Freud's Thanatical Reductions:
The Death Drive as Symbolic Cynicism

Craig Chalquist, MS PhD

Sigisimund S. Freud

I wrote this paper for my Freud class in the Depth Psychology program at the
Pacifica Graduate Institute. I wish to thank psychoanalyst and professor
Dr. Allen Bishop for clarifying some aspects of Freud's thought for me.


The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment--or, as the Nazis liked to say, of "Blood and Soil." I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.

- Viktor Frankl

My temper was sometimes violent and my passions vehement, but by some law in my temperament they were turned, not toward childish pursuits, but to an eager desire to learn, and not to learn all things indiscriminately. I confess that neither the structure of languages, nor the code of governments, nor the politics of various states, possessed attractions for me. It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things, or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or, in his highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.

-- Victor Frankenstein

In the year 1914, the founding father of psychoanalysis faces a contradiction.
    1914 is a year for contradictions. The first transcontinental phone call throws a vast electronic arc across the globe; the U.S. invades Mexico. The Panama Canal joins two oceans; the U.S. closes its borders to Indian immigrants. South and North Nigeria merge into one Protectorate; Britain and France occupy German colonies in West Africa. The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway stands completed in Canada; Freud and Jung stop corresponding. W. C. Handy comes out with "St. Louis Blues"; Kool-Aid goes on sale, through mail order. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...
    In 1914, while Sigmund Freud wrestles with the theoretics of narcissism and love, Gavrilo Princip waits in the streets of Sarajevo for a chance at glory. Trained in terror by the Belgrade-based Black Hand (officially: "Ujedinjenje Ili Smrt": "Union or Death"), he approaches the car of Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his consort Sophie, takes aim quickly, and shoots them to death.
    An idealist, Princip believes that killing the heir presumptive to Emperor Francis Joseph will help free Southern Slavs from Austrio-Hungarian rule and unite them into a nation (later known as Yugoslavia). Instead, it furnishes the Emperor an excuse to order Serbia to give up national sovereignty--or else. While the Serbs ponder this ultimatum, Francis Joseph ends diplomatic relations.
    On July 29th, shells fall in Belgrade. Alliances mobilize in the name of national defense. The First World War has begun.
    What Freud seeks to unravel now plays out on the stage of the world all around him: the mysterious struggle of Life and Death.

The Confounding Contraries

The resulting destructiveness far surpassed what even Freud had imagined human beings capable of doing to one another.

Then the war in which we had refused to believe broke out, and brought--disillusionment.
Not only is it more sanguinary and more destructive than any war of other days, because
of the enormously increased perfection of weapons of attack and defense; but it is at least
as cruel, as embittered, as implacable as any that has preceded it…When the community
has no rebuke to make, there is an end of all suppression of the baser passions, and men
perpetrate deeds of cruelty, fraud, treachery and barbarity so incompatible with their civ-
ilization that one would have held them to be impossible.

    In line with the ancient Judeo-Christian premise that love of self and love of others invariably collide, Freud had postulated a polarity of self-affirmative ego instincts vs. creative and procreative sexual instincts. The first preserved, sometimes aggressively, the organism's integrity; the second connected that integrity to other organisms.
    From 1914 on, however, this formulation began to reveal its inconsistencies. If the mind developed from the infantile self-involvement of primary narcissism to the other-involvement of mature love, could there still be two entirely separate systems of psychical energy? If so absolute a division were true, why did a decrease in one system seem to signal an increase in the other? How could this be unless the two were connected? And if they were, did it make sense to go on believing that the ego's drives were nonsexual when the clinical reality of narcissism--now seen as a developmental stage rather than as a perversion--suggested otherwise? If they weren't, how could the ego grow at all without being supplied by instinctual sources in the id?
    For six years Freud wrestled with such questions. And then to a man already preoccupied with the spectacle of death came news of another Sophie claimed by the war. This one had died not at the war's beginning, but at its end; and she was not a future empress but Freud's own daughter, beloved Sophie extinguished by an influenza that spread after the fighting survived by all three of his three sons had ended.
    Hit hard, the stricken father went on with his work. The mind seeks to feel pleasure and avoid pain, he thought. Even the reality principle postpones pleasure only to obtain more of it later. Why then do we repeat in the present what hurt in the past, that which could never be felt as pleasurable? Why does the traumatized soldier relive the horrors of the battlefield? Why does the patient reawaken childhood injuries in the transference to the analyst? Why do dreams bring us back our anguish?
    Why are so many people so eager to kill one another?
    In 1920, then, Freud introduced into psychoanalytic theory its greatest and most daring duality.
    On one side of psyche stood Eros, basis of Life and reservoir of all its instincts. Research into narcissism and all that came after had convinced him that the sexual and self-preservative drives indeed belonged to one erotic source.
    On the other side stood what came to be called Thanatos, the drive of Death. What Eros bound and connected, Thanatos strove to dissolve and destroy. Eros pushed the warmth of life into ever more animated complexity. Thanatos took it down again to the cold entropic stasis of lifelessness.
    For Freud, who published these thoughts in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Eros and Thantos, Life and Death represented a fusion to be found everywhere the investigator looked for the fundaments of psychobiological activity.
    Which would win out in the quest for species survival remained an open question. Nevertheless, in the end vision always pales and pageant fades, for despite its elasticity, life is a weave of baseless fabric, and "the goal of life is death."
    Before we settle down in this twilight of our idylls, however, let's don our psychological night-goggles and try to see behind it. Even dark Thanatos must cast a shadow.

