The Death Instinct: What Is It Really?

September 25, 2018

An abstract painting featuring yellow, purple and red blothces on a black background.

“Everyone recognizes the certainty [of his death], but lays it on one side, like other theoretical truths that are not applicable in practice, without taking it into his vivid consciousness.” (Schopenhauer)

When Sigmund Freud arrived at the possibility of a “death instinct” in Beyond the Pleasure Principle he acknowledged that he had “unwillingly steered our course into the harbor of Schopenhauer’s philosophy.”

Arthur Schopenhauer interpreted that all of the world in its present form is a fleeting expression of a larger, timeless structure, the essence of which is Nature. The individual disappears; she is only a container of the Will to Live, soon to be swallowed up by the eternal past and the eternal future. She barely existed in the first place. Schopenhauer’s philosophy goes a long way in explaining the id, the animal core, or the species within the individual. In the id there is no time or space, just the will: “We have learnt that unconscious mental processes are in themselves ‘timeless’.” (Freud) Also, they do not include abstract concepts like those of one’s own demise. To Schopenhauer the “healthy” individual is precisely she who does not consider herself an individual, but a mere member of the species, or better, a microscopic element of nature.

If one understands oneself in this way then there is no reason to fear death, and certainly no reason to crave it—positions Schopenhauer calls “foolish” and “vain” respectively. Schopenhauer’s vivid consciousness may, like Freud’s conceptualization of the ego, represent a medium between the id, the “center in every animal,” and the external world but it is one wherein disorders are caused by, and can be cured by, conceptual correction alone. Psychoanalysis maintains that in order to cure disorders of the sort mentioned above—i.e., desiring death—emotional correction is the priority. Neurosis and psychosis, while conceptually flawed (fear of death is “untenable” to Schopenhauer), bridge the gap between the animal and the human, the body and the mind. His philosophy of Life and Death, in other words, applies very well to the species but not to the individual, because the individual exceeds the species. This excess is located in our capacity for neurosis and psychosis: “Internalized struggle, inner conflict, becomes a hallmark, valued in itself, of human nature.” (Loewald)

I think that this gap between Schopenhauer’s philosophy and psychoanalytic, clinical experience is due to the confusion that arises between the overarching nature of philosophy and the individual nature of psychoanalysis. The analyst does not tend to interpret her patients in terms of Eros and Thanatos, which may indeed be at work but invisibly so. Instead, she refers to instinctual manifestations: observable sexuality and aggression. Freud describes this tension between instincts and instinctual manifestations thus:

“We started out from the great opposition between the life and death drives. Now object-love itself presents us with a second example of a similar polarity—that between love (or affection) and hate (or aggression). If only we could succeed in relating these two polarities to each other and in deriving one from the other.” (Freud)

In this (long) article I would like to explore Freud’s controversial death instinct—its validity and its clinical usefulness. I think the easiest approach to this will be to employ the two polarities Freud mentions above in order to consider the role of aggression and the death instinct in psychological normality and pathology, the severity of which has come to be associated with particular developmental stages. Psychoanalytic literature locates the death instinct in both conscious guilt and unconscious guilt. The severity of the superego is the focus for neurotic, conscious guilt and its origin lies in the triangular Oedipal complex. Unconscious guilt is derived from the pre-Oedipal scenario.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud explores the biological basis of the death instinct. He observes that for a long time living substances were being constantly created afresh and dying. External impingements caused the path back toward the inanimate state to become more and more complex. The surviving substance had to diverge ever more widely to reach its morbid destination. What used to be a negligible transition between inanimate states has evolved through a series of accidents into Life as we know it. We mistake life as the teleological destination rather than the extended means to an end. Thus, Freud writes:

“We are driven to conclude that the death instincts are by their nature mute and that the clamor of life proceeds for the most part from Eros. And from the struggle against Eros…the libido – [is] the force that introduces disturbances into the process of life.”

