the denial of death

Image_Marcio Costa


Civilization is a sophisticated and grandiloquent defense mechanism against the awareness of our mortality: a vast trick for us to survive.

“(…) Die without leaving the sad remains of the flesh, / The bloodless wax mask, / Surrounded by flowers, / Which will rot – happily! – in one day, / Bathed in tears / Born less from longing than from the amazement of death. (Manuel Bandeira, “Absolute death”).


the denial of death is the title of a book that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. Its author, Ernest Becker (1924-1974), was a pioneer of interdisciplinarity, when it was still seen with discomfort by universities, as a kind of incendiary lese-specialties for knowledge niches. Anthropologist, psychologist, scholar of religions, loyal friend of collaboration between the human sciences, Becker was also a model intellectual: a scholar capable of writing with clarity and colloquiality, averse to flattery and generous in dealing with colleagues, to the point of being ejected from one of the universities where he taught for having sided with Thomas Szasz (of the then heretical anti-psychiatry), against the academic nomenklatura.

Becker is not in fashion, but much would be gained by recovering his work. We will try, in the Beckerian way (decoupage and merging, without false constraints, his findings) to highlight one of his core ideas, which is so urgent. Civilization, he says, is a sophisticated and grandiloquent defense mechanism against the awareness of our mortality: a vast trick for us to survive. Becker will develop the connection between this fear and the awareness of finitude with the depth psychology of heroism, its dilemmas, fallacies and genesis of mental illness.

In short: in our eagerness to overcome the dilemma of death, we came up with a kind of project of heroic immortality, which would assure us of the eternity of “self'' symbolic beyond biological annihilation. But it is not this neat Cartesian dualism (body and soul sounding in two synchronized clocks) that we are going to deal with specifically, but rather the choices that come from it. Either we wallow in the belief that our lives will have a higher purpose, engaged in some inscrutable sense of the universe (well, one always wonders if the universe gives a shit about us) or we use the ruse to ward off the terror of death by ignoring the problem." reassuring us with the trivial”. The risk with both the heroic and the escapist choices is that both are naturally prone to conflict. When a project of immortality (great causes that generally flirt with destruction, in the name of utopias) confronts the other, blind to the here and after (''there's no danger, chloroquine saves; mask is nonsense; isolation is freshness'') the battle is lost. Immortality projects -by affirmation or refusal/procrastination- are, for Becker, the trigger of wars, banditry, genocide. They are the shortcut, paradoxically, to unnecessary deaths. A caress of anxiety, innocuous and lethal.

In your book (The Denial of Death, translation by Otávio Alves Velho, publisher Nova Fronteira, RJ, 1976), such devices of denial of death are a symptom of profound terror in the face of finitude, sometimes disguised as arrogance, sometimes as indifference. Becker talks to countless authors: the philosophers Sören Kierkegaard, Ortega Y Gasset, the pragmatist William James, the psychologists Alfred Adler, Medard-Boss (Daseinsnanalysis), Freud, a lot of Freud, but especially Otto Rank (who was a psychotherapist for Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin), for whom he dedicates special appreciation. Becker, amazingly, does not want to argue. He wants to fraternize, engage in dialogues that many would consider impious, but that his intuition and erudition illuminate, on the path of understanding.

Its first epigraph is not accidental:

Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere. (Not laughing, not whining, not cursing, but understanding.) Spinoza

The fear of death does everything to exorcise it. It wasn't always like this.  Memento mori ('Remember that you are mortal'), was how medieval friars greeted each other in the corridors of abbeys. But contemporary death is different. Nor are we referring to the phenomenon of genocide, an increasingly frequent abomination everywhere. Even a single death is always a scandal, despair, especially when mourning is not allowed (as in the coronavirus pandemic, exponentiated death), dismay and anger, legitimate and perfectly explainable.

We, heirs of the Judeo-Christian tradition, how unprepared we are for the only certainty! The subject is taboo, nobody tells us anything, and when a health crisis breaks out, we oscillate between despair and apathy. Every day, every hour, exhausted and haunted by the proximity of an unexpected, random, random extinction. What a contrast to other cultures!

A few decades ago, by chance, we witnessed, in Indonesia, a crowded funeral (it must have been important people). It was pure party. They laughed, they chatted, they ate, they drank, they danced. Celebrated. Suspicious, we go hunting for someone who is crying, contrite, or at least serious. We failed: the funeral was, viscerally, a revelry.

But we are not capable of this joyous cultural feat of Hindus, or Buddhists (the historical Buddha Gautama, say the sutras, died at an old age, lying down and calm and surrounded by his disciples; the Christ of Christianity suffered on the cross, asphyxiated in agony.)

Thus, the anguish of death, the engine of life, is experienced in our culture in a somber way. With the gravity of Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman: not only is the crusader knight defeated by the Reaper, in countless chess games, but he ends up involuntarily leading a procession of people to meet death. Solemn and somber, Bergman's film takes place at the time of the Black Death.

