The author comments on some of Freud’s essays – ‘The Theme of the Three Caskets’, ‘Transience’, ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death’ and part of ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ – which address ‘the end’, understood both as conclusion and death, and as having goals or aims. He shows how the Freudian reflection on the ‘end’ as the final moment, and on the ‘end’ as an aim or goal, are, in a dialectical way, intricately intertwined. According to the author, this double face of the ‘end’ explains Freud’s later elaborations on Eros and Thanatos, which in turn lay out the metaphysical presupposition starting from which Freud constructed his entire doctrine (and clinical practice): that the essence, the quid, of a human being (and of living beings) is die Lust, that is, desire and/or pleasure. Lust appears ambiguously as the ‘end’ of human beings, given that their aim is pleasure, but also as the annihilation of desire. It is against the background of this dialectic between end and aim that we can thus finally grasp, in the ambit of Freudian doctrine, what the author calls a ‘contact with the Real’.
We live in an age when, in contrast to the ancient or medieval worlds, two of the meanings of the word end, end as ‘aim’ or ‘purpose’ and end as ‘termination’, are drawing more and more apart. The Greeks, with the word telos, did not really distinguish between the two concepts, though they also had the word skopos: a specific end. Generally telos meant ‘accomplishment’, ‘outcome’. According to the Greeks a life could only be judged starting from its end – thus the end (the conclusion) was their ends (aim). A beautiful death had a retroactive effect on an entire life, even if this life had been ugly. The beautiful end – which for a man was especially death in battle – made a life beautiful post factum, the French would say après-coup. In the same way as the sense of a Latin phrase can be captured at the end – with the verb – the sense of a life could only be captured at its conclusion.
The ancient Greeks had deified the end in the Praxíkai: these goddesses – like the Gorgons and Medusa – were heads only (Vernant 1985). Today, on the other hand, death is a tail end which no longer gives a post factum sense to life. Nor is it any longer deified. Even the Catholic church has turned the sacrament of the extreme unction to a mere ‘anointing of the sick’: it no longer seals the death of a Christian, it has become no more than giving comfort in illness. The end is an incident to be postponed as long as possible: more and more often people die in aseptic hospitals, on drips, with tracheotomy tubes in their noses, usually dazed and confused, while their relatives are at pains to make the meaningless event as least painful as possible, but not less meaningless. Our ends are all in life, and life, though it finishes has no other end outside of itself. Today life is a virtually limitless continuum that sooner or later snaps off, not like a sentence that finds its meaning at its conclusion.
Sigmund Freud, in the most mature phase of his thinking, dealt with the relationship between the end and the ends of life.
1. The Choice of Death
In 1913 Freud published a short text, ‘The Theme of the Three Caskets’ (Freud 1913). It deals with love and death and was written seven years before his capital essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which he sets out the theory of life and death drives. The earlier work is inspired from the episode in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice where Portia’s three suitors have to choose between three caskets – one in gold, one in silver and the other in lead. If one picks the right one, he will marry the belle. The right casket is the one in the vilest metal. Freud relates this theme with the test King Lear gives his three daughters at the beginning of Shakespeare’s tragedy, with various episodes from the Gesta Romanorum, with Grimm’s fables, the judgment of Paris and so on. Here, like elsewhere, Freud manages to manipulate a heterogeneous range of literary and mythological data and submit them to his underlying thesis: this choice between three women (or between three containers symbolizing them) should ultimately be interpreted as a choice of death. Even though in the written or oral legends the one to choose is the most beautiful, the worthiest, the youngest and so on, the deepest meaning of these tales – according to Freud – is that man (the adult male or human beings in general?) has to choose between what all of us, with no exception, have to come up against: death. King Lear in particular is the old dying man who still clings to women’s love – and thus asks his three daughters to prove their love for him – rather than choosing the quiet Cordelia, in other words death.
Freud’s interpretative tour de force was no easy task, if we consider that in German ‘death’ is masculine – der Tod. Freud resorts to the subterfuge of the Todesgöttin, the Death-goddess, who ‘like the Valkyrie in German mythology, carries away the dead hero from the battlefield’ (GW, 10, p. 36; SE, 12, p. 301). For him death is feminine, like Atropos, the third of the Fates, who ultimately cuts the thread of any life. And Freud assigns a female figure to the three essential moments of his human life: she who generates him, she who will be his companion throughout it and she who will annihilate him. The last of these is mother earth, who takes him back into her bosom.
