Death drive  

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Ernest Jones (who like many analysts was not convinced of the need for the death drive, over and above an instinct of aggression) considered that "Freud seemed to have landed in the position of Schopenhauer, who taught that 'death is the goal of life'". (The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud)

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

In classical Freudian psychoanalytic theory, the death drive ("Todestrieb") is the drive towards death, self-destruction and the return to the inorganic: 'the hypothesis of a death instinct, the task of which is to lead organic life back into the inanimate state'. It was originally proposed by Sigmund Freud in 1920 in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where in his first published reference to the term he wrote of the 'opposition between the ego or death instincts and the sexual or life instincts'. The death drive opposes Eros, the tendency toward survival, propagation, sex, and other creative, life-producing drives. The death drive is sometimes referred to as "Thanatos" in post-Freudian thought, complementing "Eros", although this term was not used in Freud's own work, being rather introduced by one of Freud's followers, Wilhelm Stekel.

The Standard Edition of Freud's works in English confuses two terms that are different in German, Instinkt ("instinct") and Trieb ("drive"), often translating both as instinct. 'This incorrect equating of instinct and Trieb has created serious misunderstandings' (Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, (London 1946), p. 12). Freud actually refers to the "death instinct" as a drive, a force that is not essential to the life of an organism (unlike an instinct) and tends to denature it or make it behave in ways that are sometimes counter-intuitive. The term is almost universally known in scholarly literature on Freud as the "death drive", and Lacanian psychoanalysts often shorten it to simply "drive" (although Freud posited the existence of other drives as well).


Evolution of Freud's Instinct Theory

The limitations in theory and practice of Freud’s initial dichotomy in ego (self-preservation) and sexual (libido) instincts started to appear about 6 years before his final formulation of the death drive. Two papers where this is quite obvious are ‘On Narcissism’ (1914) and the ‘Instincts and their Vicissitudes’ (1915). In the former and with the introduction of the concept of 'narcissism,' Freud understood that one's object of desire might be an internal one, namely the ego itself, and that in this situation, the pleasure one normally derives from a loved object is received by the libidinal attachment to the self/ego.

This observation was very valuable for two reasons. In clinical practice Freud described a very important stage in human mental and emotional development, that of primary narcissism and consequently that of secondary narcissism in later adult life, but additionally the introduction of these phenomena cast doubts on the validity of the theory of the instincts, classifying them as ego and sexual. Since in this situation of narcissism the ego instincts were under the influence of the sexual drive, they became another manifestation of the libido instincts.

This difficult point in the theory was apparent in Freud's 1915 paper on nature of instincts, where with the discussion of primary masochism it was difficult to attribute such a non-pleasurable activity to either the self-preserving ego or to the libidinal instincts solely focused on ‘organ-pleasure’. In trying to resolve this dilemma, Freud proposed properties of the instincts including sublimation, repression, and self-reversal. Based on the last two of these properties he came to justify the change from sadism to masochism as a process that involves the instincts turning against the self (“change of objects”) while at the same time there is a reversal of their content into its opposite (“reversal of content”).

In the last pages of this paper, Freud acknowledged that while this theoretical construction is of some aid to the theory of instincts, it was quite clear to him that such a theory, solely based on sexual, self-preserving instincts, is insufficient, writing that “the true prototypes of the relation of hate are derived not from sexual life, but from the ego’s struggle to maintain itself” and that “hate, as relation to objects, is older than love”. In these statements, he created space in the theory for new ideas to come.

The Death Drive

The Standard Edition of Freud's works in English confuses two terms that are different in German, Instinkt (instinct) and Trieb (drive), often translating both as "instinct." Freud actually refers to the "death instinct" as a drive, a force that is not essential to the life of an organism (unlike an instinct), and tends to denature it or make it behave in ways that are sometimes counter-intuitive. The term is almost universally known in scholarly literature on Freud as the "death drive," and Lacanian psychoanalysts often shorten it to simply "drive" (although Freud posited the existence of other drives as well).

Freud attempted five years later to fill this space with ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ (1920) where he introduced for the first time the concept of the death drive. Although this step was made based only on theoretical discourse, he emphasizes that what led him to that discourse was clinical problems, notably the phenomena of ‘repetition-compulsion’ and sadism-masochism. The basic properties of this newly-introduced drive are that it aims towards “a return to the inanimate state”, that it is always fused with the sexual instinct, and that it is clinically silent, though when on the ascendance, still fused with sexual instinct, it can be clinically observed in behaviours like the ones mentioned above.

What Freud did was to keep the 1915 instinct theory almost intact, but at the same time omit the property of “reversal of content” used to compensate for non-pleasure principle behaviours of the sexual instincts, replacing it with a separate instinct of destruction and aggression not influenced by the pleasure-principle. Thus, for example, masochism is no longer the “reversal of content” of the sexual/self-preserving instincts, but rather the “change of objects” of sadism from external to internal, notably to the ego. Sadism is thus considered “a direct manifestation of the death instinct”.

