Death and the Unconscious

Death and the Unconscious: An Epistemological and Ontological Reconsideration of Freud’s “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”

Victor L. Schermer

SUMMARY ABSTRACT: Freud’s “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” is an important work which has many flaws and at the same time contains rich insights into the role of death in the unconscious. This article critiques Freud’s difficulties placing his understanding of death in a scientific framework incorporating Kant’s metaphysics and Goethe’s naturphilosophe that he acquired in his medical studies, resulting in a conflict between reductionist and holistic views of the brain and the role of death in living systems. Yet the ideas he proposed brought him closer to an existentialist view of life and the mind. Freud and Heidegger arrived at their views on death in the same decade as a result of World War I and the cross-cultural shattering of identity. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” is useful in developing linkages between psychoanalysis and phenomenological/existential thought.

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
— Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms

Introduction: “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”
and Freud’s Controversial Death Instinct

Death is an event of absolute psychobiological, phenomenological, and existential consequence. Yet it was only as a postscript to his major discoveries and in wake of a devastating World War that Sigmund Freud took on the problem of death as it pertained to his theory of the unconscious. In “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” in contrast to his long-held emphasis on the hegemony of the pleasure principle, he now proposed death as an imperious instinct that impels organisms towards annihilation. In this paper, I consider Freud’s rationale for that radical hypothesis and propose a critique of the conceptualization of death as an “instinct” or “drive,” examining the merits and flaws of his arguments. I will then try to view Freud’s ideas in light of biological science and phenomenological-existential thought. I will suggest that there are gems of insight contained in this essay despite the flawed theory of the “death instinct” as such. The essay provides nascent ideas that can link psychoanalysis and modern existential philosophy in new ways.

“Beyond the Pleasure Principle” is Freud’s only major theoretical work which has incurred the sharp criticism of his most devoted Anglo-American followers (with the notable exceptions of Melanie Klein and Kurt Eissler) from the time of its publication in 1920 to the present. Its ideas have been rejected by Freudians, ego psychologists, interpersonal, and object relations theorists alike on account of Freud’s proposal of the “death instinct,” a drive towards extinction present in all living beings, a force against successful adaptation and upward development that opposes all the intentions of the “life instincts” and individual and species survival. The notion that life could be purposefully motivated towards its own death seemed to go not only against Freud’s central theory of infantile sexuality, but flew in the face of all the findings of the life sciences and all of Western thought and values! It led many to ask, had Freud gone mad? Had the devastation of World War I or the untimely death of his beloved daughter Sophie Halberstadt led to his disillusionment with his hallowed theories and a thoroughly grim assessment of the human condition?

The Anglo-American analytic majority’s dismissal of the death instinct unfortunately has obscured the richness and significance of this profound work. One can only admire Freud, who having devoted his career to advancing the theory of infantile sexuality and creating a loyal group of adherents, had the intellectual courage to acknowledge a major fault line in his thinking. In the essay, he acknowledged the tentative nature of his new view. Whatever personal struggles drew him back to the battlefield, it is clear that he felt he had uncovered a major loophole in his treasured metapsychology, a difficulty that he couldn’t ignore. The loophole was that not all human experience, in particular the repetition compulsion, could be accounted for on the basis of the pleasure principle, the foundation of all his theorizing up to that point. Like Einstein, who discovered a fallacy in Newton’s theory of motion, Freud, like Oedipus, had toppled himself.

From Clinical Observation to Neurology and Biology

In what follows, I am going to re-examine “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” from a combination of natural science, philosophical, and psychoanalytic perspectives. I will try to hover above it from a historical, scientific, and philosophical distance and suggest that Freud’s otherwise profound understandings of the role of death in the unconscious were marred by distortions brought about by his adherence to a quasi-metaphysical scientific paradigm that harked back to his initiation to neurology in the laboratory of his medical school mentor Ernst Brucke, as well as to the general biology of his time. The particular distortions have to do with 1) the idea of pleasure as tension reduction and 2) the misplacement of the teleological notion of drive or instinct. I will use living systems theory and complexity theory to explain and rectify these distortions in the light of modern science. Then I will discuss how philosophy, in particular the turn away from Kant through Husserl to Heidegger, opens up a window from which new insight can be drawn.

