Issue #20 February 2019

Eros and Thanatos: Freud’s two fundamental drives

Alberto Burri — Rosso Plastica M3, 1961

“The concurrent or mutually opposing action” of the two fundamental drives (Urtriebe), Eros and Thanatos, are supposed to explain “the phenomena of life” (Civilisation and its Discontents, p. 4509). This is a lot of responsibility to carry. With Eros as the God of love and Thanatos as the God of death, synonymous with the so-called death drive(s), we might even feel a hint of romanticism. Yet, as a clinician, Freud claims to derive all his concepts from experience, generalising them only in as far as it is useful for therapy (cf. Instincts and their Vicissitudes, p. 2957). He says, for example, that it was the analysis of sadism that had forced him to assume a destructive drive beside Eros and to insist on their duality (cf. Beyond the Pleasure Principle, p. 3755). Still, in his “speculation” (ibid., p. 3760), he goes quite far in tracing the origins of the two drives and what it is that they want at all. The purpose of these metaphychological considerations was not only to improve the therapeutic method, they would also help to critically analyse the individual and cultural developments in the bourgeois culture of Freud’s time. The discontent with modernity, for example, the anti-cultural sentiment that we can observe nowadays as well, can only be understood if we understand the fundamental drives and their interaction (cf. the last pages of Civilisation and its Discontents). At the same time, they can only be useful once they have really been established as principles, and not as arbitrary concepts. Let us therefore try to wrap our heads around the way Eros and Thanatos are supposed to determine our lives.

Approaching the theory of drives

Before introducing the death drive into his theory, Freud’s fundamental opposition was between the ego drives (Ichtriebe) and the sexual drives (Sexualtriebe), a differentiation that is founded on the two-fold role of each individual being. On the one hand, as an independent entity it only cares for its own survival, on the other hand it is the member of a species whose continuation it is meant to ensure by procreating. In view of the ego drives, the individual stands for itself (egotism), in view of the sexual drives, it surpasses itself by coming together with another individual to pass on its genetic material. Libido, the energy of the Eros, was only reserved for the sexual drives, so that Eros would indeed amount to sexuality (cf. Civilisation and its Discontents, p. 4508) — even though, to be precise, sexuality never amounted to mere procreation, which Freud calls the genital (das Genitale).

It is unsurprising that the ego drives and the sexual drives are often in conflict, as we are forced to give up some of our egoistic pleasures when we let someone else into our lives. Yet, what made Freud revisit this differentiation was the observation that narcissism, which belongs to the ego drives, was not an absence of libido, sexual energy. Quite the opposite: “the ego is the true and original reservoir of libido,” meaning that the sexual drives are no longer merely about the individual surpassing itself in procreation, but that interest in one’s own survival is also libidinal: “Thus the original opposition between ego drives and the sexual drives proved to be inadequate” (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, p. 3753). The ‘dual role’ of each organism is therefore not the origin of the two-fold nature of the fundamental drives.

The concept of sexuality had to be reconsidered and “extended” (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, p. 3752); this change is marked by the usage of the term “Eros” in Freud’s later writings. The idea that sexuality/Eros was about the individual surpassing itself remained, but the core intention was no longer primarily genetic procreation. Rather, procreation, as much as the sexual act itself, became part of a more fundamental and abstract process, namely the process of creating higher unities (cf. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, p. 3784). In that sense, the ego itself is also a higher unity and narcissism an erotic unity with oneself, just like friendship is a unity between individual beings, or the mother’s relation to the embryo in her womb — they are all part of Eros as the drive that keeps creating higher unities. It is in this extended form that Eros really becomes a fundamental drive.

But if the narcissistic ego drives, the survival instinct, also belongs to Eros, then the opposite drive also needs to be reconsidered. It is no longer about egotism, which is about preserving one’s own internal unity, but rather the process of abolishing unities. This is the death drive, Thanatos. We can see how the two fundamental drives become abstract principles: On the one hand, there is “anabolism” (Aufbau), on the other hand, there is “catabolism” (Zerfall) (The Ego and the Id, p. 3975): “I drew the conclusion that, besides the drive to preserve living substance,” i.e. the ego drives, “and to join it into ever larger units,” i.e. the sexual drives, which now both are aspects of Eros, “there must exist another, contrary drive seeking to dissolve those units and to bring them back to their primaeval, inorganic state” (Civilisation and its Discontents, p. 4509). The death drive is not about survival, which is after all about self-preservation, it is quite the contrary: the impulse to find the shortest path towards decomposition. Both fundamental drives, Eros and Thanatos, are inherently in us from the moment of our entrance into this world. Freud was aware how provocative and counter-intuitive this is — as this means that death is not something that ‘happens to’ us, like an accident, but something that is an inherent part of our very being — so we need to pay close attention to why he still considered both drives to be necessary to understand the processes of life.

