The Thanatos Magnet

on December 1 | in Psychology | by | with No Comments

The Use of Contemporary Kleinian Ideas to Find the Beginning: Some Thoughts on Freudian Death Drive.

Both the beginning and the end of our lives put us closer in some ways than we have ever been to death. These time points constitute bookends for the middle. In the middle we disavowal endings so that we can live. However, this functional disavowal is not just aimed at time or the finitude of things; it is aimed at something that was never fully experienced.

In infancy experience is concretized. Things are things in and of themselves. Negative somatic sensations, the disappearance of the primary care-giver to another room are both perceived the same way—as things that are happening to the integrity of the infant itself. These things that happen become a nameless dread, a phantasized badness, and a threat. Discomfort and disappearance are both a part of the same terrifying ‘badness’ that cannot be symbolized. When mother leaves the room the infantile psyche has no way of dealing with what has happened. When she leaves she has disappeared. In the early stages of life the infant experiences through his soma. As such these negative experiences are situated in the body through phantasy. The badness becomes internalized and experienced as a threatening discomfort. The anxiety associated with this badness is primitive because it is based on the fear that one will be torn asunder or fragmented. These primitive phantasies become the experiential currency of death, and they leave a trace. In adulthood we come, more or less, to the intellectual understanding of mortality. However, that vague unsymbolizable trace lingers as ‘a something’ that still could happen.

The trace of ‘something’ that was never fully experienced is a quality that D.W. Winnicott uses to describe the Fear of Break Down. There is something intolerable about facing a nameless dread or a badness that we just can’t put to words. For the infant and for the psychotic, omnipotent phantasy helps concretize experience so that we can avoid facing that thing we can’t name. The psychotic part of our neurotically “mature” selves goes on employing this defensive maneuver from time to time. However, in adulthood omnipotent phantasy gets covered over with layers of denial, deluded thinking, and false self—the more absurd aspects of the world we live in (i.e. religious, political, and financial institutions).

We fear endings. We fear things we cannot put to words. In short we fear uncertainty and we fear the certainty of finitude. In our necessary disvowal of endings we keep these fears in the penumbra of experience. In this way our institutions help us layer over the fear with elaborated phantasy. We are kept comfortably numb by occluding that ‘something’ we fear. Our religions keep give us certainty through belief and our policies sell us the illusion of omnipotence. These maneuvers are the societal-level, adult elaborations of the infantile defense against primitive anxiety.

The fear of break down is the admixture of primitive anxieties and the drive toward death.  For both the infant and the adult, the badness that we cannot put to words drives us along.  It drives us away from what we know is behind that shadowy edge outside thinking. However, what is feared is not just death, but rather something connected to death. What we go on fearing but can’t name is the break down itself not what will cause it to happen. When the infant experiences the phantasy that he will be destroyed by the badness—by the badness that is the absence of his mother or the intolerable sensation of hunger—he fears what will happen. In this way he fears something more primitive than death. He fears the experience, not it’s cause. The infant fears disintegration. He fears a kind of obliteration; an intolerable absence much like the absence that happened to his mother when she left the room. This primitive anxiety goes on as a fear that pushes us toward a more cohesive state of being. The anxiety drives us through our psychic development via fear. We have to develop and learn new defenses in the face of this fear; otherwise we would collapse into psychosis or death.

So if primitive anxieties and their elaborated phantasies together with fear force or drive us to such defenses as denial, then how do we reconcile Freudian death drive? Death drive arguably pushes us in the other direction. Does primitive anxiety push us away from death? Does death drive push toward our end? In Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle the idea was put forth that we have within us a drive toward death. He describes this drive as a force that necessitates a return to what he describes as a pre-organic state. The concept of entropy is useful when trying to comprehend death drive. If all matter would rather be in it’s simplest form, then ,so to should we. Death drive put simply is the unconscious psychic imperative to achieve peacefulness through a return to atomic form. The infant who fears disintegration is being pushed by death drive away from this state. This is where the paradox of death drive deepens. The drive toward death pushes the infant into adulthood via primitive anxiety. In this way death forces us to live by the way in which it negates itself. The intolerable and unnamable fear that grew out of our most primitive anxieties has a drive at it’s core. Death creates a force through anxiety and fear such that we are driven to go on living. As an infant we are much like a polar opposite magnet. The closer we move in proximity to our end, the stronger that end pushes us away from it. We need that push, as we need the time to work out what our end will mean once we have actually met it. Death is the other magnet.

In the middle of our lives we can go on wondering at the penumbra of thought. Wondering at the edge of the thing that both happened and has yet to be experienced. We elaborate our defensive denial. Eventually that polar magnet push we were given as infants eventually loses momentum. We live and age. We are driven into the middle of our lives toward the other bookend. Hopefully by the time we reach it we will be ready to experience what has already happened.

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