Ernest Becker

American cultural anthropologist

Ernest Becker (27 September 1924 – 6 March 1974) was an American cultural anthropologist and interdisciplinary thinker, noted for his 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death.

Ernest Becker



The Birth and Death of Meaning: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Problem of Man (1962)


2 ed., New York: The Free Press. 1971. ISBN 978-0029021903.

  • We have become victims of our own art. We touch people on the outsides of their bodies, and they us, but we cannot get at their insides and cannot reveal our insides to them. This is one of the great tragedies of our interiority—it is utterly personal and unrevealable. Often we want to say something unusually intimate to a spouse, a parent, a friend, communicate something of how we are really feeling about a sunset, who we really feel we are—only to fall strangely and miserably flat. Once in a great while we succeed, sometimes more with one person, less or never with others. But the occasional breakthrough only proves the rule. You reach out with a disclosure, fail, and fall back bitterly into yourself.
    • p. 27

The Denial of Death (1973)


New York: The Free Press. 1975. ISBN 978-0029023105.

  • The prospect of death, Dr. Johnson said, wonderfully concentrates the mind. The main thesis of this book is that it does much more than that: the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man. The noted anthropologist A. M. Hocart once argued that primitives were not bothered by the fear of death; that a sagacious sampling of anthropological evidence would show that death was, more often than not, accompanied by rejoicing and festivities; that death seemed to be an occasion for celebration rather than fear—much like the traditional Irish wake. Hocart wanted to dispel the notion that (compared to modern man) primitives were childish and frightened by reality; anthropologists have now largely accomplished this rehabilitation of the primitive. But this argument leaves untouched the fact that the fear of death is indeed a universal in the human condition. To be sure, primitives often celebrate death—as Hocart and others have shown—because they believe that death is the ultimate promotion, the final ritual elevation to a higher form of life, to the enjoyment of eternity in some form. Most modern Westerners have trouble believing this any more, which is what makes the fear of death so prominent a part of our psychological make-up.
    • Preface
  • The man of knowledge in our time is bowed down under a burden he never imagined he would ever have: the overproduction of truth that cannot be consumed.
    • Preface, p. x
  • Our heroic projects that are aimed at destroying evil have the paradoxical effect of bringing more evil into the world. Human conflicts are life and death struggles—my gods against your gods, my immortality project against your immortality project. The root of humanly caused evil is not man’s animal nature, not territorial aggression, or innate selfishness, but our need to gain self-esteem, deny our mortality, and achieve a heroic self-image.
    • Foreword

Introduction: Human Nature and the Heroic

  • One of the key concepts for understanding man’s urge to heroism is the idea of “narcissism.” As Erich Fromm has so well reminded us, this idea is one of Freud’s great and lasting contributions. Freud discovered that each of us repeats the tragedy of the mythical Greek Narcissus: we are hopelessly absorbed with ourselves. 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 gets hit with the arrow. Twenty-five hundred years of history have not changed man’s basic narcissism; most of the time, for most of us, this is still a workable definition of luck. It is one of the meaner aspects of narcissism that we feel that practically everyone is expendable except ourselves. We should feel prepared, as Emerson once put it, to recreate the whole world out of ourselves even if no one else existed. The thought frightens us; we don’t know how we could do it without others—yet at bottom the basic resource is there: we could suffice alone if need be, if we could trust ourselves as Emerson wanted. And if we don’t feel this trust emotionally, still most of us would struggle to survive with all our powers, no matter how many around us died. Our organism is ready to fill the world all alone, even if our mind shrinks at the thought. This narcissism is what keeps men marching into point-blank fire in wars: at heart one doesn’t feel that he will die, he only feels sorry for the man next to him. Freud’s explanation for this was that the unconscious does not know death or time: in man’s physiochemical, inner organic recesses he feels immortal.
  • Man does not seem able to “help” his selfishness; it seems to come from his animal nature. Through countless ages of evolution the organism has had to protect its own integrity; it had its own physiochemical identity and was dedicated to preserving it. This is one of the main problems in organ transplants: the organism protects itself against foreign matter, even if it is a new heart that would keep it alive. The protoplasm itself harbors its own, nurtures itself against the world, against invasions of its integrity. It seems to enjoy its own pulsations, expanding into the world and ingesting pieces of it. If you took a blind and dumb organism and gave it self-consciousness and a name, if you made it stand out of nature and know consciously that it was unique, then you would have narcissism. In man, physiochemical identity and the sense of power and activity have become conscious.
  • In man a working level of narcissism is inseparable from self-esteem, from a basic sense of self-worth. We have learned, mostly from Alfred Adler, that what man needs most is to feel secure in his self-esteem. But man is not just a blind glob of idling protoplasm, but a creature with a name who lives in a world of symbols and dreams and not merely matter. His sense of self-worth is constituted symbolically, his cherished narcissism feeds on symbols, on an abstract idea of his own worth, an idea composed of sounds, words, and images, in the air, in the mind, on paper. And this means that man’s natural yearning for organismic activity, the pleasures of incorporation and expansion, can be fed limitlessly in the domain of symbols and so into immortality. The single organism can expand into dimensions of worlds and times without moving a physical limb; it can take eternity into itself even as it gaspingly dies.
  • In childhood we see the struggle for self-esteem at its least disguised. The child is unashamed about what he needs and wants most. His whole organism shouts the claims of his natural narcissism. And this claim can make childhood hellish for the adults concerned, especially when there are several children competing at once for the prerogatives of limitless self-extension, what we might call “cosmic significance.” The term is not meant to be taken lightly, because this is where our discussion is leading. We like to speak casually about “sibling rivalry,” as though it were some kind of byproduct of growing up, a bit of competitiveness and selfishness of children who have been spoiled, who haven’t yet grown into a generous social nature. But it is too all-absorbing and relentless to be an aberration, it expresses the heart of the creature: the desire to stand out, to be the one in creation. When you combine natural narcissism with the basic need for self-esteem, you create a creature who has to feel himself an object of primary value: first in the universe, representing in himself all of life. This is the reason for the daily and usually excruciating struggle with siblings: the child cannot allow himself to be second-best or devalued, much less left out. “You gave him the biggest piece of candy!” “You gave him more juice!” “Here’s a little more, then.” “Now she’s got more juice than me!” “You let her light the fire in the fireplace and not me.” “Okay, you light a piece of paper.” “But this piece of paper is smaller than the one she lit.” And so on and on. An animal who gets his feeling of worth symbolically has to minutely compare himself to those around him, to make sure he doesn’t come off second-best. 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.
  • When we appreciate how natural it is for man to strive to be a hero, how deeply it goes in his evolutionary and organismic constitution, how openly he shows it as a child, then it is all the more curious how ignorant most of us are, consciously, of what we really want and need. In our culture anyway, especially in modern times, the heroic seems too big for us, or we too small for it. Tell a young man that he is entitled to be a hero and he will blush. We disguise our struggle by piling up figures in a bank book to reflect privately our sense of heroic worth. Or by having only a little better home in the neighborhood, a bigger car, brighter children. But underneath throbs the ache of cosmic specialness, no matter how we mask it in concerns of smaller scope. Occasionally someone admits that he takes his heroism seriously, which gives most of us a chill, as did U.S. Congressman Mendel Rivers, who fed appropriations to the military machine and said he was the most powerful man since Julius Caesar. We may shudder at the crassness of earthly heroism, of both Caesar and his imitators, but the fault is not theirs, it is in the way society sets up its hero system and in the people it allows to fill its roles. The 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.
  • It doesn’t matter whether the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical herosystem in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning. They earn this feeling by carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice that reflects human value: a temple, a cathedral, a totem pole, a sky-scraper, a family that spans three generations. The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count. 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 he meant: “civilized” society is a hopeful belief and protest that science, 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.
    • p. 5
  • If we were to peel away this massive disguise, the blocks of repression over human techniques for earning glory, we would arrive at the potentially most liberating question of all, the main problem of human life: How empirically true is the cultural hero system that sustains and drives men? We mentioned the meaner side of man’s urge to cosmic heroism, but there is obviously the noble side as well. Man will lay down his life for his country, his society, his family. He will choose to throw himself on a grenade to save his comrades; he is capable of the highest generosity and self-sacrifice. But he has to feel and believe that what he is doing is truly heroic, timeless, and supremely meaningful. 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. They don’t believe it is empirically true to the problems of their lives and times. We are living a crisis of heroism that reaches into every aspect of our social life: the dropouts of university heroism, of business and career heroism, of political-action heroism; the rise of anti-heroes, those who would be heroic each in his own way or like Charles Manson with his special “family”, those whose tormented heroics lash out at the system that itself has ceased to represent agreed heroism. The great perplexity of our time, the churning of our age, is that the youth have sensed—for better or for worse—a great social-historical truth: that just as there are useless self-sacrifices in unjust wars, so too is there an ignoble heroics of whole societies: it can be the viciously destructive heroics of Hitler’s Germany or the plain debasing and silly heroics of the acquisition and display of consumer goods, the piling up of money and privileges that now characterizes whole ways of life, capitalist and Soviet.
  • But the truth about the need for heroism is not easy for anyone to admit, even the very ones who want to have their claims recognized. There’s the rub. As we shall see from our subsequent discussion, to become conscious of what one is doing to earn his feeling of heroism is the main self-analytic problem of life. Everything painful and sobering in what psychoanalytic genius and religious genius have discovered about man revolves around the terror of admitting what one is doing to earn his self-esteem. This is why human heroics is a blind drivenness that burns people up; in passionate people, a screaming for glory as uncritical and reflexive as the howling of a dog. In the more passive masses of mediocre men it is disguised as they humbly and complainingly follow out the roles that society provides for their heroics and try to earn their promotions within the system: wearing the standard uniforms—but allowing themselves to stick out, but ever so little and so safely, with a little ribbon or a red boutonniere, but not with head and shoulders.
  • 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.