To provide the setting for a discussion of its wide-ranging and at times nearly inscrutable ideas, here is a brief, selective summary of “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” with my commentary:

Freud begins by asking whether the pleasure principle alone guides human mentation and behavior. He examines instances such as sadism and masochism where people actively seek pain and discomfort, and finds that they nevertheless can be accounted for in terms of pleasurable drives and affects. He believes that the one phenomenon that cannot be accounted for by the pleasure principle is the repetition compulsion. He gives two examples: post-traumatic stress with its flashback dreams, where the traumatic experiences are re-played despite the suffering they evoke; and the spool game of “Fort-Da” where the child never tires of throwing the spool and retrieving it as a way of coping with mother’s absence. He also cites as un-pleasurable repetitions the transference neurosis and real life maladaptive patterns that are repeated despite their negative consequences. He concludes that the pleasure principle cannot, in itself, account for such recurrent encounters. He contemplates the possibility of a destructive or death drive that has no pleasurable consequences. (Importantly, the terms Eros and Thanatos as classes of instincts do not appear in this work. Freud is here talking about specific biological drives.)

Freud then explains the repetition compulsion neurologically with a model that traces back to his 1995 “Project for a Scientific Psychology,” which derived from his neurological studies and which I will suggest reflects a dualistic view of neuroscience rooted in Kant, whom he cites, and, at the opposite pole, the empiricist neuroscience of Brucke and Brucke’s inspiration, Helmholtz. Essentially, and in a way that is remarkably similar to current ideas about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Freud sees psychological trauma as the consequence of stimulation that overwhelms the ego and its resources, with an implication of psychosomatic brain changes for which we now have significant research evidence.He regards consciousness and the sense organs as protective shields (stimulus barriers) that filter and sort external energies so as to render them tolerable to the unconscious components of the mind. The breach of the stimulus barrier, as occurs in trauma, sets in motion a darker, “demonic” set of responses that, in a kind of eternal recurrence, lead the organism towards quiescence or death. Thus, the pleasure principle cannot manifest unless the stimulus barrier first “binds” the excess energy and prevents the repetition compulsion and the drive towards death from taking over. Death, says Freud, is a bio-psychological imperative that antedates the pleasure principle. Death must be contained in order for life (as pleasure, desire, striving, development) to be sustained.

Freud develops the idea of death as the regression to an earlier state, ultimately the state of inanimate matter from which all life emerges. Paradoxically, he attributes this regressive character to the ego rather than the id! He says that the ego, aligned with reality, opposes the pleasure principle, which is ultimately the drive towards sex and reproduction, i.e towards life. So the ego, even though it is adaptive to reality, is paradoxically driven towards death. Freud argues that the so-called survival instincts are in fact death instincts, which has proved to be a very disturbing idea for ego psychologists! For example, he considers the ego’s secondary narcissism, the great “I am,” as a regressive substitution of the self for the object. And in the realm of biology, he indulges in the speculation that sexual reproduction, a late stage of evolution, finds a precursor in the division of single-celled infusoria, Moreover, such infusoria are “brought to a natural death through their own vital processes.” Freud even cites Plato as giving a mythological example in which sexual intercourse derived from earlier gods or humans who contained both sexes. Thus, life itself inevitably harks back to earlier forms, and ultimately to the inanimate, which is death. He ascribes to this regression the force, propulsion, and goal-directedness of a drive or instinct. This attribution of a force towards death is puzzling, because up to then he is talking about a regressive tendency, not a drive as such. In retrospect, what he calls a drive or instinct is related to the second law of thermodynamics, the tendency towards entropy. Freud rests his case for the death instinct on the organism’s inherent regression to randomness and the inanimate. In so doing, he conflates regression and drive.

