 2019 by RipplePop