Saturday, January 14, 2012

Rosemary Gordon - Aggression and the Death Instinct

"If the Freudian death instinct be regarded as expressing itself in a striving towards the removal of boundaries and divisions, then one must reject the view that aggression is derived from this same instinct. For the function and purpose of much aggression is to divide and separate; and this, it seems to me, makes aggression relevant, and in fact vital and necessary, to the development of the ego, and also to its preservation. Etymologically, aggression means "going towards", and this implies that there is something that can go, and an object towards which one can move. Winnicott (1958) also seems to have reached a similar conclusion when he explains in his paper on "Aggression in Relation to Emotional Development" that, at a certain stage in analysis, patients may value their aggressive experiences more than their erotic ones; for these aggressive experiences help them to divide the "me" from the "not-me" and so create a feeling of "real". The same point is made by Searles in his studies of schizophrenics and their mothers. He argues that the hatred and destructiveness of the schizophrenic are in fact a defence against the temptation to fall back into the symbiotic and undifferentiated mother-child unity. "The schizophrenic illness now becomes basically revealed as representing the child's loving sacrifice of his very individuality for the welfare of the mother who is loved genuinely, altruistically" (Searles, 1958, p. 570). Although Searles's remarks can be translated into less poetic language—"sacrifice" and "altruism" seem inappropriate concepts to apply to a schizophrenic with minimal ego development—yet the underlying assumption appears most relevant and important. This mother-child unity is surely the earliest object of aggression; and the aggression is directed as much at the external mother as at the internal "need" for the mother, at the internal "cry baby". It may be contended that aggression is the stronger, the more possessive the external and real mother, or the more dominant the inner and regressive need for union. Where the ego is vulnerable, love may indeed be felt as a threat. Ralph would much rather hate than love me, and Bridget shows real terror if she becomes aware of good feelings, of affection. It is aggression that creates boundaries, and so defends against disintegration, unconsciousness, death.

This view of aggression might help to explain such a symptom as hypochondriasis: one of my patients, a very schizoid man of 31, with severe hypochondriacal features, one day began by complaining that he could not readily remember what went on in our sessions. Was he likely to get "objective" knowledge from his analysis, he asked. Later in the same session he told me a dream: in it there is a cement-mixer, and during the lunch-hour he eats some of this cement. It is hard and dry and lies heavily inside him. His associations led us on to discuss the difference between a good and a bad feed. In a good feed the food disappears from conscious awareness. A bad feed gives pain and indigestion, but through the pain one keeps track of what goes on inside. One is thus armed against surreptitious invasion. This point was recently made quite explicit to me by a hospitalized schizophrenic girl who remarked: "I would rather have indigestible food. Indigestible food keeps your brain active. Then I know I have eaten it. I like to suffer." Pain, therefore, has value in paranoid reactions; it is a watching that guards against absorption, union, and unconsciousness. This leads one to think of the popular remark: "I had to pinch myself to make sure I was awake." May not hypochondriacal symptoms be a sort of "pinching oneself to know one is awake", that is, alive and conscious? The fact that such symptoms feature prominently in the menopausal depressions, a mental illness that occurs at the stage of life when death becomes an ever-approaching reality, reinforces my suspicion.

Psycho-analysts have often described themselves as essentially dualistic and hence dynamic, because of their concept of two opposed primary instincts. Jung has been criticized by them for his monistic view of libido. But possibly this difference between the two schools is merely a question of arguing from different levels of abstraction and interpretation. In Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, when discussing Freud's theory of the death instinct, Jung remarks that "What Freud probably means is the essential fact that every process is a phenomenon of energy, and that all energy can only proceed from the tension of opposites" (Jung, 1943, C. W., 7, p. 28). Ultimately eros and thanatos are only parts of the general life process, just as anabolism and catabolism are interdependent functions of the metabolic process. And though Jung may reject an over-riding dualism in terms of two principal and opposed instincts, he is in fact very much alive to the essential conflict which is at the root of all behaviour and experience. For instance, in his discussion of death and of man's attitude to it, he has perceived both wish and fear, both attraction and repulsion. In Symbols of Transformation he describes life as "a constant struggle against extinction, a violent yet fleeting deliverance from ever-lurking night. This death is no external enemy, it is his own inner longing for the stillness and profound peace of all-knowing non-existence, for all-seeing sleep in the ocean of coming-to-be and passing away" (Jung, 1912, C.W., 5, p. 355 f.).

