Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Thanatos

Beyond the Pleasure Principle

Beyond the Pleasure Principle

Sigmund Freud



Freud, S. (2004). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In J. Rivkin, & M. Ryan (Eds.), Literary Theory: An Anthology (Second ed., pp. 431-437). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.



The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation

—Jonathan Larson, Rent



Although Sigmund Freud received medical training as a student of psychiatry, he initially had an interest in philosophy and was likely influenced by his mentor Franz Brentano as he popularized psychoanalysis and the concept of the unconscious. Setting this path in motion, Freud studied with Jean-Martin Charcot, a noted neurologist who was also interested in mesmerism and hypnosis, which were popular at the end of the 19th century.  After working with Charcot, Freud modeled himself after Josef Breuer and began to use hypnosis in his practice and eventually came across a patient named Anna O., who allowed Freud to develop core tenants of psychoanalysis as he worked with her to uncover repressed trauma through a process that would later be called “the talking cure” (i.e., patients were placed into a relaxed state and encouraged to free associate). Although psychoanalysis has largely fallen out of favor in clinical practice—being displaced by schools of cognitive-behavioral therapy and neuroscience—it continues to assert influence in areas like film studies and the humanities. Largely influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, Freud’s thinking would go on to influence philosophers like Jacques Lacan (who maintained a clinical approach and Slavoj Žižek, fields like psychoanalytic feminism, and the vernacular of popular culture (e.g., id, ego, etc.).


This work revises Freud’s earlier thoughts regarding the pleasure principle (i.e., Eros), which is associated with the id and the desire to seek enjoyment and to avoid pain. Here a distinction should be made between Freud’s use of the terms “drive” (Gr. trieb) and “instinct” (Gr. instinkt):  instinct referred to an animalistic or base force that is essential to the functioning of an organism while a drive is not essential for survival and tends to cause erratic or unanticipated behavior in an individual. Thus, libido as a term that refers to the life instinct/force (i.e., the will to live) is differentiated from Eros, which refers to the desire to create life.

Beyond the Pleasure Principle is often cited for producing the juxtaposition of Eros and Thanatos (although it should be noted that Freud himself did not use the term in the work and “Thanatos” is attributed to psychologist Wilhelm Stekel, a follower of Freud). In contrast to Eros, which is the desire to create life, Thanatos can be characterized by the desire for extinction.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud notes a series of stories in which he observes individuals who seem compelled to repeat a particular incident although the event itself does not appear to provide any source of pleasure. Forced to reconsider the id/ego binary that was established by the pleasure/reality principles, Freud worked to expand his theory so that it could account for cases of trauma, repression, and the play of children.

The excerpt in Literary Theory is from the second and third sections (of six) in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and focuses on Freud’s thoughts concerning child’s play and repetition. Freud describes a situation in which a young child would throw a toy into the corner while uttering an approximation of the German word for “gone” (Gr. fort) and then “here” (Gr. da) upon recovering the toy. Freud suggests that the boy concocts the game in response to his separation from his mother:  by reenacting a traumatic situation the boy is able to take control and assert an active role in the proceedings. Freud makes several caveats here, noting that the child may be playing the game in order to benefit from some other unseen source of pleasure (in this case the pleasure principle would still apply) and that children furthermore tend to repeat things that they observe in life. Freud’s anecdote with the child also illustrates that although the pleasure principle and the death drive might be operating in opposition to each other, their presence is not mutually exclusive as pleasure could be experienced en route to the restoration of a balanced mental state.[1]

In contrast to the example introduced in Section II, in Section III Freud focuses on cases that have no origin in pleasure and are yet repeated.[2] Section III of Beyond the Pleasure Principle is more directly applicable to psychoanalysis (as is Section I’s discussion of trauma) with its mention of repression:  in this section Freud suggests that, in a process analogous to that of the child in Section II, patients are driven to repeat repressed thoughts until they are mastered and extinguished. In line with psychoanalysis’ overarching position, individuals are also not able to articulate the reasons for why they repeat their behavior (and, in fact, may not even be aware that they are doing so). Characterized by the term transference (i.e., the displacement of feelings onto other targets), Freud would also suggest that this process could be expanded beyond patients to the populace at large. In addition, Freud notes that the repressed thoughts are not themselves the issue here, suggesting that we should instead consider how the ego constrains and tries to protect our psyche through repression.