The Terror of Death

  • The argument from biology and evolution is basic and has to be taken seriously; I don’t see how it can be left out of any discussion. 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. It is more reasonable to think that it was instead heightened, as some of the early Darwinians thought: 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 hyperanxious animal who constantly invents reasons for anxiety even where there are none.
  • [M]an cuts out for himself a manageable world: he throws himself into action uncritically, unthinkingly. He accepts the cultural programming that turns his nose where he is supposed to look; he doesn't bite the world off in one piece as a giant would, but in small manageable pieces, as a beaver does. He uses all kinds of techniques, which we call the "character defenses": he learns not to expose himself, not to stand out; he learns to embed himself in other-power, both of concrete persons and of things and cultural commands; the result is that he comes to exist in the imagined infallibility of the world around him. He doesn't have to have fears when his feet are solidly mired and his life mapped out in a ready-made maze. All he has to do is to plunge ahead in a compulsive style of drivenness in the "ways of the world" that the child learns and in which he lives later as a kind of grim equanimity.
    • p. 23

The Recasting of Some Basic Psychoanalytic ideas

  • Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. 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. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with.
    • p. 26
  • Freud never abandoned his views because they were correct in their elemental suggestiveness about the human condition—but not quite in the sense that he thought, or rather, not in the framework which he offered. Today we realize that all the talk about blood and excrement, sex and guilt, is true not because of urges to patricide and incest and fears of actual physical castration, but because 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. The guilt that he feels over bodily processes and urges is “pure” guilt: guilt as inhibition, as determinism, as smallness and boundness. It grows out of the constraint of the basic animal condition, the incomprehensible mystery of the body and the world.
    • p. 29
  • At first the child is amused by his anus and feces, and gaily inserts his finger into the orifice, smelling it, smearing feces on the walls, playing games of touching objects with his anus, and the like. This is a universal form of play that does the serious work of all play: it reflects the discovery and exercise of natural bodily functions; it masters an area of strangeness; it establishes power and control over the deterministic laws of the natural world; and it does all this with symbols and fancy. 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 body so far as nature is concerned. Nature’s values are bodily values, human values are mental values, and though they take the loftiest flights they are built upon excrement, impossible without it, always brought back to it. As Montaigne put it, on the highest throne in the world man sits on his arse. Usually this epigram makes people laugh because it seems to reclaim the world from artificial pride and snobbery and to bring things back to egalitarian values. But if we push the observation even further and say men sit not only on their arse, but over a warm and fuming pile of their own excrement—the joke is no longer funny. The tragedy of man’s dualism, his ludicrous situation, becomes too real. The anus and its incomprehensible, repulsive product represents not only physical determinism and boundness, but the fate as well of all that is physical: decay and death.
  • In order to understand the weight of the dualism of the human condition, we have to know that the child can’t really handle either end of it. The most characteristic thing about him is that he is precocious or premature; his world piles up on him and he piles up on himself. He has right from the beginning an exquisite sensory system that rapidly develops to take in all the sensations of his world with an extreme finesse. Add to it the quick development of language and the sense of self and pile it all upon a helpless infant body trying vainly to grab the world correctly and safely. The result is ludicrous. The child is overwhelmed by experiences of the dualism of the self and the body from both areas, since he can be master of neither. He is not a confident social self, adept manipulator of symbolic categories of words, thoughts, names, or places,—or especially of time, that great mystery for him; he doesn’t even know what a clock is. Nor is he a functioning adult animal who can work and procreate, do the serious things he sees happening around him: he can’t “do like father” in any way. He is a prodigy in limbo. In both halves of his experience he is dispossessed, yet impressions keep pouring in on him and sensations keep welling up within him, flooding his body. He has to make some kind of sense out of them, establish some kind of ascendancy over them. Will it be thoughts over body, or body over thoughts? Not so easy. There can be no clearcut victory or straightforward solution of the existential dilemma he is in. It is his problem right from the beginning almost of his life, yet he is only a child to handle it. Children feel hounded by symbols they don’t understand the need of, verbal demands that seem picayune, and rules and codes that call them away from their pleasure in the straightforward expression of their natural energies. And when they try to master the body, pretend it isn’t there, act “like a little man,” the body suddenly overwhelms them, submerges them in vomit or excrement—and the child breaks down in desperate tears over his melted pretense at being a purely symbolic animal. Often the child deliberately soils himself or continues to wet the bed, to protest against the imposition of artificial symbolic rules: he seems to be saying that: the body is his primary reality and that he wants to remain in the simpler physical Eden and not be thrown out into the world of “right and wrong.”
  • Both the boy and girl turn away from the mother as a sort of automatic reflex of their own needs for growth and independence. But the “horror, terror, contempt” they feel is, as we said, part of their own fantastic perceptions of a situation they can’t stand. This situation is not only the biological dependency and physicalness represented by the mother, but also the terrible revelation of the problem of the child’s own body. The mother’s body not only reveals a sex that threatens vulnerability and dependency—it reveals much more: it presents the problem of two sexes and so confronts the child with the fact that his body is itself arbitrary. It is not so much that the child sees that neither sex is “complete” in itself or that he understands that the particularity of each sex is a limitation of potential, a cheating of living fulness in some ways—he can’t know these things or fully feel them. It is again not a sexual problem; it is more global, experienced as the curse of arbitrariness that the body represents. The child comes upon a world in which he could just as well have been born male or female, even dog, cat, or fish—for all that it seems to matter as regards power and control, capacity to withstand pain, annihilation, and death. The horror of sexual differentiation is a horror of “biological fact,” as Brown so well says. It is a fall out of illusion into sobering reality. It is a horror of assuming an immense new burden, the burden of the meaning of life and the body, of the fatality of one’s incompleteness, his helplessness, his finitude. And this, finally, is the hopeless terror of the castration complex that makes men tremble in their nightmares. It expresses the realization by the child that he is saddled with an impossible project; that the causa-sui pursuit on which he is launched cannot be achieved by body-sexual means, even by protesting a body different from the mother. The fortress of the body, the primary base for narcissistic operations against the world in order to insure one’s boundless powers, crumbles like sand. This is the tragic dethroning of the child, the ejection from paradise that the castration complex represents. Once he used any bodily zone or appendage for his Oedipal project of self-generation; now, the very genitals themselves mock his self-sufficiency.
  • The person is both a self and a body, and from the beginning there is the confusion about where “he” really “is”—in the symbolic inner self or in the physical body. Each phenomenological realm is different. The inner self represents the freedom of thought, imagination, and the infinite reach of symbolism. The body represents determinism and boundness. The child gradually learns that his freedom as a unique being is dragged back by the body and its appendages which dicate “what” he is. For this reason sexuality is as much a problem for the adult as for the child: the physical solution to the problem of who we are and why we have emerged on this planet is no help—in fact, it is a terrible threat. It doesn’t tell the person what he is deep down inside, what kind of distinctive gift he is to work upon the world. 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. Even worse, the inner self is not even being called into consideration at all; the body takes over completely for the total person, and this kind of guilt makes the inner self shrink and threaten to disappear.

