"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).

Friday, December 21, 2018

Compulsive Repetition, Self-Destruction, and Death

It is curious that as we approach the centenary of the publication, in 1920, of Freud's most neglected and professionally disliked book, Beyond the Pleasure Principlewe are now seeing a renewed interest in its most controversial idea: the death drive. As I said on here only the other day, the sputtering bewilderment proffered by psychoanalysts and others in the face of this theory is itself bewildering to me for evidence of a human propensity towards self-destruction (and the unconscious pleasure, or at least purpose served by such destruction) seems constantly on offer. (Exhibit A might perhaps be the opioid epidemic we keep hearing about.) For Christians, as I shall contend later and elsewhere at greater length, there is an important soteriological dialogue opened by Freud's theory that has not, so far as I have been able to detect thus far, been taken up but should be.

Whether one has to have a theory of the death drive to account for human self-destruction, and whether Freud's theory is the best one, are important questions to which I will return in a moment, aided by an important new book discussed below. But discussions of Freud's notion of a death drive, which were few and far between even while Freud was alive, are now taking off nearly 80 years after his death. Perhaps this is one more illustration of Adam Phillips' argument from some time ago that the best time to re-examine Freud is precisely now, when nobody thinks much of him anymore and there are fewer and fewer professional establishments rushing to "protect" him from being critically scrutinized, or rushing to enforce some orthodox line or other:
This is certainly a good time for psychoanalysis: because it is so widely discredited, because there is no prestige, or glamour, or money in it, only those who are really interested will go into it. And now that Freud’s words are so casually dismissed, a better, more eloquent case needs to be made for the value of his writing ("After Strachey," London Review of Books vol. 29 no. 19, 4 October 2007, p.36) 
So scrutiny is returning to several parts of Freud's project, but noticeably his late-period "cultural works." Thus, earlier this year, as I discussed here in some detail, there was Benjamin Fong's fascinating new book Death and Mastery: Psychoanalytic Drive Theory and the Subject of Late Capitalism.

And before him, in 2013, in one of the most richly provocative books I've read in a long time, there was Todd McGowan's Enjoying What We Don't Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis, which I discussed in detail in three parts. I think the book deserves a wide audience, especially among Christians concerned with what the various depredations of what is variously called consumerism, materialism, or, simply, capitalism.

In addition to Fong and McGowan, nobody has written as much about the death drive as Todd Dufresne, whom I have been reading profitably for some time now, and through whom I discovered the wonderful work of his Doktorvater, the late Paul Roazen.

Roazen's Meeting Freud's Family is a thoroughly charming book. His Freud and His Followers was a groundbreaking and controversial work which fills in very important gaps in the historiography. And I have found his Encountering Freud: The Politics and Histories of Psychoanalysis useful in surveying what religious and theological responses were made over the history of psychoanalysis to the 1990s.

Dufresne's work on the death drive is found first in his Tales from the Freudian Crypt: The Death Drive in Text and Context and then, more recently and succinctly, in his introductory essay to the Broadview translation of Beyond the Pleasure Principle. 

To my enormous surprise and puzzlement, neither of these books shows up anywhere in the newest book devoted to the topic, Repetition, the Compulsion to Repeat, and the Death Drive: An Examination of Freud's Doctrines, co-authored by M.A. Holowchak (a philosopher) and Michael Lavin (a clinician) (Lexington Books, 2018, viii + 163pp.). It is a very useful, crisply written, and largely clearly argued work.

There are several virtues to this book, including its relative brevity, and the arrangement of each chapter, which aids in reading. More broadly the book will be useful if it is received as the history it is, tracing out the trajectories of the concepts of repetition, compulsive behavior and thinking, and the death drive across the Freudian canon. As such it goes back to 1895 and Studies in Hysteria, co-authored by Freud and Breur, and then forward past Beyond the Pleasure Principle to works in the last period of Freud's life, often referred to as his "cultural" or "meta-psychological" period. Along the way it also notes such "watershed" publications as Freud's 1914 paper, "Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through" as well as his essay on anxiety from 1932, by which point he seems to have moved from the very tentative and speculative writing of Beyond the Pleasure Principle 

Further virtues include the fact that this is neither an attack on Freud--though it advances important, serious, and considered criticisms of his theory--nor a glorification of him in aid of enforcing a certain orthodoxy. It agrees with Freud in places, argues with him in others, and gives evidence in still others for where Freud may have been wrong, or subsequent research does not bear out his often highly tentative and speculative claims in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. On the latter score, it notes problems with Freud's attempting to find phylogenetic evidence for a death drive and compulsive repetition. The question remains: can his theory be rescued if the evidence he claimed to find for it in the biological sciences does not exist, or can be explained by other theories? In answer to that question the authors diverge somewhat, and candidly acknowledge this in the conclusion. For my part, I see few problems in separating out and sustaining most of the theory from insufficient "natural" evidence, and again the authors seem--albeit somewhat uneasily--inclined to agree, especially in a clinical setting, noting that clinicians rarely take their theory pure and whole.

