Architects, Madmen and Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death

The real motive for every person is to be significant enough to never die.

Mockingbird / 8.17.17

Freud, Kierkegaard, and the drug lord Heisenberg…A free peek into the Love & Death Issue, which people continue to tell us is their favorite issue thus far. Here is Ethan’s piece on the classic, Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. If you subscribe to the magazine, and add the code JESSEPINKMAN in the notes section of your order, we’ll send a free copy to a friend of your choosing.

And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”

From where I’m sitting, there’s one scene that turned mere watchers of Breaking Bad into hardcore devotees. It’s from the fourth episode of the first season, an episode called “Cancer Man.” The scene takes place in a gas station with an obnoxious stock broker from a group of Forex brokers named Ken. Walter White, as you know, is the perennial loser high school Chemistry teacher—a genius scientist who at one time had a chance at a big scientific breakthrough but got usurped by his partner. His son is disabled, his wife is unhappy, and the cherry on top: Walter, who has never smoked a cigarette in his life, has just learned he has terminal lung cancer. He now must work two jobs just to make ends meet. Which is where the whole cooking high-purity methamphetamines comes in. All the hijinx involved in that plotline are enough to get you interested.

But the scene in question comes after a particularly hard day for Walt. He’s just found out the cancer has spread to his lymph nodes, and that the experimental treatment will cost his family $90,000. After he is cut off in a parking lot by a BMW with the license plate “KEN WINS,” he spots the car again in the gas station. Winner Ken hops out of the convertible, Bluetooth in ear, yammering on, like winners do, about how great his attorney is. Something latent in Walt snaps to action.

While Ken is paying for his gas inside, Walt walks over to the BMW and pops the hood. Checking his surroundings, and moving with a dexterity we didn’t know the clumsy teacher had, he affixes a window squeegee to the opposing poles of the car battery. Sparks fly, Walt lowers the hood back down, and walks away nonchalantly. (The science is cloudy to me, but it’s a feasible stunt, the Reddit fans say.) Before he is back in his now-famous Pontiac Aztek, the KEN WINS Bimmer is in a ball of flames. The credits roll to Darondo’s “Didn’t I.” It’s a small victory after a lot of losing for Walt.

We find that in this moment, a switch has flipped. Something has been engaged in Walter White that we will spend five seasons watching ascend. The loser who has lost everything is now fighting back—he is finally defying the givens. And we love it. But what the show will also unveil to us is that this isn’t a “new” Walter. The defiance that creates the drug lord Heisenberg has always been there in him, hungry for heroics. As the American anthropologist Ernest Becker writes not about Walter White but about Adolf Hitler, this defiance is “a rage against our impotence, a defiance of our animal condition, our pathetic creature limitations. If we don’t have the omnipotence of gods, we at least can destroy like gods.”

This becomes Walt’s Promethean task. One of the best television shows of all time is set off by one man’s terrible unwillingness to come to terms with death. The show reveals how Hitler’s defiance can just as aptly be a Chemistry teacher’s, or any of ours, at the prospect of our limits. It is also why the Shelley poem above features so prominently in the final season of the show. Every Pharaoh goes. Just like every kingpin who came before him (Gustavo Fring and Hector “Tio” Salamanca), Walter and all of the Breaking Bad faithful are forced to reckon with this in themselves.

This innate refusal is the subject of Ernest Becker’s classic, The Denial of Death. The book won the Pulitzer in 1974, the same year that Becker himself died of colon cancer at the age of 50. The thesis of the book, plain and simple, is this: of all the things that move human beings, one of the prime movers is our terror of—and thus, our evasion of—death. Using multiple disciplines to make his point, and borrowing from both Freudian psychology and the philosophy of Kierkegaard, Becker argues that everyday human life is irretrievably constrained and dictated by the fear of death.