Human Character as a Vital Lie

  • [We are] gods with anuses.
    • p. 51
  • It is fateful and ironic how the lie we need in order to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours.
    • p. 56
  • The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.
    • p. 66
  • The historic value of Freud’s work is that it came to grips with the peculiar animal that man was, the animal that was not programmed by instincts to close off perception and assure automatic equanimity and forceful action. Man had to invent and create out of himself the limitations of perception and the equanimity to live on this planet. And so the core of psychodynamics, the formation of the human character, is a study in human self-limitation and in the terrifying costs of that limitation. The hostility to psychoanalysis in the past, today, and in the future, will always be a hostility against admitting that man lives by lying to himself about himself and about his world, and that character, to follow Ferenczi and Brown, is a vital lie. I particularly like the way Maslow has summed up this contribution of Freudian thought: "Freud’s greatest discover, the one which lies at the root of psychodynamics, is that the great cause of much psychological illness is the fear of knowledge of oneself —of one’s emotions, impulses, memories, capacities, potentialities, of one’s destiny. We have discovered that fear of knowledge of oneself is very often isomorphic with, and parallel with, fear of the outside world". And what is this fear, but a fear of the reality of creation in relation to our powers and possibilities: In general this kind of fear is defensive, in the sense that it is a protection of our self-esteem, of our love and respect for ourselves. We tend to be afraid of any knowledge that could cause us to despise ourselves or to make us feel inferior, weak, worthless, evil, shameful. We protect ourselves and our ideal image of ourselves by repression and similar defenses, which are essentially techniques by which we avoid becoming conscious of unpleasant or dangerous truths. 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. This sense of value and support is something that nature gives to each animal by the automatic instinctive programming and in the pulsating of the vital processes. But man, poor denuded creature, has to build and earn inner value and security. He must repress his smallness in the adult world, his failures to live up to adult commands and codes. He must repress his own feelings of physical and moral inadequacy, not only the inadequacy of his good intentions but also his guilt and his evil intensions: the death wishes and hatreds that result from being frustrated and blocked by the adults. He must repress his parents’ inadequacy, their anxieties and terrors, because these make it difficult for him to feel secure and strong. He must repress his own anality, his compromising bodily functions that spell his mortality, his fundamental expendability in nature. And with all this, and more that we leave unsaid, he must repress the primary awesomeness of the external world.
  • Nature has protected the lower animal by endowing them with instincts. An instinct is a programmed perception that calls into play a programmed reaction. It is very simple. Animals are not moved by what they cannot react to. They live in a tiny world, a sliver of reality, one neuro-chemical program that keeps them walking behind their nose and shuts out everything else. But look at man, the impossible creature! Here nature seems to have thrown caution to the winds along with the programmed instincts. She created an animal who has no defense against full perception of the external world, an animal completely open to experience. Not only in front of his nose, in his umwelt, but in many other umwelten. He can relate not only to animals in his own species, but in some ways to all other species. He can contemplate not only what is edible for him, but everything that grows. He not only lives in this moment, but expands his inner self to yesterday, his curiosity to centuries ago, his fears to five billion years from now when the sun will cool, his hopes to an eternity from now. He lives not only on a tiny territory, nor even on an entire planet, but in a galaxy, in a universe, and in dimensions beyond visible universes. It is appalling, the burden that man bears, the experiential burden. As we saw in the last chapter, man can’t even take his own body for granted as can other animals. It is not just hind feet, a tail that he drags, that are just “there,” limbs to be; used and taken for granted or chewed off when caught in a trap and when they give pain and prevent movement. Man’s body is a problem to him that has to be explained. Not only his body is strange, but also its inner landscape, the memories and dreams. Man’s very insides—his self—are foreign to him. He doesn’t know who he is, why he was born, what he is doing on the planet, what he is supposed to do, what he can expect. His own existence is incomprehensible to him, a miracle just like the rest of creation, closer to him, right near his pounding heart, but for that reason all the more strange. Each thing is a problem, and man can shut out nothing. As Maslow has well said, “It is precisely the godlike in ourselves that we are ambivalent about, fascinated by and fearful of, motivated to and defensive against. This is one aspect of the basic human predicament, that we are simultaneously worms and gods.” There it is again: gods with anuses.
  • Man is reluctant to move out into the overwhelmingness of his world, the real dangers of it; he shrinks back from losing himself in the all-consuming appetites of others, from spinning out of control in the clutchings and clawings of men, beasts and machines. As an animal organism man senses the kind of planet he has been put down on, the nightmarish, demonic frenzy in which nature has unleashed billions of individual organismic appetites of all kinds— not to mention earthquakes, meteors, and hurricanes, which seem to have their own hellish appetites. Each thing, in order to deliciously expand, is forever gobbling up others. Appetites may be innocent because they are naturally given, but any organism caught in the myriad cross-purposes of this planet is a potential victim of this very innocence—and it shrinks away from life lest it lose its own. Life can suck one up, sap his energies, submerge him, take away his self-control, give so much new experience so quickly that he will burst; make him stick out among others, emerge onto dangerous ground, load him up with new responsibilities which need great strength to bear, expose him to new contingencies, new chances. Above all there is the danger of a slip-up, an accident, a chance disease, and of course of death, the final sucking up, the total submergence and negation.
  • We understand that if the child were to give in to the overpowering character of reality and experience he would not be able to act with the kind of equanimity we need in our non-instinctive world. So one of the first things a child has to do is to learn to “abandon ecstasy,” to do without awe, to leave fear and trembling behind. Only then can he act with a certain oblivious self-confidence, when he has naturalized his world. We say “naturalized” but we mean unnaturalized, falsified, with the truth obscured, the despair of the human condition hidden, a despair that the child glimpses in his night terrors and daytime phobias and neuroses. This despair he avoids by building defenses; and these defenses allow him to feel a basic sense of self-worth, of meaningfulness, of power. They allow him to feel that he controls his life and his death, that he really does live and act as a willful and free individual, that he has a unique and self-fashioned identity, that he is somebody—not just a trembling accident germinated on a hothouse planet that Carlyle for all time called a “hall of doom.” We called one’s life style a vital lie, and now we can understand better why we said it was vital: it is a necessary and basic dishonesty about oneself and one’s whole situation. This revelation is what the Freudian revolution in thought really ends up in and is the basic reason that we still strain against Freud. We don’t want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not really control our own lives. We don’t want to admit that we do not stand alone, that we always rely on something that transcends us, some system of ideas and powers in which we are embedded and which support us. This power is not always obvious. It need not be overtly a god or openly a stronger person, but it can be the power of an all-absorbing activity, a passion, a dedication to a game, a way of life, that like a comfortable web keeps a person buoyed up and ignorant of himself, of the fact that he does not rest on his own center. All of us are driven to be supported in a self-forgetful way, ignorant of what energies we really draw on, of the kind of lie we have fashioned in order to live securely and serenely. Augustine was a master analyst of this, as were Kierkegaard, Scheler, and Tillich in our day. They saw that man could strut and boast all he wanted, but that he really drew his “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 sense does it make to talk about “enjoying one’s full humanness”—as Maslow urges along with so many others—if “full humanness” means the primary mis-adjustment to the world? If you get rid of the four-layered neurotic shield, the armor that covers the characterological lie about life, how can you talk about “enjoying” this Pyrrhic victory? 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. Full humanness means full fear and trembling, at least some of the waking day. When you get a person to emerge into life, away from his dependencies, his automatic safety in the cloak of someone else’s power, what joy can you promise him with the burden of his aloneness? When you get a person to look at the sun as it bakes down on the daily carnage taking place on earth, the ridiculous accidents, the utter fragility of life, the powerlessness of those he thought most powerful—what comfort can you give him from a psychotherapeutic point of view? Luis Buñuel likes to introduce a mad dog into his films as counterpoint to the secure daily routine of repressed living. The meaning of his symbolism is that no matter what men pretend, they are only one accidental bite away from utter fallibility. The artist disguises the incongruity that is the pulse-beat of madness but he is aware of it. 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. This is a serious game, the defense of one’s existence—how take it away from people and leave them joyous?
  • Maslow was too broad-minded and sober to imagine that being-cognition did not have an underside; but he didn’t go far enough toward pointing out what a dangerous underside it was—that it could undermine one’s whole position in the world. 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 Psychoanalyst Kierkegaard