Beyond the Pleasure Principle

Already in 1911, nine years before introducing the death drive into his theory in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud relates the withdrawal of libidinal energy from the world to an “apocalypse,” an “internal catastrophe”. It is in the analysis of the case of the paranoiac Schreber, whose “subjective world has come to an end since his withdrawal of his love from it” (Psycho-Analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia, p. 2437). In the ‘old’ distinction between ego drives and sexual drives, this wouldn’t make any sense, because withdrawing love from the world would only lead to the individual becoming stronger and more independent in its egotism. The weakening of the sexual drives would lead to strengthened ego drives. Yet, the withdrawal of libido from the world seems to be rather inherently destructive, and it might be because the absence of Eros gives rise to the absolute rule of the self-destructive death drive, the tendency of abolishing unities. Freud’s description of the possible genesis of life in Beyond the Pleasure Principle will give us important clues as to how to understand the dynamic between the two drives.

The first thing to point out here is the link between the death drive and the pleasure principle. In the beginning of the essay, Freud repeats his common definition of the pleasure principle that is linked to the fact “that the mental apparatus endeavours to keep the quantity of excitation present in it as low as possible or at least to keep it constant” (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, p. 3716). We feel pleasure when we get rid of excitation, and we feel displeasure due to unresolved tension and a constant urge to release it. The pleasure principle is then all about keeping the excitation within the individual as low as possible by either ‘scratching the itch’ or trying to somehow channel this irritation to the outside (aggression as a means to resolve sexual frustration, for example).

Yet, the pleasure principle is itself also derived, namely from the principle of constancy (Konstanzprinzip), a principle that does not originate from life, but from the constant course of the universe, the continuity of the physical laws. In that sense, we can see that the effort of reaching minimal excitation approaches the inorganic order of things, and that pleasure is in the end inherently intertwined with — death: “it is clear that the function thus described [i.e. the pleasure principle] would be concerned with the most universal endeavour of all living substance — namely to return to the quiescence of the inorganic world” (ibid., p. 3761). If the death drive is defined as the desire of the organism to return to the inorganic state, so that “the aim of life is death” (ibid., p. 3740), then we have to conclude that Thanatos is a cosmological principle that is inherent to all life, and which life shares with the rest of the material world. This is why the cell, all by itself, will take the shortest course to its self-destruction and the reason for Freud’s speculation that “for a long time, perhaps, living substance was thus being constantly created afresh and easily dying” (ibid.). For the death drive, the forces of life are irritations and diversions from its course towards the inorganic, and the pleasure principle is that which helps the organism to find the shortest route to its own dissolution.

The next question is, where that diversion from the straight course towards death comes from. After all, if all that the organism wants is to remove all its tension and return to the inorganic state, then it is rather strange that it is so bad at it. It is clear that Freud wants to avoid a theological or vitalistic interpretation, where Eros is understood as a positive and unexplainable life force, so that the death drive is subjugated to a higher principle. At the same time, Eros is a completely separate entity from the death drive and doesn’t derive from it: “Our views have from the very first been dualistic” (ibid., p. 3754). We must therefore pay close attention to how Freud speculates on the genealogical emergence of Eros, namely in light of the “mutual relationship of cells” (ibid., p. 3751).

Here, “we might suppose that the life drives or sexual drives [= Eros] which are active in each cell take the other cells as their object, that they partly neutralize the death drives (that is, the processes set up by them) in those cells and thus preserve their life; while the other cells do the same for them” (ibid.). Differently speaking: by itself, the cell would fall prey to the death drive and self-destruct immediately, but if it becomes the object for another cell, thereby becoming incorporated into a higher unity, this course undergoes a deviation. The cells keep each other alive, and it is from the outside that the survival of the single cell is first maintained. Still, while it is primarily experienced passively, it is through an activity that Eros is diffused, namely the cell that takes the other as an object and injects its libidinal energy into it. This process is called cathexis, and the original term for it is Objektbesetzung, which, as a composite, can be read either as ‘occupation of the object (by the subject)’ or ‘occupation by the object (of the subject)’. We could hereby say, that Eros is passed on by active cathexis (a cell takes another one as its object) while Eros is first “experienced” by a living entity as passive cathexis (the cell is taken as an object by another one). More so, it is cathexis that makes the difference of inside and outside in the first place. We can understand here, why cathexis is primarily associated with Eros (cf. On Narcissism: An Introduction, p. 2933) and, as we’ll later see, the mother — while identification is associated with Thanatos and the father (cf. The Ego and the Id, p. 3963f.).

