Book Review of Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death

It’s like going to sleep in this reality and waking up in another. A reality bereft of meaning but burdened with formulaic lifestyles. The book tells you that your character is a lie; forged as a result of denying pain and anxiety and suffering in the world. You validate and create your own supposedly infinite values so life’s possibilities may appear abundant, final, and redeeming.

We’ve all incurred this trait as it reaches an unconscious and almost robotic stage. Where, to break the pattern, the repression of these lies and delusions, one has to not only step out of this world but step out of the shoes that one, from childhood into adulthood, had tightened the shoelaces of. The Denial of Death calls this “the final terror of self-consciousness” under the light of facing up to one’s own death.

There is no doubt this book is consolatory for such times when our biological fate seems too hollow and out-of-hand. Evolution dictates the continuity of science, of geographical and historical precedence, but one does wonder if humanity is the real nature of the world. These “character defenses” we collectively but internally manifest and project out into the world is an attempt to delay the realization and acceptance of the only philosophical question about the human condition.

The “hero” is not the one with the answer but the one who bears the question without an explanation. Who lives undeterred by, but as a result of, the nothingness of life’s alibi. There are many definitions of death; poetically, we must return to the very form that created us, to dust; scientifically, our cells die and our organs do not regenerate; philosophically, death is nothing but the living of life. None do explain the accompanying awareness of death. And while we continue to form our own symphonies to bridge time, space, and existence – it’s books like The Denial of Death that broaden our understanding of our place in it. Don’t read it if you want answers, read it if you can start asking the questions.

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The Dichotomy of a Culture

In Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.

“…the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories, you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again.

That is their mystery and their magic.”

This was an excerpt from one of my favorite reads…. A book that is the measure of loving and the subtraction of it. It carries the weight of a heavy soul… kept in a jar… tightly sealed… full of anguish, regrets, misplaced memories, and shattered kinship. You see glimpses of it through cracks in the surface left behind by the piercing eyes of one’s political, cultural, and historical predispositions.

The book is The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

The book reads like a melancholic and secretive diary. A diary that you never bring out into the world; keeping it safely tucked away under a mattress or behind a mountain of personal belongings. A diary that is cradled too close to the heart, brutally and yet fervently expressive; the honesty of which even frightens you. It’s the flesh of the wound that runs the deepest and that bleeds on those blank pieces of paper; but in the end, it is bandaged by only you. This is it. The enormity of Arundhati Roy’s compass pointing us in so many glued-together directions. Having read this book three times, tucked between periods of days, weeks, months of staying away from a book that I, who am inclined to always pick up a new book because there’s always so much to read, go back to it every time for some sentimental and perceptive consolation. 

The thing about reading tragedy is that it becomes your own. Or that you claim that it is your own. How else would you feel it? The triumphs of loneliness, isolation, despair, and anger run deep into the well of your emotional tendencies. The characters are waiting for you to peel back their layers, upon a surface that makes up a story’s setting. The inadequacy of such a task is ironically what brings you closer to Arundhati Roy’s fiction. You read the words, maybe in whisper-quiet echoes. But you feel it pulsating in every muscle and their hollow spaces as if those very echoes mimic the speed and the color and the density of blood.

The book is set in Kerala, ingrained in its language; the dichotomy of a culture, of lives that were born too soon (or that shouldn’t have been born at all). The narration is restless with religious and political descriptions. Arundhati Roy has a unique way of defining these descriptions through her characters. The role of a mother, of a child, of a brother, a cousin, a lover, it’s in their history that one remembers the history of Kerala. If you’ve read the back cover of the book; the description hits the nail on the head. Amid the ruined, the forgotten, the misplaced – you won’t find a book this expansive in its depth and yet the characters live lives that feel quite the opposite.

It goes on for 340 pages; enough to contain decades and decades of survival. As a reader, you will diligently surrender to the writing style and tone of the book. It’s fast in its narration and yet you feel like it holds back time. Dropping an anchor in anyone who evaluates a book not only by its unpredictable structure but by its understanding of emotions – and their lyrical reminiscence. 