  • What does it mean to be a self-conscious animal? The idea is ludicrous, if it is not monstrous. It means to know that one is food for worms. This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression—and with all this yet to die. It seems like a hoax, which is why one type of cultural man rebels openly against the idea of God. What kind of deity would create such complex and fancy worm food?
    • p. 87
  • The man with the clear head is the man who frees himself from those fantastic “ideas” [the characterological lie about reality] and looks life in the face, realizes that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost. And 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, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life. These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost, is without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality.

The Spell Cast by Persons—The Nexus of Unfreedom

  • By explaining the precise power that held groups together Freud could also show why groups did not fear danger. The members do not feel that they are alone with their own smallness and helplessness, as they have the powers of the hero-leader with whom they are identified. Natural narcissism—the feeling that the person next to you will die, but not you—is reinforced by trusting dependence on the leader’s power. No wonder that hundreds of thousands of men marched up from trenches in the face of blistering gunfire in World War I. They were partially self-hypnotised, so to speak. No wonder men imagine victories against impossible odds: don’t they have the omnipotent powers of the parental figure? Why are groups so blind and stupid?—men have always asked. Because they demand illusions, answered Freud, they “constantly give what is unreal precedence over what is real.” And we know why. The real world is simply too terrible to admit; it tells man that he is a small, trembling animal who will decay and die. Illusion changes all this, makes man seem important, vital to the universe, immortal in some way. Who transmits this illusion, if not the parents by imparting the macro-lie of the cultural causa sui? The masses look to the leaders to give them just the untruth that they need; the leader continues the illusions that triumph over the castration complex and magnifies them into a truly heroic victory. Furthermore, he makes possible a new experience, the expression of forbidden impulses, secret wishes, and fantasies. In group behavior anything goes because the leader okays it. It is like being an omnipotent infant again, encouraged by the parent to indulge oneself plentifully, or like being in psychoanalytic therapy where the analyst doesn’t censure you for anything you feel or think. In the group each man seems an omnipotent hero who can give full vent to his appetites under the approving eye of the father. And so we understand the terrifying sadism of group activity.
  • This totality of the transference object also helps explain its ambivalence. In some complex ways the child has to fight against the power of the parents in their awesome miraculousness. They are just as overwhelming as the background of nature from which they emerge. The child learns to naturalize them by techniques of accommodation and manipulation. At the same time, however, he has to focus on them the whole problem of terror and power, making them the center of it in order to cut down and naturalize the world around them. Now we see why the transference object poses so many problems. The child does partly control his larger fate by it, but it becomes his new fate. He binds himself to one person to automatically control terror, to mediate wonder, and to defeat death by that person’s strength. But then he experiences “transference terror”; the terror of losing the object, of displeasing it, of not being able to live without it. The terror of his own finitude and impotence still haunts him, but now in the precise form of the transference object. How implacably ironic is human life. The transference object always looms larger than life size because it represents all of life and hence all of one’s fate. The transference object becomes the focus of the problem of one’s freedom because one is compulsively dependent on it it sums up all other natural dependencies and emotions. This quality is true of either positive or negative transference objects. In the negative transference the object becomes the focalization of terror, but now experienced as evil and constraint. It is the source, too, of much of the bitter memories of childhood and of our accusations of our parents. We try to make them the sole repositories of our own unhappiness in amuch of the bitter memories of childhood and of our accusations of our parents. 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.
  • As far as we can tell—as I put it elsewhere—“all organisms like to ‘feel good’ about themselves.” They push themselves to maximize this feeling. As philosophers have long noted, it is as though the heart of nature is pulsating in its own joyful self-expansion. When we get to the level of man, of course, this process acquires its greatest interest. It is most intense in man and in him relatively undetermined—he can pulsate and expand both organismically and symbolically. This expansion takes the form of man’s tremendous urge for a feeling of total “rightness” about himself and his world. This perhaps clumsy way to talk seems to me to sum up what man is really trying to do and why conscience is his fate. Man is the only organism in nature fated to puzzle out what it actually means to feel “right.”
  • If fear of life is one aspect of transference, its companion fear is right at hand. As the growing child becomes aware of death, he has a twofold reason for taking shelter in the powers of the transference object. The castration complex makes the body an object of horror, and it is now the transference object who carries the weight of the abandoned causa-sui project. The child uses him to assure his immortality. What is more natural? I can’t resist quoting from another writing Gorki’s famous sentiment on Tolstoi, because it sums up so well this aspect of transference: “I am not bereft on this earth, so long as this old man is living on it.” This comes from the depth of Gorki’s emotion; it is not a simple wish or a comforting thought: it is more like a driving belief that the mystery and solidity of the transference object will give one shelter as long as he lives. 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 powers: the more they have, the more rubs off on us. We participate in their immortality, and so we create immortals. As Harrington put it graphically: “I am making a deeper impression on the cosmos because I know this famous person. When the ark sails I will be on it.” 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...".
  • Nature has arranged that it is impossible for man to feel “right” in any straightforward way. Here we have to introduce a paradox that seems to go right to the heart of organismic life and that is especially sharpened in man. The paradox takes the form of two motives or urges that seem to be part of creature consciousness and that point in two opposite directions. 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 something different and apart. The first motive— to merge and lose oneself in something larger—comes from man’s horror of isolation, of being thrust back upon his own feeble energies alone; he feels tremblingly small and impotent in the face of transcendent nature. If he gives in to his natural feeling of cosmic dependence, the desire to be part of something bigger, it puts him at peace and at oneness, gives him a sense of self-expansion in a larger beyond, and so heightens his being, giving him truly a feeling of transcendent value. This is the Christian motive of Agape—the natural melding of created life in the “Creation-in-love” which transcends it. As Rank put it, man yearns for a “feeling of kinship with the All.” He wants to be “delivered from his isolation” and become “part of a greater and higher whole.” The person reaches out naturally for a self beyond his own self in order to know who he is at all, in order to feel that he belongs in the universe. Long before Camus penned the words of the epigraph to this chapter, Rank said: “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.”