Here – like elsewhere – Freud simply identifies the human condition with the male condition. He had already done so with his Oedipus: the so characteristically male story of Oedipus becomes the story of every human being. Is this the ‘male chauvinism’ Freud has so often been accused of? In any case, Freud never believed in the symmetry between the male and the female psyche: the latter is a turn (or stop-gap?) of the former.
No cultural anthropologist today could accept this hermeneutical slalom of Freud’s. For the serious anthropologist today it is absolutely forbidden to gather together, as variations of a single series, myths, tales and fables extracted from different cultural contexts. It would be like an astronomer stating that, because two stars look close by to the naked eye, they really are at a short distance one from the other. And even less so is it legitimate to read into the watermark of these variants a single basic meaning. Here Freud would be as naïve as Jung (and there is undoubtedly a Jungian side to Freud) in wanting to extract an ultimate meaning, a universal sense in the mythologies of all ages and civilizations. Significantly, Freud was inspired by Robertson-Smith and Atkinson, two approaches that have left little or no influence on modern anthropology. After Lévi-Strauss’s Mythologiques, anthropology now reads all myths, fables and literary works not as threads converging towards a unifying sense, but as a continuous unraveling, an endless shifting of meanings with every version based on an older text, modifying it, twisting it around, enriching it or impoverishing it, always deflecting contents and forms towards directions it is impossible to put together in a definite and definitive single meaning.
This analysis by Freud basically has no objective value. Yet… we have to admit that with his bold identification of the ‘third’, the youngest and most beautiful, with death, Freud strikes us. He makes us think. As if he had seized on a truth. But how to consider a truth something that cannot actually be proven, the supposed hidden sense of legends and texts? Is it perhaps not an objective but a subjective truth he is talking about? And what on earth can ‘subjective truth’ mean to us today? Yet we have the feeling that Freud is giving us a convincing interpretation here, because he somehow manages to verbalize an actual relationship we have with death. Wittgenstein (1967) said that with psychoanalysis Freud did not explain the ancient myths: he invented new ones. But this is what every epoch does: it reinterprets old tales according to its spiritual priorities, it builds a new fable (mythos) by reinterpreting ancient ones. Not all myths are mystifying – Plato’s myths were supposed to be demystifying. So, Freud excels in interpreting previous texts and myths in the right way for us today, in a way that perspicuously describes – in this case – our relationship with love and death. Freud is important not because he explains things causally, but because he represents effectively. We shall later see in what sense he does this.
And Freud also represents himself effectively. In a letter to Ferenczi (dated July 7 1913) he connects the choice of title for the essay to his own three daughters and mentions his satisfaction with his youngest daughter, Anna (born in 1895). We could of course ‘Freudianly’ interpret this interest of Freud’s in the ‘three belles’ and ask ourselves whether Freud wasn’t in fact elaborating his choice of Anna, his own Cordelia. Anna, his youngest daughter, had always been his favorite and the only of his children who would later become a psychoanalyst, an intellectual and a writer. Just when Anna, age seventeen, appears to the world in her full blooming femininity, Freud associates his (unconfessable, but not unconscious) ‘choice’ of Anna to the choice for his own death? To Ferenczi he specifies that his other daughter Sophie (born in 1893) had become engaged in the summer of 1912 – and would marry during 1913. Of his three daughters Anna was not only his favorite, but also the one who never married. In a certain sense she was like Antigone with Oedipus, always by her father’s side. On the one hand his daughters, now young women at a marriageable age, on the other Sigmund, now 57, four years away from the fatal age of 61, when according to his superstitions he would die: his identification with King Lear was evident. Freud already felt like a dying man. He had to choose the youngest and most amiable between Mathilde, Sophie and Anna. But what could he himself now choose if not death?
This is the year when he is writing that text, 1912, and also the year when the belle Lou Andreas-Salomé moves to Vienna for her initiation to psychoanalysis. As we know, Freud fell in love with Lou, five years younger than himself, even though perhaps there was nothing sexual between them. But undoubtedly, the presence of Lou, already a famous femme fatale in the German-speaking world, was for Freud an opportunity to reconsider himself as a man in need of a woman’s love – exactly like old Lear. Anna’s love, Lou’s love – or death’s love?