When Freud acknowledges the inevitable interdependence of eros and thanatos, when he postulates that they always work together and that every act is the product of their joint operation, he comes close to the position that Jung has taken. For it is surely true that every event brings both birth and death. The death of one cell is the birth of the two daughter cells. Paula Heimann (1952) sees such cell division as the work of the life instinct; and so it is—from the point of view of the daughter cells. But the mother cell has been split and so its identity has been destroyed. The growth of cells has always seemed to me a most useful analogy, for here life and death lie so closely together that they coalesce. The whole process is really one of transformation. "No new life can arise, say the alchemists, without the death of the old" (Jung, 1946, C. W., 16, p. 256). Let us take, for example, love, which psychoanalysts regard as the expression of eros. Basic to the experience of love is an aversion to separation. Thus the drive for union, here described as the death instinct, plays an important part. And indeed, the most intense expression of love, orgasm, is often experienced and described as a death-like state, as a loss of boundary, of identity; there is a merging with the loved object, or a merging with the loved object into some even greater unit. Frigidity, or the fear of orgasm, may often be an expression by a weak ego of a fear of dissolution, a dissolution which, it suspects, is irreversible. One must assume that, in these cases, aggression and the forces that make for separation are feeble; only withdrawal from the seduction of union can safeguard identity. This, in fact, is what the schizophrenic does in toto.

Since death is one link in the chain of transformation it is felt essentially as a paradox. After writing the first draft of this paper, I felt that death was in fact a trickster: approach him from one side and he turns round and makes you feel absurd and confused. I was reminded of a story that the Yoruba of Nigeria tell about their trickster, Elegbara, a story I enjoy: Elegbara, they say, walks down the boundary of the farms of two friends; he is wearing a cap that is black on one side and white on the other; and he causes the friends to become enemies because they argue over the colour of his cap.

Having followed the trail of Freud and Flugel, having arrived at the notion that death is union, is boundary-less non-being, is "chaotic nonentity", a term Laing has borrowed from Blake to describe the schizophrenic condition, we arrive at the point where love is seen as closer to death than to life. And yet, the avoidance of this love, this death, leads to death through immobility. But surrender to love also leads to death—in the coniunctio; for as Jung writes in The Practice of Psychotherapy (1946, C.W., 16, p. 256): "When the opposites unite, all energy ceases; there is no more flow." And, he continues, quoting Avicenna, "… the corruption of one is the genesis of the other …" and "The corpse left over from the feast is already a new body, a hermaphroditus" (ibid., p. 258). I believe that Jung holds the key to the paradox with his claim that the theme of death and re-birth is a fundamental and basic psychic fact, nor does he avoid putting great emphasis on the necessity of this death, this corruption, this putrefaction which must happen and which must be suffered before a rebirth can take place.

Death, the coniunctio, the state of union and wholeness, is, in part, desired and sought by all. But dying, that is corruption, means leave-taking, loss, surrender, and sacrifice, and most of us try to escape it. Neurotics and psychotics try to escape it by creating a situation in which they have nothing to sacrifice. But, if there is no dying, there can be no transformation. Only the denial of death is really death.Conclusion

The death instinct is not a silent instinct as Freud has claimed. Its attractive force, its dynamism, betrays itself in man's capacity to suffer voluntarily a hero's death, and to experience the ecstasy of self-abnegation, be it in the surrender to an ideological cause, in love, or in the experience of the mystic."

Rosemary Gordon (1961). The Death Instinct and its Relation to the Self. Journal of Analytical Psychology, Vol. 6, pp.119-135

1 comment:

  1. Life becomes more than just the avoidance of death when a person is able to contemplate death by their own hands(actions). Life becomes conditional and relational but the process lies outside their awareness so it is reactive. They have the power to destroy themselves but circumstance will decide if,how and when and only by escaping the duality of pain and pleasure both in its physical and abstract forms is a person freed from being reactive to being active.