I do not believe Freud intended such a solemn degradation of life; his biological thoughts in Beyond the Pleasure Principle are experimental and unfixed. Still, this concept that life is that which we struggle against certainly resonates with even the healthiest person to some extent.
Everyone fantasizes about death, death symbolizing something akin to Gustav Fechner’s Principle of Constancy and Barbara Low’s Nirvana Principle. These fantasies arise in situations that provoke frustration or anxiety, situations devoid of libidinal enjoyment: tasks of “duty” which one is compelled to fulfill. Many people are driven forward in this matter to succeed, to “make something of themselves,” and vacillate anxiously between throwing themselves into the agonizing process toward success, or “giving it all up” for a simpler, happier life: “To suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.” (Shakespeare) This vacillation represents the most superficial case for the death instinct: the everyday matter of pushing forward or shrinking back. In the highly developed, normal/neurotic individual this vacillation is not sincerely between life and death. The choice is still reducible to the pleasure principle. It is merely a question of what pleasure and when: to appreciate what one already has or to make sacrifices to have much more later. This is to say little more then that consciousness is governed by the pleasure principle, something we have for a long time known.

The similarities between the Hamlet scenario and Freud’s well-documented case of obsessional neurosis—the patient referred to as “Rat Man”—are striking. While both men are possessed by neurotic guilt. The case of Rat Man appears the more pathological. Just like Hamlet, he was not present for his father’s death. As vigilantly as he watched over his father on his deathbed, he slept through the night in which his father died. He was notified only upon waking in the morning. At first and for a long while after the event he refused to accept that his father is dead. Upon entering treatment he reported that he is tormented by the idea that his father might die. Therefore, his father is a ghost like Hamlet’s. He suffers from severely harsh commands from his superego, urging him to work hard to become powerful enough to be worthy of a certain woman. He associates these commands with his father and acquiesces but wonders what he will do if it commands him to slit his throat. In a textbook example of the castration complex, it is revealed that his father warned him about masturbating: that “it would be the death of you.” He thinks of masturbation in magical suicidal and homicidal, sado-masochistic terms. He denies himself the pleasure of suicide for his mother’s and sister’s sake. His pleasurable revelation during one of his first sexual experiences led him to think to himself that one would do anything for it, even kill one’s father. His superego comes between him and his object. Unlike Hamlet he frequently demonstrates a fear that he will kill his father, or that he has already killed him—hence the guilt he feels after sleeping through the night of his father’s death. These aggressive inclinations are matched by projective fears of persecution and especially punishment.

Rat Man’s persecutory fears, though projections of his own hostility, are according to an early Freud not the direct result of an instinct: “The fear of death which dominates us oftener than we know, is something secondary, an outcome of the sense of guilt. There is no death in the unconscious.” (Freud) Ironically, when Freud claims that fear of death is something secondary, he serendipitously offers his later conclusion that desire for death is something primary. In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud explains that desire for death is a reaction against guilt and anxiety, which are both caused by inner conflict: the desire to do something and the fear of being punished for it becomes an internal rather than an external struggle. One need not act on an idea to feel guilty over it. The superego is a memorial of former weakness and dependence of the ego. Thus, the command or prohibition of the father is key in the neurotic fear of death. However, Freud reminds us that the superego is as much a representation of the id as of the external world. This is shown by the trend wherein the less outwardly hostile one acts, the more severely one reprimands oneself. The more sadistically one behaves, the less they fear punishment.

Sado-masochism is a fusion of love and hate, affection and aggression; or, is it is the effect of the two instincts struggling against each other? At first Freud believed that one could only identify the death instinct in aggression fused with libido. Sadism was the primary candidate for the theory of drive fusion. Sadism occurs when the erotic components attempt to render the destructive impulses innocuous. On the other hand the destructive components lend a hand to the ego in order to control the libido; they can in turn excessively harm the ego. Ideally fusion brings together the libido and the aggressive instinctual components in such a way that aggression becomes constructively useful. Pathological fusion, a concept introduced by Herbert Rosenfeld, is the opposite: the power of the destructive impulses is greatly strengthened when it becomes mixed with the libido. Sadism and masochism describe object relations wherein the libidinal drive and the aggressive drive overlap. Primary masochism is a different matter. It is the gratification of unconscious violence to the self:

“Even where [the death instinct] emerges without any sexual purpose, in the blindest fury of destructiveness, we cannot fail to recognize that the satisfaction of the instinct is accompanied by an extraordinarily high degree of narcissistic enjoyment, owing to its presenting the ego with a fulfillment of the latter’s old wishes for omnipotence.” (Freud)

In the narcissistic condition, the death instinct can be considered to be in a purer form than in the false fantasies resultant from the conscious, persecutory guilt of the neurotic.