But Freud’s subjective truth is also ours. What did he mean by writing (to himself) that death, precisely because it is a necessity no one can elude, must be chosen? We don’t choose the two essential events of our lives: coming into the world and leaving it. Suicide is only a putting off of the latter and, appropriately – before the Christian anathema – suicide was valued by the Stoics and other philosophers as the only possible absolute act of freedom for human beings. More recently, Pasolini (1970), in an essay about freedom, incontrovertibly affirmed that freedom is nothing more than ‘the freedom to choose to die’. But, suicide aside, what can it mean to have to choose something we cannot elude?
We shouldn’t give a banal psychologistic answer to this bizarre prescription of Freud’s. We must not just think that we have to get used to the idea that we have to die and accept it without too much whining. Common language says that we ‘have to come to terms with’ things like death, with ours and with that of others. What terms? To give meaning to our own death? But giving a meaning to one’s own death is different from coming to terms with it. The common expression coming to terms with is like two belligerent parties opening negotiations to settle the terms of an agreement. Should we also negotiate death with our enemy? Should we try to verbalize it? A verbalization, however, that evokes the end, terminus – the words, the terms we use, also represent the end, the completion. Is the homonymy between term as limit and term as word really a coincidence? The etymology is the same: from the Latin terminus and termen, meaning ‘boundary pole’. The Latin pole comes in turn from the Greek termon, the tree that belongs to two neighbors. A word, therefore, is something like a boundary post, a limit, something that belongs to two different properties and marks them off. So, death is a term, both in the sense that it is like a separating fence and in the sense that, like a word, it helps to communicate: in the same way as a word marks the point of contact between signifier and signified, so death marks the point of contact between life and nothingness.
Some time ago, in a public debate, a girl asked whether it would be a good idea to ‘educate the young to death’. As today the media give a vain and vapid image of life, it may be better to remind them they must die. But what does it mean to educate to death? De facto, we cannot think about death, but only about life, our life or that of others. Those who think about death a great deal, think about the cessation of life, hence they think about life. Living beings are condemned to life: death, in their life, has no space. But it is precisely because it has no space that death distresses us so.
Can we ‘reason about death’? Here I mean ‘reason’ in the medieval sense, i.e. to talk: to talk about our end, to find the words to say it, to ‘subjectivize’ it, some would say. Are to speak and to resign oneself two faces of the same medal? If I can speak about pain, does it mean that I have somehow resigned myself to it? And does speaking about death, giving it names, mean finally accepting it?
But perhaps, more generally, ‘coming to terms with it’ means trying to join – success is impossible, but one can try – the end (as in Ende, Schluss) with the end (as in Zweck, Ziel, Absicht). Every positive upshot, every happy ending, every edifying comedy or fable, aims at linking the two meanings of end: ‘…and they lived happily ever after’. Is this ending ultimately the end of every human being, to live happily ever after? But then in what sense is the real end not happiness and wellbeing, but the end?
2. Caducity and Eternal Return
In November 1915 Freud wrote a brief note entitled ‘On Transience’ (Freud 1915a). It begins with an anecdote, when ‘I went on a summer walk through a smiling countryside in the company of a taciturn friend and of a young but already famous poet. The poet admired the beauty of the scene around us but felt no joy in it’ (GW, 10, p. 358; SE, 14, p. 305). The young man could not help thinking that all the beauty would come to an end in the winter; just like everything else that is beautiful and noble in the human lot. ‘All that he would otherwise have loved and admired seemed to him to be shorn of its worth by the transience which was its doom’.
Today we know the poet in question was Rainer Maria Rilke and the silent friend Lou Andreas-Salomé, Rilke’s former lover (the walk took place in August 1913 in San Martino di Castrozza on the Dolomites). On that occasion Freud challenged Rilke’s idea that the caducity of the beautiful implies its debasement: on the contrary, the rarity and transience of beauty increases its value. Freud obviously took the point of view that we today consider the wisest: let’s enjoy the present, let’s welcome the joys life gives us, albeit we know how ephemeral they are! And indeed, Freud reads Rilke’s discontentment as a ‘revolt against mourning’ (GW, 10, p. 359; SE, 14, p. 306), as a refusal to accept the loss of dear and precious things. In that very period, in fact, Freud had worked on his essay ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (Freud 1914), where he described mourning as the painful job that tends to break us away from lost loved objects.