A Mixture of Naturphilosophie, Fallacies, and Scientific Brilliance

Throughout his career, Freud encountered the ongoing challenge that psychoanalysis is mere mythology, an imaginative story rather than proven fact. Thus, despite its profound humanistic implications, he carefully framed psychoanalysis in scientific language, often refraining from philosophical and literary discourse despite his attraction to and frequent allusions to them. (Some, for example Bettleheim have claimed that his translators such as James Strachey made the situation even worse.) So here he encounters death itself, the eliminator of all discourse, with the weapons of science. However, the version of science he had acquired in his medical training was not strictly speaking the emerging empiricist science of the physicists but rather a combination of Kantian metaphysics and Goethe’s and others’ naturphilosophie. The former proposed categories or synthetic a priori propositions which the human mind imposed on inscrutable reality, so that science was organized in accord with inherent categories of understanding. The second avowed that nature itself manifested evolving dynamic forms that possessed an aesthetic beauty experienced as wonder and reverence. Thus, even though he always sought “facts” such as clinical material to justify his position, Freud also superimposed particular structures, such as his topographic and structural models, as a priori organizing principles (Kant) and regarded nature, including human nature, as possessing awesome and often concealed truths (Goethe). At the same time, he adopted from his laboratory research days the Reymond-Brucke reductionist pledge that “no other forces than the common physical-chemical ones are active within the organism.” So in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” as in much of Freud’s work, there is a shift and contradiction between holistic-systems and atomistic-reductionist frames of reference.

In “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” this contradiction is especially salient in two problematic concepts invoked to build a rationale for a universal impulse towards death: pleasure as tension-reduction and the teleological notion of drive or instinct. Regarding the pleasure principle, Freud was aware that pleasure can come from arousal and excitement (increase in tension) as much as from the state of ease which he called the “nirvana principle.” Yet, neurologically in accord with the Reymond-Brucke pledge, he attributes all pleasure to a reduction of nervous excitation and a tendency towards quiescence. For instance, the infant, having sucked at the breast, is satisfied and calm. Thus, he regards the functions of perception and consciousness as maintaining a state of minimal tension, ignoring the contradictory fact that sensory input and stimulation are actively sought and maintain normal functioning, as we now know from sensory deprivation experiments and the like. The idea of tension reduction as the principle of neural functioning came to Freud from the neuroscience of his time, which emphasized the way in which neurons remained in a state of low excitation until triggered by stimulation, as Helmholtz had demonstrated regarding muscle contractions. Freud goes on to say that the unconscious-as-a-system and its psychosomatic core cannot maintain this low tension state by themselves, so they require the protection of a cortical shield of nerve cells that regulate consciousness and perception to prevent a catastrophic buildup of energy leading to illness or death. This leads to a notion on Freud’s part that death is active rather than passive, that some X factor propels towards repetition, regression, and death unless it is controlled and regulated by conscious reality (perception), just as in the libido theory, sexual impulses will go unbridled unless checked by the ego and superego.

Here, Freud is using the reductionist neurology of Helmholtz, which he acquired in his medical studies in Brucke’s laboratory, in which the mind is nothing more than the summation of neural activity, an idea which still has great appeal to many neuroscientists today. But he is using it in a way which would have incurred the disapproval of Helmholtz, namely to build a case for a drive or instinct, concepts which have holistic and teleological implications more reflective of Kantian metaphysics and naturphilosophie than of reductionist science. So he ends up equating what is essentially a state of instability or disequilibrium with a purposive, goal-directed drive or instinct, i.e. an organic intention towards death. In accord with Kant, death must be an a priori category, and in accord with Goethe, death must be a purposive quality deeply embedded in nature. Freud therefore argues that death must be embedded in the organism, not the result of accidental, external causes. Moreover, like the four horsemen of the apocalypse, death has intentionality riding in the saddle.