A cell transfers libidinal energy to another cell, and it is thanks to this libidinal energy that the straight line of Thanatos becomes crooked and the object cell is kept alive. Again, we can see the shift in Freud’s dualism: Initially, with the opposition of the ego drives and the sexual drives, there was a fundamental will inherent to the organism of maintaining its own survival. Now, rather, the survival instincts originally come from the outside by external injection of libido into the organism. The will to survive only appears once a living being was taken as an object by another object. At the same time, genealogically, Eros came into the world when the first single-cell living organism became the object for another one and was forced into a higher unity with it, when, for some reason a cell gained interest in another cell’s survival. Freud seems to think that this was due to a coincidence, but he doesn’t say anything about the exact process. In any case, from this moment on, Eros started introducing more and more deviations into the death drive, creating higher and higher unities. This is therefore the first fundamental difference between Eros and Thanatos: Thanatos comes from the inside of the organism and desires the abolition of its unity (restoration of the inorganic state), Eros comes to it from the outside and forces it to form higher unities and to become a higher unity as well. This also explains why, once Schreber removes all his libido from his surroundings, only the apocalypse of the death drive remains.

Alberto Burri — Nero Plastica L.A. 1963

If the creation of higher unities for Freud is the result of Eros, and Eros is inherently bound to life, we can interpret the condition of the inorganic physical world as one of complete dissolution. The world is, to say it in a Kantian term, purely manifold (mannigfaltig), devoid of unities.

The fulfilment of the pleasure principle is death, while Eros irritates it, adds tension. Each organism seems to have a limited capacity to endure this irritation until it needs to divert it again to the outside, “pass it on”, which essentially perpetuates Eros and overcomes narcissism (cf. On Narcissism: An Introduction, p. 2940; Introductory Lectures, p. 3466). We will have a closer look at this process later, but this means that the pleasure principle needs not only to be understood in regard to the death drive, but it also has a function for the perpetuation of Eros. If we had an unlimited capacity of holding tension, if narcissism never reached its limit, we would never feel the need to search for objects to inject our libidinal energy, never feel the urge to unite with other beings. At the same time, it is due to Eros that we are continuously irritated from the inside (cf. Drives and their Vicissitudes, p. 2958). This means that tension keeps getting built up in the individual being, which, once it reaches a limit, is channeled to the outside in line with the pleasure principle. Meanwhile, the latter never manages to reach its goal of zero tension (the inorganic state) due to the pressure of Eros.

All that means that Eros inherently belongs to life, and that aspect begs for interpretation. After all, Freud derives the death drive from the cosmological constancy (the continuity of the physical laws), and he might have been afraid that a cosmological interpretation of Eros would force him into a theological view. After all, if Eros “sets in” when a cell is taken as an object by another entity, doesn’t that remind us of the story of Genesis, where God took the universe as his object of creation? Yet, this connection might not be necessary. In the second chapter of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins traces back Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” to the “more general law of survival of the stable” (The Selfish Gene, p. 12). The tendency towards stability is admittedly not quite the same as Eros’ tendency towards higher unities, but they definitely share a close resemblance. In that sense, we can see that a cosmological interpretation of the emergence of complexities, life included, doesn’t necessarily contradict a scientific frame of mind. In the end, we can ask ourselves, if planets, stars, and black holes should be considered as higher unities, or if only living beings (organisms) can lay claim to that. If it’s the former, then we have a cosmological interpretation of Eros, if it’s the latter, it is “vitalistic”. Considering that for Freud, the inorganic world is one of dissolution, we should rather ascribe him the “vitalistic” interpretation, where Eros is exclusively reserved for life.

For now we can summarise the dynamics of Eros and Thanatos as such: Each living being has an inherent tendency towards self-destruction, the dissolution of its own unity. But right from its conception, libidinal energy is injected into it from the outside until a certain level is attained, where, due to the pleasure principle, the living being feels the urge to channel its libido to the outside by using another living being as its object and passing on its libidinal energy. That way, the object’s tendency towards self-destruction is neutralised. This is all very abstract, and we’ll understand it better once we get a bit more specific.

Learning to love

To do so, we don’t even have to change too much, we just need to remind ourselves that Eros is the God of love. Sure, in regard to what we’ve worked out above, we can’t forget that the two fundamental drives are both impersonal and operate mostly without us being aware of them; but after all, as Freud says himself, their interplay can be observed in all phenomena of life. All in all, even though Eros is the force that continuously creates higher unities, the prime examples for that process are still love and sexuality.

In view of love’s role in our personal development, we can observe that we learn how to love very late, and that we merely want to be loved in our infancy. After all, it is the feeling of being worthy of love, of someone caring about our survival that neutralises the death drive, as our suicidal tendencies often come along with a feeling of being unloved. The passivity of being-loved (Geliebtwerden) by our parents and surroundings that care about us and keep us safe precedes the activity of “giving back” and a certain development needs to occur before we are able to share our love to other subjects or objects, when we learn active cathexis. In Freudian theory, this is not understood as a simple switch from passivity to activity, and the economical interpretation that we’ve mentioned above, of our libidinal capacity merely reaching its limit, is somehow insufficient when describing our personal development. Rather, when we actually start loving on our own, it is parts of our own body that become the object of our attention (autoeroticism), so that we first develop “a pure pleasure-ego” (Lustich) while projecting displeasure to the outside world (Civilisation and its Discontents, p. 4467).