But, rather than as a refusal of mourning, Rilke’s ‘protest’ against the transience of things could be interpreted as the bitterness that everything – our life first and foremost – will come to an end. Not just Rilke, but many others too – usually moved by great ambition – are obsessed by the thought: ‘what is the point of trying hard in life, of loading it with ambitious meanings, if it will soon come to an end?’ Not only one’s own life, but everyone’s. Cosmology assures us that our solar system will come to an end, that it will become a supernova and then – in a death process of matter itself – will probably turn into a black hole, a wound in the body of the world that will swallow up everything there ever was. In an interview Woody Allen once said: ‘It’s terrible to think that everything we consider immortal – even Homer, Shakespeare, Freud… – it will all end!’ And added: ‘There’s a thought that can ruin your evening, even if you go to the best restaurant.’
What is the point of living a life that is not eternal in a world that is not eternal? In other words, in a life and a humanity that will come to an end, are human purposes themselves destined to end, to become futile? Are we not destined to limit ourselves to the immediate end of surviving while getting a bit pleasure in the process? Note that in this article Freud, without quoting Nietzsche, evokes the eternal return [ewige Wiederkehr](GW, 10, p. 359; SE, 14, p. 306) when talking about the seasonal cycles of things, in contrast with the irreversibility of our existence. The metaphysical myth of the Eternal Return of the Same was also for Nietzsche an attempt to rediscover a dimension of eternity in a world that had killed God and hence the belief in the immortality of the soul. Even atheist thinking, to be able to laugh jovially in life, feels the need to find consolation in caducity as an eternizing perspective: every event of our life will be lived out again throughout eternity.
3. ‘Si vis vitam, para mortem’
Freud had actually written about his own death – rather than about those dear things – a few months earlier (Spring of 1915) in the essay ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death’ (Freud 1915b). Here he says that in our unconscious we do not believe in our own death – though we certainly believe in that of others and sometimes even wish it. Freud – in contrast with most later psychoanalysts – does not believe in the least in ‘death anxiety’ (Todesangst): he does admit that we are dominated by it more often than we believe, but ‘is something secondary, and is usually the outcome of a sense of guilt’ (GW, 10, p. 351; SE, 14, p. 297). So, why does Freud consider sense of guilt but not death anxiety as a part of the unconscious? Why does something that implies a moral law appear to him as more fundamental, more primitive, than something as instinctive and emotive as death? In fact, he believes that the sense of guilt springs precisely from wishing the death of others, what M. Klein would later call ‘the talion principle (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth): what I wished to do unto the other, the other will do unto me. More than a moral law, guilt is for Freud the passive reflex of an active death wish towards others, in the same way as in the mirror image, the gesture I make towards my image appears as the gesture the image makes at me.
But everything becomes more complicated when in the same essay Freud connects these reflections on death to those on war, which was raging across Europe at the time. In fact, following a common cliché of the time, Freud surmised an Urmensch, a primitive or primal man, not yet civilized, who was the expression of the unconscious en plein air. This primitive man – the authentic man, who lives according to the unconscious – does not believe in his own death, he only wishes to inflict death onto the other, who he hates, and he has ambivalent feelings towards those he loves. In other words, for the authentic man – for the authentic subject in all of us – one’s own death does not exist, while that of the other exists and is craved, both when the others are loathed and when they are loved (in the latter cases guilt comes into play, as a death threat for having wished to kill a loved one). Civilized man rejects this authenticity, he represses it, but he pays dearly for this: with Unbehagen, with psychic malaise. Now, thanks to the war, primitive (authentic) man reemerges, in the sense that, to be able to engage in war, contemporary society needs to ratify the drives of the primitive man. The warrior can be heroic only if he draws on the archaic conviction that he will not die; that his brother-in-arms can die, but not himself. For Freud one can be a hero only thanks to a providential delusion: that of one’s immortality. After all, in this way he can give free rein to his craving for killing those he hates, his enemies. And thus the ambivalence finds its legitimization too, thanks to the war: by sacrificing thousands of my compatriots I achieve the profound ambivalence regulating my relation to my fellow man, whom I am prepared to sacrifice in war so easily.