Becker’s book begins with the human problem of “heroism,” the all-pervading, non-stop desire to be the hero of one’s life. Heroism, Becker writes, is the basic extension of our narcissism, which Freud described as the elemental impulse in the human psyche. Because we are inclined to see ourselves as gods, the center of the universe, we continually generate stories and build tiny empires that help us believe it. As Becker writes,

It doesn’t matter whether the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value…

Heroism, in other words, is the way we counterfeit permanence, the way each of us continues our own causa sui (or “all by myself”) project. Becker is quick to correct us from thinking that this is only the case with the few egomaniacs we can rifle off—the land mogul, the town mayor, the mother who won’t stop talking about her National Merit Semifinalists, Gwyneth Paltrow. No, Becker wants us to see ourselves here, in all the ordinary ways we hope to install the permanent ME plaque upon the foundation of the earth.

He bids you to think of your savings, your legacy investments, your discreet Instagram boasts, your paranoia about healthy eating. Think of your friends and their eternity myths: think of parties you’ve gone to where everyone is “killing it,” doing important work—creative work or socially conscious work or groundbreaking work or even “humble” work. Becker is clear that the hero construct is as true for the coal miner as it is for the philanthropist.

The real motive, he argues, for every person, whether they know it or not, whether they’d admit it or not, is to be significant enough to never die.

They earn this feeling by carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice that reflects human value: a temple, a cathedral, a totem pole, a skyscraper, a family that spans three generations. The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive and outshine death and decay, and man and his products count.

These questions, of worth and meaning and identity, make up the central problem of existentialism. Becker, who focuses a majority of the book on the life and work of Sigmund Freud, argues that Freud didn’t go far enough in the psychoanalytic understanding of the human condition. Freud, father of the Oedipus Complex, the anal and oral stages of development, and fixation and repression, rooted the issues of suffering and neurosis in the sexual and libidinal impulses of the human psyche latent since birth. This, for Freud, was getting to the bottom of it. And while Becker doesn’t discount these forces, he thinks that Freud misread their origin. This origin, according to Becker, is the fundamental paradox confronting us in death.

Like Kierkegaard before him, he writes that man is in a terrible conundrum. We are like gods—we build, govern, create, imagine, love—but gods tied down by our bodies. Our bodies occupy only a particular space and time. Our bodies get hungry, get sick, need sleep, need to poop. They eventually grow old, contract diseases, and die. Any great discovery or experience is punctuated by this never-failing end. Death renders our godlike accomplishments ultimately mute. Steve Jobs had cancer in his pancreas. Your body, too, will be the end of you.

So, what are your options in this irreconcilable paradox? Well, thinking about your death all the time is paralyzing. It does not exactly make it easy to talk about the World Series or the next weather system coming in. Can you see the point of “professional development”? The point of saving money by packing lunches, or better yet, the point of saying to hell with it, and buying a more expensive cut of steak? If death is on your mind, neither would taste good.

No, against all odds, and in combat with despair, you and I soldier on. Kierkegaard is right when he says we “tranquilize ourselves with the trivial.” We stay busy with the world. We run errands. We go to church. We fend off the paradox by ignoring the bad half of it. We continue with our hero stories.

And this is where Becker believes Freud did get it right: in the notion of repression. The agonizing mystery of death becomes a boxed-up monster in the basement of our ego. The door to the basement is locked, and the distractions (and joys) of life (exciting, beautiful life!) keep the music loud. Busyness, the endless horizon of exciting plans and miniature traumas, is enough to fill the waking hours upstairs.

Becker says that this noise—all the ways we drown out the monster in the basement—is actually what we usually refer to as “character.” They are the ways we “suit up” against a reality we’re stuck with. Whether you are the “thrill-seeking, athletic one” or “the devoted, nurturing one” or “the religious one,” the identities we claim for ourselves are our armor. They’re all narratives hoping to be louder than the terror below.

Maybe this sounds too bleak. Character traits aren’t just styles of denial—the assortment of ways we are all neurotic. How could every character trait—even my good ones—possibly be a form of repression, a way of arming myself against death? What about the moments when I’m a loving dad, a good friend?