The Son of Night

From ancient Greek mythology looms Thanatos, god of death, fatherless son of Nyx (Night), twin brother of Hypnos (Sleep), sometimes called Mors, a winged youngster with a blown-out torch in one hand and a wreath or butterfly in the other.
    In early accounts he was powerful and fierce, bearded and sword-bearing. He often appeared with his brother on funerary vases. The expansion of Roman civilization and its view of a glorious afterlife in Elysium saw a more beautiful deathgod, a Cupidlike boy of Roman sarcophagi. Like the hangman and the undertaker, however, he was never popular.
    Once, to escape death, Sisyphus bound Thanatos in chains. This stopped everyone from dying until Ares unbound Thanatos and gave Sisyphus into his custody. But Sisyphus had another trick ready: having forbidden his wife from making the customary funeral sacrifices, Sisyphus complained to Hades about not receiving his due honors. So Hades sent him back to reprimand his wife. Sisyphus stayed until Zeus caught up with him. As punishment for disrespecting the underworld, Sisyphus was condemned to push a rock uphill and watch it roll back down again, endlessly.
    On the verge of pushing through to a deeper dynamic than pleasure/unpleasure, Freud fell back.
    How close he came! Repetitious dreams of trauma, he wrote, override the pleasure principle and its free flow of instinctual energy in their attempt to bind the original traumatic stimuli--somewhat like abused children who play horrific games to master their previous helplessness. But in those dreams, and in the patient possessed by a transference neurosis, the trauma is not bound, but uselessly and painfully re-experienced without modification by consciousness.
    Confronted by "daemonic" forces as demonized as the Christian devil, he failed to see in their very vehemence a push for recognition and modification, a wordless yearning for the consciousness that could convert their tempestuous anguish into erotic fire and psychical fuel.
    Had he looked just a little deeper into the dark, he'd have uncovered the psyche's negentropic urge to restore its breached wholeness, stubbornly returning itself to new variations on its painful past, not to act out masochism or self-defeat, but to heal itself of old wounds in order to enhance its vitality.
    Having got that far, he might also have recognized in human consciousness a systemic emergent irreducible to the mechanisms undergirding it.
    Instead, he reductively mistook repetition for redundancy, hatred for homeostasis, psyche for soma, and passion for discharge, and in doing so he sold human nature short.
    We can now discern the shape of the shadow of the death drive. It describes Freud's own bitter, fatalistic, pain-wracked, disappointed and sorrowing outline. Its mythic name might be Thanatos, but its personal name is cynicism.
    One needn't to have appraised reams on what's wrong with Freudian theory to discern this deadly weed ravaging the otherwise fertile fields of his thought. It is cynical to reduce mind to brain, psyche to conflict, dream to wish, war to necessity, spirit to neurosis, conscience to introject, hate to instinct, love to sex, affection to possession, femininity to passivity, motherhood to envy, women to castrated men.
    Freudian reductionism: a symptom of the manic defense known as contempt--in this case, for the humanity that had so disillusioned the first psychoanalyst; a regressive restoration of the grandiosity thus injured; and a product of the shadow of the Enlightenment, so many of whose Faustian innovators believed that intellect could explain everything, only to watch it make monsters and melt church bells down into cannon.
    Or, in Freud's case, down into an atomistic view of persons that, at least in theory, makes us all a little less than human.