  • The strength of Rank’s work, which enabled him to draw such an unfailing psychological portrait of man in the round, was that he connected psychoanalytic clinical insight with the basic ontological motives of the human creature. In this way he got as deep into human motives as he could and produced a group psychology that was really a psychology of the human condition. For one thing, we could see that what the psychoanalysts call “identification” is a natural urge to join in the overwhelming powers that transcend one. Childhood identification is then merely a special case of this urge: the child merges himself with the representatives of the cosmic process—what we have called the “transference focalization” of terror, majesty, and power. When one merges with the self-transcending parents or social group he is, in some real sense, trying to live in some larger expansiveness of meaning. We miss the complexity of heroism if we fail to understand this point; we miss its complete grasp of the person—a grasp not only in the support of power that self-transcendence gives to him but a grasp of his whole being in joy and love. The urge to immortality is not a simple reflex of the death-anxiety but a reaching out by one’s whole being toward life. Perhaps this natural expansion of the creature alone can explain why transference is such a universal passion.
  • From this point of view too we understand the idea of God as a logical fulfillment of the Agape side of man’s nature. Freud seems to have scorned Agape as he scorned the religion that preached it. He 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 Rank understood that 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—as James taught us. It seems that the yielding element in heroic belongingness is inherent in the life force itself, one of the truly sublime mysteries of created life. It seems that the life force reaches naturally even beyond the earth itself, which is one reason why man has always placed God in the heavens.
  • We said it is impossible for man to feel “right” in any straightforward way, and now we can see why. He can expand his self-feeling not only by Agape merger but also by the other ontological motive Eros, the urge for more life, for exciting experience, for the development of the self-powers, for developing the uniqueness of the individual creature, the impulsion to stick out of nature and shine. Life is, after all, a challenge to the creature, a fascinating opportunity to expand. Psychologically it is the urge for individuation: how do I realize my distinctive gifts, make my own contribution to the world through my own self-expansion? Now we see what we might call the ontological or creature tragedy that is so peculiar to man: If he gives in to Agape he risks failing to develop himself, his active contribution to the rest of life. If he expands Eros too much he risks cutting himself off from natural dependency, from duty to a larger creation; he pulls away from the healing power of gratitude and humility that he must naturally feel for having been created, for having been given the opportunity of life experience. Man thus has the absolute tension of the dualism. Individuation means that the human creature has to oppose itself to the rest of nature. It creates precisely the isolation that one can’t stand—and yet needs in order to develop distinctively. It creates the difference that becomes such a burden; it accents the smallness of oneself and the sticking-outness at the same time. This is natural guilt. The person experiences this as “unworthiness” or “badness” and dumb inner dissatisfaction. And the reason is realistic. Compared to the rest of nature man is not a very satisfactory creation. He is riddled with fear and powerlessness.
  • We can now understand fully how wrong it would be to look at transference in a totally derogatory way when it fulfills such vital drives toward human wholeness. Man needs to infuse his life with value so that he can pronounce it “good.” The transference-object is then a natural fetishization for man’s highest yearnings and strivings. Again we see what a marvelous “talent” transference is. It is a form of creative fetishism, the establishment of a locus from which our lives can draw the powers they need and want. What is more wanted than immortality-power? How wonderful and how facile to be able to take our whole immortality-striving and make it part of a dialogue with a single human being. We don’t know, on this planet, what the universe wants from us or is prepared to give us. We don’t have an answer to the question that troubled Kant of what our duty is, what we should be doing on earth. We live in utter darkness about who we are and why we are here, yet we know it must have some meaning. What is more natural, then, than to take this unspeakable mystery and dispel it straightaway by addressing our performance of heroics to another human being, knowing thus daily whether this performance is good enough to earn us eternity. If it is bad, we know that it is bad by his reactions and so are able instantly to change it.
  • If transference heroics were safe heroism we might think it demeaning. Heroism is by definition defiance of safety. But the point that we are making is that all the strivings for perfection, the twistings and turnings to please the other, are not necessarily cowardly or unnatural. What makes transference heroics demeaning is that the process is unconscious and reflexive, not fully in one’s control. Psychoanalytic therapy directly addresses itself to this problem. Beyond that, the other person is man’s fate and a natural one. He is forced to address his performance to qualify for goodness to his fellow creatures, as they form his most compelling and immediate environment, not in the physical or evolutionary sense in which like creatures huddle unto like, but more in the spiritual sense. Human beings are the only things that mediate meaning, which is to say that they give the only human meaning we can know.
  • No wonder too, for a final time, that transference is a universal passion. It represents a natural attempt to be healed and to be whole, through heroic self-expansion in the “other.” Transference represents the larger reality that one needs, which is why Freud and Ferenczi could already say that transference represents psychotherapy, the “self-taught attempts on the patient’s part to cure himself.” People create the reality they need in order to discover themselves. The implications of these remarks are perhaps not immediately evident, but they are immense for a theory of the transference. If transference represents the natural heroic striving for a “beyond” that gives self-validation and if people need this validation in order to live, then the psychoanalytic view of transference as simply unreal projection is destroyed. Projection is necessary and desirable for self-fulfillment. Otherwise man is overwhelmed by his loneliness and separation and negated by the very burden of his own life. As Rank so wisely saw, projection is a necessary unburdening of the individual; man cannot live closed upon himself and for himself. He must project the meaning of his life outward, the reason for it, even the blame for it. We did not create ourselves, but we are stuck with ourselves. Technically we say that transference is a distortion of reality. But now we see that this distortion has two dimensions: distortion due to the fear of life and death and distortion due to the heroic attempt to assure self-expansion and the intimate connection of one’s inner self to surrounding nature. In other words, transference reflects the whole of the human condition and raises the largest philosophical question about that condition.
    • p. 158