What causes this change? While we are being-loved perpetually in the womb, where all our desires are met, after birth these processes are bound to certain conditions. For example, the baby needs to cry for the mother’s breast as to satisfy its need for hunger. Satisfaction is now dependent on external objects, and we start loving our own body to compensate that, as a means of being-loved without depending on others. That way, we start loving to satisfy our need of being-loved; this is called secondary narcissism. This again confirms that the passivity of being-loved goes before the activity of loving, or, in other words, that Eros comes to us first from the outside.

To really confirm this latter aspect, we can take a closer look at our first “encounter” with Eros, which is in the womb. In the relation of the mother to the embryo, we could say that the embryo is permanently being-loved by the mother, so that its death drive is neutralised and it continues to grow. Meanwhile, the nourishing mother’s body takes the embryo as its object and is interested in its survival, in an act of purely active loving. The embryo itself is completely narcissistic in the sense that it feels fully satisfied in its pure passivity. It is after birth, which Freud describes as a traumatic experience and as the original experience of fear (Angst) (cf. the footnote in The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 856; Introductory Lectures, p. 3445), that this absolute passivity is disturbed. As we have mentioned, the mother’s breast is not as unconditionally available as the womb, it needs to be summoned by crying. This development is advanced when the child learns that the conditions of being-loved are bound to certain rules, so that it needs to behave in a certain way to please its parents and submit to their interdictions (for example, the incest prohibition, which we’ll talk about in a few moments).

Displacement and the definition of “drive”

The aspect of inhibition brings us to a central point of the theory of drives, namely that both Eros and Thanatos need to be displaced. Displacement occurs whenever the direct route to satisfaction is somehow blocked and we need to find other ways to release the tension that is built up in us. Here, the whole activity of the unconscious comes into play: displacing, repressing, disguising, densifying. The direct satisfaction of the death drive, which strives for the abolition of unities, would be the immediate self-destruction of the organism. Because it is a fundamental drive that originates within us, we can never get rid of it. This means that the organism needs to find other ways to avoid it from harming it, while still somehow satisfying the death drive. But the case isn’t as clear with Eros, the drive that desires the creation of higher unities. After all, don’t we satisfy Eros directly if we form sexual relationships, families, societies? In what way can we say that Eros needs to be displaced and inhibited?

It all boils down to the definition of the drive. Freud posits that drives are essentially conservative, that they have the need to restore a previous condition (cf. Beyond the Pleasure Principle, p. 3740; The Ego and the Id, p. 3974; Civilisation and its Discontents, p. 4509). In that sense, founding the fundamental development of life and culture on drives stands in contrast to theories that are built on the will as a positive and often unexplainable strive towards the future. Freud denies the existence of such a creative force. Either way, this definition works quite smoothly with the death drive. If the latter is all about restoring the inorganic condition by abolishing all unities, we can indeed see how it is conceptualised as a return, as a repetition. The death drive arises when the primal inorganic condition is somehow disrupted by the genesis of life and the whole intention is to return that condition, to repeat it.

But if Eros is a fundamental drive, then the element of repetition must pertain to it as well. As we’ve seen above, this isn’t intuitive, as Eros is after all a productive force; the higher unities that it creates are genuinely new. Before we tackle this problem, let us note that if Eros is a drive — and Freud insists on that — , then we will have to assume two forms of repetition, one for each fundamental drive, and we can assume that one of them will be a productive repetition, pertaining to Eros creating higher unities, and one of them will be destructive, pertaining to Thanatos destroying those unities and approaching the inorganic condition.

We already know what Thanatos wants to repeat, and we know how it does that — by using the pleasure principle to constantly reduce irritation. If we ask the same thing about Eros, we need to note that it seems that Freud never really managed to resolve this problem for himself either (cf. the footnote in Civilisation and its Discontents, p. 4509). We can see why it is problematic: If Eros is the force that permanently creates higher unities, in what way can it be really understood as a repetition? What condition does Eros want to restore? Much rather, it seems future-oriented than aiming at a primal condition. Still, Freud insisted on understanding Eros as a drive (and not as some positive force), and explicitly poses the question of its repetition close to the ending of Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Instead of answering it directly, he sidesteps and refers to the myth that Aristophanes conjures in Plato’s Symposium. It is the famous myth that in the beginning of creation, all humans were double beings with two heads, four arms and four legs and two genitals that were then cut apart by Zeus and which then desired to reunite with each other. If, therefore, we were indeed initially created as double beings, then the quest of uniting with a loved one is indeed “conservative”, as it desires to restore a past condition. But it is hardly the case that Freud wanted to sell us the idea of soulmates, and the passages that follow the retelling of the myth (and others where he tries to reply to that problem) are quite obscure.

