The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

If history is a succession of immortality ideologies, then the problems of men can be read directly against those ideologies–how embracing they are, how convincing, how easy the make it for men to be confident and secure in their personal heroism. What characterizes modern life is the failure of all traditional immortality ideologies to absorb and quicken man’s hunger for self-perpetuation and heroism. Neurosis is today a widespread problem because of the disappearance of convincing drams of heroic apotheosis of man. The subject is summed up succinctly in Pinel’s famous observation on how the Salpêtrière mental hospital got cleared out at the time of the French Revolution. All the neurotics found a ready-made drama of self-transcending action and heroic identity. It was as simple as that.

It begins to look as though modern man cannot find his heroism in everyday life any more, as men did in traditional societies just by doing their daily duty of raising children, working, and worshipping He needs revolutions and wars and “continuing” revolutions to last when the revolutions and wars end. That is the price modern man pays for the eclipse of the the sacred dimension. When he dethroned the ideas of soul and God he was thrown back hopelessly on his own resources, on himself and those few around him. Even lovers and families trap and disillusion us because they are not substitutes for absolute transcendence. We might say that they are poor illusions in the sense that we have been discussing.  –Pg. 190


The further one pushes his study of Rank the more his writings blur into those of Kierkegaard–all the more remarkably, as we now fully appreciate, because of the far greater sophistication of clinical psychoanalysis. By now it should be clear that this blurring of Rank and Kierkegaard is not a weak surrender to ideology but an actual scientific working-through of the problem of human character. Both men reached the same conclusion after the most exhaustive psychological quest: that at the very furthest reaches of scientific description, psychology has to give way to “theology”–that is, to a world-view that absorbs the individual’s conflicts and guilt and offers him the possibility for some kind of heroic apotheosis. Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level. Here Rank and Kierkegaard meet in one of those astonishing historical mergers of thought: that sin and neurosis are two ways of talking about the same thing–the complete isolation of the individual, his disharmony with the rest of nature, hyperindividualism, his attempt to create his own world from within himself. Both sin and neurosis represent the individual blowing himself up to a larger than his true size, his refusal to recognize his cosmic dependence. Neurosis, like sin, is an attempt to force nature, to pretend that the causa-sui project really suffices. In sin and neurosis man fetishizes himself on something narrow at hand and pretends that the whole meaning and miraculousness of creation is limited to that, that he can get his beatification from that.
Rank’s summing-up of the neurotic world view is at the same time that of the classic sinner:

“The neurotic loses every kind of collective spirituality, and makes the heroic gesture of placing himself entirely within the immortality of his own ego, as the observations and cosmic fantasies of psychotics so clearly show.

But we know that this attempt is doomed to failure because man simply cannot justify his own heroism; he cannot fit himself into his own cosmic plan and make it believable. He must live with agonizing doubts if he remains in touch at all with the larger reality. Only when he loses this touch do the doubts vanish–and that is the definition of psychosis: a wholly unreal belief in the self-justification of cosmic heroism. ”I am Christ.“ In this sense, as Rank said, neurosis represents the striving for an “individual religion,” a self-achieved immortality.  –Pgs. 196–197


Man lives his contradictions for better or worse in some kind of cultural project in a given historical period. Neurosis is another word for the total problem of the human condition; it becomes a clinical word when the individual bogs down in the face of the problem–when his heroism is in doubt or becomes self-defeating. Men are naturally neurotic and always have been, but at some times they have it easier than at others to mask their true condition. Men avoid clinical neurosis when they can trustingly live their heroism in some kind of self-transcending drama. Modern man lives his contradictions for the worse, because the modern condition is one in which convincing dramas of heroic apotheosis, of creative play, or of cultural illusion are in eclipse. There is no embracing world-view for the neurotic to depend on or merge with to makes his problems, and so the “cure” for neurosis is difficult in our time.

This is Rank’s devastating Kierkegaardian conclusion: if neurosis is sin, and not disease, then the only thing which can “cure” it is a world-view, some kind of affirmative collective ideology in which the person can perform the living drama of his acceptance as a creature. Only in this way can the neurotic come out of his isolation to become part of such a larger and higher wholeness as religion has always represented. In anthropology we called these the myth-ritual complexes of traditional society. Does the neurotic lack something outside him to absorb his need for perfection? Does he eat himself up with obsessions? The myth-ritual complex is a social form for the channeling of obsessions. We might say that it places creative obsession with the reach of everyman, which is precisely the function of ritual. This function is what Freud saw when he talked about the obsessive quality of primitive religion and compared it to neurotic obsession. But he didn’t see how natural this was, how all social life is the obsessive ritualization of control in one way or another. It automatically engineers safety and banishes despair by keeping people focused on the noses in front of their faces. The defeat of despair is not mainly an intellectual problem for an active organism, but a problem of self-stimulation via movement. Beyond a given point man is not helped by more “knowing,” but only by living and doing in a partly self-forgetful way. As Goethe put it, we must plunge into experience and then reflect on the meaning of it. All reflection and no plunging drives us mad; all plunging and no reflection, and we are brutes. Goethe wrote maxims like these precisely at the time when the individual lost the protective cover of traditional society and daily life brecame a problem for him. He no longer knew what were the proper doses of experience. This safe dosage of life is exactly what is prescribed by traditional custom, wherein all the important decisions of life and even its daily events are ritually marked out. Neurosis is the contriving of private obsessional ritual to replace the socially-agreed one now lost by the demise of traditional society. The customs and myths of traditional society provided a whole interpretation of the meaning of life, ready-made for the individual; all he had to do was to accept living it as true. The modern neurotic must do just this if he is to be “cured”: he must welcome a living illusion.

It is one thing to imagine this “cure,” but it is quite another thing to “prescribe” it to modern man. How hollow it must ring in his ears. For one thing, he can’t get living myth-ritual complexes, the deep-going inherited social traditions that have so far sustained men, on a prescription form from the corner pharmacy. He can’t even get them in mental hospitals or therapeutic communities. The modern neurotic cannot magically find the kind of world he needs, which is one reason he tries to create his own. In this very crucial sense neurosis is the modern tragedy of man; historically he is an orphan.  –Pgs. 199–200

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