Recently a person contacted me to say that he had read Ernest Becker’s 1974 book, The Denial of Death, and felt that it was more or less entirely worthless because what Becker wrote about homosexuality was outdated and wrong. I have heard similar strong criticisms of Becker’s work because he failed to directly criticize patriarchy and his language follows the style of using male pronouns. We do, of course, always have to be willing to criticize (that is, read critically) authors of earlier times. But I am not sure it is fair or just (or good scholarship) to dismiss an author because he or she reflects in specific instances the standards and assumptions of his or her own time rather than out own. I have no idea what the standards and assumptions will be 50 or 100 years from now, but I am sure that my current writing will violate something. I hope the readers of the future, if they be kind enough then to still read anything I have written, will do so with grace and a critical eye. Anyway, here is what I wrote in reply to this gentleman:
“I am sympathetic with you for what you went through in coming to terms with your sexual orientation during a time [1970s] in which homosexuality was still extremely taboo in this country. I have heard personal stories about this struggle from a number of close friends. I can only say that I respect you for what you went through and for bearing the brunt of the social prejudices, opening the doors so that it is at least somewhat easier for the current generation of adolescents and young adults.
You are, of course, absolutely correct that Ernest Becker was a human being, a man of his time, and despite his insights into certain aspects of the human situation, his thinking in a number of areas was not particularly progressive. It would be a tragic mistake to approach any of Becker’s texts as some sort of fixed scriptural cannon from which only pearls of truth and wisdom magically emerge. His texts also are only all too human.
Therefore, we can and must simply jettison and ignore what Becker wrote about particular religious, social and political issues of his time, including especially his few statements about women and homosexuality (which, while not particularly progressive to our ears, were actually much less patriarchal and homophobic than much of what was in the literature of that time.) That said, many of us have found key aspects of Becker’s work (most specifically, the death anxiety thesis) that continue to be very useful in constructing a more liberated ethic and philosophy in our time. It helps us understand at a deep level the ins and outs of human motivation, both at an individual and collective level. It lends itself well to explicating dynamics of transference, idolization, scapegoating, alienation, disgust, and many more, tying these various dynamics together and showing that they spring from a common source.
That hermeneutic continues to keep Becker’s work fresh. For example, while what Becker wrote about homosexuality fairly well followed the standard line of established psychoanalytic theory of the 1960s, might it not be that the death anxiety thesis does contribute to understanding some of the key human dynamics involved in the social ostracism of sexual minorities during the 1970s (and, unfortunately, ongoing into our own time, though hopefully that prejudicial ostracism is abating)?
Perhaps, given your experience with Becker’s text 40 years ago it is impossible to approach this work with anything but contempt. That is certainly understandable. At the same time, as said, many of us have found the death anxiety thesis to be of continuing value, and that by standing on Becker’s shoulders (so to speak) we can see much farther than Becker ever could or than we could without him.”