The Importance of Being Earnest – Oscar Wilde

A short story that endeavors or rather pokes at the genius of the impassivity of humanity. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde is a wild but fleeting ride. It is an introspective dive into the supposed lives of its protagonists, Algernon and John.

Both characters are handcuffed and drawn into the center of their society. It’s a fable of how unconsciously you could be pinned down by the things you surround yourself with. The understanding of false identities is grounded in as much as relevant even now. The more we’re drawn to fantasies in nature, the worse we tend to feel when they’re taken away from us.

If you ever looked into the truths that belong to you because they’re desirable. And the truths that exist undeterred by you. You’d grasp the elusive quality of life. Its illusions, ephemeral distractions, and the infallible mirror of reality. To read this book is to encourage your fascination for comedy put forth in an unfailing and intelligent light.


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Memories of My Melancholy Whores – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The truth is that every book, and in it every story, holds in its imagination a dream. The dream demands truthfulness from its reality. Separating, by a thin veil, the person hanging on to reality for clarity and the person relying on the lucidity of dreams for intense, unforeseen love.

Memories of My Melancholy Whores is the exploration of the lacunae between both worlds. It’s moving, crisp, and soul-rendering. The words ignite and wander in the land of nostalgia, love, and mortality. Reclaiming you as its solitudinous voyager, its narrator, and impersonator.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s words aren’t a measure at all. They burst forth into the recesses of a melancholic and lonely life. The book chronicles the fullness and emptiness of such a life. And soaring from its pages is the transparency of what returns to life over and over again. Tightening the threads of time strung together by mortality. The ending is the fulfillment of an unfulfilled life. The beginning of the resurrection of one.

Memories of My Melancholy Whores is about the incomplete and restless relationship of love and time. The depth of the right love met at the wrong time. And the fragility of a love that never returned when it should have. Perhaps love never does fit one like a glove. Love is time’s revenge upon death. And its own extinction.


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Man And His Symbols – Carl G. Jung

The waking of life isn’t a conventional phenomenon. It’s a thin veil that often presses up against our dreaming state. And sometimes, for us, to see through is to entertain the possibility (and yet uncertainty) that we could be viewing life from either side of it. That is, telescoping a vision of (and for life) while being conscious or otherwise.

And the tool to help you realize this process, this state of being, is this book. Books belonging to this genre may seem overwhelming to follow; especially when it’s such an intense and introspective line of thinking.

But the Man and his Symbols by Carl G. Jung is the first that doesn’t. In it, you will read about symbolism, unconscious thinking, conscious breathing, and the realization of archetypes.

After reading Four Archetypes by Carl G. Jung, Man and his Symbols appears to me as reality-reclaiming and the surest hope for transcending inward. That the ‘resistance’ one often feels before steering the mind away from external reality and toward the inner realm which is the opposite of chaotic and distracting is meaningful. So that ‘resistance’ is as powerful as the realization of one’s ego and its exertions into our unconscious and conscious manifestations.

When I say unconscious and conscious manifestations, I don’t mean the ones that awaken instantaneously. The ones that we feel compelled to respond to. The layered reality of both positive and negative emotions. Some manifestations are more symbolic and emotionally-charged than we think. And these are the ones that harness a person’s soul and influence his/her decisions.

The book – rich and deeply intelligent – is an enjoyable and gratifying read. You understand the secrets of life, the soul, its shadow, and the interconnectedness of it all. To read it is to realize that we draw more from our inner being to insist on a more comfortable outer reality. But denying the realization to this subliminal space is a way to breathe only half completely.


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Kusamakura – Natsume Soseki

This book remains too ephemeral. And yet it is profoundly infused with the feeling of living in (or with) the present. It’s a book that goes on changing as a self but its characteristic motif is of lightness and timelessness. Kusamakura is Natsume Soseki’s plunge into experimental literature. It’s a first on many counts and will be the longest-lived. 