Otto Rank and the Closure of Psychoanalysis on Kierkegaard

  • One of the things we see as we glance over history is that creature consciousness is always absorbed by culture. Culture opposes nature and transcends it. Culture is in its most intimate intent a heroic denial of creatureliness. But this denial is more effective in some epochs than in others. When man lived securely under the canopy of the Judeo-Christian world picture he was part of a great whole; to put it in our terms, his cosmic heroism was completely mapped out, it was unmistakable. He came from the invisible world into the visible one by the act of God, did his duty to God by living out his life with dignity and faith, marrying as a duty, procreating as a duty, offering his whole life—as Christ had—to the Father. In turn he was justified by the Father and rewarded with eternal life in the invisible dimension. Little did it matter that the earth was a vale of tears, of horrid sufferings, of incommensurateness, of torturous and humiliating daily pettiness, of sickness and death, a place where man felt he did not belong, “the wrong place,” as Chesterton said, the place where man could expect nothing, achieve nothing for himself. Little did it matter, because it served God and so would serve the servant of God. 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.
  • Once we realize what the religious solution did, we can see how modern man edged himself into an impossible situation. He still needed to feel heroic, to know that his life mattered in the scheme of things; he still had to be specially “good” for something truly special. Also, he still had to merge himself with some higher, self-absorbing meaning, in trust and in gratitude—what we saw as the universal motive of the Agape-merger. If he no longer had God, how was he to do this? One of the first ways that occurred to him, as Rank saw, was the “romantic solution”: he fixed his urge to cosmic heroism onto another person in the form of a love object. 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 within which to fulfill one’s life. All spiritual and moral needs now become focussed in one individual. Spirituality, which once referred to another dimension of things, is now brought down to this earth and given form in another individual human being. Salvation itself is no longer referred to an abstraction like God but can be sought “in the beatification of the other.” We could call this “transference beatification.” Man now lives in a “cosmology of two.” To be sure, all through history there has been some competition between human objects of love and divine ones—we think of Héloïse and Abelard, Alcibiades and Socrates, or even the Song of Solomon. But the main difference is that in traditional society the human partner would not absorb into himself the whole dimension of the divine; in modern society he does. In case we are inclined to forget how deified the romantic love object is, the popular songs continually remind us. They tell us that the lover is the “springtime,” the “angel-glow,” with eyes “like stars,” that the experience of love will be “divine,” “like heaven” itself, and so on and on; popular love songs have surely had this content from ancient times and will likely continue to have it as long as man remains a mammal and a cousin of the primates. These songs reflect the hunger for real experience, a serious emotional yearning on the part of the creature. 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. One has the highest measure for one’s ideal-striving; all of one’s inner conflicts and contradictions, the many aspects of guilt —all these one can try to purge in a perfect consummation with perfection itself. This becomes a true “moral vindication in the other.” Modern man fulfills his urge to self-expansion in the love object just as it was once fulfilled in God: “God as … representation of our own will does not resist us except when we ourselves want it, and just as little does the lover resist us who, in yielding, subjects himself to our will.” In one word, the love object is God. As a Hindu song puts it: “My lover is like God; if he accepts me my existence is utilized.” No wonder Rank could conclude that the love relationship of modern man is a religious problem.
  • Freud thought that modern man’s moral dependence on another was a result of the Oedipus complex. But Rank could see that it was the result of a continuation of the causa-sui project of denying creatureliness. As now there was no religious cosmology into which to fit such a denial, one grabbed onto a partner. Man reached for a “thou” when the world-view of the great religious community overseen by God died. 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.” Sexuality, which Freud thought was at the heart of the Oedipus complex, is now understood for what it really is: another twisting and turning, a groping for the meaning of one’s life. If you don’t have a God in heaven, an invisible dimension that justifies the visible one, then you take what is nearest at hand and work out your problems on that.
  • But now the rub for man. 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. Sex represents, then, species consciousness and, as such, the defeat of individuality, of personality. But it is just this personality that man wants to develop: the idea of himself as a special cosmic hero with special gifts for the universe. He doesn’t want to be a mere fornicating animal like any other—this is not a truly human meaning, a truly distinctive contribution to world life. From the very beginning, then, the sexual act represents a double negation: by physical death and of distinctive personal gifts. This point is crucial because it explains why sexual taboos have been at the heart of human society since the very beginning. They affirm the triumph of human personality over animal sameness. With the complex codes for sexual self-denial, man was able to impose the cultural map for personal immortality over the animal body. He brought sexual taboos into being because he needed to triumph over the body, and he sacrificed the pleasures of the body to the highest pleasure of all: self-perpetuation as a spiritual being through all eternity.
  • After all, what is it that we want when we elevate the love partner to the position of God? We want redemption—nothing less. We want to be rid of our faults, of our feeling of nothingness. We want to be justified, to know that our creation has not been in vain. We turn to the love partner for the experience of the heroic, for perfect validation; we expect them to “make us good” through love. Needless to say, human partners can’t do this. The lover does not dispense cosmic heroism; he cannot give absolution in his own name. The reason is that as a finite being he too is doomed, and we read that doom in his own fallibilities, in his very deterioration. Redemption can only come from outside the individual, from beyond, from our conceptualization of the ultimate source of things, the perfection of creation. It can only come, as Rank saw, when we lay down our individuality, give it up, admit our creatureliness and helplessness. What partner would ever permit us to do this, would bear us if we did? The partner needs us to be as God. On the other hand, what partner could ever want to give redemption—unless he was mad? Even the partner who plays God in the relationship cannot stand it for long, as at some level he knows that he does not possess the resources that the other needs and claims. He does not have perfect strength, perfect assurance, secure heroism. He cannot stand the burden of godhood, and so he must resent the slave. Besides, the uncomfortable realization must always be there: how can one be a genuine god if one’s slave is so miserable and unworthy?
  • How can a human being be a god-like “everything” to another? No human relationship can bear the burden of godhood, and the attempt has to take its toll in some way on both parties. The reasons are not far to seek. The thing that makes God the perfect spiritual object is precisely that he is abstract—as Hegel saw. He is not a concrete individuality, and so He does not limit our development by His own personal will and needs. When we look for the “perfect” human object we are looking for someone who allows us to express our will completely, without any frustration or false notes. We want an object that reflects a truly ideal image of ourselves. But no human object can do this; humans have wills and counterwills of their own, in a thousand ways they can move against us, their very appetites offend us. God’s greatness and power is something that we can nourish ourselves in, without its being compromised in any way by the happenings of this world. No human partner can offer this assurance because the partner is real. However much we may idealize and idolize him, he inevitably reflects earthly decay and imperfection. And as he is our ideal measure of value, this imperfection falls back upon us. If your partner is your “All” then any shortcoming in him becomes a major threat to you. If a woman loses her beauty, or shows that she doesn’t have the strength and dependability that we once thought she did, or loses her intellectual sharpness, or falls short of our own peculiar needs in any of a thousand ways, then all the investment we have made in her is undermined. The shadow of imperfection falls over our lives, and with it—death and the defeat of cosmic heroism. “She lessens” = “I die.” This is the reason for so much bitterness, shortness of temper and recrimination in our daily family lives. We get back a reflection from our loved objects that is less than the grandeur and perfection that we need to nourish ourselves. We feel diminished by their human shortcomings. Our interiors feel empty or anguished, our lives valueless, when we see the inevitable pettinesses of the world expressed through the human beings in it. For this reason, too, we often attack loved ones and try to bring them down to size. We see that our gods have clay feet, and so we must hack away at them in order to save ourselves, to deflate the unreal over-investment that we have made in them in order to secure our own apotheosis. In this sense, the deflation of the over-invested partner, parent, or friend is a creative act that is necessary to correct the lie that we have been living, to reaffirm our own inner freedom of growth that transcends the particular object and is not bound to it. But not everybody can do this because many of us need the lie in order to live. We may have no other God and we may prefer to deflate ourselves in order to keep the relationship, even though we glimpse the impossibility of it and the slavishness to which it reduces us. This is one direct explanation—as we shall see—of the phenomenon of depression.
  • 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.
    • p. 171
  • No wonder that historically art and psychosis have had such an intimate relationship, that the road to creativity passes so close to the madhouse and often detours or ends there.
    • p. 172