The Dogs of War

Most of the analysts who haven't abandoned Freud's death drive postulate now see it as serving life and Eros, although in warped fashion. We have only to think about self-cutting or even suicide as a defense against intolerable levels of anguish. Or of those aggressive defenses--the emotional implosions of borderline decompensation, for instance--which actually obliterate thinking and feeling.
    An obvious question arises: if destructiveness at bottom serves Eros, why not continue Freud's grouping of ego instincts with sexual instincts to a logical conclusion and regard the death "drive" as an aspect of Eros? Why not see it as the stuff of life warped by external pressures and subsequent psychopathology? In rage, for example, do we not see a core of self-assertion? In even murder, do we not glimpse an overcompensated powerlessness, a pitiful shriek for significance?
    A counterargument insists that such a move is a defense against giving our devils their due. Still, one must wonder whether promoting a piece of psychology to the status of instinct grants it additional solidity. If anything, it tends to halt inquiry. Why probe rage or hatred if we already know them to be innate, and therefore inevitable?
    More questions rise, mushrooming in the twilit gloom. Does destruction's impressive echoes throughout the body necessarily mean origination in it? Or are the philosophers right to charge us with a category error when we skate back and forth between the realms of soma and psyche, now occupying one, now slipping back to the other? Is the Thanatos passport valid on both sides of the crossing, gradually shortening telomeres seamlessly translating into clenched fists and H-bombs? Or do different laws operate in each territory despite their obvious overlap?
    After a hundred years of psychoanalysis, psychiatry, and experimental psychology, no one today could make a convincing argument against the presence of somatic, neurological, defensive, regressive, or developmentally primitive elements in, say, human aggression. Or in any other human activity. No one. This is the blood in which we swim, the mud through which we walk, the scaffolding around our most elevated strivings.
    What's really at issue comes down to one uniqueness-castrating word, implied more often than stated outright: only.
    Aggression as only early conflict colliding with instinct. Motivation as only aim-inhibited sexuality. People as only animals, conditioning, clockwork, computer programs, libido plumbing, naturally selected carnivores. This is the problem.
    1906 was another interesting year. Around the world, the naval arms race gathered speed. The U.S. occupied Cuba. Britain took over Nigeria. Britain and France ruled over New Hebrides. The Russian Czar allowed a Duma (Assembly), but with severely curtailed powers. Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle. Freud published a book on sexuality in the etiology of neurosis. And Ivan Pavlov published his study on the dogs he trained to salivate to the tune of a rung bell, a procedure called classical conditioning. In the forthcoming convulsions of worldwide warfare, his discoveries would be put to good use by patriots interested in brainwashing prisoners of war.
    People as parts. People as employable commodities. People as stimulus-response circuits. People as intelligent id machines.
    You and I as each other's opponent. Either of us as ally. As enemy. As target of opportunity. As target of marketing campaigns. As displaceable population. As case study. As heretic, hun, kraut, nip, hebe, gook, commie, wetback, bitch, nigger, dyke, faggot, camel-jockey.
    Described scientifically or chauvinistically, reasonably or hatefully, people, not as active subjectivities or soulful beings, incalculably uncommon, but as disassemblable objects. This is the problem.
    "The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone," wrote Camus in a novel likening evil to a plague, "is the man with the fewest lapses of attention." To what Freud taught us about attentiveness we must add a lesson made plain by the plentiful propaganda of the War whose end he never saw, a lesson as implicit in his "psychological" reductions as nuclear explosions were in the equations of the otherwise peaceable Einstein: those we infect we first make subhuman.

WW1 Poster Demonizing "the Enemy"