Whereas neurotic fantasies of death represent a turning away from the anxiety produced by the superego, in more pathological cases that anxiety is unconscious. If anxiety is always the cause of inner conflict then the conflict in these cases is much more structural, foundational, probably occasioned in the narcissistic, or pre-Oedpial stage of development: “during the coalescence of the instincts so important for life.” (Freud)

Hanna Segal had a patient, “Mrs. A,” who often fantasizes about death, but her case is fundamentally distinct from Hamlet and the Rat Man. She is described as high functioning, though extremely fragile. The slightest stimulus of deprivation or anxiety released an extremely violent emotional reaction. This reaction of violence was not one of aggression but of external persecution. These were attacks on herself, not on her internal objects and could therefore lead to somatic manifestations. Rat Man fears his father and reciprocally fears he might kill his father: a conflict leading to anxiety sensed as guilt. This is neurotic because it involves advanced object relating. In the case of Mrs. A she only relates to object fragments, which is why her persecutory fears pervade and comprise a world of dread. During her session the analytic space becomes filled with a gloom and vague suffering. Segal identifies that the potential cause might be an upcoming break in treatment. When she asks the patient how she feels about the break, the patient immediately says that she wishes she could just press a button and make the last session disappear. Segal is able to relate this back to the patient’s expressed worry about who is in charge of nuclear bombs. The patient is thereafter able to take some responsibility for her aggression. The difference between her persecutory fears and those of the obsessive neurotic is that they are external, not emanating from or reacting to internal objects. Of course, these “external” objects of persecution are actually projected.

Segal’s translation of this process at the drive level is that the energy of the death instinct subsides to a certain degree, which mobilizes the life drive. Therefore, this is a mirror process to the normal relationship of bonds, wherein the libido’s satisfaction gives a free hand to the death instinct. Freud accounts for aggression as a portion of the death instinct diverted externally. This is erotically satisfying to the extent that it is charged with libido, and satisfying also simply as a discharge of instinctual energy. In Mrs. A’s case it appears to me that if we label her “aggressive” we have at the same time to claim that that aggression is defended against through projection. This makes it appear that she wants death: i.e. she is not at all aggressive toward objects and very aggressive toward her self. Segal writes that Mrs. A was a “master at stimulating aggression in others. The analyst was constantly pushed to become a persecutory superego.” (Segal) Mrs. A’s aggression may have arisen in regard to an object but instead of directing it to that object she directed it to that part of her experienced self that needed the object.

In the negative transference reaction (NTR) a further step toward self destruction is taken. The patient does want to escape persecution but seeks it out. Mrs. A was to a degree liberated from her persecution by realizing her own aggression. The patient who demonstrates an NTR would react to this progress by becoming even more self-destructive. The NTR is thought to be a manifestation of primary narcissism. Freud described melancholia as a “pure culture” of the death instinct; even the melancholic however experiences a sort of gratification or triumph in satisfying his primary masochism: “Even the subject’s destruction of himself cannot take place without libidinal satisfaction because some of the instinct’s energy was taken into libido.” (Freud) Patients of this sort are said to have unconscious guilt.

According to modern analyst Michael Feldman the difference between primary narcissism and a condition like that of Mrs. A is that the masochist does not seek to annihilate that part of the self which needs an object. He actually seeks objects which provide him with experiences that gratify deep destructive impulses. Then, regarding Mrs. A, if she is primarily masochistic she is already caught up in her own destruction. Her destructive fantasies are not necessarily of an entirely defensive nature; they may be gratifying in part. Betty Joseph calls this “addiction to near-death.” She and Feldman both emphasize that the death instinct causes one to desire not complete death but a nearly dead condition. She explains that the patient conducts the analysis is such a manner so as to appear to desire improvement. The patient unconsciously calculates a projective process wherein the analyst is drawn into despair, at which time the patient internalizes the defeated analyst. This is felt to be a triumph, with deep gratification. She calls this “conducting a masochistic situation.” What we will concentrate on from here onward is the nature of primary masochism in terms of narcissism and the dyadic relationship between child and caretaker.

