ΑρχικήΨηφιακή ΒιβλιοθήκηΆρθραΆρθρα (Αγγλικά)Renik, Owen - "Freud's Thanatos"

Renik, Owen - "Freud's Thanatos"


Owen Renik, M.D.

Besides being a student of myth, Freud was, himself, a powerful mythmaker.  We know that he was aware of this imaginative, creative trend in his character and was at pains to balance it with rigorous empiricism:   He allowed himself grand theoretical formulations, but he also remained completely ready to discard his theoretical formulations if they were not confirmed by his clinical observations.  


One of the best known instances of Freud's willingness to set aside even a well established psychoanalytic proposition when he felt that it was contradicted by new evidence was the astonishing departure from his previous theory of motivation that he presented in 1920 when he published "Beyond the Pleasure Principle."   In that radical essay, Freud rejected his longstanding idea that dreams and symptoms arise as wishfulfillments produced in the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of unpleasure.  He asserted instead that considerations of pleasure and unpleasure are secondary functions, adduced after the fact to psychic phenomena that are put in place by more basic motivations, including a compulsion to repeat in the service of thanatos, an instinct to seek the nirvaana of homeostasis-- thus, a death instinct.


This dramatic revision of Freud's theory of motivation was more than an intellectual departure.  The concept of a death instinct brought with it crucial clinical implications.  It has had and continues to have a decisive influence (perhaps most conspicuously in the Kleinian group, but among psychoanalysts of all theoretical orientations) upon the way treating analysts understand and address aggression in their patients.  The psychoanalytic approach to paranoia and depression, and to sadomasochistic phenomena, was completely altered by what Freud said in his 1920 essay.  Previously, aggression had been conceptualized as an instrumental capacity, brought into play in the service of the pleasure-unpleasure principle--   a repertoire of behaviors, used to eliminate obstacles to pleasure or sources of unpleasure.  But by postulating thanatos, a death instinct, Freud directed analysts to conceptualize aggression as a motivation in and of itself.   Psychic conflict was no longer seen fundamentally as competition among motivations produced in the service of pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of unpleasure.  Psychic conflict came to be viewed as originating in a more basic antagonism:  between  Eros and Thanatos, life instinct and death instinct, libido and aggression.


What were the findings that prompted Freud to leave behind his initial, experience-near and down-to-earth conception of motivation, the one which held that pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of unpleasure are the fundamental human tropisms?   The findings concerned, as always, clinical phenomena--  Freud's preferred data of observation.  Certain recalcitrant masochistic symptoms, chief among them insoluble negative therapeutic reactions, caused Freud to reconsider the primacy of the pleasure-unpleasure principle.  Freud was, by his own report, able to achieve brilliant success with negative therapeutic reactions based upon unconscious guilt.  Inasmuch as guilt derives from a libidinal wish to maintain parental love, conflicts between guilt and the pursuit of other instinctual satisfactions were entirely understandable to Freud in terms of wishfulfillment, consistent with the pleasure-unpleasure principle.  However, Freud encountered certain negative therapeutic reactions for which no resolution could be found through interpretation of unconscious guilt.  Some of his patients relentlessly maintained their suffering, despite what seemed to be compellingly successful analysis of their wishfullfillment fantasies.


Since it was a guiding insight for Freud that symptoms are structured like dreams,  Freud looked to dreams, the royal road to the unconscious, in his effort to illuminate the enigma of persistent self-destructive behavior;  and there he found incontrovertible reason to alter his theory of motivation.  It was Freud's observation that certain repetitive, unpleasurable post-traumatic dreams could not be successfully analyzed as wishfullfillment fantasies.  Freud refused to turn away from this contradiction to his existing theory.  He concluded that the pleasure-unpleasure principle was inadequate as a fundamental theory of motivation;  there had to be a more primary human urge that could express itself in repetition of unpleasurable experience.  To find an explanation for the compulsion to repeat unpleasurable experience, Freud felt obliged to unleash his mythopoetic talents.  He posited the existence of thanatos, a death instinct.


My purpose in this presentation is to show that Freud was in error when he made the clinical observations that led him to his famous, dramatic theoretical revision.  I intend to discuss, and to illustrate with a case example, how Freud was wrong about the phenomena that seemed to him to contradict the pleasure-unpleasure principle;  how they are, in fact, expressions of wishfullfillment in the service of the pleasure-unpleasure principle.  I will focus on Freud's misunderstanding of repetitve, unpleasurable post-traumatic dreams,  because Freud regarded these dreams as paradigmatic:  He believed--  and I think he was right!--  that his analysis of repetition of unpleasurable experience in dreams could be applied to repetition of unpleasurable experience in symptoms.  (Therefore, although I will not have time enough to discuss and illustrate in detail today, the correction I propose to Freud's misunderstanding of repetitive, unpleasurable post-traumatic dreams can be appliesd as well to certain symptomatic unpleasurable repetitions which he misunderstood, including so-called negative therapeutic reactions.)   After discussing how Freud, normally so clinically astute, failed to properly anayze unpleasurable post-traumatic dreams, I will suggest the reason why he went astray.