Regarding the problem of ‘repetition-compulsion’, Freud now asserted that there is an inherent urge influencing the repetition of unpleasant/traumatic experiences with the aim of mastering them and thus reducing the excitation levels (anxiety) to zero, in other words that “there really does exist in the mind a compulsion to repeat which overrides the pleasure principle…[related to this] compulsion are the dreams that occur in traumatic neurosis and the impulse which leads children to play”. Though still at that time the idea of the death instinct was a pure hypothesis whose validity even Freud himself questioned, writing that “it may be asked whether and how far I am myself convinced of the truth of the hypotheses that have been set out in these pages. My answer would be that I am not convinced myself and that I do not seek to persuade other people to believe in them”.

With the passing of time though, Freud became more confident of the value of his new construct and gradually integrated it into the existing theory, applying revisions where necessary. In particular in his next paper three years later, Freud (1923) elaborates more fully on the new theory and especially on the behaviour of the silent death instinct in terms of its continuous fusion with the life instinct and its manifestation outside the self. “…[B]oth kinds of instinct would be active in every particle of living substance, though in unequal proportions, so that some one substance might be the principal representative of Eros. This hypothesis throws no light whatsoever upon the manner in which the two classes of instincts are fused, blended and alloyed with each other; but that this takes place regularly and very extensively is an assumption indispensable to our conception. It appears that, as a result of the combination of unicellular organisms into multi-cellular forms of life, the death instinct of the single cell can successfully be neutralized and the destructive impulses be diverted on to the external world through the instrumentality of a special organ. This special organ seems to be the muscular apparatus; and the death instinct would thus seem to express itself – though probably only in part – as an instinct of destruction directed against the external world and other organisms" (ibid. pp.387-8).

These concepts emphasise the constant fusion of the death drive with that of life, but in unequal proportions which are highly susceptible to change. Even more importantly, it is clearly stated that destruction and aggression are to be considered the diversion/deflection of a proportion the death instinct with the help of the “muscular apparatus”, i.e. the body. What is also quite interesting is that Freud in this paper makes no clear connection between the newly-proposed structure of the personality (in id, ego and superego) and the revised instinct theory.

A year later Freud (1924) took his new formulation beyond the pleasure principle and introduced the guiding principle of the death drive, the ‘Nirvana principle’ whose “aim is to conduct the restlessness of life into the stability of inorganic life”. This completed the picture on the three primal influencing forces of the psyche, pleasure, nirvana, and reality principles, arising from either the operation of inherent instincts or the impact of the external world. Additionally he takes further steps in the analysis of masochism in relation to the instincts, and categorises the former into different types, out of which the most thought provoking seems to be ‘moral masochism’ since, according to Freud, is a “classical piece of evidence for the existence of fusion of instincts”. Accordingly it is considered as initially originating directly from the death drive and “corresponds to the part of that instinct which has escaped being turned outwards as an instinct of destruction. But since, on the other hand, it has the significance of an erotic component even the subject’s destruction of himself can’t take place without libidinal satisfaction ”. At this point the concept of the death instinct had solved all the puzzles it was, initially and when thought of, supposed to. For the next 15 years Freud was either refining his concept or discovering new situations and settings where it could be applied.

Later developments

A good example of this continuous effort and preoccupation is evident in a later paper (1930), where Freud discusses the wrongdoings of western civilization and social life with new tools at hand. In particular he connects aggression directly with the “restriction of the instincts” from both religious and political institutions, and sums up his analysis by writing that “it is clearly not easy for men to give up the satisfaction of this inclination to aggression”. Following this thought he also makes a connection between group life and innate aggression, where the former comes together more closely by directing aggression to other groups, an idea later picked up by group analysts like Bion. But also making the point that “instinctual aggression [is] the greatest impediment to civilization, which is in the service of Eros” and continues “[whose purpose is] to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind”. What is also noticeable in this paper is Freud’s ever-growing fascination and appreciation of the death instinct along with the strong conviction that his ‘silent discovery’ does hold ground, and due to that he is quite harsh in responding to his critics, even towards sceptic colleagues, whom he calls “…little children [who] do not like it when there is talk of the human inclination to ‘badness’…”. And it is with the same interest that he continues to write about this concept till the end of his life, although after 1930 very little was added to the theory of the death instinct. The most important of them were: suggesting practical ways to mitigate the effects of the death instinct, like encouraging “emotional ties between men through love, though without having a sexual aim, and identifications” (Freud, 1932); also the suggestion that masochism is older than sadism, since “sadism is the destructive instinct directed outwards, thus acquiring the characteristic of aggressiveness” (Freud, 1933); and lastly, a connection between the predominance of the death instinct and the ‘negative therapeutic reaction’ in analysis (Freud, 1937).

See also

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