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Beyond Thanatos: Freud and Death

  
  
   Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle, one of the most influential and, at the same time, incoherent thanatic narratives, could epitomize the ongoing process of interpenetrating between culture inspiring texts and texts configuring culture. In other words, Freudian narrative constitutes both a response - to the irrationality of "the terrible war which has just ended" [Beyond, 6], the deaths of people surrounding Freud and the implacable cancer cells "exploring" his own body - and a modus operandi, a thanatic theory, an analytic instrument for understanding "death wish" and "need to repeat". Beyond the Pleasure Principle is both a product of the cultural epistemological confusion and a conceptual prelude for the "beyond"- prefixed explorations of postmodernism. This twofold significance of Freudian text yet again demonstrates absence of "clear boundaries between literature and life, revealing the uncanny "literariness" of life and the transgressive vitality of texts" [Boym, 13] and opens fascinating though intricate modes of its reading. To put it in Freudian terms, Beyond might well be interpreted as a "patient" rather than accepted as an interpretative authority for analyzing other patients, as a paradoxical case study of countertransference, whereby the analyzee of the theorist becomes himself a subject to the theorist's needs, anxieties, sense of loss and bewilderment:
   Writing about death seems to become a way of regaining control after the disrupting experience of death, of reassuring continuity in the face of discontinuity, of mastering the absence... Yet the resulting text is one that articulates precisely this ambivalent interplay between disruption and control, between loss and the reassurance of substitutional "re-presencing - re-presenting", between the fear of death and a narcissistic libidinal cathexis [Bronfen, 17]
   Freudian thanatic theory attempts to convert the dreadful idiosyncrasy of Death and dying into some metapsychological ruling principle to which anxiety and loss might be attributed and thereby presents a case of projection via rationalization and sublimation whose origins descend to one of the most basic human needs to create or vision a universal governing force that would presumably control from without what in reality has been an inability to tolerate from within. In response to his daughter's premature death, Freud addressed her husband by the rhetoric of immense fear and helplessness - "meaningless, brutal act of fate", "joke played on helpless, poor humans by higher forces" [quoted in Bronfen, 15], and expresses the existential despair of the disconsolate atheist when writing to Max Eitingon: "such a paralyzing event, which can stir no afterthoughts when one is not a believer... blunt necessity, mute submission" [ibid.]. The theorist who himself participated in the modernist deicide has now to learn different ways of mourning amidst the materialistic nothingness - "mourning for the splendid, vital girl ... is permissible", "I do as much work as I can, and am grateful fro the distraction... as for mourning, that will no doubt come later" [quoted in Bronfen, 16], to attach meaning to the death of the other, while "Any articulation of another's death, it seems, invariably returns to the surviving speaker" [Bronfen, 15]:
   He thought of dying every day, after he was forty... to assume that man needs to die because death is the hidden goal of his life might be considered a kind of comfort destined to alleviate his fear of death [Fromm, 498].
   Reflecting on "the Disillusionment of the War" in Thoughts for the Times of War and Death, Freud addresses
   The bewilderment and the paralysis of energies, now so generally felt by us, [which] are essentially determined in part by the circumstance that we cannot maintain our former attitude towards death, and have not yet discovered a new one [Thoughts, 266].
   and points out at the initial unattainability and incomprehensibility of the fact of death for the id, which has become as foreign to the realm of consciousness, challenged by the unprecedented war, "more sanguinary and more destructive than any war of other days" [Thoughts, 250]:
   Our unconscious is just as inaccessible to the idea of our own death, as murderously minded towards the stranger, as divide or ambivalent towards the loved, as was man in earliest antiquity. But how far we have moved from this primitive state in our conventionally civilized attitude towards death! [Thoughts, 275].
   Calling to re-conceptualize the meaning of death and to re-incorporate it into the new mode of existence - "to give death the place in actuality and in our thoughts which properly belongs to it" [Thoughts, 276], Freud concludes his essay with an attempt at pronouncing a new thanatic teleology, a claim which five years later becomes a leitmotif of Beyond the Pleasure Principle:
   We remember the old saying: Si vis pacem, para bellum. If you desire peace, be prepared for war. In would be timely thus to paraphrase it: Si vis vitam, para mortem. If you would endure life, be prepared for death [Thoughts, 276].
   Furthermore, Freud would scientifically formulate the new teleology previously outlined as a fatalistic paraphrase of the ancient creed:
   ...everything living dies for internal reasons...then..."the aim of all life is death"... The instincts of self-preservation...are component instincts whose function it is to assure that organism shall follow its own path to death [Beyond, 32-33].
