My Favorite Quotes From "the Denial of Death"

My copy of Ernest Becker's seminal "The Denial of Death" (1974) is packed with underlines and dog-eared pages. As a death-obsessed artist, every sentence felt like a truth bomb exploding in my little creative heart. So here's a super chill, upbeat list of the quotes that rewired my brain.
  1. Self-Centeredness
    If we care about anyone it is usually ourselves first of all. As Aristotle somewhere put it: luck is when the guy next to you get his by an arrow.
  2. Sibling Rivalry
    Sibling rivalry is a critical problem that reflects the basic human condition: it is not that children are vicious, selfish, or domineering. It is that they so openly express man's tragic destiny: he must desperately justify himself as an object of primary value in the universe; he must stand out, be a hero, make the biggest possible contribution to world life, show that he counts more than anything or anyone else.
  3. "Religion"
    When Norman O. brown said that Western society since Newton, no matter how scientific or secular it claims to be, is still as "religious" as any other, this is what money and goods make man count for more than any other animal. In this sense everything that man does is religious and heroic, and yet in danger of being fictitious and fallible.
  4. Fear Of Death Paradox
    The fear of death must be present behind all our normal functioning, in order for the organism to be armed toward self-preservation. But the fear of death cannot be present constantly in one's mental functioning, else the organism could not function. ... And so we can understand what seems like an impossible paradox: 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.
  5. Nice Childhoods
    If a child has had a very favorable upbringing, it only serves all the better to hide the fear of death. After all, repression is made possible by the natural identification of the child with the powers of his parents. If he has been well cared for, identification comes easily and solidly, and his parents' powerful triumph over death automatically becomes his.
  6. EveryBODY Poops
    With anal play the child is already becoming a philosopher of the human condition. But like all philosophers he is still bound by it, and his main task in life becomes the denial of what the anus represents: that in fact, he is nothing but a body so far as natured is concerned ... As Montaigne put it, on the highest throne in the world man sits on his arse.
  7. Oedipal Complex
    The essence of the Oedipal complex is the project of becoming god – in Spinoza's formula, *causa sui*. By the same token, it plainly exhibits narcissism perverted by the flight from death ... The Oedipal project is the flight from possibility, from obliteration, from contingency: the child wants to conquer death by becoming the father of himself, the creator and sustainer of his own life.
  8. Sexuality
    Sexuality is inseparable from our existential paradox, the dualism of human nature. The person is both a self and a body.
  9. Society, Ugh
    Society wants to be the one to decide how many people are to transcend death; it will tolerate the causa-sui project only if it fits in the standard social project. Other there is the alarm of "Anarchy!" This is one of the reasons for bigotry and censorship of all kinds over personal morality: people fear that the standard morality will be undermined – another way of saying that they fear they will no longer be able to control life and death.
  10. Lack Of Ambition
    Jonah Syndrome is a justified fear of being torn apart, of losing control, of being shattered and disintegrated, even of being killed by the experience. And the result is what we would expect a weak organism to do: to cut back the full intensity of life. ... For some people this evasion of one's own growth, setting low levels of aspirations, the fear of doing what one is capable of doing, voluntary self-crippling, pseudo-stupidity, mock-humility are in fact defenses against grandiosity.
  11. Repressing Wonder
    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.
  12. Confidence
    Man could strut and boast all he wanted but that he really drew "courage to be" from a god, a string of sexual conquests, a Big Brother, a flag, the proletariat, and the fetish of money and the size of a bank balance. ... What would the average man do with a full consciousness of absurdity? ... He accomplishes thereby a peculiarly human victory: the ability to be smug about terror.
  13. Death Anxiety
    Man's anxiety is a function of his sheer ambiguity and of his complete powerlessness to overcome that ambiguity, to be straightforwardly an animal or an angel. He cannot live heedless of his fate, nor can he take control over the fate and triumph over it by being outside the human condition. ... It is logical that if you are one of the few who admits the anxiety of death, then you must question the fantasy of immortality.
  14. Creating Heroes
    This use of the transference object explains the urge to deification of the other, the constant placing of certain select persons on pedestals, the reading into them of extra power: the more they have, the more rubs off on us. We participate in their immortality and so we immortals. ... "I am making a deeper impression on the cosmos because I know this famous person."
  15. Being Special
    On the one hand, the creature is impelled by a powerful desire to identify with the cosmic process, to merge himself with the rest of nature. On the other hand he wants to be unique, to stand out as a something different and apart.
  16. Need For Religion
    Fraud thought that man's hunger for a God in heaven represented everything that was immature and selfish in man: his helplessness, his fear, his greed for the fullest possible protection and satisfaction. But Otto Rank understood the idea of 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.
  17. Love
    The self-glorification that he needed in his innermost nature he now looked for in the love partner. The love partner becomes the divine ideal with which to fulfill one's life. All spiritual and moral needs now becomes focused in one individual ... The point is that if the love object is divine perfection, then one's own self is elevated by joining one's destiny to it.
  18. More Love
    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."
  19. Sex 😉
    In sex the body and the consciousness of it are no longer separated; the body is no longer something we look at as an alien to ourselves.
  20. Sex👻
    Sex is the of the body, and the body is of death ... As in Greek mythology too, Eros and Thanatos are inseparable; death is the natural twin brother of sex.
  21. Making Babies
    All the more is guilt wiped away when the body finds its natural usage in the production of a child. Nature herself then proclaims one's innocence, how fitting it is that one should have a body, be basically procreative animal. ... Nature conquers death not by creating eternal organisms but by making it possible for ephemeral ones to procreate.
  22. Art V. Existential Agnst
    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.
  23. Artist And Immortality
    He wants to know how to earn immortality as a result of his own unique gifts. His creative work is at the same time the expression of his heroism and the justification of it. It is his "private religion" – as [Otto] Rank put it. Its uniqueness gives him personal immortality; it is his own "beyond" and not that of others.
  24. More Artist And Immortality
    The work of art is the artist's attempt to justify his heroism objectively, in the concrete creation. It is a 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 form outside himself and outside *itself*.
  25. Artists' Relationship To Their Audience
    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 head of your fellow men. After all, they can't grant the immortality of your personal soul. As Rank argued ...there is no way for the artist to be peace with his work or with the society that accepts it. The artist's gift is always creation itself, to the ultimate meaning of life, to God.
  26. Neurosis
    Instead of living experience the neurotic ideates it; instead of arranging it in action he works it all out in his head.
  27. Artist As Obsessive
    What we call a creative gift is merely the social license to be obsessed.
  28. Artists V. Neurotics
    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 worldview that satisfies everyone else. The answer is that he takes the world, but instead of being oppressed by it he reworks it in his own personality and recreates in the work of art.
  29. More Artists V. Neurotics
    The difference between an artist and a neurotic boils down largely to a question of talent ... The artist overcomes his inferiority and glorifies himself *because he has the talent to do so*.
  30. Search For Meaning
    Modern man cannot find his heroism in every day 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.
  31. Art Is The Answer
    Either you eat up yourself an 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.
  32. More Art Is The Answer
    Otto Rank posed the basic question: he asked whether the individual is able at all "to affirm and accept himself for himself." But he quickly sidestepped it by saying it "cannot be said." Only the creative type can do this, to some extent, he reasoned, by using his work as a justification for his existence.
  33. Legitimate Foolishness
    Rank prescribed the cure for neurosis: as the "need for legitimate foolishness." ... What is the best illusion under which to live? Or, what is the most legitimate foolishness? ... The whole question would be answered in terms of how much freedom, diginity, and hope a given illusion provides. These three things absorb the problem of natural neurosis and turn it to creative living.