Thus, Freud’s loyal followers who denounced “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” had a good point in questioning the death instinct concept. It would take quite a stretch of the known facts to assume that life willfully intends its own demise. There might be special circumstances in which this is true, but not in the general case. So we can agree Freud was wrong in the respect of a death instinct. However, in rejecting the death instinct as such, it is easy to miss Freud’s brilliance and intellectual honesty in emphasizing the importance of death in the psyche. Give him a little room for error and intellectual bias, and it can be seen that in this controversial essay, he was trying to penetrate to the ultimate nature of existence and the human mind.

Modern Life Science: General Systems and Complexity Theories

In order to demonstrate the relevance and prescience of Freud’s understanding, a detour into the modern life sciences is necessary. General Systems Theory (von Bertalanffy) and Complexity Theory shed much light on Freud’s views about death. In General Systems Theory, life is an exception to the second law of thermodynamics: that all systems tend towards entropy (randomness; loss of information and organization). Entropy applies to closed systems, but life is an open so-called neg-entropic system that exchanges information, matter, and energy with the environment. Through their metabolic and behavioral capabilities, living systems are capable of postponing their own entropic death by forming a relatively stable system within the instability of the physical-chemical environment. They are also capable of reproduction, perpetuating their form indefinitely. In this respect, life is a disruption of entropy, a postponement of death. Complexity theory adds that life emerges in a chemical environment as a result of turbulence, a combination of chaos and order that through chance occurrences but under precise circumstances can produce self-organizing molecules (amino acids) that eventually structure themselves into living systems of greater complexity, i.e. organisms.

If these tenets are true, then death is present at every level of biological organization, including minds, as a tendency, not towards quiescence, but towards chaos, the end stage of which is the randomness of closed, inanimate systems. So, notwithstanding the death instinct, Freud was right that death is an inherent liability of living systems which are always working to change entropy into neg-entropy within a turbulent state. For example, cells are always dying, but in the process they reproduce themselves. The heart beats 70 times a second to sustain a body/mind that may last for 80 or more years but that could end in a matter of minutes in the absence of a pulse. And, regarding the mental life, as we now know, memories are not so much stable “engrams” as they are momentary constructions as part of a current narrative. Moreover, the self is a living system of part-selves adapting themselves to present social needs and roles. At every moment, life wrests itself from the jaws of death in a process of self-organizing dynamic equilibrium amid turbulence. (Parenthetically, we may say that this sentiment is echoed in Buddhist thought, with its emphasis on impermanence, and as I will soon suggest, in existential philosophy.)

So Freud was right that death as an entropic tendency is a condition of the living sub-system that we call mind! However, he was wrong to label it an instinct or drive. The latter are goal-directed cognitive-behavioral structures that have evolved through natural selection to increase the probability of survival. If an instinct propelling towards death appeared as a mutation, it would quickly support its own demise and we would not find it in nature on a regular basis. Natural selection favors instincts that are life-preserving.

The Sacrificial Instinct

However, under certain circumstances evolution does self-select the demise of the individual in favor of the propagation of the species. Male sea lions engage in near-fatal battles over mating territory, selecting the stronger of them for the gene pool. Salmon die when they return to the site of their origins to spawn their young, a perfect example of what Freud meant by a death instinct. Humans regularly die in wars on behalf of their country and their cherished beliefs. Many instances of a so-called death instinct involve the element of sacrifice. The part dies for the sake of the whole or for the Other. The individual dies for the sake of the preservation of the group. The child or the domestic partner suffers abuse in order to preserve a faulty attachment. Or, psychoanalytically speaking, the child’s omnipotence dies in order to enter the depressive position (Klein) and become part of the symbolic order (Lacan), a development which also supports its own survival. Indeed, a case could be made for the presence of a sacrificial instinct. Living systems appear widely programmed to enable the survival of the species at the expense of individuals, and of the organism at the expense of its cellular components.