But, as often happens in Freud, at a certain point – in the final paragraphs of the essay on war and death – the discourse, which seemed linear, becomes twisted: what seemed apparently clear reveals a staggering complexity. Indeed, if the war puts into action a massive regression to the ‘primitive man’, this does not mean pathology, on the contrary: for Freud psychic pathology is not simply the result of regression, but of the conflict that a regression causes. Very often war is Socio-Syntonic: it makes someone who kills or gets killed feel not a mental sufferer but a hero for the Cause, for whom to perhaps erect a monument. Precisely because war makes our secret belief in our immortality socially acceptable and useful, it makes room for something that, through the ever tighter meshes of civilization, insists and persists inside us and will sooner or later emerge. So Freud asks himself
Would it not be better to give death the place in reality and in our thoughts which is its due, and to give a little more prominence to the unconscious attitude towards death which we have hitherto so carefully suppressed? (GW, 10, p. 354 ; 354; SE, 14, p. 299)
What is Freud trying to say here? Is he talking about his own death or that of the other? As we have seen, for the unconscious one’s own death does not exist, only that of the other; so why does he say that we have to give death the place which is its due? Earlier in the text he says that the recurring of wars should induce us to ‘recognize the truth’: what truth? It would seem that the truth Freud alludes to is not the existence of my death, but the truth of the unconscious, which is also the opposite of objective truth: it is our conviction that the other will always die, but I never will myself. A paradoxical truth, but ultimately an irrefutable one: as long as we live the dead will always and only be the others. But what leads Freud to taking this enormous action of calling a ‘truth’ what from every other point of view is a supreme illusion?
And Freud goes on: war, this regression to our truth, ‘has the advantage of taking the truth more into account, and of making life more tolerable [erträglicher] for us once again’ (GW, 10, p. 354 ; 354; SE, 14, p. 299). Incredible, Freud is saying – obliquely: war makes our life more bearable. He seems to be giving his own version of the futurist motto: ‘war, the world’s only hygiene’. Even though here he is talking about a psychic hygiene. He is obviously talking not only to the fighters, but to all those involved in one way or the other in the war (at the time everyone felt a part of the Great War): insofar as war makes us regress, it eases the pain of living; because for Freud the pain of living does not derive from cruelty and death, but from the fact that we have abandoned the illusory truths of Urmensch. War, with its trail of death, helps us bear life better! And he adds: ‘To tolerate life remains, after all, the first duty of all living beings’.
In what sense is tolerating life the first duty of the living being? Does naked biological life have duties? He knew perfectly well that in melancholy – major depression – a living person fails in this duty: he can no longer bear life. Here Freud seems to be raising a sort of superior moral commandment the depressive has betrayed: The living person who cannot bear life betrays his duty. And here he is not referring to the morals of churches, which abhor suicide (besides, he did not belong to any church). It is as if bearing life were an incredible ‘natural duty’, something ‘according to nature’, in the Aristotelian sense.
In fact, here Freud is structuring a principle embraced by what was undoubtedly the most representative philosophy of the twentieth century, and probably the most influential: pragmatism. What this philosophy says is that, after all, what we choose to call true is what we actually need; what, in other words, reinforces our will to live. Truth and delusion must not then be considered as objective statuses given by an external observer, but as two sides intimately implied in life. And in fact Freud adds another ambiguous sentence, readable from more than one perspective: ‘Illusion becomes valueless if it makes this [duty of tolerating life] harder for us’. But what illusion is he alluding to, here? Is he alluding to the illusion of the primal man (who does not believe in his own death) or to that of the civilized man (who is afraid to die)? Now, Freud has just told us that the presence in us of the primal man’s belief is useful: it helps us bear life, making it appear endless. If this illusion is useful – and the desire for war proves this – why mention illusions we no longer need, insofar as they do not help us bear life? Is he perhaps insinuating that the vital origins of scientific objectivity and of truth as adequacy of discourse to the thing are connected to the fact that, at one point, particular delusions fail in their function? That yearned scientific objectivity is nothing more than the end of a disenchantment that particular delusions have crushed? Freud suspends any clarification here, leaving us to imagine what he does not say (or what he says obliquely).
But just when our perplexity as readers seems to have reached its acme, Freud, in two brief final paragraphs with an aphoristic tone, delivers a sort of hermeneutic final blow. After reminding us of the old Latin saying si vis pacem, para bellum, he leaves us with the burden of deciphering the last sentence in his essay:
It would be in keeping with the times [zeitgemäß] to alter it: Si vis vitam, para mortem. If you want to endure life, prepare yourself for death.