After retelling Aristophanes’ myth, Freud asks: “Shall we follow the hint given us by the poet-philosopher, and venture upon the hypothesis that living substance at the time of its coming to life was torn apart into small particles, which have ever since endeavoured to reunite through the sexual drives?” (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, p. 3759). Before answering this question, Freud abandons his speculations, and we might understand why he does so in light of the answer his question seems to imply. It seems that Freud wasn’t really sure about the whole thing either. In another place, Freud proposes that what Eros wants to restore (repeat) is the primary narcissism at the mother’s breast, which is “the first object of the sexual drive” (Introductory Lectures, p. 3385), where the ego drives and the sexual drives aren’t differentiated yet, where all desires are met (cf. ibid.). But as he himself admits, the breast is not always at hand, and the baby already feels displeasure.

We might therefore feel inclined to go a bit beyond Freud, trying to think through what is only implied in his texts. After all, if Thanatos intends to repeat its primal inorganic condition, why shouldn’t Eros strive to repeat its own primal condition, namely where the individual being was first “injected” with Eros —its conception, where it first “appeared” in the mother’s womb? Freud often speaks of the womb as the place of primary narcissism, a condition that we want to repeat when going to bed every night (cf. Introductory Lectures, p. 3190). In contrast to the situation on the mother’s breast, which is not always available to the baby, there is no conditionality or lack in the womb, and all fundamental desires are perfectly met (this might, of course, not always be empirically the case). If Eros is a drive, and by being a drive it desires to restore a past condition, and, moreover, Eros is the drive that desires the creation of higher unities, why wouldn’t it desire the first higher unity that it has experienced as a living human being, a higher unity in which it was perfectly satisfied, loved unconditionally, namely in the mother’s womb?

The first thing to note here is that this not only answers the question of why Eros is to be understood as a drive, but also why it necessarily needs to be displaced. After all, it is physically impossible for us to return into the womb, and if this desire is to be met, deviations need to be found that will offer it a worthy alternative, a similar satisfaction. We can see this happening in regard to a part of Freudian theory that is perplexing the readers even today, namely the Oedipus complex and the sexual desire of the son for his mother. In itself, this desire remains a mystery, especially since Freud posits an original bisexuality of all humans, in view of which it would be equally plausible for the son to desire his father. If, on the other hand, the original libidinal desire is the return into the womb, then we can understand the sexual desire for one’s mother as an already displaced version of this desire: The incest as an alternative way of entering the womb (That would also change the interpretation of the Oedipus complex for the girl, which Freud claims desires the father and wants to make a child for him. We won’t follow the implications here, but the question is pertinent). We can see in this displacement already a change from the mere passivity of the womb to the active sexual desire, and it is in that sense that the Oedipus complex might play an important role in overcoming the merely passive wish of being-loved.

Displacing the primal condition

Regarding the question of what it is that the two drives want to repeat (which condition they want to reinstate), we can note another interesting displacement. The death drive repeats not only a prenatal, but even a “pre-conceived” condition, i.e. a condition where the individual being wasn’t even conceived yet, because as soon as it is in the womb, it is no longer purely inorganic. The death drive in us strives to reinstate something that we never have experienced, a situation where we weren’t in the world yet. Eros, on the other hand, repeats a prenatal condition, but one where we’re already conceived, a condition therefore that we have indeed experienced (even though in an extremely rudimentary form). In short, the death drives repeats an unreal condition (one that it has never experienced) while Eros repeats a real condition (the one in the womb). At the same time, the death drive ends up in a real condition (we become inorganic after our death), while Eros does not (we don’t return to the womb). One might therefore speculate that the ideas of a blissful afterlife, where the soul rests in the presence of God, is an unreal phantasy that intends to fulfil the desire of Eros for repetition by imagining an analogous situation to the womb. It makes sense in this regard that Freud ascribes the “oceanic experience”, one that some religious people describe as a feeling of infinite connection with the world, to the infantile condition where our feeling of I (Ichgefühl) wasn’t established yet (cf. Civilisation and its Discontents, ch.1). Just as the embryonic condition was about a passive integration within a higher unity, the otherworldly bliss portrays a higher unity with God. In short, while the death drive repeats an unreal condition with a real one, Eros repeats a real condition with an unreal one. Both repetitions are inherently displaced.

