The Death Drive at 100

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2020 MARKS THE 100th anniversary of Sigmund Freud’s discovery of the death drive in his “metapsychological” essay, Beyond the Pleasure Principle. His grim speculations on the conservative nature of drives, or instincts, that want to take us back to primal quiescence, and thus dictate that “the aim of all life is death,” derive from work on veterans of World War I who suffered from shell shock, what we now would call PTSD. Beyond the Pleasure Principle, completed in 1919 and published in 1920, in fact represents Freud’s considered response to the Great War, which brought a new, dark turn in his thought — a turn we can recognize today as consonant with our own dark time.

The outbreak of war in 1914 came as a betrayal to cosmopolitan European intellectuals like Freud who, long before the creation of the EU, traveled freely throughout the continent and felt at home everywhere. At first, he believed it would end quickly. By 1915 he saw otherwise, and understood the stakes of the conflict well enough to write:

We cannot but feel that no event has ever destroyed so much that is precious in the common possessions of humanity, confused so many of the clearest intelligences, or so thoroughly debased what is highest. Science herself has lost her impartiality; her deeply embittered servants seek for weapons from her with which to contribute towards the struggle with the enemy. Anthropologists feel driven to declare him inferior and degenerate, psychiatrists issue a diagnosis of his disease of mind or spirit.


I quote here from Freud’s deeply pessimistic Thoughts for the Times on War and Death (1915), his first published reaction to the war. The collapse of civilized behavior suggests to him that the level of instinctual renunciation demanded by bourgeois European culture could not be maintained. What he calls the “unceasing suppression of instinct” in the domain of sexuality results in neurotic disorder. Elsewhere the pressure exerted by civilization is shown “in the perpetual readiness of the inhibited instincts to break through to satisfaction at any suitable opportunity.” And he continues:

Anyone thus compelled to act continually in accordance with precepts which are not the expression of his instinctual inclinations, is living, psychologically speaking, beyond his means, and may objectively be described as a hypocrite, whether he is clearly aware of the incongruity or not.


The life of culture lies beyond humanity’s means. It is hypocrisy, bound to end in the unleashing of savagery on a heightened scale. Millions of Europeans join in hating and detesting one another: “[A]ll individual moral acquisitions were obliterated, and only the most primitive, the oldest, the crudest mental attitudes were left.”

This lament, at the close of part one of Thoughts for the Times, prepares the leap of part two, where Freud comes to his truly radical analysis of European self-destruction: the “disturbance” in our attitude toward death. The argument that follows is sinuous, touching on the history of the world as “a series of murders of peoples,” and on the murder of the primal father, detailed in the nearly contemporaneous Totem and Taboo (1913). Freud surmises that the everyday massive experience of death in war upends the standard denial of death. I cite only the conclusion to the argument:

[War] strips us of the later accretions of civilization, and lays bare the primal man in each of us. It compels us once more to be heroes who cannot believe in their own death; it stamps strangers as enemies, whose death is to be brought about or desired; it tells us to disregard the death of those we love. […] Should we not confess that in our civilized attitude towards death we are once again living psychologically beyond our means, and should we not rather turn back and recognize the truth?


He is well on the way to discovering, by way of the traumatic dreams of shell-shocked veterans, the existence of the death drive that is unveiled in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

The death drive has been much disputed by psychoanalysts, and others, in part because its workings are not visible, like those of the pleasure principle. It works silently, largely unseen. Its one clear manifestation comes in sadism. If, earlier, Freud had conceived sadism as allied to erotic life, that had presented theoretical problems. He asks rhetorically:

But how can the sadistic instinct, whose aim it is to injure the object, be derived from Eros, the preserver of life? Is it not plausible to suppose that this sadism is in fact a death instinct which, under the influence of the narcissistic libido, has been forced away from the ego and has consequently only emerged in relation to the object?


In other words, sadism is the death drive turned from within the organism and directed outward, toward the destruction of others. Aggression and destructiveness are as constitutive of humans as love.

And this is, I think, the principal takeaway of Beyond the Pleasure Principle for Freud’s ultimate conception of human nature and society. By the time of Civilization and Its Discontents, in 1930, he writes: “I can no longer understand how we can have overlooked the ubiquity of non-erotic aggressivity and destructiveness and can have failed to give it its due place in our interpretation of life.” He recalls his own earlier defensive attitude toward the idea of such a drive, then says:

That others should have shown, and still show, the same attitude of rejection surprises me less. For [quoting Goethe] “little children do not like it” when there is talk of the inborn human inclination to “badness,” to aggressiveness and destructiveness, and so to cruelty as well. God made them in the image of His own perfection.


How then to reconcile the existence of evil with a perfect and all-knowing God? “The Devil would be the best way out as an excuse for God; in that way he would be playing the same part as an agent of economic discharge as the Jew does in the world of the Aryan ideal.” To conclude: “In view of these difficulties, each of us will be well advised, on some suitable occasion, to make a low bow to the deeply moral nature of mankind; it will help us to be generally popular and much will be forgiven us for it.” Bitter words. They were published, in their revised form, in 1931, as the Nazi darkness loomed. By 1937, in writing Moses and Monotheism, Freud was ready to be more explicit about his quarrel with the sacrificial optimism of Pauline Christianity.

And the death drive, the principle of destructiveness, would reemerge in what is just about his final essay, “Analysis Terminable and Interminable” (1937). Freud had by then discovered the philosophy of the pre-Socratic Empedocles of Agrigentum, by way of a book by Wilhelm Capelle published in 1935. Empedocles saw the world as a war of philia and neixos, love and strife, which Freud reconfigures as Eros and Thanatos, thus reinscribing the argument of Beyond the Pleasure Principle under ancient authority. Those two grandiose drives, the pleasure principle and the death drive, by their conflict determine the course of human life and all its social and cultural manifestations. The “fateful question,” as he stated in Civilization and Its Discontents, remains: whether or not societies will “succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction.” In this stark alternative, Freud says he can offer “no consolation.” Words that we still need to take to heart.

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Peter Brooks has published several books, including Reading for the Plot (1984), Henry James Goes to Paris (2007), and Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris (2017). A new book, Balzac’s Lives, will be out next fall. He is Sterling Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Yale University.