Ernest Becker’s “The Denial of Death”, Depression and Myself

I am currently reading Ernest Becker’s “Denial of Death” and I just can’t seem to put down the book. At last, a piece that ignites a fire in my sullied mind. A book that gets those creative juices flowing once again. I am not yet halfway into the book and there are many topics I’d like to expound and share my insights and thoughts about but I will start today with one. The topic of Depression. Ok, I know, I’m being a debbie downer but depression, is not something we can ignore. It is also a sickness, just like cancer or fever or a wound. Without attending to it, it’ll just spread its infection. It needs attention.

Before that let’s sidetrack a bit. The chapter I am reading now is “The psychoanalyist Kierkegaard”. I am in love with this chapter since Kierkegaard has always been one of my favorite philosophers. His analysis of religious stories and the human psyche greatly contribute to the subject of psychoanalysis. He is my favorite because most existential philosophers in my opinion disregard the existence of a higher being, and I needed the comfort of a God in my life whilst trying to make sense of alienation, suffering, the burden of freedom and irrationality. The teachings of Kierkegaard on the absurd and faith is what made him appeal to me. I’d like to explicate more on why I love him but this post will be too long. Maybe I will write about him some other time. Back to the topic of depression. I recently watched a TED talk video on it, which I will briefly talk about in the last paragraph:

Kierkegaard illustrates the duality of man which Ernest Becker talks about in “Denial of Death.” Man is dual in that he is free to decide whether he will metaphorically speaking, be an angel or an animal. Man is dual since he has a consciousness of his finitude (mortality/body) and infinitude (imortality/soul).  Since man is the only creature who is self conscious of both his instincts (animal like) and super ego (godlike) he is a contradiction. He can acquire two illnesses with this duality.

One is schizophrenia. He states that the schizophrenia demonstrates the unattachment of the inner self to the bodily self. Schizophrenia is a psychosis that represses too much of what is necessary or what is reality. Hence schizophrenics live in a fantastic world. I quote Becker: “The full blown schizophreniac is abstract, ethereal, unreal; he billows out of the earthly categories of space and time, floats out of his body, dwells in the eternal now, is not subject to death and destruction. He has vanquished these in his fantasy, or perhaps better, in the actual fact that he has quit his body, renounced its limitations.” This makes me go back to the movie “Fight Club”. Tyler Durden is the product of renouncing body’s limitations and so he/the nameless narrator inflict destruction to the body. If you’ve watched it you will understand.  Schizophrenia portrayed this way is actually very mystifyingly beautiful. It also reminds me of John Nash whose life is portrayed in a great film “A Beautiful Mind”.

A Beautiful Mind

A Beautiful Mind – my favorite scene in the movie

The second neurosis is depression. This is when the bodily part of the self denies and represses too much of the possibilities, or the inner self. This is when someone lives their life with too much necessity. I quote Becker again: “If schizophrenic psychosis is on a continuum of a kind of normal inflation of inner fantasy, of symbolic possibility, then something similar should be true of depressive psychosis. And so it is in the portrait that Kierkegaard paints. Depressive psychosis is the extreme on the continuum of too much necessity, that is too much finitude, too much limitation by the body and the behaviors of the person in the real world, and not enough freedom of the inner self, of inner symbolic possibility…The depressed person is so afraid of being himself. So fearful of exerting his own individuality, of insisting on what might be his own meanings, his own conditions for living, that he seems literally stupid. He cannot seem to understand the situation he is in, cannot see beyond his own fears, cannot grasp why he has bogged down. One of the unconscious tactics that the depressed person resorts to, to try to make sense out of his situation, is to see himself as immensely worthless and guilty. This is a marvelous invention really, because it allows him to move out of his condition of dumbness, and make some kind of conceptualization of his situation, some kind of sense out of it– even if he has to take full blame as the culprit who is causing so much needles misery to others.”

This whole insight of Becker speaks volumes to me. It has unearthed so many realizations, awareness and emotions in myself. I have battled with depression for approximately 5 years. I have come to understand it more now. I was overwhelmed with my reality. My dad’s death, my sister’s absence, my mother’s ignorance of the impact of marrying a psychopath, my first breakup, my declining  sense and purpose in the world, in All these realities hit me. I tried to make sense of the situation by self loathing. By blaming it all on myself. I am lucky that the dark ages of my life has somehow gradually come to an end. I have been blessed to have come out of it alive.

 I can relate so much with depression because I have gone through it. I have been at the bottomless pit that it is. I do not want to be dramatic about it but depression is a real issue and Kevin Breel (the speaker in the video above) is right in saying that it is unfortunate that people shy away from this topic. This is something serious and people should understand more about it to acknowledge what a destruction it is to every individual. It isn’t something glamorous or shallow. It is in every way evil and ugly and I do not want anyone I care for to experience this kind of hell. It’s a first step on healing if we were to understand this illness.

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5 thoughts on “Ernest Becker’s “The Denial of Death”, Depression and Myself

  1. I am reading “The Birth & Death of Meaning” …. can’t put it down. I don’t know how it ends & am sure it will leave me with more questions than answers – that is the nature of his head-on take of the essence of as much as we know about our existence. I am gaining insights into the condition of depressive illness which are ‘spot on’ – in a time of total foundational crisis in my life I could not have stumbled over anything better than this gem of a book.

    “The question of personality growth and change, if it is deep-going and authentic, is usually whether one will end in madness or suicide or whether one will, somehow, be able to marshal the strength to take the first few new steps in a strange world.”

    Somehow marshalling the strength to take the first few new steps in a strange world seems possible just because he wrote those words.

    • I have read that book as well! Great book yet again from Becker.

      “The question of personality growth and change, if it is deep-going and authentic, is usually whether one will end in madness or suicide or whether one will, somehow, be able to marshal the strength to take the first few new steps in a strange world.”

      Somehow marshalling the strength to take the first few new steps in a strange world seems possible just because he wrote those words.

      Becker’s quote actually reminds me of Albert camus’ Myth of Sisyphus and other essays. Basically, he says that suicide is an acceptance of the absurdity of the world we live in, and it is a surrender. However it is still illogical because it is an act of weakness. The existence of man should be an act of rebellion against his fate (absurdity), which is to continue on living.

      Thanks for reading and commenting on my blog! 🙂

      • Your credo is “Amor Fati”. Mine is borrowed from the inimitable entymologist Jean-Henri Fabre – “De Fimo ad Excelsa” (fimus = dung; dung beetles were one of his fascinations). I haven’t come up with an elegant translation into English yet. For now “Through shit to glory” will have to do.

        Becker’s skill is being able to articulate things at the interface between such widely disparate disciplines as science, religion, anthropology. I always had this ‘dissonance’ gap between what I knew with my intellect but could not connect to my “heart” (physiology, feelings, emotions & subjective experience of day to day living). I couldn’t read Camus, for example, without going into a catatonic state of depression & confusion – the full physiology of despair. Somehow Becker bridged that disconnect for me. And that has made all the difference.

        …. and remarkably he managed to do it all without a hotline to Ramtha & co. -:)

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