We might still not be convinced about the repetition of Thanatos being “unsuccessful” (displaced). After all, returning to the inorganic state is exactly what it wants and exactly what it does after we die. We might ask ourselves here, if the inorganic state before our conception is really congruent with the inorganic state after our death. The difference can be seen in the suicidal wish, which is not merely about ending the pain and disappearing from the world, but to never have existed in the first place. This is not only due to the wish of not harming the loved ones with one’s suicide, but also of undoing all the things that have made one’s live so burdensome. Yet, while the desire of not existing anymore is not only possible, but will necessarily come to its fulfilment, the desire of never having existed is impossible. We cannot undo our existence and the changes that we have made in this world. If this really makes a difference or not — we are not really in a position to answer that. But the aspect which would cause the difference between the inorganic state before our birth and the one after our death, is individuation. Before our birth, there was not a trace of us in the world, while after our death, we had been in it, even if only for a short time.

If individuation causes the potential displacement of the death drive, we can say the same about Eros. After all, it is due to us becoming individual beings that we can no longer return to the womb, as there we were completely dissolved in a higher unity. The individual is by its very nature a distinct entity, separated from the world, which means that a complete passive dissolution is impossible for it as long as it is alive. Even the mythical experience needs to assume a subject that makes that experience. If we accept this interpretation, then it can be said that Eros and Thanatos are necessarily displaced due to individuation, due to the individual’s independence and freedom to change its surrounding. The separation of the individual from its surroundings gives it the minimal difference of having been. This inhibits its total dissolution in the dissociated inorganic matter and in a higher cosmological order. After all, can we really experience bliss in the presence of God, if our individuality has been completely dissolved?

Alberto Burri —Bianco Plastica 1 , 1961

Displacement means that direct satisfaction was rendered impossible, and if displacement occurs necessarily, then the complete satisfaction of our drives has been rendered impossible as well. In short, we will never be fully satisfied. This might leave a bitter taste in us, but if we really look at what our fundamental drives desire, then it doesn’t sound very appealing to us — the dissolution in death or in a higher unity in which we are completely dissolved and passive. We need to see it from a different angle and understand that the “failure” of Eros and Thanatos is exactly that which drives them both to a higher form, and that their “failure” at attaining complete satisfaction is exactly what we want as individual beings, even though the shortest route to satisfaction is what we keep desiring so as to minimise the tension that the two drives cause in us. In the end, the core motor of our development lies exactly in the various forms of displacement that are forced upon us and that prevent us from reaching full satisfaction — Verdrängung, Verschiebung (which can both be translated as “displacement”), Verdichtung (densification), Verkleidung (disguise) which are the fundamental activities of the subconscious. We might go as far as to say that displacement is the central term of Freudian theory.

The higher forms of Eros and Thanatos

We can see this clearly in the case of Eros. The “pure” repetition of Eros is the condition of completely passive being-loved (Geliebtwerden), a narcissistic love that can only considered regressive when observed in relationships between grown-ups, a sign of dependency. The higher form of Eros, its displaced repetition, is the activity of loving, a giving kind of love. We would consider a happy couple one in which both parties are both loved and loving, where there’s a synthesis between the activity and the passivity; it might be in that sense that we should read Freud’s statement that “a real happy love corresponds to the primal condition in which object-libido and ego-libido cannot be distinguished” (On Narcissism, p. 2952). Eros reaches its higher form where it becomes an activity and the stream is continued by neutralising the death drive of another object, while the object loves us back and neutralises our self-destructive tendencies.

We can also see here that Freud’s uncovering of unconscious processes, which is the primary activity of therapy, has a deeper meaning. Due to psychoanalysis, we become aware of the different displacements that we have conducted in our lives, but this whole process is not about becoming an authentic being that has overcome all displacements. After all, we always displace, and the “pure” repetition of our fundamental drives would be regressive either way. Psychoanalysis is rather about correcting displacements that have gone awry, that cost an unnecessary amount of energy and cause displeasure (like the neurotic symptom). We can’t stop displacing, but we can choose, which displacements will give us the greatest satisfaction and the least amount of displeasure.

Does Thanatos also develop into a higher form through displacement? It must be so, because the “pure” repetition of the death drive is the direct route towards self-destruction. As Freud says in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Thanatos is diverted by Eros; and in Civilisation and its Discontents, he links this process to the fear of loss of love (Angst vor dem Liebesverlust) (cf. Civilisation and its Discontents, p. 4514). Here, the precise development of Thanatos’ displacement gets tricky, but also interesting. While the primary desire of Eros is to be loved, we have the experience very early in life that this love is not unconditional. It was unconditional in the womb, but temporary, and the mother’s breast, as the first object that satisfies our post-natal desires, is not always available. Further on, especially once the Oedipus complex kicks in, the son starts perceiving the father as the obstacle that stands between himself and the mother that he desires (because she will satisfy the need for being-loved) (cf. The Ego and the Id, p. 3965, or the Oedipus complex in general), which leads to further developments.