Ten years before Freud wrote “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” Sabina Spielrein, the famous patient of Jung who subsequently became Freud’s patient and student, presented a paper to Freud and his group entitled “Destruction as a cause of coming into being.” (Freud acknowledged this paper in a footnote to “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” with reference to the possibility of primary masochism.) In this paper, Spielrein views death in the psyche as a sacrificial tendency inherent in the organism, suggesting how sacrifice is related to conception (noting that sperm and egg each sacrifice half of their chromosomes) and birth. She included creativity as one of the outcomes of sacrifice, and importantly held that the death and sex drives were interwoven in the psyche. She gave a rich and clinically exemplified (and one could perhaps say, early feminist) view of the relationship between sexuality, death, and sacrifice that anticipated aspects of modern Continental thinking about psychoanalysis. For her, death can be in the service of life, a very important notion that Freud seems to have entirely missed.

The Instability and Vulnerability of the Unconscious

Thus, Freud’s death instinct concept, though flawed, has merit insofar as it points to the omnipresence of death in the life cycle and to specific manifestations of a goal-directed intention towards death such as in sacrificial behavior. But “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” contains a deeper insight into the unconscious mind bypassed by most if not all of its commentators. It occurs when Freud posits the protective stimulus barrier provided by the senses and consciousness. In classic Freudian theory under the sway of the pleasure principle, the unconscious is an invincible bio-psychological structure (the id) and topological region (the system ucs.) Housed deep in the regions of sleep and memory, the unconscious is impervious to change, free of the constraints of time and space, preserved forever like the archaeological artifacts that Freud kept in his consulting room. In many ways, Freud portrayed the unconscious as a frozen, archaic, historical realm of relics in the form of “reminiscences” and desires that have outlived their usefulness or been transformed into symptoms and realistic social attitudes. Having been laid safely to rest (shall we say hibernation?) by the ego and superego, they reappear as Derrida would say, as ghosts or “specters.” But in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” Freud is saying that the unconscious is a living Dante-esque world filled with struggle and vulnerability.

Freud tells us that the neural “traces” of consciousness and perception dissipate quickly. (Thus, perception and conscious awareness are capable of being framed in time and space, because they quickly process input and then move on to the next situation; in other words, perception quickly samples the environment and attributes permanence and organization to it.) Using the idea of the consciousness/perception stimulus barrier as a protection from trauma, Freud points to the unconscious part of the mind as consisting of more lasting neural traces that linger in an unstable state of being formed and unformed. (This sounds remarkably like the “turbulence” of complexity theory.) Unconscious “traces” don’t “see” or “know” anything. They are Bion’s beta elements, “thoughts without a thinker” floating around in a psychosomatic soup. They require the constant protection of the stimulus barrier to protect them from the encroachments external world, of overstimulation, of too much reality. In other words, the “always dying” unconscious, in contrast with everything Freud has said in connection with the pleasure principle, is a place of vulnerability and chaos. (Bion likened the unconscious to Milton’s “deep and formless infinite.” William James’ depiction of the infant’s mind as “a blooming buzzing confusion” and Balint’s metaphor of “an interpenetrating harmonious mixup” also come to mind in this respect.)

Classically speaking, in accord with the pleasure and reality principles, the analyst’s role is to strengthen the ego’s ability to contain the id and adapt to the exigencies of reality. This comes about through a therapeutic alliance that aligns itself with reality and overcomes resistances through an analysis of defenses, fantasies, and transference in such a way as to facilitate partial gratification within the constraints of the real world. As we know, this is an effective treatment rationale for patients with intact ego functions. However, for patients with so-called “narcissistic neuroses,” i.e. schizophrenia, psychosis, and we would now add borderline and narcissistic personality disorders, aligning with the ego over the id and the inner needs of the self is at best only partly effective because the unconscious or non-conscious itself has the potential for fragmentation, loss of self cohesion, and regression that cannot be repaired by interpretation alone. A relational approach that includes mirroring, holding, and containing is required. Why is this so?