Feldman offers us his experience with a patient referred to as Mr. B. who mainly relates material regarding his mother. His father was often away on long business trips. This affected him greatly but only indirectly, through his mother. She told her son that every time her husband goes away she gets weaker and will die sooner or later. The patient enjoys being slighted so that he can nurse his injury, coloring a degraded quality to those with whom he has relationships. The analyst felt tyrannized and weakened. The patient seemed to be gratified by a near-deathlike quality of inner objects. He likely identified with his bedridden mother. When his analyst transgresses his patient by being a couple of minutes late, the patient can only even begin to express anger two sessions later. Verbally he does no more then call it “strange,” but his emotional reaction is well communicated: the clinical space is devoured by an aloof destructiveness that undermines his understanding as well as the analyst’s. In other words when the patient experiences disappointment of any nature he regresses into a world of grievance and injury, withdrawing from the object world. His inner objects, his body, and even his mental functioning suffer. Feldman is led to conclude the following:

“What is ‘deadly’ is the way in which meaning, specificity differences, are attacked, and any developmental processes retarded or undermined. The vitality is taken out of the patient himself and his objects, and although in an important sense these drives are ‘anti-life,’ I am suggesting, their aim is not literally to kill or to annihilate, but to maintain a link with the object that has a tormenting quality.” (Feldman)

Bringing destructive activities into the realm of consciousness diminishes their silent destructiveness, partially liberating the objects. For Betty Joseph, bringing destructive activities into consciousness involves getting the patients to understand that they are not as passive as they think themselves to be. They are actually quite active at an unconscious level, the space from which projection emanates, and this passivity is motivated by pleasure-seeking, a hidden “world of perverse excitement”: “It is very hard for our patients to find it possible to abandon such terrible delights for the uncertain pleasures of real relationships.” (Joseph) She imagines her patients as infants retreated into themselves, containing within a sexual, destructive relationship:

“[They] have not just turned away from frustrations or jealousies or envies into a withdrawn state, nor have they been able to rage and yell at their objects. I think they have withdrawn into a secret world of violence, where part of the self has been turned against another part.”

Limentani expands on the relationship between the NTR and the prevalence of pre-Oedipal disturbances and of narcissistic disorders in personality. He writes: “[The] NTR should not be regarded as an obstacle but also as an opportunity to experience emotionally the faulty development of the detachment (from the dyad) in the transference.” (Limentani)

Mr. A was a patient of Limentani who suffered from a severe NTR. Despite being very successful externally, in social life and work life, he felt “crippled” by his inability to feel emotions other than misery. When one of his prior analysts told him that he was entering a “second phase” of treatment he felt transient happiness but then developed somatic symptoms, which presented themselves only in the presence of an analyst. He regarded these as an expression of the emotions he could not otherwise feel. Limentani on the other hand interpreted the “spasms” as a resistance to verbalization of his wish to deride the analyst, comprising an endlessly repeated NTR brought forward by the analyst’s encouraging remarks. In striving to uncover the missing emotion that the patient longs for, an upcoming break becomes the key. The patient experiences great depression. The psychic suffering against which he had all along been defending himself was related to being separate. He describes the missing emotion for which he strives as “a hankering for something from the past.” (Limentani) In infancy the child had never been truly separate from his mother, until she gave birth to another child two years later; the patient was not gradually but suddenly, traumatically weaned. Thus, “the early separation from mother was a traumatic experience which had caused him intense unbearable pain from which he had been defending himself ever since.” (Limentani)

Mr. B’s NTR is also analyzed in terms of the pre-Oedipal dyad. Any progress is at first accepted, then violently rejected. The patient finally verbalizes the essence of the situation:

“If I accept what you say I’ll accept everything; I’ll become just a little boy again; I’ll be so dependent that I could never stand up again and that I don’t want.” (Limantani)

Ironically, his fear of becoming dependent is a defense against becoming independent. What he really strives for is an illusory merging and fusion with the analyst as the idealized primary object. The patient’s infantile development from dependence to independence was rushed and inconsistent. He had been very close to his mother with intense gratification but with sudden and abrupt moments of rejection and separation due to her own pathological condition.