Becker isn’t saying there aren’t genuine or spontaneous acts of human love. He also isn’t casting stones about those who live in denial and those who don’t. He’s simply following Kierkegaard’s line of thought, that this is the only way we make sense of ourselves. He’s saying that this is the only way we manage to defend ourselves against the impossible.

The defenses that form a person’s character support a grand illusion, and when we grasp this we can understand the full drivenness of man. He is driven away from himself, from self-knowledge, self-reflection. He is driven toward things that support the lie of his character, his automatic equanimity…


Career choices are a good example of this inner dishonesty. Say there are two architects you know in town. They were roommates in school, of equal rank when it came to the schoolwork, of identical temperament when it came to the style of work itself. They both daydreamed themselves landing a variety of future positions—would they climb the ladder in a big-name firm? Would they go off on their own, hope to make a mark? They couldn’t decide. Both sounded good. Time would tell.

They were colleagues at their first job, at the big office in town, working the same kinds of projects, making the same kind of money. Their prospects were handsome, their CV was set.

As they guessed, time did tell, though you would not be able to distinguish who won and who lost. One of them decided to venture out on his own: he started his own firm, as he now says he “always dreamt of doing,” and he’s landed some exciting projects that have kept the firm above water now for ten years, a huge accomplishment. The other, with a young family at the time, decided not to jump ship with his friend. Telling himself he’d “always” been in favor of being influential by “staying the course,” he stayed at the big office and climbed higher. The lifestyle that he’s been able to secure for his now-blossoming family justifies his decision.

Two similar architects, two similar people. For the stranger meeting them at a cocktail party, the differences are imperceptible. But to the men themselves, the differences are everything. Each of them has built a life of defensiveness against the life they refused. In each other’s company, they are warm enough, but their inner shields are up. Their friendship is nominal only, because the other represents a life that was, at one point, an option to them. “Poor guy, he must hate still working there,” thinks Architect-Living-the-Dream-Running-His-Own-Firm, while the other, Architect-Going-to-St.-Thomas-Next-Month-Because-He-Was-Wise-Enough-to-Stay, wonders to himself, “Poor guy, he’s probably still wondering if he’ll get paid this quarter.” Their chosen hero systems are built upon the repression of the other’s, which is why it is so hard for them to be in the same room.

You may not be an architect, but you know this feeling—this “narcissism of small differences,” as Freud called it, and the fragile hero systems you must defend. In this line of thinking, and because there are so many hero systems to defend, we are all as mad as Legion, the demon-possessed, grave-dwelling madman confronted by Christ. We may not look it, but we’re all tormented by voices. Madness, like Pascal said, is part of the deal: “Men are so necessarily mad that not to be mad would be another form of madness.”

So, we are left with two types of people: madmen and architects. There are those who have gone crazy, and those who have postponed their crazy with lies. Those whose hero systems have fallen, and those who continue to bolster them from within. Like the Pharisees of scripture, they are smooth operators, publicly composed and religiously dutiful, but they are “white-washed tombs.” Their hero systems grant them the appearance of livelihood, but they’re dead inside. Everything they carry with dignity is protected with defensiveness and resignation.


This is you, remember. As soon as you have listed off all the Pharisees in your life, the ones inveterately afraid of what might be locked in the basement yet locked up in the shallow distractions of their own heroism, you have missed the point. Becker wants you to see the clean tomb of your own private life. Becker asks you, with the help of Kierkegaard, to look upon the grim face of the hero within you: the Good Mother, the Loyal Friend, the Lover of Life, the Respected One. This is a terrifying invitation: to look upon your life’s “purpose,” its causa sui project and survival strategy, to be counterfeit. This would surely spin you into a nervous breakdown—where, after that, could you turn?

Becker describes this despair as the beginning of real hope. Taking a note from his Lutheran background, he describes what Søren Kierkegaard found: that faith, strangely enough, came in facing the devastating truth of death head-on. Kierkegaard argued that you must attend the “school” of anxiety, and be broken there, before you can ever be mended.

