"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).

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Darwin's Worms and Freud's Death Drive

I have often commented on here over the past few years about the many books of the English literary scholar and psycho-analyst Adam Phillips. Having finished another, Darwin's Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories, herewith a few thoughts.

This is a short book, and is in essence two separate essays, the first on Darwin, the second on Freud, and they are only loosely stitched together. Phillips suggests that what interests both men is a fascination with natural history and an archaeological approach to the past. Moreover, both were skeptical of the idea of the redemption of humankind, and believed that any major changes were going to be very limited, both individually and politically.

The essay on Freud is useful in reminding us of several things Phillips has addressed in some of his other books, including his excellent "biography" of Freud I discussed here: the tendency of Freudian thought to "undo" itself by turning its awareness of our propensity for self-deception on itself; the treachery, therefore, and unreliability of all biographers; and the important place of the death drive, discussed most fully, of course, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

That drive, or instinct as some translators put it, came to Freud relatively late (1920) when other attempts to understand human beings proved limited if not futile. The theory of the death drive, often regarded as Freud's most speculative and controversial claim, arouse out of a need, Phillips says, "to tell more persuasive, more convincing life stories: stories about how people actively, if unwittingly, undo their lives; and how this is a source of satisfaction to them" (78). This theory does not posit that people are straightforwardly suicidal or anything like that; if often does not involve literal death, but rather many other ways of undermining, sometimes fatally, relationships, jobs, fortunes and prospects in ways that make no sense at least consciously or rationally. But such self-destruction does make sense in other ways which the death drive helps to explicate, not least that we seek relief from our desiring, making the death drive "the object of desire that finally releases us from desire," as Phillips concludes.

The death drive thus showed Freud something he had struggled with for a long time: why desires are not always for what seem to be self-evident goods--family, health, prosperity--but are often based on deception and destruction. For Freud, says Phillips, human beings are "not truth-seeking animals in any simple sense." Thus, while Christians and others may believe that "you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free," it is by no means straightforward that people always want that truth, much less freedom--a point Erich Fromm powerfully illustrated in his landmark best-seller, Escape from Freedom.

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