   This conclusion "meant to assure Freud's equilibrium" [Bronfen, 17] illustrates how Freud endeavors to objectify Death and at the same time reintegrate it into Dasein of the subject, rendering dying a logical closure of living for biological reasons, yet again ascribing a transcendental meaning to dying - "internal reasons". In a sense, this vision of a death wish that overshadows the life of the organism reveals
   A last surrender to mythological thinking, a final manifestation of that ancient belief that human violence can be attributed to some outside influence - to gods, to Fate, to some force men can hardly be expected to control [Girard, 145].
   Freud's thanatic theory seems to communicate what Eliade calls "the horror of history" and offers psychoanalytic methods of overcoming this horror by visioning a mechanism of an ahistoric substitute for abandoned spiritual immortality and the lost belief in the fundamental benevolence of the world:
   Nowadays, when the pressure of history offers no refuge, how can man bear catastrophies and horrors of history... if he does not see behind all that any sign, any transhistorical intention, if all that is only a blind game of economical, social and political forces? [Eliade, 230]
   In his criticism of Freudism, "the most brilliant and daring expression of all ideological aspirations featuring the bourgeois philosophy of the first quarter of the 20th century [Freudism, 98], Bakhtin positions Freudian ahistoric generalizations concerning human behavior within the cultural fracture of crisis and thus envisages psychoanalysis as a typical product of the inability to tolerate the historicity of the subject:
   The motif is old. It constantly repeats itself during all those epochs of mankind that are featured by the shifting of social groups and classes creating history. It is a leitmotif of crises and decadence... Non-social, non-historical in man becomes emphasized and proclaimed to be the supreme measure and criterion for everything that is social and historical. It seems as though people of these epochs wished to quit the atmosphere of history that has become uncomfortable and cold and find a shelter in an organic warmth of the animalistic aspect of life... Fear of history, ... priority of biological and sexual - these are common features of these ideological phenomena [100].
   Elizabeth Bronfen views Freudian narrative on Death in terms of "Ambivalence and duplicitous encoding [that] mark both the setting and the discursive strategy of this text" [17], for "Freud doing as much work as he can in an effort to restore his wounded narcissism, while the work he is engaged in is meant to wound his theoretical notion of narcissism [17]. She argues that the death of Freud's daughter has permeated the textual fabric of Beyond as an unsaid loss, especially in the pages dedicated to the famous play with the reel depicting Freud's grandson Ernst and "the mother, whose absence in a highly intricate way is both literally and figuratively at stake, is his Sunday-child Sophie, dead several months after the writing of the chapter" [18]. Freud himself, however, denies any plausibility of interference of his personal experiences with the process of writing Beyond [18], arguing that when the work on death instincts began, Sophie was still alive and flourishing. Attempting to resist "the uncanny literariness of life and transgressive vitality of texts", Freud seems to engage himself in the anxious denial, thereby raising questions about reliability of his narrative. In a sense,
   [he] crosses two kinds of verisimilitude: that of faithfulness to the matter narrated and that of faithfulness to the limitations of a narrator who has been a participant in the events he narrates. This doubled verisimilitude yields not twice the sense of reality but its dissolution; when the narrator rejects the artifice of authorial shaping and gives himself up to the vagaries of memory and language as they "really" are, the narration tends to thematize narratability and to open itself to a skepticism that is... epistemological [Staten, 139].
   This quotation, interestingly enough, addresses Heart of Darkness and, apparently, is not connected to Freudian text, at least, at the level of the conscious referentiality. Yet, I would argue, it might equally apply to the Beyond the Pleasure Principle, referring to its sometimes confused language of impenetrability and uncertainty, interplay of voices (who is the narrator speculating on Death? An omniscient analyst, a disguised grandfather, a perplexed atheist intimidated by the abyss of the incomprehensible or a mystic poet amazed by the enigmatic fatalities of life and fiction (in Gerusalemme Liberata)?
   The meaning recedes from view, Freud confesses, and there seems to be no adequate theory to bring it to the surface back from darkness:
   ... we would ...express our gratitude to any philosophical or psychological theory which was able to inform us of the meaning of the feeling of pleasure and unpleasure... But...we are, alas, offered nothing... This is the most obscure and inaccessible region of the mind... [Beyond, 1, italics added].
   He doubts the primariness of the pleasure principle, hitherto pronounced to dominate the functioning of organism, thereby proceeding beyond the known stability toward the chaos of the unknown, willingly renouncing the framework of constancy and continuity:
   The pleasure principle follows from the principle of constancy...the tendency which we thus attribute to the mental apparatus is subsumed as a special case under Fechner's principle of the `tendency towards stability'... [Beyond, 3]
   Immediately afterwards, Freud observes that this secure permanence seems deficient and probes the obscure intervention of unknown forces that violate the principle of constancy:
   If such a dominance existed, the immense majority of our mental processes would have to be accompanied by pleasure or to lead to pleasure, whereas universal experience completely contradicts any such conclusion. ... a strong tendency towards the pleasure principle ... is opposed by certain other forces or circumstances... [Beyond ,4].