This conclusion actually opens a whole range of questions, as if, as it proceeds, his writing instead of giving us answers were pushing us to ask ever more embarrassing questions. This conclusion could be the epigraph to the whole essay, which has the seal of keeping with the times: zeitgemäß. And it could also be an epigraph to the essay on the three caskets. King Lear, according to that reading, faces a desperate life, to the point of madness, precisely because he is not prepared to accept death. But here Freud is talking about war, in other words a psychological regression thanks to which only the death of the other exists. Is this death we have to accept in order to live then our own death or the fact that we have to accept war as the death of others, loved and/or loathed?
4. Eros and Thanatos
As the title itself says, Jenseits des Lusprinzips (Freud 1920) – Beyond the Pleasure Principle, as it has been translated – in this essay Freud essentially deals with the extent and limits of the Lustprinzip. But, as far as this text – one of the most charming and least convincing of all twentieth century thinking – goes, we have to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s.
Heidegger said that all great thinkers have built their bulk of works around a unique thinking.
We give the name of ‘thinkers’ to those elected among men destined to think a unique thinking – and this always ‘about’ the Being as a whole. Each thinker thinks only a unique thinking (Heidegger 1991, pp. 394–95).
Now, if Freud is a great thinker, we have to ask ourselves what his unique, or essential, thinking consists of – not on Being as a whole, but on the essence of the human being.
Both psychoanalysts and philosophers believe that Freud’s unique thought is the concept of Trieb, translated into English as drive, into French as pulsion. One talks of Freudian psychoanalysis of drives, as opposed to post-Freudian theories (‘object relations’, ‘relationism’, ‘hermeneutic psychoanalysis’, and so on.). But Nancy points out (2009),
drive or the French pulsion stress in two different ways the mechanical thrust, constriction. It is a suffered traction more than a sought for attraction. [Instead] Trieb in German designates a thrust considered as activity: the growth of a plant or the care given to an animal that is developing. It is in the order of impetus and desire. It pushes itself forward, it activates itself. There is a considerable amount of polymorphous activity in the semantics of the verb treiben.
This verb means ‘to push’, ‘to do’, ‘to move’, ‘to exert’. Instead of translating the Freudian Trieb with ‘drive’, we could translate it with to push up, forward push.
But is then Freud’s invention – I stress: invention (a mythical one) and not discovery (a scientific one) – all just based on pointing out the power of this efficient cause, of this pushing up? (I refer here to the Aristotelian distinction between the four causes: efficient, final, material, formal.) Trieb, this pushing-up is in fact the ‘efficient’ cause of human life in actu, an act implying other causes. For example, a final clause that could be pleasure. Pushing-up as efficient cause refers then to an even more essential ‘becoming in action actual’.
This becoming actual – or acting out – is for Freud the essential truth about human beings (and ultimately of all living things): die Lust. Freud polarized the twentieth century with a decision in the metaphysical order: the basic force that moves human beings, the force underlying the beginning and end of their vicissitudes, is Lust. In English the term was translated as pleasure. But in German Lust has the same erotic connotation as lust in English and can equivocally mean desire and pleasure, concupiscence and enjoyment. Freud himself was tempted by the term Lust rather than the one he eventually chose, the erudite Latin libido: but he excluded the term from the common language precisely because of its ambiguity of meaning (GW, 5, p. 33, n. 2; SE, 7, p. 135).
Given the ambiguity of the term, a correct translation of the essay we are dealing with could be ‘Beyond the desire-pleasure principle’. Now, the double meaning of Lust itself contains the double sidedness that Freud attributes to drives or pushes, insofar as they are distributed according to a hard core polarity: Eros and Thanatos, life and death drives. Precisely, Lust as desire is Eros, Lust as pleasure lies on the side of death. ‘Beyond the Lustprinzip’ therefore means that, in a certain sense, we are still and always within it: that the principle in question has a power to chain and one to unchain, it has a life side and a death side.
In fact, in this text Freud points out that the end (aim) of every Trieb, of every pushing-up, is pleasure, or the zeroing out of the tension every pushing-up consists of. Lustprinzip ultimately relates to something Freud calls the ‘constancy principle’, i.e. the tendency of every physiological-psychological apparatus to keep excitement at the lowest possible levels. The telos of the libidinal life of humans is homeostasis. In other words, the end of every pushing-up is its own end, the zeroing out of the tension pushing-up consists of. But if the zeroing out of the charge, of the tension, is the ultimate end of the psychic, we can then generalize – Freud argues – and say that the end of life is its end, death. And here I do not mean experienced life, Erlebnis, but the essentiality of the pushing-up that life intimately consists in. Empirical death, if I may use the expression, can also be a haphazard event, an external one; but death – which is fulfilled at one point in physical death – should be seen from a point of view that a philosopher would call transcendental: death is the effect of a movement internal to life, something basically structuring life. ‘Everything living dies for internal reasons… the aim of all life is death’ (GW, 13, p. 40; SE, 18, p. 38, original emphasis).
