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Is the "Death Drive" Real?

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Illustration: Benjamin Currie (Gizmodo)

Statistically, at least ten people reading this article will be dead within sixteen months. I just made that statistic up, but if you felt a little flutter of excitement at the prospect of your imminent demise, you might be verifying the death drive—Freud’s theory, postulated in 1920, that each consciousness is dually saddled with a will-to-live and its fatalistic opposite, the latter best-expressed by way of such self-annihilating activities as war, cigarette smoking, etc. Of course, as with most of Freud’s theories, there is no way to empirically verify this drive’s existence, and scholars have now spent a full century both confirming and discrediting it. To get a definitive handle on where death-drive studies are at these days, for this week’s Giz Asks we reached out to a number of experts to find out whether the death drive is actually real.

Todd Dufresne

Professor of Philosophy at Lakehead University and the author of Tales From the Freudian Crypt: The Death Drive in Text and Context and The Late Sigmund Freud: Or The Last Word on Psychoanalysis, Society, & All the Riddles of Life

The short answer is: No, it’s not real! But that’s probably not very satisfying, so let me sketch out a longer answer.

The death drive proper was advanced by Freud in 1920 as a way of addressing theoretical and clinical problems associated with war trauma or “shell shock.” The idea was that soldiers suffering from what we now call PTSD would repeat traumatic experiences in their dreams and nightmares. This presented a problem to all the analyst-physicians treating soldiers during the First World War. You have to remember that Freud claimed that all dreams obey the pleasure principle—that is, they reflect an unconscious drive for sexual pleasure. Well, these compulsive traumatic dreams, these ‘traumatic neuroses,’ obviously did not. Hence the significance of Freud’s key work of this period, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), which basically asks: Is there anything beyond sexuality or—what is the same thing—is there anything beyond psychoanalysis?

Freud did in fact concede the existence of a drive that operates independently of sexuality and Eros. Consequently, he added to the established theory of psychoanalysis a new “meta-psychology,” the heart of which is his late dualism. According to it, there are life or sexual drives in eternal conflict with death or destructive drives. Critics often point out that this was all just a theory, a wild piece of speculation. And that’s true. But Freud very quickly came to believe in it, finally asserting that these two drives explain “all the riddles of life.” That is, of course, a very big claim.

It’s also true that most people, including analysts, have simply ignored the death drive theory. They treat it like an eccentric aside, or as a bit of unresolved pathology, misanthropy, or the incoherence of old age. But this is a dubious (and offensive) sleight of hand. For the death drive theory is carefully, logically, even lovingly integrated into the matrix of Freud’s other theories—many of which are as highly speculative (and therefore ‘eccentric’) as the death drive theory itself. This includes his explicit reliance on the old theories of Lamarkian inheritance and recapitulation, which together underwrite Freud’s mid and late interest in the phylogenic, prehistorical, and biological origins of contemporary psychology. In short, the new metapsychology underwrites everything written in the final phase of Freud’s development. This means, first of all, everything we call the ‘cultural Freud’: the Freud we all know from reading classics like The Future of an Illusion (1927) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). And this means, second, everything we call ‘ego psychology’: the Freud of defence and external reality that has influenced clinicians ever since his death in 1939.

So we have an untenable situation. Hardly anyone today believes in the bedtime stories, sometimes alarmingly racist, found in the cultural Freud. This includes the origin of civilization in the murder (patricide) of the primal father by his sons (Totem and Taboo 1912), and the origin of Jewish psychology in the prehistorical murder of Moses (Moses and Monotheism 1939). At the same time lots of people still do believe, not only in the mechanisms of defence, ego psychology, and reaction formation, but in Freud’s version of “the unconscious.” This is remarkable because the unconscious is precisely the theory—biologically encoded with unverifiable nonsense from a time before written history (i.e., before individual and cultural memory); clinically supported by dubious belief in defence and repression—that allows for the death drive to do its work in perfect silence, unknown to everyone except the initiates of Freudian psychoanalysis.

That’s quite a lot to digest! I’m afraid it’s beyond the interest of most people, including psychoanalysts, to understand how it all works as a coherent system. But Freud understood it perfectly well, right up to the end. He insisted on the death drive theory, proclaimed the “fatal inevitability” of the theory of psycho-Lamarckianism, and was dogmatic about the “paleopsychology”—the analysis of prehistory found in the stories, rituals, myths, fables, dreams, and nightmares, repressed but nonetheless passed on from generation to generation.

So now, at the end of my ‘longer answer’ to your question, I’d just say this: In my view the death drive theory is one of the great myths or fables of psychoanalysis, not at all ‘real’ but very much alive in the minds of many people even today. Like a lot of other ideas, Freud believed in it. He relied on it. He made it a central part of his late work, the foundation of which already lies in the “middle period” of Freud’s development. This middle period is, in turn, characterized by his relationship with Carl Jung. An even longer answer would require us to push things further in that direction. But perhaps this is enough of an answer for now.


