To understand Freud's discussion of the death wish or « death instinct » in chapter VI of Civilization and its Discontents, suffice it to start with a paradox. The work of culture is placed under the authority of Eros, of a life force that aims at combining individuals into greater units and ultimately into civilization as a global unit. And yet, civilization seems to show a certain amount of distrust towards every thing sexual. It demands sublimation to fully accept sexuality within the realm of culture. The underlying assumption that seems to transpire in Freud's circuitous is the following: there is a disruptive element in Eros, a force that is potentially destructive. Freud's demonstration is indeed circuitous because he might have gone straight to the point without trying to reconcile his previous theory with the newer theory of the instincts.
Freud was struck by the fact that the living emerges from the non living. The death instinct acts as a force that strives to bring matter back to an original stage. In his clinical experience, he was struck by a compulsion to repeat that is at work in many pathologies. As a clinician, he also had to deal with sadism and masochism which involve a destructive dimension. But he was also the witness of word war one which is enough to trigger some curiosity about death instincts.
The speculations on the beginnings of life and from biological parallels that Freud refers to are the following. Freud observed that aggressive drives were, in the baby, directed outwards. The infant used his body, his muscles, to exercise a grasping instinct that helped to ventilate his aggressive impulses. But then grew the suspicion that not all the aggressive impulses could be driven out and this might account for masochism. The biological element was borrowed from the highly speculative work of a biologist by the name of Weismann. The latter speculated that it was not within the program of living cells to die and that if they did die, it was because of a force acting contrary to live forces
[...] Freud settles on the ground of ideology and takes up the same vocabulary. We are clearly on moral grounds as Freud reproaches his contemporaries with a lack of courage. What commands his theory is something like a moral vision of Man who is moved by evil and won't recognize it. Freud goes back to his clinical experience and refers to sadism. In sadism, the death with relies on Eros for satisfaction, via object libido but also via ego libido insofar as the latter aims at mastery. [...]
[...] We have a new perspective on Freud's writing. We are told that there has been some resistance to the idea in analytic circles. His first response to the expression of resistances to the idea concerns his own conviction: ideas have gained such a hold of me that I can no longer think in any other way”. As a psychoanalyst, he should be aware of the fact that this in no evidence and that delusional patients would probably use the same terms. [...]
[...] Civilization and its Discontents, Freud: the “death instinct” (chapter VI) To understand Freud's discussion of the death wish or death instinct in chapter VI of Civilization and its Discontents, suffice it to start with a paradox. The work of culture is placed under the authority of Eros, of a life force that aims at combining individuals into greater units and ultimately into civilization as a global unit. And yet, civilization seems to show a certain amount of distrust towards every thing sexual. [...]
[...] Freud readily recognizes that the death wish is the product of a speculation. Psychoanalysis would have been unchanged if Freud had never mentioned this notion. Freud defends this notion using arguments that have to do with ideology and that seem to coincide with a vision of the world. The support he finds in clinical experience, with sadism and masochism, are not enough to make this notion indispensable as it is possible to account for them without referring to the death wished. [...]
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