This makes us understand why Freud never accepted the idea that in our unconscious we can experience a ‘death anxiety’: indeed, precisely because life is transcendentally turned towards death, life is not what causes it anxiety. On the contrary, I would say that life aims at the enjoyment of death, at death as an enjoyment, at the death of desire in enjoyment. The anxiety the ego suffers considering its own death is nevertheless an ‘erotic’ reaction of the ego – which tends to preserve life – when it confronts the mortal vocation of life.
So, how to explain the conservation instinct that all of us, some more and some less, are equipped with? For Freud it is an instinct that does not ultimately oppose ‘internal’ death (the fundamental death according to Freud) but only ‘external’ death, occurrences that actually threaten our life. This is because each organism wants to die in its own way. The organism, and the psyche that expresses it, has its own unique specific way towards death. We can say that the organism’s end (as aim) is not any end, but its own end, the one most appropriate for it: the end of itself as its most proper end. Of course, this mortal vocation of life reverberates with Heidegger’s being-for-death: the human being’s most proper possibility is his own death.
If then the ultimate end of pushing-up is the end, is death, on the other hand this process is continually postponed, interrupted, by a sort of exception: by sexuality as Eros. On the one hand we have the sex drives which, like all drives, are geared towards death, but on the other sexuality and tension towards union with the other aims at uniting two in one. Now, for Freud it is precisely this search for the other that creates the drive. The other pushes us up to seduce him or her, thus inducing suffering in us: Eros, love, is not at all ‘contentness’ with dying one’s own way, but an active search for trouble, and hence life. Eros is a whiling away of time by living. This explains, for example, our desire to have children, and our pleasure in having them, even if children are a risky product. Not necessarily will they give us great satisfaction, but we contain in ourselves this basic need to worry about and be anguished by others. It is always with an other that the living being fights against death, against one’s own death; in other words, it is when the other becomes our end that we fight our own end. So, the other is not only a means by which our drives are soothed, but also a cause of drives – to live is to desire desires that will die. The other is not limited to being the object of investment of desire, but also the efficient cause of this desire.
The famous Eros and Thanatos dualism between life and death drives is not then an authentic dualism, it is not the contraposition between two elements that exclude each other: the way Freud constructs the concept makes them two dimensions of the same element. As Ricoeur writes, ‘in a sense everything is death, since self-preservation is the circuitous path on which each living substance pursues its own death. In another sense everything is life, since narcissism itself is a figure of Eros […] This dualism [between Eros and Thanatos] expresses rather the reciprocal superimposition of two kingdoms that cover each other perfectly’ (Ricœur 1965, p. 292).
Several other commentators have pointed out the coincidence on which the ‘dualism’ between Eros and Thanatos is based. Indeed, instead of writing ‘life or death’ or ‘life and death’, Derrida writes: ‘life death’. This stresses how in Freud life and death are ultimately on the same continuum; they are two faces which, if followed coherently, represent a Möbius strip. A Möbius strip is a bidimensional surface with only one side and one boundary component: from the outside we may think we are seeing a strip with two sides, but it actually only has one. Eros and Thanatos also appear as two sides of life, two inverse upward pushes, but after a subtler analysis they will appear as two moments of the same thing.
Let us consider coitus. Insofar as it satisfies a desiring tension and comes to its completion with orgasm, coitus runs towards its end – it soon ends and the two tired lovers fall asleep. Omne animal post coitum triste est – the joy of the discharge is followed by the sadness of the end. A long romantic tradition that associates sexual enjoyment to death stresses that, insofar as coitus satisfies certain drives, it rushes towards its end. Seen from the perspective of pushing up, coitus moves in the dimension of death. But, insofar as these two people met, desired each other and wished to merge through coitus, insofar as their encounter aroused desire in them and insofar as this desire does not end completely with coitus – insofar as, in other words, they aim at a union with a future, at a relationship that will resist the zeroing out of excitement – then their sexuality is Eros. Therefore ‘Sexuality is at work wherever death is at work.’ (Ricoeur 1965, pp. 292–93). This is what Honoré d’Urfé expressed in the pastoral novel Astrée (XVII century): in love two become one and one becomes two.