In that sense we can already witness a first displacement: While the death drive starts as the desire for self-destruction, as an aggression that is purely inward, the son is now projecting this aggression to the outside, to the father (cf. Civilisation and its Discontents, p. 4519). To control the aggression of the young individual, the father, and through him the culture, force it to establish an interior entity, the super-ego, that introjects the tendency of aggression: “Civilisation, therefore, obtains mastery over the individual’s dangerous desire for aggression by weakening and disarming it and by setting up an agency within him to watch over it, like a garrison in a conquered city” (Civilisation and its Discontents, p. 4513). The super-ego is the entity in the individual that judges its actions according to an ideal that has been set up by the father and the culture it is living in, it is the source of the bad conscience and the feeling of guilt. After learning to project the death drive to the outside world, its aggression is once again turned inward; this is the second displacement of Thanatos. But why does the individual obey this change of course? After all, the aggression towards external things satisfies the death drive perfectly. It is because the punishment that the father threatens if the individual violates the prohibition is the withdrawal of love. And, if being-loved is all that the young individual wants, there can be no harsher punishment. The father’s prohibition can be formulated as such: “If you do that, I won’t love you anymore” — and it is not primarily physical, but, one could say, existential.

So, the individual accepts the second displacement of the death drive back to its interiority by creating an inner entity that mirrors the father’s (and society’s) demands, an entity that judges it permanently, but does not actively destroy its being. The super-ego tells the individual, how it should behave so that it doesn’t lose the love of its surrounding. In that sense, the aggression of the death drive is relatively contained. The precise process of the creation of the super-ego is complex, but we can generally say that it occurs through identification, where the individual identifies with the father and pretends to take his place (cf. ibid.), a new way of relating to objects that the individual learns. Cathexis (Objektbesetzung), as the process of taking something as one’s object, primarily belonged to Eros. Here, it had the double aspect, of the mother taking the embryo as her object and the mother later becoming the child’s first object of desire. In identification, we could say that the individual disguises itself as another object so as to satisfy its desire. If the father is the entity that stands between the child and the mother, then pretending to be the father, i.e. identifying with him, will partially satisfy the desire to possess the mother (as the father does). This is why identification can be primarily ascribed to Thanatos and the father as its first object. Learning identification will allow the individual to handle the displacement of the death drive back inside through the establishment of the super-ego.

In view of this development, we could say that judgement always belongs to Thanatos, as it limits the course of Eros, and gains satisfaction from punishing the individual through the super-ego, while Eros is inherently expansive and, like a stream between rocks, tries to find its way to continue its course and attain satisfaction through the creation of new higher unities.

This once again sounds quite discouraging, and when Freud says that psychoanalysis is often about working against the super-ego, which after all is an entity belonging to Thanatos, then we can see which side he’s on (cf. ibid., p. 4530). But there is also a positive side to the development of Thanatos into a higher form, the creation of the super-ego. The capacity of judgement has, after all, often been considered the reason why humans are the most developed beings in the animal kingdom, and thought itself is connected to the ability of judgement. Also, channelling the stream of Eros is not only negative, but helps us adapt to our social surrounding by interiorising its demands, thereby creating a more harmonious society. When we’re in love, we love the other person (object), in social relations (the group) we unite by identifying with the other person’s super-ego (cf. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, p. 3805); similar super-egos are therefore a prerequisite for social harmony.

In that sense, we use the energy of the death drive to control and stabilise our libido through the creation of an internal ideal-ego (Idealich), which helps us to modify the pleasure principle into the reality principle. Through the interaction of Eros and Thanatos, we ourselves become a higher unity, where Eros helps us handling our inherent aggressions, while Thanatos helps us handling the libidinal energy that permanently aspires to overstep all boundaries and spread into the world: “Through its work of identification and sublimation it [the ego] gives the death drives in the id assistance in gaining control over the libido, but in so doing it runs the risk of becoming the object of the death drives and of itself perishing. In order to be able to help in this way it has had itself to become filled with libido; it thus itself becomes the representative of Eros and henceforward desires to live and to be loved” (The Ego and the Id, p. 3990). We can see the co-dependency of the two drives for our flourishing very clearly here.

Let’s summarise the displacements that we have observed in the two fundamental drives:

1. Due to Eros, Thanatos undergoes two displacements: From the inside to the outside and back to the inside in a displaced repetition (or, to be more precise, it is through this displacement that inside and outside are differentiated in the first place, that we become entities that are separated from the world). It starts out with the original desire of self-destruction, which is first displaced when the embryo is being-loved, taken as an object by the mother. It is hereby injected with libido, which “teaches” it that it is worthy of love and that sets in the desire for self-preservation. The death drive is therefore displaced by Eros. But this means that it needs to be satisfied in another way, and the aggression of Thanatos is therefore projected to the outside, and takes the father and the external world as its object. But the father threatens the withdrawal of love if the child doesn’t behave and contains its aggression. This leads to the second displacement, which is once again caused by Eros, namely the fear of losing it, of no longer being loved. This leads to the establishment of the super-ego that judges the individual’s actions according to external demands. The death drive is thereby satisfied by the (threat of) punishment of the individual, which the latter experiences as a bad conscience.

