Becker's fundamental thesis is that the whole of human civilization, ultimately,
has to do with avoiding and denying the inevitability of death.
(Premise: throughout the book Becker downplays the fact that Hinduism and
Buddhism seem to abhor eternal life).
This book is also a treatise on post-Freudian psychology, particularly on Freud's coworker Otto Rank, with scattered references to influential books published by psychoanalysts from the 1950s through the 1970s.
William James argued that the world is a theater for heroism and Alfred Adler argued that we live to reenact the myth of Narcissus. Becker's thesis is that each cultural system is actually built around heroism. A life is an "immortality project" through which the individual tries to create something that will last forever. Heroism a desperate attempt to find a way to last forever. Therefore, Becker says, it is an effect of the terror of death. The original hero in history was the person who could come back from the world of the dead, like Osiris and Jesus.
However, we are mostly unconscious of our "heroic" project. Everybody strives to be a hero but most people don't realize that they are doing it. On one hand our life is very much about avoiding death and on the other hand it is very much about not thinking about it. Becoming mature adults is about practicing deceit to the point that we don't remember what we are deceiving ourselves about.
This is part of a broader existential paradox, due to the fundamental dualism of the human condition: we are half animal and half symbolic. We are an abstract mind that can think sublime thoughts; but we are also a decaying body that will rot and become food for worms. From the point of view of the noble mind, this is a grotesque fate: so much grand thinking to end in rotting flesh. We can never completely separate the divinity of our mind from the animality of our body. Even the moments that yield the greatest pleasure disguise utterly disgusting bodily functions (sex is, ultimately, an excretion just like urinating and defecating). We are both a dignified self and an ignoble body. The infinite freedom of the mind has to coexist with the limited freedom of the body.
After a chapter on Kierkegaard in which i didn't understand a single sentence (appropriately wrapped up with the conclusion that "his whole argument now becomes crystal clear"), and i suspect Becker did not understand a single sentence of Kierkegaard's work, and after lengthy chapters on some of Freud's most ridiculous theories, i think i understood that the whole point can be summarized in one sentence: we are afraid of both life and death, and we find a solution in religious faith. Apparently, Otto Rank "proved" that humans are not biological but theological beings, thus wedding Kierkegaard and psychoanalysis and, in Becker's opinion, laying the foundations for a "post-Freudian understanding of man" (as if Freud had ever understood man). Trouble is that Becker thinks that Rank's confused thinking "is not due to confused thinking", whereas i think it is precisely that (excuse the tautology).
Then Becker talks of contemporary psychoanalysis as dealing with neurosis that works at three levels, one being the historical level of a world that does not find solace in ideologies (religions?) anymore. Rank argued that the neurotic individual is so afraid of death that he kills so much of his self to become almost dead. That sounds interesting. Unfortunately, Rank also asked incredibly stupid questions about artists' neurosis.
Becker views history as a succession of immortality ideologies, and his contemporary world is one that has lost faith in such ideologies. Humans have always been neurotic, because of that original fundamental dualism, but each age makes more or less easier to be neurotic, and the age of the death of religion makes it a lot easier. (The connection that is not completely clear is the connection between religion and heroism: it sounds like Becker believes that just by believing in a God the individual becomes a hero in his ordinary family life). Therefore neurosis is rampant. Religions are dying and Becker's contemporaries need revolutions and wars to find a sense of heroism. Rank spoke of the age of "psychological man" and of his age as an age in which psychology was trying to replace religion. However, Rank recognized that psychology was the wrong cure because, instead of creating certainties, increases the sense of insecurity: psychology cannot explain what sense the universe and life make, and cannot reverse the direction of history (away from religion), but can only prompt the individual to reflect even more painfully on her or his condition: "psychoanalysis failed therapeutically because it aggravated man's psychologizing rather than healed him of his introspection" ("Psychology and the Soul", 1931). Now we're talking.
The chapter on mental illness is absolutely terrifying. It reveals what psychoanalysts call "illness" and try to "heal". Sometimes i fail to see the difference between a psychoanalyst and a psychopath.
In the end Becker advocates the fusion of psychology and religion, and now we understand why the emphasis on Kierkegaard.
The reader has to go through painful psychoanalytical gibberish, such as discussions on "anality" (a favorite Freudian topic), the Oedipus complex (another hilarious Freudian favorite), the castration terror and assorted literary aberrations, in order to absorb the few intriguing ideas of this book.
Notable books referenced here that deal with the fear of death include: