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Carveth, D.L. (2004). The Melancholic Existentialism of Ernest Becker. Free Associations, 11(3):422-429.

(2004). Free Associations, 11(3):422-429

The Melancholic Existentialism of Ernest Becker

Donald L. Carveth

Although The Total Oeuvre of psychoanalytic anthropologist Ernest Becker has much to contribute to psychoanalysis, his Pulitzer Prize-winning monograph, The Denial of Death (1973), itself cries out for analysis of the personal basis of its profoundly pessimistic bias. While elaborating a valuable and still unassimilated existential critique and revision of Freudian meta-psychology, in order to be appreciated its existential insights must be differentiated and retrieved from the melancholia with which they are associated in this work.

Since a recent documentary film based on the work of psychoanalytic anthropologist Ernest Becker, Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality (Shen, 2003; Transcendental Media, 2003) is evoking a good deal of interest these days, it is perhaps worthwhile to have another look at The Denial of Death (1973).

Based primarily on the work of Otto Rank (1932 [1968], 1936, 1958) and Norman O. Brown (1959), Becker's work elaborates an existential psychology in which human beings suffer from a primary death anxiety that is, contra Freud's view, irreducible to infantile fears. Like Pascal, Kierkegaard, and others in the existentialist tradition who write of our constant need for diversion from the dismal reality of our condition, Becker argues that our primary death anxiety necessarily and quite literally drives us to distraction. Repression, if not imposed by civilization, would be self-imposed as a result of our need to deny the body that, in a variety of ways, especially in its anal functions, is a constant reminder of the mortality we cannot face. Society offers a range of possibilities for heroism in which death is denied and an illusion of immortality constructed.

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