But what pushes Freud to closely relate death drives with destructiveness and aggressiveness, sadism and masochism? It is the fact that, when we destroy, our end is the end of what we want to destroy – even ourselves, as is the case in melancholia. Thanatos is, in general, a hurrying towards the end – whereas incautious Eros marks the mishap of love.
Later analysts who take up the Freudian concept of death drives actually tend to identify them with destructive aggressiveness. But in Freud destructiveness manifests the death drive insofar as its end is the end, of oneself or of the other. Aggressive feelings are not the key to Thanatos, what matters is that the aggressive impulse wants to put an end to life.
5. ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’
A subject in analysis talked about a recurring dream. When he had an experience of enjoyment – an overwhelming coitus with a woman, an outstanding professional success giving him special satisfaction, and so on – he nearly always had the following dream, with only a few variations: medical tests reveal he has AIDS, or a cancer in metastasis. Basically, that he is going to die. Yet, in the dream, he feels fine, and this gives him a feeling of disbelief. At the same time, however, in the dream he feels that he had always known about his illness and the medical tests are just forcing him to face a truth the acknowledgment of which he had kept postponing; he had been told a long time ago he was going to die, but he has always repressed the fact. The nightmare consisted precisely in having to accept this reality he believed he had repressed. Even though in the dream he tells himself ‘there must be some deception in this clinical truth!’ In it he seems divided, as the terminally ill often are when faced with the truth of their condition: on the one hand they know they are dying, on the other they talk and behave as if they were not. In these dreams too a part of him had to believe it, another could not believe it. Sometimes he was woken by the distress of the situation.
What seems to emerge in this dream is a primacy of a traumatic relation to reality – a future reality which is inevitable: one’s death. The common sense of dream – as desiring the fulfillment of something – which is also the Freudian sense, seems overturned here: just when the subject is experiencing a ‘dream-like reality’, he dreams of the terrible reality he could or will experience. These dreams seem to be telling our hero that the real reality is dying. Resorting to the interpretative routine – like saying ‘with the dream, the subject’s Super-ego is punishing him for his forbidden enjoyments’ – would be laughable here. (Besides, the Freudian Super-ego is in itself a request for enjoyment, though it is an ‘other’ enjoyment, at the expense of the Ego).
These dreams are reminiscent of the classical painting style of ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ (Panofsky 1955): in an idyllic pastoral atmosphere, in the middle of the youth games, in a wild life devoted to sexual activity and thoughtlessness, it is possible to spot – but one often does not notice, because it is so discreet – a skull. As to say: ‘even here, in heaven on earth, in the innocent carefree enjoyment of life, I, death, am here!’ But why remind the pleasure enjoyers of this? Why does the subject, in defiance of Lustprinzip, confront itself – in art as in the dream – with something blacklisted as the non plus ultra of the real, the horror of a death that is sure to arrive?
Indeed, at one point the analytic speculum confronts itself with a dimension of the real not reducible to subjectivity: to a resistance that is hyperbolic, radical (Derrida (1996) dealt with the theme of repetition compulsion as radical resistance). But where does this real that is paradoxically not reducible to the subject appear? And in what way does it not get confused with the reality the subject has to wallow in to try and enjoy life, i.e. in Freud’s words, ‘to die his own way’?
It is as if the real – illustrated here in the form of the necessary end of life – had imposed itself in the very heart of the desiring subject (obviously subjugated to Lustprinzip): as suffering and absolute end, as ‘something that cannot be believed and which yet must be believed’. Suffering and death are indexes of the real.
In fact, in Freudian thinking – where die Lust is primary and final cause, the essence, of subjectivity – this irruption of the unthinkable real seems to be no longer ensnared by the logic of the desire-pleasure principle. Analytic theory, which is so subject-centered, gives a paradoxical result: the dreams of terminal illness can be understood only as enjoyment not of the subject, but of something in him. An enjoyment that coincides with the hyperbolic suffering of his Ego, which imagines it is terminally ill, destined to the agonizing sufferings of the disintegration of life. The subject suffers, but – if one wants to remain faithful to the Freudian paradigm – something in him has to enjoy. And he enjoys precisely in that real which causes the annihilation of the subject, his pain in sickness and death. Is this paradox acceptable? And what could this thing that enjoys at the subject’s expense, at the very heart of him, be?