All that having been said, the drive to destroy, including the self, is often a repetitive one, and we are faced with the question of why that is when such a drive brings terrible anguish, suffering, and consequences to the self and to others. Part of the answer may lie in the fact that the drive for pleasure and the death drive are not always operating in mutual and exclusive opposition. As the authors admit flatly, "eros and the death drives do not function independently of each other" (85). In fact, one of Freud's key insights here and in other areas was the admixture of experiences and emotions. In this light, one can, as he himself wrote, find in destructive repetitions the "pleasure of mastery or revenge," including against childhood traumas, enemies, or frustrations.

Such an understanding also goes some way towards accounting for what is perhaps Freud's clearest clinical evidence for compulsive repetitions and self-destructive behaviors: the regularly observed fact that patients get bogged down in treatment, and come actively to undermine the very thing that may help them get better through attacks on the analyst and the "therapeutic alliance" between analyst and analysand (as Christopher Bollas calls it). In this regard, as D.W. Winnicott put it, attacks on a therapeutic analysis may be understood to reflect the fact that for many of us, "health is much more difficult to deal with than disease." In our perverse ways, we like being sick, we like being punished, and though we do not always admit this to ourselves consciously, our unconscious repetitions-in-action bear this out.

By chapter 6, it seems the authors' patience is wearing a wee bit thin, as they sum up the "view in the secondary literature...that the death drive creates more problems than it solves" (98). I think this overstates the case and the authors themselves have not provided absolutely conclusive evidence to support this judgment. Moreover, they fear that Freud's insistence on the death drive runs the "risk of throwing his metapsychology into a state of chaos" (108).

Here is precisely the point where an engagement with Todd Dufresne, mentioned above, would have been crucial. Dufresne's argument is that BTPP is a deliberate act of sabotage on Freud's part, undermining his theories of sexuality and much else. As Dufresne puts it, "metapsychology subverts psychoanalysis," whether "playfully or otherwise," inflicting from a position within the movement a "trauma" on psychoanalysis. Dufresne does not elaborate much on why he thinks Freud may have done this, but I would speculate--following Adam Phillips--that this may have been done precisely to keep the analytic movement from becoming a closed, rigid ideology with enforced orthodoxies and a putative epistemological omniscience.

Freud was certainly aware of the dangers in this direction (and had himself on occasion contributed to it), especially if analysis remained in the hands of psychiatrists or other medical doctors alone. He was forced to address this problem in 1926 in The Question of Lay Analysis, a work I would also see (as, again, Adam Phillips has) as pushing back against analysis becoming a closed system with a closed caste of expert "professionals," especially if those medical professionals were Americans, of whom he thought very little and whom he regarded with enormous skepticism. Such a resistance reflects Freud's own compulsive concerns in some ways, for he was clearly desperate for respect and acceptance for most of his life, but late in life seems to have come to regard such desires with disdain and begun to resist them and call for others to do likewise.

In the end, Holowchak and Lavin conclude there is not a lot that can be salvaged from Freud's death drive, but they do themselves a great service by noting that many other prominent analysts, including Klein, Lacan and Laplanche, disagree with them. Laplanche, it seems to me, takes the most sensible route forward by arguing that if the theory is stripped of biological concepts, if it is seen as exclusively human, and if it is seen as operating not independently but bound up with other drives and desires, it can be rescued.

What, in brief, should the Christian make of all this? Here is where more work needs to be done, but at the very least I think one can say that the destabilizing motives Dufresne detects in defending the death drive and Beyond the Pleasure Principle more generally are ones that Christians should welcome, finding in them analogues to the destabilizing forces of death, grief, and mourning. These forces--as I suggested earlier this month--should function for Christians as a reminder not to close our lives off in presumption of salvation whereby everything is known and everything is resolved, and all must have prizes. Here below we continue to sin, suffer, destroy, and die. Freud attempted to answer why that is, and Christianity does likewise. Between the two there is not nearly so much daylight as many assume--but that, perhaps, is for another day.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Anonymous comments are never approved. Use your real name and say something intelligent.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...