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Ernest Becker

American anthropologist


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

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)Edit

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

  • 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
  • "[C]ivilized" 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.
    • "Introduction: Human Nature and the Meroie", p. 5
  • [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.
    • The Terror of Death, p. 23
  • 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.
    • "The Recasting of Some Basic Psychoanalytic ideas", p. 26
  • [We are] gods with anuses.
    • "Human Character as a Vital Lie", 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.
    • "Human Character as a Vital Lie", 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.
    • "Human Character as a Vital Lie", p. 66
  • 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. The idea is ludicrous, if it is not monstrous. It means to know that one is food for worms. This is the terror: to I 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?
    • "The Psychoanalyst Kierkegaard", p. 87
  • People create the reality they need in order to discover themselves.
    • "The Spell Cast by Persons—The Nexus of Unfreedom", p. 158
  • 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.
    • "Otto Rank and the Closure of Psychoanalysis on Kierkegaard", 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.
    • "Otto Rank and the Closure of Psychoanalysis on Kierkegaard", p. 172
  • 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.
    • "The Present Outcome of Psychoanalysis", p. 189
  • Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.
    • "The Present Outcome of Psychoanalysis", p. 196
  • [A]ll religions fall far short of their own ideals.
    • "The Present Outcome of Psychoanalysis", p. 204
  • 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.
    • "A General View of Mental Illness", p. 213
  • 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.
    • "Psychology and Religion: What Is the Heroic Individual?", p. 255
  • 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.
    • "Psychology and Religion: What Is the Heroic Individual?", pp. 282–283

Escape from Evil (1975)Edit

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

Quotes about BeckerEdit

  • 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.

External linksEdit