The Present Outcome of Psychoanalysis

  • When we say neurosis represents the truth of life we again mean that life is an overwhelming problem for an animal free of instinct. The individual has to protect himself against the world, and he can do this only as any other animal would: by narrowing down the world, shutting off experience, developing an obliviousness both to the terrors of the world and to his own anxieties. Otherwise he would be crippled for action. We 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. Rank has a perfect, key term for this natural human talent: he calls it “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. I have used the term “fetishization,” which is exactly the same idea: the “normal” man bites off what he can chew and digest of life, and no more. In other words, men aren’t built to be gods, to take in the whole world; they are built like other creatures, to take in the piece of ground in front of their noses. Gods can take in the whole of creation because they alone can make sense of it, know what it is all about and for. But as soon as a man lifts his nose from the ground and starts sniffing at eternal problems like life and death, the meaning of a rose or a star cluster—then he is in trouble. Most men spare themselves this trouble by keeping their minds on the small problems of their lives just as their society maps these problems out for them. These are what Kierkegaard called the “immediate” men and the “Philistines.” They “tranquilize themselves with the trivial”— and so they can lead normal lives.
  • Modern man is the victim of his own disillusionment; he has been disinherited by his own analytic strength. The characteristic of the modern mind is the banishment of mystery, of naive belief, of simple-minded hope. We put the accent on the visible, the clear, the cause-and-effect relation, the logical—always the logical. We know the difference between dreams and reality, between facts and fictions, between symbols and bodies. But right away we can see that these characteristics of the modern mind are exactly those of neurosis. What typifies the neurotic is that he “knows” his situation vis-à-vis reality. He has no doubts; there is nothing you can say to sway him, to give him hope or trust. He is a miserable animal whose body decays, who will die, who will pass into dust and oblivion, disappear forever not only in this world but in all the possible dimensions of the universe, whose life serves no conceivable purpose, who may as well not have been born, and so on and so forth. He knows Truth and Reality, the motives of the entire universe.
  • With the truth, one cannot live. To be able to live one needs illusions, not only outer illusions such as art, religion, philosophy, science and love afford, but inner illusions which first condition the outer [i.e., a secure sense of one’s active powers, and of being able to count on the powers of others].
    • From Otto Rank, as quoted by Ernest Becker in The Present Outcome of Psychoanalysis
  • The neurotic opts out of life because he is having trouble maintaining his illusions about it, which proves nothing less than that life is possible only with illusions.
    • p. 189
  • Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.
    • p. 196
  • All religions fall far short of their own ideals.
    • p. 204
  • Beyond a given point man is not helped by more "knowing", but only by living and doing in a partly self-forgetful way.
  • The characteristics the modern mind prides itself on are precisely those of madness. There is no one more logical than the lunatic, more concerned with the minutiae of cause and effect. Madmen are the greatest reasoners we know, and that trait is one of the accompaniments of their undoing. All their vital processes are shrunken into the mind. What is the one thing they lack that sane men possess? The ability to be careless, to disregard appearances, to relax and laugh at the world. They can’t unbend, can’t gamble their whole existence, as did Pascal, on a fanciful wager. They can’t do what religion has always asked: to believe in a justification of their lives that seems absurd.
  • The proletariat demands the obsession of work in order to keep from going 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.

A General View of Mental Illness

  • It was Adler who saw that low self-esteem was the central problem of mental illness. When does the person have the most trouble with his self-esteem? Precisely when his heroic transcendence of his fate is most in doubt, when he doubts his own immortality, the abiding value of his life; when he is not convinced that his having lived really makes any cosmic difference. From this point of view we might well say that mental illness represents styles of bogging-down in the denial of creatureliness.
  • The fact is that the woman’s experience of a repetition of castration at menopause is a real one—not in the narrow focus that Freud used, but rather in the broader sense of Rank, the existentialists, and Brown. As Boss so well said, “castration fear” is only an inroad or an aperture whereby the anxiety inherent in all existence may break into one’s world. It will be easy for us to understand at this point that menopause simply reawakens the horror of the body, the utter bankruptcy of the body as a viable causa-sui project—the exact experience that brings on the early Oedipal castration anxiety. The woman is reminded in the most forceful way that she is an animal thing; menopause is a sort of “animal birthday” that specifically marks the physical career of degeneration. It is like nature imposing a definite physical milestone on the person, putting up a wall and saying “You are not going any further into life now, you are going toward the end, to the absolute determinism of death.” As men don’t have such animal birthdays, such specific markers of a physical kind, they don’t usually experience another stark discrediting of the body as a causa-sui project. Once has been enough, and they bury the problem with the symbolic powers of the cultural world-view. But the woman is less fortunate; she is put in the position of having all at once to catch up psychologically with the physical facts of life. To paraphrase Goethe’s aphorism, death doesn’t keep knocking on her door only to be ignored (as men ignore their aging), but kicks it in to show himself full in the face.
  • Freud was right to see the centrality of the image of the phallic mother and to connect it directly with the castration complex. But he was wrong to make the sexual side of the problem the central core of it, to take what is derivative (the sexual) and make it primary (the existential dilemma). The wish for the phallic mother, the horror of the female genitals, may well be a universal experience of mankind, for girls as well as boys. But the reason is that the child wants to see the omnipotent mother, the miraculous source of all his protection, nourishment, and love, as a really godlike creature complete beyond the accident of a split into two sexes. The threat of the castrated mother is thus a threat to his whole existence in that his mother is an animal thing and not a transcendent angel. The fate that he then fears, that turns him away from the mother in horror, is that he too is a “fallen” bodily creature, the very thing that he fights to overcome by his anal training. The horror of the female genitals, then, is the shock of the tiny child who is all at once—before the age of six—suddenly turned into a philosopher, a tragedian who must be a man long before his time and who must draw on reserves of wisdom and strength that he doesn’t have. Again, this is the burden of the “primal scene”: not that it awakens unbearable sexual desires in the child or aggressive hate and jealousy toward the father, but rather that it thoroughly confuses him about the nature of man.
  • Better guilt than the terrible burden of freedom and responsibility,; especially when the choice comes too late in life for one to be able to start over again.
    • p. 213

Psychology and Religion: What Is the Heroic Individual?

  • In other words, perversion is a protest against species sameness, against submergence of the individuality into the body. It is even a focus of personal freedom vis-à- vis the family, one’s own secret way of affirming himself against all standardization. Rank even makes the breathtaking speculation that the Oedipus complex in the classic Freudian understanding may be an attempt by the child to resist the family organization, the dutiful role of son or daughter, the absorption into the collective, by affirming his own ego. Even in its biological expression, then, the Oedipus complex might be an attempt to transcend the role of obedient child, to find freedom and individuality through sex through a break-up of the family organization. In order to understand it we must once again emphasize the basic motive of man, without which nothing vital can be understood—self-perpetuation. Man is divided into two distinct kinds of experience—physical and mental, or bodily and symbolic. The problem of self-perpetuation thus presents itself in two distinct forms. One, the body, is standardized and given; the other, the self, is personalized and achieved. How is man going to succeed himself, how is he going to leave behind a replica of himself or a part of himself to live on? Is he going to leave behind a replica of his body or of his spirit? If he procreates bodily he satisfies the problem of succession, but in a more or less standardized species form. Although he perpetuates himself in his offspring, who may resemble him and may carry some of his “blood” and the mystical quality of his family ancestors, he may not feel that he is truly perpetuating his own inner self, his distinctive personality, his spirit, as it were. He wants to achieve something more than a mere animal succession. The distinctive human problem from time immemorial has been the need to spiritualize human life, to lift it onto a special immortal plane, beyond the cycles of life and death that characterize all other organisms. This is one of the reasons that sexuality has from the beginning been under taboos; it had to be lifted from the plane of physical fertilization to a spiritual one.
  • When we are young we are often puzzled by the fact that each person we admire seems to have a different version of what life ought to be, what a good man is, how to live, and so on. If we are especially sensitive it seems more than puzzling, it is disheartening. What most people usually do is to follow one person's ideas and then another's, depending on who looms largest on one's horizon at the time. The one with the deepest voice, the strongest appearance, the most authority and success, is usually the one who gets our momentary allegiance; and we try to pattern our ideals after him. But as life goes on we get a perspective on this, and all these different versions of truth become a little pathetic. Each person thinks that he has the formula for triumphing over life's limitations and knows with authority what it means to be a man, and he usually tries to win a following for his particular patent. Today we know that people try so hard to win converts for their point of view because it is more than merely an outlook on life: it is an immortality formula.
    • p. 255
  • We saw that there really was no way to overcome the real dilemma of existence, the one of the mortal animal who at the same time is conscious of his mortality. A 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. This painful paradox is not lost on the person himself—least of all himself. He feels agonizingly unique, and yet he knows that this doesn’t make any difference as far as ultimates are concerned. He has to go the way of the grasshopper, even though it takes longer.
  • What are we to make of a creation in which the routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart with teeth of all types—biting, grinding flesh, plant stalks, bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence into one's own organization, and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue. Everyone reaching out to incorporate others who are edible to him. The mosquitoes bloating themselves on blood, the maggots, the killer-bees attacking with a fury and a demonism, sharks continuing to tear and swallow while their own innards are being torn out—not to mention the daily dismemberment and slaughter in "natural" accidents of all types: an earthquake buries alive 70 thousand bodies in Peru, automobiles make a pyramid heap of over 50 thousand a year in the U.S. alone, a tidal wave washes over a quarter of a million in the Indian Ocean. Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures. The soberest conclusion that we could make about what has actually been taking place on the planet for about three billion years is that it is being turned into a vast pit of fertilizer. But the sun distracts our attention, always baking the blood dry, making things grow over it, and with its warmth giving the hope that comes with the organism's comfort and expansiveness.
    • p. 282–283
  • In the mysterious way in which life is given to us in evolution on this planet, it pushes in the direction of its own expansion. We don’t understand it simply because we don’t know the purpose of creation; we only feel life straining in ourselves and see it thrashing others about as they devour each other. Life seeks to expand in an unknown direction for unknown reasons.