Limantani’s experience with patients who appear to suffer from an NTR or unconscious guilt leads him to identify memory traces of early trauma, which are present and affective but not available to symbolic thought. These painful experiences come from early disturbed weaning, from non-integrative separations from mother. The NTR can be seen as a resistance to re-experiencing such pain. It can also be seen as a solution to this pain, one with which the analyst cannot contend.

Rosenfeld noticed within his NTR patients an attachment to narcissistic power, in reaction to the symbiotic phase of infancy. They idealize the omnipotent, destructive part of the self and reject libidinal objects or parts of the self that create need or dependency. One such patient kept relations to external objects dead by constantly deadening any part of his self that attempted object relations. He dreamed of a small boy who was lying in a courtyard dying. The patient was in the dream standing near the boy but did nothing to help him. Instead he criticized the doctor, the one supposed to help, for doing nothing. The boy stands for his dependent libidinal self which he kept in a dying state by refusing to help it get help from the analyst. Another patient would act out on weekends in such a way so as to disrupt analysis upon resuming treatment during the week. When the analyst tried to convey that this behavior was related to the analysis, the patient dreamed of a powerful, arrogant man who was nine feet tall and demanded obedience. It became clear that this man was a part of himself related to destructive, overpowering feelings. Both patients manifest a triangular situation toward the analyst. The first patient is the omnipotent part of the self who controls and blocks the dependent, libidinal part of the self from working with the analyst in order to gain dominance. The second patient is the dependent, libidinal part of the self, the one controlled and blocked. In both cases the patients have at one time a negative transference and a positive transference, the latter of which can also be described as “positive dependence.” Cultivating the positive dependence leads to transformation of pathological fusion, in which the destructive part of the self is active in paralyzing the libidinal parts of the self, into normal fusion, the opposite arrangement.

In this article we have traced the death instinct from its most superficial manifestations to its deepest, supposed presence. This progression matches that from the neurotic conditions to the psychotic or narcissistic conditions. These conditions in turn correlate to the period of disturbed experience in childhood, from the pre-Oedipal (dyadic) to the Oedipal (triadic) scenario. The severity of disturbance determines how long treatment will last. In regard to the earliest years of psychoanalysis, the years of the “transference neuroses,” treatment consists of interpretative work and lasts for a relatively short period. Treatment of narcissistic conditions calls for very different treatment, concentrating on transference and lasting for a much longer period.

Psychoanalysis encountered its greatest limit in the negative therapeutic reaction; not only would treatment of these cases be long but it is not even clear whether these patients can be cured. In his essay, “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” Freud explains his new understanding that the less treatable resistance is the more basic, if not primary, disturbance. He not only makes a case for the death instinct but claims that it is sometimes at work in a diffused or pathologically fused state. The normal cravings for a nirvana state, the neurotic need for punishment or persecution, are localized between the ego and the superego.

“But this is only the portion of it which is, as it were, psychically bound by the superego and thus becomes recognizable; other quotas of the same force, bound or free, may be at work in other unspecified places.” (Freud)

Disturbances of this sort are so basic that they are seen as according less to experiences and more to constitutional factors. Every individual is said to possess two drives: the reaction of two drives to one another creates and comprises the individual. The severest disturbances come about during this period of coalescence. When the death instinct has the upper hand in the individual there is pathological fusion which is difficult to resolve.

An abstract painting featuring yellow, purple and red blothces on a black background.

