The Life Instinct

By Abel-Hirsch, Nicola | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, October 2010 | Go to article overview

The Life Instinct


Abel-Hirsch, Nicola, International Journal of Psychoanalysis


In psychoanalytic writing an oversimplified interpretation of Freud's concept of the life and death instincts sometimes colours the presentation. Roughly, there is an implication that the life instinct is 'good' and the death instinct 'bad'. Freud however is clear that: "Neither of these instincts is any less essential than the other; the phenomena of life arise from the concurrent or mutually opposing action of both"(1933b, p. 209). In this paper I look in detail at the characteristics of the life instinct as conceptualized by Freud, and draw on Bion's work 'on linking' to elaborate Freud's view that binding is the life instinct's key characteristic. I suggest that there are pathological forms of both the life and death instinct if defused (separated off) from the other, and I explore a pathological variation of the life instinct in which binding is without the negation, rest, limit or end provided by the 'opposing action' of the death instinct. I consider an instance of the kind that any analyst might meet clinically, in which an inhibited patient experiences severe anxiety that life-giving connections threaten to proliferate indiscriminately and to an overwhelming intensity and size.

Keywords: binding, container/contained, death instinct, Eros, inhibitions, jouissance, life instinct, linking, negation, Plato's Symposium, sexual instinct

Introduction

In psychoanalytic writing an oversimplified interpretation of Freud's concept of the life and death instinct sometimes colours the presentation. Roughly, there is an implication that the life instinct is 'good' and the death instinct 'bad'. Freud anticipated such a misinterpretation and is clear that:

We must not be too hasty in introducing ethical judgements of good and evil. Neither of these instincts is any less essential than the other; the phenomena of life arise from the concurrent or mutually opposing action of both.

(Freud, 1933b, p. 209)

John Steiner puts this clearly in his introduction to Hanna Segal's collection of papers Psychoanalysis, Literature and War:

What she [Segal] makes clear is that, clinically, the death instinct only has meaning in relation to and in its perpetual conflict with the life instinct. Not only are these two great primordial forces in opposition to each other but they also stimulate each other, and if ever one gains too dominant an advantage, the other is provoked into action.

(Steiner, 1997, p. 5)

We are, I think, more familiar with considering the importance of the life instinct in moderating the destructiveness of the death instinct than its con- verse - the importance of the death instinct to the life instinct. This paper is an enquiry into the nature of life instinct functioning when it 'gains too dominant an advantage'.

Freud's concepts of the life and death instincts are controversial. The existence of the instincts in reality is disputed, as is the less confronting claim that the concepts are simply intellectual constructs which can nevertheless shed light on our theoretical and clinical work. Freud describes his thought on the life and death instincts as speculative, but I think he believed that there is a primary destructiveness and pull towards death - in its own right - and not only as a response to frustration, violence, pain or other experiences. What is perhaps less well known is that he makes a similarly basic supposition about there being a pull towards life. Freud did not take life, being alive, and growth to be what happened automatically unless prevented. Instead, he questions why an organism would endure the disruption of coming to life. His answer is because it has an instinct to do so. Freud conceives of an instinct which drives matter into life and an instinct for death which constantly pulls it back towards a former inanimate state. He further links these two forces to all that takes place on the earth including the physiological process at the basis of all life - anabolism/catabolism, and in the inanimate world - attraction and repulsion. …

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