Teresa J. Heffernan

Professor, English, Saint Mary’s University, who has written on the death drive in the context of post-apocalyptic fiction

Late in his life, Sigmund Freud proposed that a universal death drive operates in the biological animal, which expresses itself in the desire of an organism to return to the inanimate origins of life. Turning away from eros or the life force that includes, pleasure, propagation, survival, and creativity, the individual perversely turns toward self-destruction and death. Significantly Freud began working on this theory of the death drive in the aftermath of the Great war, the “terrible war” that had abruptly halted faith in civilization’s progress and made industrial-level killing possible. Freud observed a condition in soldiers returning from the trenches that conflicted with his earlier theories about the life instinct. These men seemed to be suffering from a neurosis that compelled them to repeat their harrowing experiences, not in their conscious lives, but in their dreams. Repressed trauma interfered with wish fulfillment and the pleasure principle, exposing a masochistic ego operating deep in the soldiers’ psyches. Because they could not digest their painful experiences, they compulsively returned to and replayed the traumatic event—perhaps in a belated, anxious, and impossible attempt to prepare for it. Freud later argued that the death drive could also be diverted outward at objects in the external world in order to protect the libido, what he called the destructive instinct, the desire for mastery and the will to power.

Let’s consider our contemporary moment and the proliferation of post-apocalyptic images and fictions that have erupted from deep in the cultural imaginary of the twenty-first century. Is this compulsive return to scenes of the destruction of the world symptomatic of a traumatized culture? Why are we repeating all the mistakes of the twentieth-century that led to the calamitous World Wars—the rise of nationalism, the attack on the “foreigner,” the election of dictators, the unholy alliance of the military, corporate capitalism, and science that gave rise to weapons of mass destruction from aerial bombing to chemical gas to the atomic bomb and is now focused on killer robots and the automation of war?

Albert Einstein remarked that “anyone who thinks science is trying to make human life easier or more pleasant is utterly mistaken.” Yet despite the regrets expressed by the scientists of the previous century recruited to work for the industrial war machine and the general skepticism they voiced about the trajectory of the field, over a hundred years after the Great War, the celebration of market and state supported “utilitarian” techno-science as the solution to the problems of the world continues as if the horrors of the twentieth century—gulags, gas ovens, bombs, death camps—all designed by engineers and scientists and built by “reputable” companies (Hugo Boss, Bayer, Chase Bank, Eastman Kodak, General Electric, Ford)—could be swept under the rug by blind faith in the military-driven industries of artificial intelligence and robotics. Unable to assimilate and take responsibility for the traumatic history of the twentieth century, we repeat its destructive course. As the Earth teeters on the brink of an irreversible death spiral, we might ask why we are set on destroying our organic home. The death drive diverted outward and manifesting in the destructive impulse, the desire to master nature at all costs, offers a possible explanation for why the life instinct has gone awry.


Harold Takooshian

Professor of Psychology and Urban Studies at Fordham University

In my view, the ‘death drive’ is certainly real, even if it’s hard to verify experimentally.

For years, Freud insisted that 100% of our actions flow from Eros (the life instinct), and that negative actions were a misdirection of Eros. But during the dark Nazi era in the 1930s, Freud reluctantly recognized the independent reality of the opposite force of Thanatos (“the drive to return to the inorganic”).

We see many likely examples of a death drive: risk-taking, smoking and substance abuse, dangerous, and self-destructive behaviors. For me, the clearest example of Thanatos is when we stand on a cliff or an elevated balcony looking down 200 feet at the ground below. Even the healthiest person cannot help but imagine the feeling of jumping down, or even flinging down those around them—to the point where some people simply will not go near the edge to avoid these uncomfortable feelings.

Rosemary Balsam

Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Yale University Medical School; Training and Supervising Analyst, Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis

It depends what you mean by “real”—it is certainly not measurable!

Sigmund Freud, by 1920 and in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, theorized that there were two major instinctual forces operating at an unconscious level within humans. One represented the pull towards life, sex, and generation, and the other, the pull towards death, aggression, and destruction. Naturally, they would be in conflict inside the mind of an individual, and depending on the environmental influences that impacted a person during growth, including traumata, one or other might tend to dominate their actions and behaviors.

This deep inner force was understood to affect groups and also individuals. For example, it could affect how much of a dare-devil or self-defeater someone was—flirting with disaster and getting their kicks from triumphing (or seeming to themselves to triumph) over it, until they fail and fulfill the mission of their internal demons, as it were. As far as groups of humans go, Freud came to this aspect of his theory of mind while reacting socially, personally, and as a doctor to World War I, and also working with soldiers we now would say had PTSD. He puzzled that if there were only a libidinal pleasure principle driving people, it could not account for a powerful draw to keep on repeating the same wretched nightmares. Nowadays, looking at, say, the recent movie 1917, and seeing all those young men in the Allied army joyfully going to war, then to be urged “over the top” and, in the name of bravery and loyalty, right into the mouths of the canons of the enemy—one could wonder about the unconscious appetite for death in group motivations.