Untitled by Karla Leopold

Loewald reminds us however that we must not lose sight of the origin of this pathology. It is still experiential and still therefore within the grasp of psychoanalysis. He also helps us bring together the polarity between love (affection) and hate (aggression) and that between Eros and Thanatos, to put them in communication with one another in order to understand the death instinct in a way less hard to swallow than its formulation in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. There it represents an instinct toward actual self-annihilation. The point of this paper was to highlight the areas where the literature has located the workings of the death instinct and to support the case that the concept is valid despite the ostensibly alien notion of an innate desire for death. Of all places where it might be present it is most certainly active in the following:

“In some superego phenomena, in the intractable unconscious sense of guilt; in the resistance against the uncovering of resistances; in the unanalyzable residue of masochism; in the need for suffering; and, last but not least, in a propensity for inner conflict.” (Loewald)

In “Analysis Terminable and Interminable” Freud is able to trace the transformation of the death instinct from the species to the individual:

“[In] the course of man’s development from a primitive state to a civilized one his aggressiveness undergoes a very considerable degree of internalization or turning inwards…his internal conflicts would certainly be the proper equivalent for the external struggles which have then ceased.” (Freud)

This internalization of conflict occurs in the first years of life, during the cultivation of an individual, an entity which exceeds the species. This period, to which Freud refers as “the coalescence of the instincts so important for life,” is the nodal point for the two polarities he wants to reconcile with one another: the life and death drives; love (affection) and hate (aggressiveness).

We have focused on the death instinct but its relationship to aggressiveness is no more fanciful than the life drive’s relation to affection. To claim that one wants life, in his vivid consciousness (Schopenhauer’s phrase), appears equally as strange as the conscious certainty of one’s own death. However, both positions are uniquely possible and pervasive in the human species within its neurotic civilization: “They show, in distortion, something of the glory and the misery of the human condition.” (Loewald) It is the reflective capabilities of mankind that make him unique. This is the reason why the severest presence of the death instinct tends to exist in patients with narcissistic qualities: they have internalized or reflected libidinal affection in addition to aggression. Choice, even the choice to relate wholly within the self versus to external objects, is another unique aspect of what we call human nature.

Why then do we find it difficult to digest the concept of the death instinct, which can be conceptualized as reflexive aggression? This comes from confusion within instinct theory itself. As we observed earlier, secondary masochism, sadism turned back upon the self, was a non-controversial theoretical mechanism while primary masochism remains discursively contentious. The concept of the death instinct becomes digestible if we understand it as aggression that became reflected back toward the self during the pre-Oedipal, pre-object, preverbal phase of development. Loewald calls attention to these early interactions as the birthplace of instincts, which he claims—citing Mahler, Spitz and Winnicott—are no longer understood as innate, intrinsic and independent: “psychic forces which would first find discharge in autoerotic-autoaggressive activities and then turn to the outside.” (Loewald) In the first phase of life, the species (the infant’s genetic being) interacts with human culture (the mother) and forms the individual, with the newfound capacity for neurosis. While the logic of the species, as Schopenhauer points out, does not justify the death instinct or neurotic desire for death, this unique anaclitic interaction brings together the life/death polarity of the individual and the affection/aggression polarity of the species. Freud’s frustration can be attributed to his focus on Oedipal versus pre-Oedipal dynamics.

In “Analysis Terminable and Interminable” Freud writes:

“Only by the concurrent of mutually opposing action of the two primal instincts—Eros and the death-instinct—never by one or the other alone, can we explain the rich multiplicity of the phenomena of life.”

By offering this and no more then this in his writings he sets the groundwork for dual-drive theory but does not offer a comprehensive way in which to understand fusion and defusion, or instinctual composition. If we supplement his dual-drive theory with contemporary conceptions of instinctual development then the death instinct, not just aggression, becomes an acceptable and useful concept. Loewald explains the death instinct within a framework of instinctual co-determination:

“The intensity of destructive tendencies and of their narcissistic entrenchment in the negative therapeutic reaction would depend, predominantly, on early interactions which favor a distorted organization of both destructive and libidinal…drives, and favor a lack of balanced coordination of them.” (Loewald)

If we take into account what we know to be unique to the human individual (the capacity for reflection and the freedom to choose) and to the human species (the capacity to internalize and to live cooperatively in civilized culture) we can conceptualize the life and death drives as the co-determined, total product between these unique qualities and our animal core.


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