Following upon the notion of the unconscious as an unstable and partly dissipative state (tendency towards death), there are times when the ego’s battle with the id is less relevant to treatment than the vulnerability and potential for disruption of the id itself. The disintegration of the unconscious is manifest in the prodrome of schizophrenia where the primary process decomposes into fragments and beta elements. We also find it occurring in states of confusion, traumatic dissociation, and hallucination, and, in daily life, when people are placed under pressure to conform or adapt without being able to consult their unconscious in order to integrate reality with their inner experience. Often, treatment is not so much a matter of reigning in a voracious, insatiable id but rather of taking care of, respecting, and protecting the irrational, fragile, vulnerable inner world. Such understanding is implicit in much of the work that followed Freud, and in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” we see Freud himself begin to develop a more inclusive and rich formulation of unconscious vulnerability and its need for care.

Thus, by proposing that the unconscious is an unstable part of the mind that is under the sway not only of pleasure and omnipotence, but also of pain, fragmentation, and death, Freud disclosed the hidden tragic nature of the part of the mind hitherto thought of as indomitable energy and hallucinatory wish fulfillment. In “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” the relationship between the conscious ego, the “I,” and the unconscious the “It,” is analogous to the relationship of man and nature. In the natural world, we may safely cultivate the land, form villages and cities, and organize commerce, but the natural environment must be respected and taken care of, even regarded with mystery and awe. If we do not do so, we may produce carbon emissions that lead to catastrophic climate change. Similarly, the therapist must respect the patient’s id and unconscious and provide for their care through relational engagement. In “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” which emphasizes the instability of memory traces, the unconscious is not so much an archaeological site of unfulfilled memory and desire as it as an ever-changing, partly unformed wilderness of affects, images, and motives that is the ego’s place of origin and to which it will ultimately return. The unconscious, like nature, is awesomely powerful but at the same time acutely vulnerable. Life is always dying and must be protected.

Why Husserl? Why Not Husserl?

In order further to pursue the problem of death in life and the mind, I must turn to Husserl’s phenomenology, back “to the things themselves.” Since Husserl was all about distinguishing phenomena from the “wraparound” ideas projected onto them by science, religion, and metaphysics, it may seem impertinent to bring him into a discussion of Freud’s science-based excursions. However, this is precisely the point. Nowhere does Freud stop to inquire into the phenomenological experience of death. How would he describe it? Why is it so important? How does it arise in our consciousness? Instead, he projects onto death, colors it, and obscures it with an overlay of neurology and biology, so that death becomes a cause and effect explanatory concept remote from our individual and collective life worlds. Ernest Brecker’s seminal work, Denial of Death, was a significant attempt to fill this lacuna in psychoanalytic thought. Up to now, I have been going along with Freud’s biological and physicalist frame of reference. Now I want to apply the epoche, bracket it off and see what happens if we do so. Ultimately, by bringing in Husserl’s student, Heidegger, I will come full circle to suggest that in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” Freud was on the brink of becoming an existentialist, but his scientific frame of reference prevented him from taking that step.

The problem that immediately arises is that if one rigorously applies the epoche to death, we are left with a cipher, the no-thing, the entirely Other, Bion’s “O.” The transcendental ego is helpless to describe death “in itself.” Death is hermetic and opaque. We can describe its projective aura, namely experiences of dying, grief, absence, transition from the animate to the animate, loss of consciousness, destructive aggression, rituals, myths, and images describing an after life, and consequences of mortality for the living. But if we take all that away, what are we left with? Pure death is a void that eludes the grasp of intentionality.