   Three years before The Ego and the Id, Freud contours the image of the Ego that develops the mechanisms of the reality principle, whose function is to protect the organism from the eruption of the pure pleasure from the Id's territory and thereby to obstruct the immediate achievement of pleasure:
   Under the influence of the ego's instincts of self-preservation, the pleasure principle is replaced by the reality principle [which] does no abandon the intention of ultimately obtaining pleasure, but ... carries into effect the postponement of satisfaction, the abandonment of a number of possibilities of gaining satisfaction and the temporary toleration of unpleasure as a step on the long indirect road to pleasure [Beyond, 4].
   This economy of the pleasure and reality principles introduces an aporia, a conceptual tension that subverts the logic of the pleasure principle. If self-preservation of the organism requires that reality principle be developed, then the groping of the Id towards pleasure achievement should signify the path toward self-destruction, hence the pleasure principle itself signifies the "self-destruction" principle, for the fulfilled pleasure would become synonymous to the death of the organism. Speaking of the postponed pleasure, Beyond the Pleasure Principle constitutes a forerunner of Lacanian Desire - an endlessly deferred satisfaction whose fulfillment equals its end, i.e. the end of movement towards its fulfillment, i.e. Death itself .the meaning of pleasure, therefore, converts into an imaginary unattainable void, an absent referent whose signifiers can be grasped only in terms of an infinite process of its never-achieving:
   We may compare what Fechner (1879,90) remark's on a similar point: `Since however a tendency towards an aim does not imply that the aim is attained and since in general the aim is attainable only by approximations'... [Beyond, 4]
   Freud himself draws an equation between complete satisfaction i.e. following the pleasure principle and dying - "the fact that death coincides with the act of copulation in some of the lower animals. These creatures die in the act of reproduction because, after Eros has been eliminated through the process of satisfaction, the death instinct has a free hand for accomplishing its purposes" [The Ego and the Id, 37]. In other words, Eros, or Pleasure, or Desire might be conceived of only as Absence, the frightful encounter with which is deferred by the signifiers of "search", "movement" or "striving". That is how Absence, or Death, asserts its exclusive absoluteness whose meaning flees from verbal grasp "outside, enveloping the tale which brought it only as brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine" [Heart of Darkness, 8].
   The view of pleasure or unpleasure as such becomes unstable, contingent upon the economy of repression, indefinable in "monoreferential" terms and the voice of pain or delight turns into a matter of subjective perception:
   The details of the process by which repression turns a possibility of pleasure into a source of unpleasure are not yet clearly understood or cannot be clearly represented; but there is no doubt that all neurotic unpleasure is of that kind - pleasure that cannot be felt as such... Most of the unpleasure that we experience is perceptual unpleasure [Beyond, 5].
   In his discussion of traumatic neuroses, Freud confesses that
   In the case of the war neuroses, the fact that the same symptoms sometimes came about without the intervention of any gross mechanical force seemed at once enlightening and bewildering [Beyond, 6].
   and thereby enters the ambiguous and beguiling net of the wordplay which, he feels, prevents him, and psychological science in general, from arriving at the essence of the matter, at the transverbal indivisible core of meaning:
   This [inability] is merely due to our being obliged to operate with the scientific terms, that is to say with the figurative language... We could not otherwise describe the processes in question at all, and indeed we could not have become aware of them. The deficiencies in our description would probably vanish if we were already in a position to replace the psychological terms by physiological or chemical ones. It is true that they too are only part of a figurative language [Beyond, 54, italics added].