Education for man means facing up to his natural impotence and death. As Luther urged us: “I say die, i.e., taste death as though it were present.” It is only if you taste death with the lips of your living body that you can know emotionally that you are a creature who will die.

In other words, Kierkegaard implores: unlock the basement door. Go down there, because whatever is down there is coming up eventually anyways. He claims that this is true faith: to let your “character” be exposed to death. Then, he suggests, make friends with death. Put death on display in the living room. Only then will you have an in-house lie-detector against all the hero systems you used to live under. Only then, when you have nothing left to put beside your name, will you have the ears to hear anything that might be calling out to you a new hope for you.

Of course, this isn’t Kierkegaard’s line, or Luther’s. It’s from Jesus. It is what Jesus says time and again throughout the gospels. To the self-righteous, to those with sturdy hero-systems, who pray in public and manage a litany of reputable titles, he calls them downstairs:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Mt 6:19-21).

Jesus holds death up for all to see. Our life project, he remarks, is nothing more than a memento mori, a stark reminder of what we’re really avoiding. Jesus gathers his listeners out over the edge of the canyon, to survey all each of us has accomplished, all we’ve ever been proud of, and he shows us how inconsequential these things are amidst the depth of the problem. He says these projects have already gotten their reward. They have no currency in heaven. They will not justify you. They will die with you.

For you and me, and all of Jesus’ hearers, this is an utterly offensive thing to be told. It is offensive to hear that everything you’ve been working on upstairs for your entire life—everything you’ve done, said, accomplished, maintained, won over, or influenced—will be snuffed out by the monster in the basement. But Jesus takes it further. He says that not one of those shining characteristics are changing our scoresheet with the Almighty. This, we believe, is sacrilege.

Jesus is adamant, though. He describes a Kingdom where nothing is said about how hospitable your home always was or how respected you were with your peers. Where there is no credit given for the good choices you made or the temptations you avoided. Oddly, the you that you worked so hard to weed out is also a part of that Kingdom.

Jesus invites his listeners to imagine what that might do to your causa sui project. Once you got past the unbearable embarrassment of it, that no “great” thing you achieved was ultimately achieving anything…once you got past that, wouldn’t that sound like a relief? Your inner architect, striving and elbowing forward, defensive about the right choices you made, would be closed up and finished. And all the other architects around you, also striving and elbowing forward and defending their hero stories—you could understand them. They’re madmen, just like you. This is what he’s offering. Jesus proclaims a Kingdom for Madmen, who are finally offered a doctor for their madness. “Those who are well have no need for a physician, but the sick.”

That Kingdom sounds inviting, but we have always been architects, not madmen. We want nothing to do with a God disinterested in our heroics. Time and again, we have vowed to silence that message. Like Walter White, we have raged against our creaturely limitations. “If we don’t have the omnipotence of gods, we at least can destroy like gods.” So, we killed the man who told us we would die. We lifted our fear of death high above us, we called it King, we nailed it to a cross. So we could get back to our lives again.

But the cross was, to our surprise, the ultimate reversal. Standing below him, glad to be done with him, something changed for us. There we stood at the base of the cross, Bluetooth earbuds in, “killing it” in all the ways we kill it, this ironic memento mori above us, a pathetic death we’re proud would never be a part of our heroic saga. We watched the man die, though he didn’t look like much of a man at all. Naked, stripped of all defensiveness and righteousness, there was no hero left, no character to speak of. He looked more like a lost child. Hanging above us all—a crowd of busy heroes, each shored up with a life made for ourselves—he was no one. Quietly, almost unnoticeably, he came to terms with the very thing we avoided and continue to avoid.

In that nobody something new became possible. A way beyond heroism, and a way beyond despair. It was true for the centurion, arrayed in imperial weaponry and an armored crest, a cultural man, a stand-up guy, an architect like you and me, who cried out despite himself, “Surely, this man was the Son of God.”