Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle is perhaps his most controversial work. It is difficult to get to grips with ideologically and to follow through the twists and turns of its reasoning. This post offers a simple explanation of Freud’s key ideas.
The Pleasure Principle
The pleasure principle is, as its name would suggest, the drive to seek pleasure and to avoid pain. Freud seeks to discover and explain drives that move beyond this principle, and which escape its supposedly universal power. The foundation of the text is in the titanic opposition between “eros” (representing that which falls under the pleasure principle: life, creativity, reproduction, sexual connection and self-preservation) and “thanatos” (representing that which is beyond the pleasure principle: death, self- destruction, aggression and repetition).
The Repetition Compulsion
The most famous example of the repetition compulsion Freud provides is the “fort/da” game he observes his grandson playing, in which the boy would throw away a reel, then pull it back in by the attached string, shouting “fort” (gone away) and “da” (there it is!). Freud interprets this game as a way for the child to exert control over the going away of his mother when she leaves the room. For Freud, the game signifies the return of repressed emotions connected to the mother, re-enacted as a game.
In a later critique of Freud’s work, Jacques Derrida uses this example as an analogy for Freud’s entire text, explaining how Freud throws out a hypothesis than pulls back in evidence and examples for his pre-formed ideas. Following the structure of Freud’s text, particularly in the later stages, this is a convincing argument. In spite of its flaws as a scientific work, however, Beyond the Pleasure Principle remains a significant text within the humanities, and one that writers are still responding to.
As well as this game of “fort/da,” Freud collects evidence from the recurring dreams of soldiers traumatised by war, patterns of self-injuring behaviour, and the tendency of patients undergoing psychoanalysis to repeatedly act out unpleasant childhood experiences in order to posit the principle of the “repetition compulsion” as one powerful enough to override the pleasure principle.
By Freud’s definition, the repetition compulsion grows out of repressed memories: the patient cannot remember the whole of what has been repressed and so is forced to repeat it as a contemporary experience instead of remembering it as something which belongs in the past.
The Death Instinct
After establishing the repetition compulsion as independent from the pleasure principle, Freud sets out to find a biological basis for its existence. He comes up with the idea of the “death instinct.” Freud argues that the compulsion to repeat is linked to an urge to return to an earlier state. He declares that “the aim of life is death” and proceeds to interpret an organism’s drive to avoid danger as a way of avoiding a short-circuit to death rather than a way to avoid death altogether.
Finally, turning back from the biological to the clinical via a detour through Schopenhauer’s philosophy, Freud manages to find a manifestation of the death instinct in the clinical condition of masochism.
Throughout this work, Freud admits to much use of ‘speculation’ and is often critical of his own methods. This awareness perhaps highlights the holes in his argument in a way that makes it easy to criticise. But in spite of this, Beyond the Pleasure Principle remains an important text. It paved the way for discussions about the mind’s attacks on itself, negative narcissism, and addiction to near-death experiences.
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