Escape from Evil (1975)


New York: The Free Press. 1976. ISBN 978-0029024508.

  • I have reached far beyond my competence and have probably secured for good a reputation for flamboyant gestures. But the times still crowd me and give me no rest, and I see no way to avoid ambitious synthetic attempts; either we get some kind of grip on the accumulation of thought or we continue to wallow helplessly, to starve amidst plenty. So I gamble with science and write.
    • Preface, p. xix
  • Existence, for all organismic life, is a constant struggle to feed—a struggle to incorporate whatever other organisms they can fit into their mouths and press down their gullets without choking. Seen in these stark terms, life on this planet is a gory spectacle, a science-fiction nightmare in which digestive tracts fitted with teeth at one end are tearing away at whatever flesh they can reach, and at the other end are piling up the fuming waste excrement as they move along in search of more flesh.
    • The Human Condition: Between Appetite and Ingenuity, p. 1
  • Everything cultural is fabricated and given meaning by the mind, a meaning that was not given by physical nature. Culture is in this sense “supernatural,” and all systematizations of culture have in their end the same goal: to raise men above nature to assure them that in some ways their lives count more than merely physical things count.

Quotes about Becker

  • To say the least, Becker's account of Nature has little in common with Walt Disney. Mother Nature is a brutal bitch, red in tooth and claw, who destroys what she creates.
  • Most animals experience fear only when faced with an imminent threat. However, because humans are born helpless and dependent with the ability to be self-aware and think about the future, from early childhood on, humans have a unique proneness to anxiety in the absence of an imminent threat. Becker saw this anxiety as ultimately existential and deriving from the conflict between survival desires and the reality of being a little kid that can be crushed in an instant without the protection of adult caregivers. Stephen Jay Gould notes that this knowledge of vulnerability and mortality may be the most important human spandrel, an inadvertent by-product of the evolution of the frontal lobes of the brain. This by-product creates the problem of the ever-present potential for anxiety. And anxiety often interferes with effective thought and action.
  • For Becker, the psychological purpose of self-esteem is to serve as an anxiety buffer. In other words, self-esteem serves the psychological function of helping us function on a day-today basis with our anxieties under control. Because self-esteem is based on meeting internalized standards of goodness or value ultimately learned from the culture, Becker defines self-esteem as: the culturally derived sense that one is an object of primary value in a world of meaning. For example, as a little kid, the standard of value is to please one’s parents. As the child gets older, standards of value prescribe “being cool”, “athletic”, “smart”, etc. Once we reach adulthood, the standards in our culture call for the fulfilling of culturally valued social and occupational roles, and acquiring possessions and money. A number of factors can affect these standards and our perceptions of how well we are meeting them. Other people play a large part in this: Our self-esteem is often affected by how we compare to others around us. This is known as social comparison. Usually we compare ourselves to those who are around us and similar to us. For example we are most likely to compare to same sex siblings close in age to us. If we play tennis, we are most likely to compare to others at about our level of experience and ability. When we compare favorably, we feel good about ourselves but when we suffer by comparison, our self-esteem is damaged. To protect self-esteem, we try to compare to others a little bit worse than ourselves—this is known as downward social comparison. One of the most potent examples of self-esteem-relevant social comparison is sibling rivalry. In childhood, siblings will measure to the millimeter to see who got the bigger lollipop. Each child wants to be of primary (or minimally, equal) value in the eyes of the parents. We can also derive or lose self-esteem based on our identifications with different types of groups. For example, when we identify with an individual or group that achieves success (e.g., Edmonton Oilers hockey team), this increases self-esteem (often referred to as “basking in reflected glory”). We often adjust our identifications to maximize self-esteem: we increase association with successful groups (e.g., by wearing Oiler’s T-shirts after a championship run) and decrease it with unsuccessful ones. Because our sense of self-worth comes from socially derived and shared standards of value, we are always in need of social validation of our worth. Luckily friends, family, coworkers etc. provide most of us with continual evidence of our value. However, others can very easily threaten our self-esteem. For example, if we see someone we know on campus and the person simply walks by us without some kind of greeting to at least acknowledge our existence, the snub may bother us for days. Sociologist Erving Goffman referred to our socially exposed self-esteem as face and explored the elaborate ways in which we try to protect our own face but also use tact to try to protect other people’s face as well. This analysis suggests that to understand people, we need to realize that what each person wants to know is: Where do I stand as hero? We all want to feel heroic (not necessarily in a Bruce Willis way (thankfully), but in the sense of fulfilling culturally prescribed standards of value and the culture provides different ways to do this. When a mom plays the martyr role, what she is really doing is making her claim of heroism (minimally at least, for not strangling you after one of your childhood fits or fights with a sibling). We can seek that sense of heroism in school or in the courtroom, on playing fields or the dance floor, in an obscure laboratory or on a theatrical stage.
  • The crux of the terror management answer to the question, "Why do people need self-esteem?" is that self-esteem functions to shelter people from deeply rooted anxiety inherent in the human condition. Self-esteem is a protective shield designed to control the potential for terror that results from awareness of the horrifying possibility that we humans are merely transient animals groping to survive in a meaningless universe, destined only to die and decay. From this perspective, then, each individual human’s name and identity, family and social identifications, goals and aspirations, occupation and title, are humanly created adornments draped over an animal that, in the cosmic scheme of things, may be no more significant or enduring than any individual potato, pineapple, or porcupine. But it is this elaborate drapery that provides us with the fortitude to carry on despite the uniquely human awareness of our mortal fate.
  • TMT [Terror Management Theory] starts with the proposition that the juxtaposition of a biologically rooted desire for life with the awareness of the inevitability of death (which resulted from the evolution of sophisticated cognitive abilities unique to humankind) gives rise to the potential for paralyzing terror. Our species “solved” the problem posed by the prospect of existential terror by using the same sophisticated cognitive capacities that gave rise to the awareness of death to create cultural worldviews: humanly constructed shared symbolic conceptions of reality that give meaning, order, and permanence to existence; provide a set of standards for what is valuable; and promise some form of either literal or symbolic immortality to those who believe in the cultural worldview and live up to its standards of value. Literal immortality is bestowed by the explicitly religious aspects of cultural worldviews that directly address the problem of death and promise heaven, reincarnation, or other forms of afterlife to the faithful who live by the standards and teachings of the culture. Symbolic immortality is conferred by cultural institutions that enable people to feel part of something larger, more significant, and more eternal than their own individual lives through connections and contributions to their families, nations, professions, and ideologies.

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