Husserl, influenced by his student Heidegger, later proposed a phenomenological “lifeworld,” an experience imbued with a holistic relational sense of things-taken-together as something that we inhabit with our intentionality. In this world, we find death always and everywhere. But death in the lifeworld is not “the thing itself.” Rather, it is part of a narrative of impermanence, of coming and going that is infused with mystery and unknowing, expressed by Freud as the instability of the memory traces. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” like so much of what we think and feel every day about death, is not so much about the phenomenon itself as it is about death in the lifeworld. It happens to have been expressed by Freud in the language of science. Death-in-itself, however, is the ultimate Rorschach test, inviting us to project onto and into its nothingness. That’s the part of the equation that Freud missed. As a patient once said to me, describing her terrifying sense of a living death, “I don’t exist.” I felt that her angst was not about her existence as a “this” or a “that,” i.e. her social identity and lifeworld, but as a threat to her “being-in-the-world” as such. Phenomenology prior to Heidegger is about the “ontic,” describing “beings” in their pure form. For Heidegger, without “Being” as “ontological,” with a capital B, there can be no beings, no phenomena. Being as ontological prior to the ontic is imbued with impermanence and awareness of mortality.

Heidegger: Death and Being-in-the-World

The problem of the indescribability of death, the impossibility of the subject grasping death in consciousness, death as wholly other, non-Being, is one of the conundrums which led to the development of existential and postmodern thought, primarily in Heidegger, but also in those like Sartre who independently developed their ideas, and those who came after them, like Levinas and Derrida. Before we come full circle back to Freud, I would like to consider how death takes a central place in Heidegger’s magnum opus, Being and Time. Heidegger makes the distinction, crucial to all existential thought, between “beings” and “Being,” between the ontic and the ontological. Beings can be thought about and described, but they are grounded in dasein, “Being-there” or “Being-in-the-World,” which cannot be described like a thing, but may disclose itself in a clearing, which I take to arise via a suspension of judgment in some ways comparable to Freud’s “hovering attention” and Bion’s “absence of memory, desire, and understanding,” although strictly speaking awareness of dasein is not under anyone’s control; it simply presents itself. In this clearing is great beauty and ektasis, but also a terrifying abyss brought about by Being’s temporality. This is where Heidegger encounters death, not as a thing itself, i.e. an object intended by Husserl’s transcendental ego, but as a condition of “thrown-ness,” time and space without an anchor of dependable expectations, a taste of mortality as it were, as a consequence of dasein’s immanence: the temporality, historicity, and facticity of Being-in-the-World.
Freud was so steeped in metaphysics in the form of permanence and determinism that he failed to grasp the significance of temporality in the unconscious, and that, on account of such temporality, the unconscious, like Being, needs what Heidegger called sorge, care structure. His view up until “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” was that the unconscious doesn’t know time; it knows only pleasure, i.e. nirvana, oblivion, quiescence. However, the psychoanalyst and philosopher Alan Bass uses Heidegger, as well as Nietzsche and Derrida, to develop a position that the primal unconscious prior to its encounter with reality is already imbued with temporality and pain, or more exactly, the pleasure/pain of Nietzsche. (If it didn’t, it would have no way to begin its relational journey, since it is the differance, in Derrida’s sense, which sets everything in motion.) In existential thought the unconscious is Being which knows its own vulnerability and mortality but is incapable of saving itself from the abyss without the care offered by conscious perception, critical awareness, and a relational attachment to an other. In Heidegger’s language, the unconscious as unformulated Being begins a process of using what is “already there,” “at hand” (most notably language and significant others – “the they”) to limit, disavow, or postpone the fall into the abyss. For instance, my patient, who “didn’t exist,” used me to restore a sense of being-in-the-world by taking hold of what was already there: me. By making frequent “emergency” phone calls to me, she used me to construct a temporary care structure or shelter in which to survive until the next session. She used me to do what her mother should have done from the moment she was born, namely to provide the attachment that would help her to withstand what Winnicott called “annihilation anxiety.” (From what the patient told me, her mother was a schizoid shell who had little capacity for empathic attunement and could only respond to her children with catastrophic anxieties and moral indignation.)