It’s a book that realizes its extraordinariness but not in the way that most books do. The present is all that the book is willing to give up and that’s what makes it a meditative read. When you step into the world of a fictional character, you’re taken through objects as if in reality. You explore new horizons, observe the map of the character’s world which a novel allows you to investigate. 

And even if you come out of this book without feeling inspired or transformed. Know that to read it is to let go of the chaos that resides everywhere around you. To read it is to appreciate stillness that grows with every page. And there’s nothing more revealing and rewarding for a reader – to be the one at the receiving end of this beautiful transaction. 


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The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand is the sanest book about the insanity of nothingness. And what humans are capable of accomplishing to fight against it. Isn’t the absence of a thing that gives rise to nothing? And the power the emptiness holds over everything else.

Humans think because they have been given a choice not to. They act because there’s the absence of an action lurking in the corner as their shadow; forming their identities. This act, and the emptiness of its realization is what’s personified in the book.

Air has a pattern we don’t quite know how to keep track of. And that it gives definition to everything else. So tell me – which is more powerful? The one wielding the rock or the space that allows one to do so? Are we powerful because we can quantify courage, wisdom, and greatness – magnifying it as we see fit – and praising our own capacity while doing so? The significance is in the space. Handed over to the action. Given the freedom to do so. Freedom, then, is not taken to measure one’s survival. It’s perfectly granted.

So if we are capable of transcending power in some such way. Where the air is heavier than the thing that takes its place. What is left to prove?


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The Night is Darkening Round Me – Emily Bronte

When what one feels is unbearably bitter, one writes to express the chaos with sweet words to the world. This is what I felt after reading The Night is Darkening Round Me. Famous for her novel Wuthering Heights – which I’m yet to read – her short collection of poems is eye-opening. With the way of the world, the undeniability of death, and loss of precious life.

It encompasses a truth that travels through generations and asks for nothing in return. The poems – like Hope, My Comforter, and Death – do not go gentle in emotional intensity. Reread each stanza and you would go on reading whether you feel the grips of reality pulling you back or not.

Recognize and imagine every conviction that spills out of this book. Its affectivity is profound, tearful, and refined.

Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime – Oscar Wilde

This isn’t an ordinary short story; one that conveys a sentiment that’s crystal clear or even imaginable. Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime by Oscar Wilde discreetly discusses the fate of a man immersed in his delusional fallacies. About ephemeral moments of conceited insanity. And the boundaries one crosses to seal one’s fate.


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Don Quixote – Cervantes

The truth is, before reading this book, I used to think about chivalry and its unwavering hope through a vague lens. You still see the “quixotic” effect around you. The term means idealistic, unrealistic, and even extravagant.

While Don Quixote is an adventurous, courageous, and a masterful novel. It tells many truths about storytelling that I was unaware of before. You won’t find a novel with such intricately beautiful details. A historical fiction characterized by lies so imaginatively vivid and sincere that, at some point, you’ll have to stop and reconsider whether or not this is fiction at all.

Don Quixote’s personal reality and that of Sancho Panza’s felt strikingly non-fictional. Even so, you may mock his unreal yet aggressively visionary ideals and find them titillating, regardless. Believing the protagonist to be childish and delusional. But, at its very core, Don Quixote is a half-finished tale where perception trumps reality.

A mind so entranced and immersed in fantasies, in Don Quixote’s case chivalric romances, that in response to such an internal environment one is bound to encounter external validation. Isn’t that what perception is all about anyway? To bridge the gap between one’s internal thoughts and beliefs to the actual reality. We create, what I’d like to call, an “experience framework” where our reality amounts to the same thing as our thoughts. And still, some of us, label most of our actions as being void of any meaning whatsoever. As if it’s the absence of thought, like a plant deprived of nourishment, that leads astray.


To buy the book and support this review, buy from this Amazon link.


For The Public Eye is a participant of Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. This affiliate advertising service allows me to receive commissions for the book purchases you make.

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