"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Possibility of an Ascetical Politics in Spite of Death (II)

As I noted before, this is a book of unexpected but tremendous insight, often in spite of its best efforts to rubbish Christianity, which it sees exclusively through the eyes of American evangelicals allied to the Republican party (with an occasional Catholic thrown into the mix), a perverse and ignorant group that is nonetheless held up to represent the whole of Christianity. The fact that there are, within the Christian East, ancient and venerable thinkers who would agree with a good deal of what McGowan proposes, beginning with the Desert Fathers and continuing through the Cappadocians at the very least, escapes the author. But we set that aside in light of the many valuable insights proffered here. Once again the patristic method of "despoiling the Egyptians" (see Exodus 3:22) becomes invaluable here.

As I noted before, McGowan's point of departure is Freud's theory of the death drive, a topic which has remained controversial and relatively neglected (apart from the Kleinians and later the Lacanians) within the analytic and later psychological communities, especially American ego psychologists who, as David Pavon-Cuellar's splendid new book, Marxism and Psychoanalysis (about which more another time), makes clear, are too often the lamentably helpful handmaids of capitalism in therapeutically intervening with people to restore them to the status of normal consumers and spenders. These ego psychologists thus reject the death drive, and I wonder if part of that rejection is not situational or geographic: they had not lived through fighting on American soil in 1914-18, and not sustained the losses Freud himself did, not merely of patients and friends but of his own daughter killed by the Spanish flu epidemic immediately afterwards. As a result, they were not surrounded by the mountains of graphic evidence of man's perverse propensity towards sadism and masochism in about equal measure.

The neglect and disdain of the death drive by ego psychologists in capitalist America (which Freud, having visited once, disdained, not least for its fetishizing of medical "credentials" to the exclusion of so-called lay analysts) should not surprise us. What does surprise me at least is that the death drive seems also to have generated very little theological commentary--at least what I can discover via a few quick surveys in, e.g., the ATLA database. This is surprising to me insofar as there is here, it seems, a considerable analogy to be made to the controversy generated by, and offense taken over, Christian ideas of original sin--a point to which McGowan comes, as we shall see below.

Once again a close reading of the original Freud is indispensable here, and once again such a reading suggests much greater depth and nuance than he is often credited with, and a much greater willingness to test theories out and to amend or discard them where indicated. And Freud did test his theories out, amending his earlier work on the pleasure principle when confronted with patients whose habits of repetition were in the service of self-destruction, including destruction of the very things designed to help them--like analytic therapy. Why would people do this? Were they really trying to kill themselves (a common but faulty misrepresentation of Freud based, I suspect, in part on his use of "biological" language--drives), or were they more likely after a lesser form of destruction?

The latter is the case, as Freud made clear, and as we realize from one (the other being Terry Eagleton) of the few significant contemporary figures to engage Freud on this point: Zizek's The Parallax View rightly notes that “The Freudian death drive has nothing whatsoever to do with the craving for self-annihilation, ... for the return to the inorganic absence of any life-tension; it is, on the contrary, the very opposite of dying – a name for the ... horrible fate of being caught in the endless repetitive cycle of wandering around in guilt and pain."

What is most striking is how much of that guilt and pain is self-induced--how much of the destructiveness of our life comes from our own efforts. This was a problem that had puzzled Freud throughout much of his clinical practice, leading him to theorize beyond the pleasure principle he had articulated years earlier. Early, tentative theorizing led him to think that the search for pleasure, especially libidinal pleasure to satisfy the drives, was what motivated people, but over the years his work with patients kept showing him how often they worked to undermine their own lives and sought to destroy them, however unconsciously--a point later analysts have also noted, including Adam Phillips, and D.W. Winnicott, whose aphorism that health is much more difficult to deal with than disease springs immediately to mind here.

Moreover, the theory of the death drive was helpful in the later works of Freud as he began to grapple more seriously with the problems of aggressive violence, including repetitive cycles of sadism and masochism. In these later works, confronted by these phenomena, he had to revisit and revise earlier ideas about repetition and destruction (as seen, e.g., in the short, little-known 1916 essay"Those Wrecked by Success"  as well as other essays--"On Beginning the Treatment," "On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love," and perhaps especially "Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through"). After the Great War Freud was confronted with the seemingly strange actions of people who, claiming their life was not going well, actively but often unconsciously sought to undermine or thwart the very treatment designed to help them recover. Some of this came through pioneering work with patients traumatized by the war--what later psychiatry, as today, would call PTSD, with its frequent flashbacks and seemingly masochistic repetitions of horrors endured in conflict. Why would people keep returning to these horrors, whether in nightmares or even in waking life?

The theory of the death drive seemed to fill the same place for Freud, a self-described "godless Jew," as original sin does for Christian theology--a point McGowan partially acknowledges: “It is as if psychoanalysis accepts the Christian notion of original sin without the corresponding idea of a future recompense" (33).

But as I noted, there seems to be little contemporary theological engagement with Freud on this question--though contemporary philosophy has fared a little better with not just Zizek but also Jonathan Lear, especially his Happiness, Death, and the Remainder of Life.

And yet, as I hope to show in subsequent posts, the possibilities for a very rich theological engagement are here in abundance, ripe for the plucking.


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