The Death Instinct creates complicated arguments in the field of psychoanalysis. These days, most put more emphasis on more specific theories of aggression (many of which can also be unconscious), rather than postulate a nebulous dark inner factor that drives us all blindly to the grave, and that to some seems too mystical. However other theoreticians argue that we may not need to set up an either/or dichotomy. Aggression on micro-levels and on macro-levels may possibly link to intergenerational and deeply shared human commonalities that subtly drive us toward death, which is in any case, an inevitable endpoint.


Rosaura Martínez Ruiz

Professor, Philosophy, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, whose research focuses on psychoanalysis and political philosophy

Freud’s book Beyond the Pleasure Principle describes the death drive as a tantamount tendency that is inherent not only to the psyche, but to all forms of the living—to life itself. Although the great majority of the psychoanalytic guild has rejected this idea, preferring to dismiss it, for other intellectuals the death drive has been a sign of justified nihilism and defeat, or paradoxically a model of repetitive and creative survival.

From psychoanalysis, the discovery of the death drive opened the question around the problem of violence as intrinsic to life and psychically insurmountable, posing a political challenge to philosophy and the social sciences. Remarkably, after his finding of two limits to recovery from trauma and suffering—that is, the death drive and the repetition compulsion—Freud did not abandon the practice of psychoanalysis. After Beyond, neither did he renounce his clinic nor did he abandon writing and theorizing. To give an example of Freud’s spirit, at the end of his communication with Einstein regarding war and the possibilities of building a world in peace, he seals his letter with an optimistic formulation: “Whatever fosters the growth of civilization works at the same time against war.” Yet, a close reading of Beyond teaches us that life and death—not only as substances, but as tendencies or drives—relate to each other in a complex and even paradoxical manner. The death drive, writes Freud, does not work alone and goes always hand in hand with Eros; it is silent, but not lonely. After this enigmatic formulation of the psychic economy, it is crucial to reflect on the theoretical and practical—better—political consequences of both: the silence of Thanatos and the power of Eros when it touches the destructive force. If we agree with Freud in conceptualizing death not only as a limit to life, but as a cruel tendency towards destruction essential to the living substance, we are obliged to think the death drive as a challenge for non-violent cohabitation and if there is any possibility to resist destruction.

The return of certain forms of fascism, xenophobia, racist, and sexist tendencies of the present, the hideous wave of feminicidios in many parts of the world, but also the apparently ceaseless human exploitation and extermination of the entire ecosystem that has now shown us its autoimmune effects, makes urgent that we reanimate all the analytical and critical tools we have to build ideas that may contribute to the construction of a better and more livable world, one in which every form of alterity is experienced as a difference not to destroy, but that deserves to occupy the current and future time-space.


Ben Kafka

Associate Professor, Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University. Psychoanalyst and psychotherapist in private practice.

The biological and philosophical foundations of Freud’s argument for the existence of the death drive are fascinating, flawed, and, in this context at least, probably not so relevant. The most important thing to know is that the death drive is not about how we die, but about how we live. We get caught up, all of us some of the time, some of us all of the time, in a kind of mindless destructiveness. This begins, Freud believed, as an innate self-destructiveness, and then gets turned outwards as we come into contact with the world. We torment ourselves, we torment each other. “There is no need for red hot pokers,” Sartre writes at the end of No Exit. “Hell is other people.”

This plays itself out in public daily. Our political and cultural moment is dominated by the forces of sadism, exhibitionism, and opportunism. Everywhere we look we see acts of cruelty, proudly on display, for pleasure, profit, or political advantage. The internet did not create this situation, but has encouraged it, amplified it, monetized it. Twitter, I think, is the worst. If email stirs up guilt, and Instagram stirs up envy, Twitter stirs up sadism. All the talk of “owning” other human beings tells us all we need to know. We dehumanize each other and, in the process, dehumanize ourselves.

As a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist I mostly treat more private manifestations of the death drive. Often trauma, including early trauma, is involved. Other times patients find themselves in situations that exacerbate latent self-destructive impulses: a new relationship, a new job; a newly lost relationship or job. Self-destructiveness gets fused and confused with sex, money, family, and other aspects of our everyday lives. The shame surrounding these experiences can be intense, and make it hard to seek help, but readers need to know that the help is there. The death drive is a fact of life, we must learn to live with it.

The question, of course, is how. The impulse, naturally, is to seek easy solutions, and there are plenty of professionals out there who will claim to have them. I recently overheard a woman talking on her phone about how her therapist had told her that whenever she has a “negative emotion” she should “just flip it.” “It’s like telling a person having an asthma attack to ‘just try breathing’,” a patient said to me, after receiving similar advice from a parent. What attracted me to psychoanalysis, first as a patient, then as a practitioner, is that it rejects these sorts of generic answers. Our patients aren’t stupid, they’re suffering, often quite ashamed, and, at least in the moment, powerless to do much about it. A good analyst is unafraid to bring that destructiveness into the session so that it can be talked about rather than helplessly, and endlessly, repeated. Psychoanalysis takes time, and trust, in a world short on both. But it offers a chance, at last, of some peace of mind.


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