For additional information on the repetition compulsion, see Freud’s Erinnern, Wiederholen und Durcharbeiten (1914).

[1] See “It is clear that the greater part of what is re-experienced under the compulsion to repeat must cause the ego unpleasure, since it brings to light activities of repressed instinctual impulses. That, however, is unpleasure of a kind we have already considered and does not contradict the pleasure principle:  unpleasure for one system and simultaneously satisfaction for the other.” (434-435)

[2] “None of these things can have produced pleasure in the past…but no lesson has been learnt from the old experience of these activities having led instead only to unpleasure. In spite of that, they are repeated, under pressur of a compulsion.” (435)

Once More, With Feeling

For me, notions of trauma and Freud are inextricably bound with horror; or, perhaps more accurately, I choose to interpret these events in such a way. Of particular interest to me in the readings for this week was Caruth’s note that stories of trauma, at their core, touch upon a dual set of crises:  the crisis of death and the crisis of life (7). What meaning does life continue to hold after one has become intimately familiar with the inevitability of one’s own death? I continue to think about how individuals who have experienced trauma are forced into a sort of liminal space between worlds wherein life (as we know it) is made strange in the face of death; although achingly familiar, life is forever made uncanny.

Although Freud speaks to the interwoven themes of life and death in his treatment of Thanatos/Eros, I (again because of my horror background) tend to think about these issues as they are inscribed on, and enacted through, the body. Horror, of course, has a long history of obscuring the boundaries between sex, violence, life, and death (let’s not even get started on the modern history of the vampire love triangle), with a number of academic works uncovering the implications of this in psychoanalytic terms. Reading Caruth’s mention of trauma as accident, however, caused me to contemplate one of the works that I find myself continually revisiting over the years:  David Cronenberg’s Crash. (Note:  If you are not familiar with the movie, you may want to check out the Wikipedia page before watching the trailer—my undergraduate training was as a Pre-Med Biology major and I study horror in my current work so I fully recognize that my threshold may be far off the norm.)

The film (and the book that it is based upon) speaks to a point made by Caruth in the final section of the introduction:

“It is possible, of course, to understand that other voice, the voice of Clorinda, within the parable of the example, to represent the other within the self that retains the memory of the “unwitting” traumatic events of one’s past. But we can also read the address of the voice here, not as the story of the individual in relation to the events of his own past, but as the story of the way in which one’s own trauma is tied up with the trauma of another, the way in which trauma may lead, therefore, to the encounter with another, through the very possibility and surprise of listening to another’s wound. (8)”

I fully admit that Caruth means something slightly different in her passage but I think that there is something worth considering here with regard to trauma:  what does it mean that we can be divorced from ourselves and our world by trauma yet connected to others through trauma? Is this form of connection possible only because we seek to redress a deficit of some sort?

But there is also something fascinating to me about this intense desire to relive the trauma (in this case a literal accident) over and over in a way that does not necessarily speak to any sort of desire to “get over it” as one might expect from treatment of PTSD or in aversion therapy. There is something powerful, I think, in attempting to understand the mentality of those who do not relive trauma in order to escape it but instead have come to feel that the moment just prior to their death is precisely the moment in which they feel most alive. To be traumatized, then, is not to be subject to an ongoing process of everyday nightmares but to suffer the indignity of life’s ceaseless banality. Continuing this thought, we have seen over the course of the semester that the despondence and disconnection that potentially results from close contact with death can take on many forms and that the issue continues to pervade our current culture, if Buffy Summers (taking a cue from Doc Hata) is any example:

The notion of the voice and speech is interesting to me here because, like in all good musicals, Buffy sings only what she cannot say. In the end, perhaps this insistent desire to relive trauma is not about any sort of masochistic drive—assuming that most of us do not like to suffer per se—but rather an attempt to glimpse the knowledge that lies beyond the shock and the numbness:  to do it once more, with feeling.