2. Due to Thanatos, Eros undergoes two displacements: From the outside to the inside to the outside in a displaced repetition (again, the differentiation of inside and outside is primarily due to the displacement). It starts out with a primal narcissism, the passive-being love in the mother’s womb, where libidinal energy is injected into it from the outside. After birth, it realises that being-loved is not unconditional and that certain actions are needed for the libido to be satisfied (summoning of the breast through crying). This is the first displacement, and it is caused by Thanatos that is at the cause of the conditionality of love. Because of that, the individual being becomes active by taking its own body as the object of desire (autoeroticism), which forms a secondary narcissism, where the individual is both the subject and the object of love: Eros is completely internalised. The second displacement, which overcomes the secondary narcissism, occurs on the one hand due to the unsatisfactory nature of autoerotic pleasure and Eros’ tendency of expansion. On the other hand, it is once again the prohibition of our surrounding that does not accept this kind of behaviour and forces the individual being to seek other objects of desire. Thanatos therefore causes the second displacement of Eros as well. Eros thereby experiences satisfaction, if it manages to create a higher unity with another individual, or with a specific object.

Repetition squared

In light of the intertwined nature of the two drives, we might ask ourselves, if we should not conceptualise their relation as a repetition as well. That way, not only would Eros and Thanatos form internally displaced repetitions, but Eros and Thanatos would repeat and displace each other. After all, it is due to the aggression of the death drive that the individual being realises that it’s not being loved unconditionally. At the same time, it is through the injection of libido into the ego (being-loved) that the tendency towards self-destruction is neutralised. In the Introductory Lectures, when he discusses the dream symbols, Freud says that in Latin “materia is derived from mater, ‘mother’” (Introductory Lectures, p. 3254), as a way of showing that matter (especially wood, which is madeira in Portuguese) is a symbol for femininity in dreams. But maybe instead of a direct derivation, we might read the constellation of mater and materia in the sense of the antithetical meaning of primal words (Gegensinn der Urworte) and connect it to the two fundamental drives. After all, what the death drive desires to repeat, is the condition of materia, while the repetition of Eros takes root in the mater’s womb.

In the juxtaposition of the two drives we might then be tempted to say that mater is the displaced repetition of materia, while materia is the displaced repetition of mater. In the lifeless universe, everything had run its continuous course, there was a pure repetition of the principle of constancy (Konstanzprinzip). It was the emergence of life, and the genesis of Eros that came along with it, that had displaced this pure repetition, deviated it by adding tension and complexity into the equation. There is a minimal difference between the principle of constancy and the pleasure principle, even though the latter is derived from the former: The pleasure principle never reaches the zero amount of tension that it aims for. Eros keeps pushing and displacing the pure repetition of the principle of constancy, forming the pleasure principle. On the other hand, the pure repetition of Eros would lie in the complete passivity of being-loved; in regard to the genetic speculations of Freud, in the complete passivity of the cell that has been taken as an object by another one. But for Eros to continue, this repetition had to be displaced as well, so that the passive cell became active and started forming higher unities with others as well. As we’ve seen, this change from passivity to activity of Eros takes place in the individual’s development once the child realises that it won’t be loved unconditionally — and what is the conditionality of love, if not the realisation that love necessarily dies, “that everyone you know someday will die”, that Eros itself is imbued with Thanatos, and that we need to start loving on our own, if we want it to continue? In that sense, it is really Thanatos, materia, that is a displaced repetition of Eros, mater, and vice versa: Life is displaced death, and death is displaced life. But maybe it’s better for us to end our own “speculations” as well now, before we start feeling dizzy.

Timofei Gerber has an MA in philosophy from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and an MA in film studies from the University of Zurich. He is also a co-founder and co-editor of this magazine.

Works Cited

All Freud references are from Ivan Smith’s digital edition of the Complete Works (2011) that can be easily found on the internet. In the English version, Triebe is translated as “instincts,” which is disputable, as the German word Instinkt means something else. On the other hand, “survival instinct” is in German Selbsterhaltungstrieb, so it’s not uncommon to translate it that way. Nevertheless, I decided to change the translation of “instinct” to “drive”.

Dawkins, Richard: The Selfish Gene. OUP, 2006.


February 2019


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Eros and Thanatos: Freud’s two fundamental drives

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