Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

On the Reception of the Concept of the Death Drive in Germany: Expressing and Resisting an 'Evil Principle'?

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

On the Reception of the Concept of the Death Drive in Germany: Expressing and Resisting an 'Evil Principle'?

Article excerpt

Freud's approaches to a realm beyond the pleasure principle

In his well-known paper Formulations on two principles of mental functioning, Freud (1911) refers as early as the third paragraph to a "governing purpose", the pleasure principle that the primary processes alone are said to obey (p. 218). Only later - when the anticipated satisfaction fails to materialize - does a "new principle" (p. 218), the reality principle, enter in. It does not of course escape Freud's notice that this construction would not be compatible with life:

It will rightly be objected that an organization which was a slave to the pleasure principle and neglected the reality of the external world could not maintain itself alive for the shortest time, so that it could not have come into existence at all. The employment of a fiction like this is, however, justified when one considers that the infant - provided one includes with it the care it receives from its mother - does almost realize a psychical system of this kind.

(Freud, 1911, p. 219, fn. 1, author's italics)

Freud makes a crucial amplification here that he nevertheless treats as a negligible element thereafter in reference to his theoretical construction: in the context of a good enough object relationship something like the predominance of the pleasure principle seems to be possible, although he has to restrict it to 'almost possible'. Freud finally summarizes his fiction as follows in this footnote: "A neat example of a psychical system shut off from the stimuli of the external world, and able to satisfy even its nutritional requirements autistically ... is afforded by a bird's egg with its food supply enclosed in its shell; for it, the care provided by its mother is limited to the provision of warmth" (p. 219). With the term 'autistic' in my view a factor enters in by the back door that does not fit with the picture of a life determined 'only' by the pleasure principle. His image of 'normal' development includes an element that fundamentally denies the importance of the object/the other in what is simultaneously supposed to be optimal (or certainly very good) relatedness between mother and child.

By 1911 Freud was therefore already dealing on one level with psychic forces that oppose the perception of dependency and the recognition of separateness and finitude, though without taking any account of them in his conceptual reflections at this point. In 1919/1920 he made a further attempt "to describe and to account for the facts of daily observation in our field of study" (Freud, 1920, p. 7). The history of the origination of Beyond the Pleasure Principle shows how he made various starts, was partly dissatisfied with the result, revised it and incorporated new material.2 Finally, he worked from the premise of an antagonism between the life drive and the death drive (instead of the opposition between the ego-instincts and the sexual instincts). With this a crucial step was taken in Freud's endeavours to conceptualize the forces that can lead analytic endeavours to fail. Freud is explicitly concerned in Beyond the Pleasure Principle with explaining the occurrence of traumatic neuroses and the persistence of or active search for highly unpleasurable states (via the repetition compulsion). At the same time the difficulties he is caused by the more direct understanding of these clinical phenomena remain perceptible: he makes one detour after another, starts with explanations about the economic aspects of pleasure-unpleasure relations, begins the second chapter with 'severe mechanical concussions, railway disasters' and subsequently tries to develop his considerations on the basis of single-cell organisms. While Freud later repeatedly refers to a hesitancy concerning the presupposition of a destructive drive, this was also expressed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle in that its speculative quality is emphasized and the reasoning becomes more abstract.

Some personal aversion may also be a factor in his choice of the awkward term 'death drive' [Todestrieb] for the forces beyond the pleasure principle. …

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