Frequently, the manifest content of a post-traumatic dream alters some aspect of the traumatic experience as the dreamer remembers it in conscious waking life.  Such post-traumatic dreams posed no problem for Freud.  He could easily analyze them, using his original theory of motivation, for the dream's manner of altering the traumtaic experiece can be identified as a wishfulfillment in the service of the pleasure-unpleasure principle.  An individual who loses a loved one has dreams in which the loved one appears, still alive;  someone who has been humiliated has dreams in which the humiliation is undone;  and so on. 


But it sometimes happens that a person who has undergone a traumatic experience has dreams in whose manifest content the traumatic experience is recreated with total accuracy;  not even the subtlest difference from what is consciously remembered can be detected.  Thus, the dreamer repetitively revisits an entirely unpleasurable experience.  No need for self-punishment out of unconscious guilt is discovered.  Suggesting that the dreamer is attempting to master the traumatic experience by "turning passive into active" accomplishes nothing.  Freud would not overlook these apparent exceptions to the pleasure-unpleasure principle.  He felt obliged to revise his theory in order to take account of them.  This was an impeccable decision on Freud's part, given his clinical observations.  However, his observations were incomplete.  Consider the following example, which concerns a patient named Nina.


Nina was enjoying her evening out to dinner when her date, a doctor, was suddenly called away to an emergency.  He asked Nina if she might find her own way home from the restaurant, and she agreed.  While searching for a taxi, she was accosted and robbed.  A very unsavory couple forced her into an alley and made her give over all of her money.  They did her no physical harm, but to insure their get-away they forced her to strip off her clothes, which they took with them.  They also showed her a knife and told her that they would find her and cut her pretty face up if she called the police.  Nina stayed in the alley for quite a while, too terrified and humiliated to move.  Eventually, she forced herself to go out to the street.  Luckily, before long a police patrol car happened by.  The officers wrapped Nina in a blanket, brought her to the station house, found her some clothes, took her report, and helped her call a friend to take her home.  The perpetrators were never found.


Six months later when I saw her, Nina was still in the grip of a severe post-traumatic stress disorder, not controlled by medication.  She was irritable, lethargic and distracted.  She was unable to work or to conduct a social life.  She had lost twenty pounds and she was only sleeping three or four hours a night.  She was afraid to close her eyes because she kept having terrible dreams in which she re-experienced the events of the robbery:  The awful couple grabbed her.  She could smell their foul breath and saw the knife, inches away.  She felt how cold it was to stand naked in the alley.  The dreams were accompanied by mounting, eventually overwhelming anxiety that drove her awake.  I questioned Nina extensively, and in no way could I identify the slightest discrepancy between Nina's waking memory of her traumatic experience and the depiction of it in her terrifying dreams.


This is exactly the type of post-traumatic dream that Freud concluded represented a repetition of unpleasurable experience, thus contradicting the pleasure-unpleasure principle.  In order to understand Freud's error, we must note two very important points concerning Nina's traumatic experience and the dreams that followed it--  two points that Freud overlooked in his analysis.


The first is that while Nina felt herself to be in grave danger when she was accosted by the robbers,  she ultimately emerged relatively unscathed.  She suffered little or no material harm.  In other words , the actual events, while harrowing and undoubtedly psychologically traumatic to Nina, constituted a story with a happy ending, so to speak, considering what Nina had been terrified might happen to her.


The second point is that the happy ending of the story was never included in the manifest content of Nina's post-traumatic dreams!  All the gruesome details of the abuse she suffered from the robbers were recapitulated, but the arrival of the patrol car and her eventually being brought to safety by the police never appeared in her dreams.  Therefore, although the manifest content of Nina's post-traumatic appeared to be an accurate depiction of her traumatic experience, in fact it was not--  it invoved an important distortion by omission, so that what was actually a narrow escape was portrayed as if it had been an unmitigated catastrophe.


These two features of Nina's post-traumatic dreams point the way to understanding them to be wishfulfillment fantasies in the service of the pleasure-unpleasure  principle. 


My analytic work with Nina revealed that as a child, she had been the apple of her father's eye.  Her parents' marriage was an unhappy one, and Nina's father's conspicuous favoritism of her aroused her mother's jealousy.  Nina could feel her mother's resentment and apprehended the reason for it.  When Nina reached puberty, her mother irritated her with incessant warnings that she would get in trouble if she wasn't careful about how she conducted herself with boys.  Nina's longstanding unconscious recognition of her oedipal victory, and the guilt it caused her, were crucial elements of her post-traumatic stress disorder. 


When her date with an attractive man led her into trouble, it seemed to Nina as if her mother's dire prediction were finally coming true.  Later, she could hardly believe that she had escaped the trouble she had gotten into.  In her dreams, she kept going over the events to make sure that she was not still in danger.  Nina going over her narrow escape in her dreams was a superstitious ritual, something like a soldier wearing "the bullet that missed" around his neck;  Nina's post-traumatic dreams were efforts at self-reassurace.  But because of her unresolved unconscious guilt, the reassurance had to be disguised.  Therefore, while she kept going over the story with a happy ending in her dreams, at the last minute she always cut the dream short so as to exclude the story's happy ending.  Nina wasn't entirely sure she deserved to emerge unharmed.  When Nina and I exposed the various conflicting motivations that underlay her post-traumatic dreams, the dreams faded away.  She could identify and reconsider some of her oedipal conflicts, and soon she was able to resume her life.