Another, more ironic, version of the foolish escape from the impossible comes from Islam: the Samarra anecdote: “A merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to market. A little later he returned, pale and trembling: “Master, just now, when I was in the market, I was pushed by a woman in the crowd; when I turned around, I saw that it was Death(..) Lend me your horse and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra, and there Death will not find me.” The merchant lent him the horse, but soon after, in the same market, he met his death. He went to take satisfaction: why did you threaten my servant? It wasn't a threat, she replied, it was just surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, as I had an appointment with him in Samarra tonight.”


Thinking about her all the time would be unbearable. Hence Becker recalls that “religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism performed the ingenious trick of pretending not to want to be reborn, which is a kind of negative magic: claiming that you don't want what you want most. So the detested Muse, who knows, gets confused or delayed”.

Not being reborn is a good thing, less painful than the scales of the Last Judgment. Or, in the words of William James (in The Varieties of Religious Experience he said that if the belief that one can cross a frozen lake without breaking the thin layer of ice inspires one to cross it, that is enough; there is no reason to invest against beliefs). James defined death as "the worm that was at the heart of man's pretensions to happiness"; if there is an insult, it is not to the worm, but to the lunatic pretension of the obligatory pursuit of happiness, one of the commandments of the postmodern.

The fear of death, in addition to not sparing anyone, exposes our selfishness without kid gloves. That it is not "perfidy", but only the ineluctable tendency of the organism, "through countless ages of evolution, to protect its integrity". Self-preservation. Biologist Richard Dawkins took this maxim to the extreme in his The Selfish Gene (The selfish gene, Oxford University Press, 1976): “We are not the ones who want to thrive as a species and reproduce; it's the genes that fight to leave offspring, it's the genes that use us, as hosts, to perpetuate themselves”. Convincing and sensible. It would be execrable if Dawkins did not emphasize that altruism (created by culture, not nature) must and can be taught. It is possible, it is plausible, it is immensely desirable, for this Anglo-Saxon tradition, that man civilizes himself and defeats Aristotle's maxim quoted by Becker: “Luck is when the guy next to you gets hit by the arrow”


The anarcho-Christian Leo Tolstoy said that “Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are unhappy each in their own way”. It is about unhappy women that it is worth writing, composing, painting: about unhappy loves, unhappy encounters, unhappy times. The rest is a bad caricature: Tristan and Isolde leaving for their honeymoon in Bayreuth? Abelardo and Heloisa sharing the hut with children, grandchildren and the sacred scriptures? Romeo complaining about Juliet's inexperienced cooking? Lolita at a drive-in with her stepdad, celebrating her 40th birthday?

It is Tolstoy's, in fact, the most moving portrait of an existence that fades away: "The death of Ivan Ilyich", a short novel from 1886, is the masterpiece of masterpieces by the author of War and peace.

In the countless variations on the death theme, several movements fit. The Sacrificial Murder: Iphigenia in Áulide, by Euripides. Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter to better plunder Troy. Or beautiful death, personified by Achilles, in the prime of youth, beauty, vigor, areté.  Ditto the resigned wait and hope, at the mercy of some greater will; promise of eternal life, characteristic of monotheistic religions. For certain confessions, new life will blossom in groves peopled with angels, for others, in harems of Huri, virgins promised to righteous men. There is also death-martyrdom, which overlaps slightly with the previous one, the case of the martyrdom of Catholic Christians made official by Constantine, which Pliny the Younger called collective hysteria, to the point that they compensated, “by their own spontaneous confession, the lack of an accuser”. ” (…) and jump “pleasantly into the fire lit to consume them”. unhappy men- wrote to Emperor Trajan– that you are so fed up with your lives, is it so difficult to find ropes and precipices?”

Ill-will towards Catholicism and the ecstasies of martyrdom are the opposite of accepting death with composure (not resignation, but modest haughtiness), as evidence of the brevity of life, with love fatilike the Stoics did. The stoic, and emperor, Marcus Aurelius wrote: “how beautiful is the soul prepared for an immediate separation from the body, either to be extinguished, or to disperse or survive! Let this preparation, however, come from one's own judgment and not from a simple sectarianism, like that of Christians, a reasoned preparation, serious, and, to be convincing, not theatrical. (Meditations, Book XI, Marcus Aurelius, translation by Jaime Bruna, Cultrix, undated).

Let us not forget suicide, a pariah gesture in all religions, welcomed by some philosophers and elevated to the sublime by poets.

Dying is an art, like everything else. In this I am exceptional.
I make it look like hell. I make it look real.
Let's say I have a vocation

(Lady Lazarus, Sylvia Plath, 1962)

What an immense and troubled theme, the height of a Gothic cathedral and the extension of the most beautiful mosques. An arabesque that contains, like a nut, so many thinkers, artists, inventors. Everything can fit in it, including laughing at the great paúra of death, the imaginary patients, the antics of this Lady. O Compassionate Auto, by Ariano Suassuna, is a dazzling example of this possibility. And the fairy tales? They are users and timers of poisoning white girls, pricking others' fingers on loom spindles, devouring grandmothers.


It just doesn't fit the mockery, the sordidity, the boçality. Luckily, the examples are as short as the intelligence that produced them: it's the "So what?" Heir to “Viva ela, down with life”.

*Marilia Pacheco Fiorillo is a retired professor at the USP School of Communications and Arts (ECA-USP).


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