Death still driving: Beyond the Pleasure Principle at 100

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Author: Josh Cohen
Date: Apr. 3, 2020
From: TLS. Times Literary Supplement(Issue 6105)
Publisher: NI Syndication Limited
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,595 words
Lexile Measure: 1500L

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I agreed to write this piece a lifetime ago --at the end of February, when a certain virus was just hovering at the edge of consciousness, yet another bad thing happening mostly to someone else, somewhere else. Now, sitting in my empty psychoanalytic consulting room, I'm spending the time between virtual sessions pondering the tastelessly funny, improbably Freudian coincidence of the centennial of Beyond the Pleasure Principle with a deadly global pandemic.

The past week has seen a spread of must-read lists for the age of lockdown. Is there a title more worthy of inclusion, or more unbearable to read right now? This, after all, was the work in which Freud formally introduced the death drive--baldly stated, the human psyche's unsuspected orientation towards its own death.

But perhaps this is to move too quickly, not least because it fails to specify just which death drive we're talking about: not content with formulating a theory that so radically subverted all previous theories of psychic functioning, not excepting his own, Freud also insinuated into his seminally strange essay of 1920 a curious split, which has haunted its turbulent afterlife, between inertial and destructive versions of the death drive.

Freud would live and write continuously and prolifically for nearly two decades after publishing Beyond at the age of sixty-three. Those years would see the death drive occupy an increasingly settled and prominent place in his thinking, most notably in The Ego and the Id, Civilization and Its Discontents and the unfinished Outline of Psychoanalysis, which adumbrated the clinical phenomenon of the "negative therapeutic reaction", the analytic patient's apparently wilful resistance to the cure. In Civilization, he would observe that the theory he had put forward so "tentatively" in 1920 had "in the course of time ... gained such a hold upon me that I can no longer think in any other way".

But in exerting such a hold over Freud, the theory's scope was circumscribed, lopping off the inertial branch of that split and losing touch with the very ambiguity that makes Beyond so scandalous and so chillingly contemporary a text. In resolving into a theory of primary aggression, positing destructiveness as a structuring force of the human psyche, the death drive lost in speculative boldness what it gained in general plausibility.

Given the indiscriminate carnage of the First World War and the rise of Nazism, it was probably inevitable that...

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