Death as the Link Connecting Psychoanalysis with Modern and
Post-Modern Phenomenology and Existential Thought

Although one could say a great deal more about possible connections between Heidegger and Freud (and much has already been written about that subject, mostly by existential therapists and some by psychoanalysts, as well as philosophers and literary scholars), the focus here is on the significance of “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” in the corpus of Freud’s work. What I want to say here is that Freud came to consider the dynamics of death for the same reason that Heidegger came to Being and Time, namely a change in Western consciousness in which death became propelled into the forefront of intellectual life by 1) a philosophical, historical, and literary shift away from permanence and elegance as defining truth; and 2) a World War in which not only was the stench of death in the European air, but national and cultural identity was severely undermined. Freud and Heidegger, both intimately affected by this cultural change and wartime atmosphere, were brothers in pointing to the loss of meaning that were taking place, but their foundations for saying so were diametrically opposite. Freud focused on clinical phenomena using the natural sciences paradigm, while Heidegger focused on everyday “at hand” existence by showing the temporality and interpretive nature of “being-in-the-world.” Their divergent perspectives which yet suggested a significant overlap left a trail of problems as to whether and how their world views could be reconciled.

That trail has expressed itself in various attempts to combine their views. The Frankfurt School, existential psychotherapy, humanistic psychology, the critical theories of Marcuse and Habermas, and Foucault’s historicism, might be cited as examples. There are numerous instances where phenomenological, existential, and psychoanalytic views are used in tandem, often without sufficient attention to the epistemological and ontological concerns that are involved. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” can be used to take a fresh look at ways to bridge these three disciplines.

Just to stimulate some thinking about where we might go in such an endeavor, here are three examples of issues which might provide important bridges but where I can only touch the surface for now:

1) Levinas proposed the notion of “Face” as an encounter with the Other who, like death, is unknowable but for whom one is responsible. Although he rejected Heidegger’s view of death as an ontological entity, preferring to focus on the phenomenology of everyday life, the opaqueness of the Other and the “no-thing-ness” of death are deeply related in human experience. We also have relationships with the deceased, and we can inquire into the role of Face and the Other in the mourning process and the transference. We may further ask, how do death and the notion of the unconscious as “formless, infinite void” come into play when one is face to face with the Other, say in a psychoanalytic session? If, like Levinas, we regard the Other as impenetrable, what function does interpretation serve in the healing process? And are we perhaps violating the patient’s sanctity when we claim to know and understand him? Does the vulnerability of the unconscious provide a basis for taking Levinas seriously as a protector of human integrity?

2) Given Freud’s biological focus in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” how does Lacan’s shift of the locus of the unconscious from the soma (biology) to language affect our understanding of death as it manifests in the real, imaginary, and symbolic realms of discourse? And how does the vulnerability and turbulence of the body and of the unconscious enter into Lacanian theory? For example, does Lacan’s signifier/signified relationship include lapses, gaps, and sudden shifts in discourse? Does the real include somatic impulses and perturbations? How does the child’s relationship to his body – and to death awareness – change form and meaning as a result of the mirror stage?

3) How does death relate to Derrida’s idea of deconstruction, especially since in a key writing about Freud, he emphasizes the “difference” and the “trace” from Freud’s “Project for a Scientific Psychology,” which also figures heavily in ”Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” At a certain point, Derrida’s thinking was heavily influenced by Freud’s neurological theories, and much of his work implies the death of the author-as-subject, but it is never clear how human vulnerability and mortality fits into his discourse. Does he bypass that problem or is it disseminated throughout his text?

My point about “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” is that it is the singular writing by Freud in which he confronted the phenomena of death, nothingness, vulnerability, and formlessness that are central to existential thought. Unfortunately, he couched them in a scientific language that is difficult to decipher, especially if one doesn’t accept the notion of a “death instinct” as such. Still, as laborious as it may be, a careful reading of “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” can provide valuable ways of building or re-building bridges between psychoanalysis and existential thought. To paraphrase the Beatles, “All I am saying is, Give “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” a chance!”