   This confession seems to reveal Freud's awareness of the limitations of psychoanalysis, which imply the limitations of language. Any conclusion pretending to signify the objective empirical Truth found outside the experience turns out to be imprisoned within the subjective irresolution of the "figurative language", within the anthropomorphic images of indifferent materialistic nature, "a complex dramatic image with whose help Freud endeavours to interpret different aspects of human behavior, but remains within the limits of only one part of that behavior - verbal responses of man [Bakhtin, 159]
   Before reaching his "enlightening and bewildering" conclusion, Freud ventures an insight into the nature of frightening experiences, proposing a semantic differentiation between signifiers of horror: "fright", "fear" and "anxiety" [6]. Their semantic features respectively become suddenness, presence of a definite object and expectations of the unknown. This differentiation, however, does not seem to facilitate the explanation for fixation to trauma and Freud proposes "to leave the dark and dismal subject of the traumatic neuroses" [Beyond, 8]. Freud's reflections on the real meaning of horror i.e. its referent in the outside world seem to echo Heidegger's vision of Nothing, "revealed in dread, but not as something that can be taken as an object. Dread is not an apprehension of Nothing. All the same, Nothing is revealed in and through dread, yet not, again in the sense that Nothing appears as if detached and apart from what-is-in-totality when we have that "uncanny" feeling [What is Metaphysics, 368]. Heidegger proposes a differentiation, similar to that of Freud, between the verbal formulations of "a mood..., through which we are brought face to face with Nothing itself"[365], i.e. Angst, Aengslichkeit and Furcht, but, unlike Freud, negates the very possibility of some referential presence beyond the feeling of Angst (translated as "dread" and thus distinguished from anxiety-nervousness - Aenstlichkeit). That is to say, the unknown object of horror cannot be identified, nor comprehended, for it pertains to the non-existent realm of not is and thus vanishes in the wordless darkness:
   "Dread of" is always a dreadful feeling "about" - but not about this or that. The indefiniteness of what we dread is not just lack of definition; it represents the essential impossibility of defining that "what"... [366]
   The fixation to the traumatic experience, when the pleasure principle seems mocked by the reiterative desire to resuscitate the unpleasure -
   In all my dreams before my helpless sight
   He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning
   [Dulce et Decorum Est, lines 15-16]
   might be interpreted as a manifestation of a never-ending and fruitless need to return to the threshold of Nothingness and grasp its meaning:
   This withdrawal of what-is-in-totality, which then crowds round us in dread, this is what oppresses us. There is nothing to hold on to. The only thing that remains and overwhelms us whilst what-is slips away, is this "nothing" [Heidegger, 366].
   In this sense, what Freud labels as a "compulsion to repeat" could be as well defined as a "need to return", that is, to re-narrate, re-experience and re-store the encounter with the "beyond" of being. This need might be viewed as "compulsive" since it can never be satisfied and each return, both "enlightening and bewildering", would result in yet additional awareness of inadequacy and inability; in a way, this mood of return to the dark might be equated to an infinite interpretative brooding over Kurtz's last shriek ("Dread reveals Nothing" [Heidegger, 366], which is inexhaustibly rich in meaning but refer to no visible or perceptible substance. At times, Freud's investigation becomes as helpless as his archetypal analyzee, Oedipus, a skillful unraveller of existential puzzles, who yet fails to understand the transcendental meaning of the fatal prophecy. Similarly, after deciphering the behaviour of the child in the fort-da game, Freud alludes to the inexorable Fate, failing to come up with an adequate interpretation of "cases where the subject appears to have a passive experience, over which he has no influence, but in which he meets with a repetition of the same fatality" [Beyond, 16] and ends his deliberation with an "unfinalized", unanswered and uninterpreted passage on Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata.
   Having himself contributed to the inevitable rejection of the "old" epistemology, Freud remains "enlightened and bewildered" in front of the incomprehensible godless living and dying and wrestles with deceptive non-referentiality of words, opacity of meaning and inability to formulate a comprehensive single answer to the questions posed by being-toward-death. Beyond the Pleasure Principle articulates an attempt to substitute the collapsing edifice of metaphysical presence by yet meta-prefixed psychological determinism of universal "primeval forces" - "a group of instincts rushes forward so as to reach the final aim of life" [Beyond, 35]. These "anthropomorphic biology" and "animistic physiology" reveal the uncanny mood of dread enveloping the mysterious compulsion to repeat (which I would rather call a need to return) and death wish, which is embedded in the very notion of pleasure. In the paper on the "Uncanny", written while Freud was engaged in creating Beyond, one can clearly identify an attempt to "domesticate" Thanatos - "...this terrifying phantasy [being buried alive] which had originally nothing terrifying about it at all, ... the phantasy, I mean, of intra-uterine existence" [Uncanny, 367], whereby death is tamed by its equation to prenatal existence and the prefix un- is proclaimed to signify but "the token of repression"[368]. Thus, the "uncanny [unheimlich] is something which is secretly familiar [heimlich-heimisch], which has undergone repression and then returned from it, and that everything that is uncanny fulfils this condition"[368]. The duplicitous maneuvers of words in which Pleasure turns out to signify Death whereas Uncanniness, in fact, shelters Familiarity yet again indicate the untrustworthiness of Freudian thanatic epistemology. Moreover, I would argue that, while addressing Thanatos, the primariness of Familiarity, disguised by the prefix un- should be questioned. The transformation of the "Uncanny" must be envisaged as an evolutionary process rather than an a-temporal universal principle. That is to say, what hitherto has been a homely part of existence, now converts in a real Uncanny whose prefix cannot be omitted since it negates Nothing.
   Descending to Inferno, Dante already anticipated the subsequent elevation to Paradiso. Undertaking its journey into darkness, Beyond the Pleasure Principle has no such an illusion.
  

  
  
  

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