How Do We Live with the Knowledge That We’ll Die?
The Lit Century Podcast Reads The Denial of Death
Welcome to Lit Century: 100 Years, 100 Books. Combining literary analysis with an in-depth look at historical context, hosts Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols choose one book for each year of the 20th century, and—along with special guests—will take a deep dive into a hundred years of literature.
In this episode, poet and critic Elisa Gabbert (The Unreality of Memory) joins host Catherine Nichols to discuss Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death. The book draws from psychology and philosophy to develop a theory of human behaviors motivated by fear of death and the desire to influence the world past an individual’s natural life span. Gabbert and Nichols talk about how Becker’s ideas look in a modern context of climate change, pandemic, and sexual liberation.
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From the episode:
Catherine Nichols: Just to return to my initial reason for reading this book, how much is it symbolic and how much is it actually just a basic human need that I want there to be a future in which there’s a society in which my name is on some stuff? In some ways, according to this book, that would just be a consolation for the fact that I’ll die—a lie I’m telling to comfort myself about that fact. But then I look around at all the ways people are behaving, and I think, maybe our society has reached its maximum ability to sustain people not believing in a future beyond their own deaths. If people would believe in a society that still matters, that still exists beyond their individual lives, wouldn’t we have some way of dealing with global warming or the pandemic or any of it?
Elisa Gabbert: I feel like if you asked Richard Dawkins—not that you would want to talk to him—he would say, oh, it’s completely about the perpetuation of the human gene. It’s in our genes that we would want to live to mid-adulthood so that we would have had time to procreate and also rear our children to be old enough to ensure that they’re going to survive. And that was more likely to succeed if you were doing it in a social context, in a village or something where there were other people who could help raise your children and make sure they lived. So, the kind of warm, fuzzy feelings—or even the need to be around other people—is explained completely genetically.
I keep thinking of it in terms of, the 20th century produced a lot of really good theories, in that you can start with any one theory and explain so much. But sometimes it feels like you’re looking at the wrong resolution.
Elisa Gabbert is the author of five collections of poetry, essays, and criticism: The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays, out now from FSG Originals and Atlantic UK; The Word Pretty (Black Ocean, 2018); L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (Black Ocean, 2016); The Self Unstable (Black Ocean, 2013); and The French Exit (Birds LLC, 2010). The Unreality of Memory and The Word Pretty were both named a New York Times Editors’ Choice, and The Self Unstable was chosen by the New Yorker as one of the best books of 2013. She writes a regular poetry column for the New York Times, and her work has appeared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine and Book Review, the New York Review of Books, the Guardian Long Read, the London Review of Books, A Public Space, the Paris Review Daily, American Poetry Review, and many other venues.
Catherine Nichols is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in many places, including Jezebel, Aeon, and Electric Literature. She lives in Brooklyn.