Sigmund Freud – Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920)

A tentative resolution to the problems laid out in “On Narcissism.” He forgoes the two-drive theory and posits a more dramatic division: that between life and death. To do so, Freud introduces an “economic principle” into psychoanalysis (596). There is a strong tendency towards pleasure, which is contradicted by “universal experience” and “certain other forces”—i.e. war.

“Under the influence of the ego’s instincts of self-preservation, the pleasure principle is replaced by the reality principle.” (596) This latter principle does not abandon the instinct for pleasure, but rather “abandons a number of possibilities of gaining satisfaction and the temporary toleration of unpleasure as a step on the long indirect road to pleasure” (596). [Connect this Indirection to Mill, etc.] This long, indirect road, is characterized by forms of repetition that tend to make oneself master. This is an aesthetic and economic approach that is still within the bounds of the pleasure principle.

The art of psychoanalysis was originally one of interpretation. Now it must be conceived as requiring the patient to actively “repeat the repressed material” in order “to remember something belonging to the past” (602). The contrast therefore is not between the conscious and the unconscious, but between “the coherent ego and the repressed” (603).

But from where comes the desire to repeat traumatic events that did not offer any pleasure in their original form? “We describe as ‘traumatic’ any excitations from outside which are powerful enough to break through the protective shield” (607). The shocks that break through the protective shield of the ego stimulate a response that lies outside of the pleasure principle (“an exception to the rule that dreams are fulfillment of wishes”): “They arise, rather, in obedience to the compulsion to repeat,” which coincides with a desire to conjure that which has been forgotten or repressed, a more primitive state of things before dreams served the function of wish fulfillment:

It seems, then, that an instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore and earlier state of things which the living entity has been obliged to abandon under the pressure of external disturbing forces; that is, it is a kind of organic elasticity, or, to put it another way, the expression of the inertia inherent in organic life…We shall be compelled to say that ‘the aim of all life is death’ and, looking backwards, that ‘inanimate things existed before living ones” (612).

Thus Freud abandons the supposition that there is a human instinct driving towards perfection. Rather, he sees human development as consonant with animal development: to return to an earlier state of things.

Freud summarizes the process of psychoanalysis as three steps:

  1. The extension of the concept of sexuality
  2. The hypothesis of Narcissism
  3. The regressive character of instincts

He admits that the third part is more speculative than the first two, but that it is indeed based upon the empirical evidence offered by the compulsion to repeat.

The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay


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