The Tools of Eros

Stoically disenchanted, awash in intractable pain, and ironically unaware of how closely and strangely his reductive materialism paralleled the animalistic anti-philosophy of the Nazis who'd burned his books, Freud died of jaw cancer two weeks after the outbreak of World War II.
    It's likely that the carnage of the war he did live through brought the oppositions within him to maximum polarization. For they were not only his. Through his image of psyche riven by Eros and Thanatos ran the split in the age itself.
    If the back-door monism of human experience collapsed to its bodily base exhibits a metapsychological colonialism of the type so characteristic of Western civilization, can Freudian thought help us manage social injustice or merely issue apologetics for it?
    Remember: it was Freud who took the ego off its throne of psychological solitude. When man becomes the measure of all things, things soon become the measure of all men. If we would defend our humanity against thanatical reductionism, we must retain Freud's invaluable tools and discoveries. Of these, he left an abundance: Projection. Transference. Counter-transference. Free association. Dream interpretation. Defense analysis. Regression. Repressed sexuality. Narcissism. Ego strength. The dynamic unconscious…
    With such guiding concepts we can turn toward a troubled time and, sorting the difficulties to their source, distinguish defensive from malignant aggression and see deeper than the fatalistic conflation of immaturity and instinct, whatever the somatic foundations.
    To blow up destroyers or buy out competitors or put weapons into space "to protect American interests" are less a matter of inherent aggression than of the paranoia of frightened boys trying to act like the adults they aren't; boys heavily conditioned by life in a patriarchal society; boys running and ruining our fragile world because they were never taught how to manage those pockets of childishness and even insanity which psychoanalysis has revealed in each of us.
    For neither are we luminous creatures of society-ruined naturalness, tra-la, fondly smiled on by an avuncular humanistic lore that would see a characterological deadliness as akin to an unwatered flower, every lethal impulse unhappily discouraged perhaps but something unspecified and potentially nice; a cheer in every conflict and a rainbow in every rage.
    In grasping this honestly we are better served by Dostoevsky than by Rogers or Rousseau:

It is said that Cleopatra (pardon the example from Roman history) was fond of sticking
gold pins into her slave-girls' breasts and enjoying their screams and writhing. You will
say that occurred in barbarous times; that these are barbarous times too, because pins are
stuck in even now; that even though man has learned to see more clearly occasionally, he
is still far from being accustomed to act as reason and science dictate. All the same, you are
convinced that he will be when he gets rid of certain bad habits, and when common sense
and science have re-educated human nature...Then--well, those will be halcyon days. Of
course there is no guaranteeing (this is my comment now) that it will not be, for instance,
terribly boring (for what will one do when everything is calculated by the table?), but on the
other hand everything will be extraordinarily rational. Of course boredom may lead you to
anything. Boredom even sets one to sticking gold pins into people, but all that would not
matter. What is bad is that for all I know, people will be thankful for the gold pins then.

It is precisely the relation between such pie-in-the-sky "optimism" and the destructive "it's our nature" pessimism lurking below it that the Eros-amplifying tools of psychoanalysis are so suited to lay bare, that we may diagnose this dynamic objectively even while we feel its operation from within.
    Of course, to do this means broadening our studies about one another into interactive encounters with one another….
    Beginnings and endings. From its inception, psychoanalysis as inaugurated by Freud took literature as its subject matter. In Swiss-German author Hermann Hesse's last novel, which he finished late in his life, appears this sublime description of a mature, erotic, wholehearted, and grounded realism I like to imagine Freud knew in his finest moments, a fearlessly humane realism beyond obsolete, contradictory alternations of cynicism and denial:

I would like to say something more to you about cheerful serenity, the serenity of the stars
and of the mind. You are averse to serenity, presumably because you have had to walk the
ways of sadness, and now all brightness and good cheer strikes you as shallow and childish,
and cowardly to boot, a flight from the terrors and abysses of reality…But, my dear devotee of
sadness, even though for some this may well be a flight, even if the majority among us were in
fact of this sort--all this would not lessen the value and splendor of genuine serenity, the seren-
ity of the sky and the mind.

Such cheerfulness is neither frivolity nor complacency; it is supreme insight and love, affirma-
tion of all reality, alertness on the brink of all depths and abysses; it is a virtue of saints and of
knights; it is indestructible and only increases with age and nearness to death. It is the secret of
beauty and the real substance of all art. The poet who praises the splendors and terrors of life in
the dance-measures of his verse, the musician who sounds them in a pure, eternal present--these
are bringers of light, increasers of joy and brightness on earth, even if they lead us first through
tears and stress.

Perhaps the poet whose verses gladden us was a sad solitary, and the musician was a melancholy
dreamer; but even so their work shares in the cheerful serenity of the gods and the stars. What they
give us is no longer their darkness, their suffering or fears, but a drop of pure light, eternal cheerful-
ness... This kind of cheerful serenity is what I have been concerned with ever since I began dimly to
sense its meaning during my student days, and I shall never again relinquish it, not even in unhap-
piness and suffering.

  Hermann Hesse  


© Copyright 2001 by Craig Chalquist

"Halt the Hun" image courtesy of "American Posters of World War One":


SUGGESTED READING: A Glossary of Freudian Terms.