Nina's dreams are examples of the category of dream that Freud thought--  erroneously-- contradicted the pleasure-unpleasure principle .  In my clinical work, I've found that apparently accurate post-traumatic dreams are invariably dreamt by individuals who, like Nina, have emerged relatively unharmed from extremely frightening situations;  people who have had harrowing, but ultimately not materially damaging, experiences.   And I've also found that apparently accurate post-traumatic dreams are always, in fact, like Nina's dreams, inaccurate by virtue of omitting from the manifest content of the dreamer's actual escape from danger.  Everything I have been able to learn from colleagues confirms these generalizations from my own experience.


There is no need to posit the existence of a repetition compulsion, or of Thanatos, a death instinct, in order to understand apparently accurate post-traumatic dreams like Nina's.  On the contrary, thinking of such dreams as repetitions of unpleasurable experience is a misconception that makes successful analysis of them impossible.  In order to address such dreams properly in clinical work, it must be recognized that they are efforts at self-reassurance, designed to minimize the dreamer's unpleasurable experience of anxiety, and are therefore wishfullfillments, entirely consistent with the pleasure-unpleasure principle.  That was ture of Nina's dreams, and in my experience, it is always true of apparently accurate, unpleasurable, post-traumatic dreams.  


It is particularly curious that Freud in 1920 failed to see how apparently accurate, unpleasurable post-traumatic dreams represent the dreamer's disguised attempts at self-reassurance, because the mechanism of action is virtually the same one that Freud had explicated, twenty years earlier, in his discussion of typical examination dreams!  In a typical examination dream, Freud discovered, an inidividual reassures himself or herself about an examination soon to come by dreaming of an examination that he or she has successfully completed in the past;  in other words, the dream says:  I've succeeded before, and I can succeed again.  However, because of guilty conflict, the dreamer disguises his or her reassuring past experience as a failure, and awakens before successful completion of the prior examination can be depicted in the dream's manifest content--  the actual happy ending is omitted, just as in an apparently accurate post-traumatic dream;  and just as the case with an apparently accurate post-traumatic dream, the dreamer of a typical examination is driven awake by mounting anxiety.


Why did Freud not recognize another instance of a class of dream that he had already explained?  To my mind, an important clue is the fact that Freud presented his mistaken conclusion that apparently accurate post-traumatic dreams are repetitions of unpleasurable experience in an essay entitled "Beyond the Pleasure Principle"--  not entitled (it should be noted) "Beyond the Pleasure-Unpleasure Principle."  The abbreviation is telling.   


In Freud's original formulation of his theory of motivation, he was very concerned with avoidance of unpleasure, just as much as with pursuit of pleasure.  The two are separate basic tropisms, equally important, as evolutionary biology confirms--  even the one celled paramecium will swim toward a food element but will swim away from an electric shock;  similarly, but more complexly, the experience of pleasure and the experience of unpleasure are mediated by different pathways in the human central nervous system--  both crucial for adaptation and survival. 


The importance of avoidance of unpleasure, every bit as much as of pursuit of pleasure, was in the forefront of Freud's awareness in 1900, when he identified the function of typical examination dreams.  However, in the years that followed, Freud became increasingly preoccupied with his discoveries concerning infantile sexuality;  so much so, that the first decades of the twentieth century in psychoanalysis are sometimes dubbed the era of "id psychology."  Actually, the era of "pleasure psychology" would be a more accurate designation.  Freud's focus was on the protean forms in which pursuit of pleasure can manifest itself.  Sexual frustration, the absence of pleasure, was certainly much discussed.  But avoidance of unpleasure, which is altogether another matter, became a neglected topic until 1926, when Freud once again turned his attention to it and proposed his theory of signal anxiety.


So, in 1920, when Freud considered apparently accurate post-traumatic dreams, he was operating with an inadvertently truncated theory of motivation--  a pleasure principle, rather than a pleasure-unpleasure principle--  and the missing piece of his theory was exactly the one he needed, the same one he had used twenty years earlier to explicate typical examination dreams.  The purpose of apparently accurate post-traumatic dreams, like the purpose of typical examination dreams, is to avoid unpleasure:  the dreamer is attempting to reduce his or her anxiety via self-reassurance.  Freud had avoidance of unpleasure very much in mind in when he wrote "The Interpretation of Dreams,"  but he had forgotten about it, at least for the moment, by the time he wrote "Beyond the Pleasure Principle."  For that reason, whereas Freud properly appreciated that typical examination dreams are wishfullfillments, entirely consistent with the pleasure-unpleasure principle, he failed to appreciate the same structure in apparently accurate post-traumatic dreams.  On the basis of his misappreciation, he made an unnecessary excursion into the realm of myth--  one which has, I'm afraid, caused considerable difficulty for psychoanalysts and their patients ever since.


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