‘That which in life might prefer death … ’ From the death drive to the desire of the analyst

Chapter 14
‘That which in life might prefer death … ’ From the death drive to the desire of the analyst

Véronique Voruz

From the death drive to the desire of the analyst: the title of this chapter names the trajectory of the formation of an analyst. The formation of the analyst must include the metamorphosis accomplished in the analytic experience – from that which in life might prefer death to a pacified subjective position indexed on the symptom, condition of possibility of the desire of the analyst.2

Freud may have invented the concepts necessary to structure the analytic process, but Lacan is the one who truly elaborated the question of the formation of the analyst;3 and he did so in the very terms elicited by the analytic experience. With Lacan, the formation and definition of the analyst differ radically from the practice of other human institutions. Lacan ‘s pragmatic reflection on what constitutes a ‘good’ analyst, and on the ways in which the position of a given subject as analyst could be ‘guaranteed’, impelled him to produce a series of extremely lucid developments on the love of one’s neighbour, ethics and desire.4 His rigorous analyses fundamentally reinterpreted – and so irreversibly displaced – the age-old philosophical questions of self, morality, conscience and responsibility.

This chapter will map a few of these displacements in the perspective chosen by Lacan himself: that of the possibility of ‘guaranteeing’ something of the position of the analyst through the analytic experience itself, and not through an empty reference to the Other of knowledge, of Law or social institutions. The first step on this journey starts from the Freudian invention of the concept of the death drive, initially as a tendency towards inorganicity. Rapidly, Freud deployed his concept to also account for the will to destruction (of self or other) in civilization – or evil. Lacan drew the consequences of Freud’s once scandalous claim – that ‘delight in evil’5 is not the privilege of perverts – for the position of the analyst: if the paramount concern of human life is to secure appropriate pathways for drive satisfaction (jouissance),6 how can anyone be entrusted with the position of analyst? It is in order to extract analytic practice from this conundrum that Lacan turned to Kant, and so formulated his first – and now axiomatic – ethical principle: not to give up on one’s desire.7 In ‘Kant with Sade’ Lacan pursues the reasoning initiated in Seminar VII and provokingly affirms the complementarity of Kant’s and Sade’s positions: both are structured on the model of a universal absolute, both extol the beyond of the pleasure principle, and the one reveals the truth of the other. In this fundamental – if mystifying – text Lacan also reveals the obscene jouissance of the object-voice enduring beyond the formalist screen of the Kantian moral law. In this respect, ‘Kant with Sade’ is Lacan’s ‘de-Oedipalized’ response to Freud’s discreet intimation8 of a direct relationship between the categorical imperative and the superego. Since the universal is structurally superegoic, Lacan seeks to counterpoise the ethics of psychoanalysis to all universal absolutes. In the analytic process the subject encounters the possibility of isolating the ‘axiom’ of his or her own singular jouissance – or the fantasy:9 the ‘universal’ law of one’s singularity. The chapter will close with an assessment of Lacan’s successive conceptualizations of the end of analysis, which he consistently used as a compass for his theorization of an ethics of psychoanalysis.

The death drive – a Freudian name for ‘evil’

Despite its mythical name of Thanatos, despite being, in Lacan’s words, a notion which is ‘very suspect in itself’,11 the death drive is the first concept to name something of ‘evil’ without resorting to the mystical, the religious, the demonic or the otherworldly12 – tautological causalities that substantiate phantasmatic interpretations of the Other as malevolent. In naming the death drive – in naming what, precisely, resists nomination in so far as it is not fully of the order of language – Freud also began circumscribing a hitherto secret logic, starting with the fact that, in Lacan’s words, there is that which in life might prefer death. This very precise formulation goes straight to the heart of what Freud had to accept at the end of his life – that there exists a form of satisfaction which goes against the grain of the subject’s good, perceived in the classical sense of well-being, self-preservation; that the appeal of ‘perversions’13 may be more potent that ‘normal genital’ love; and that people are undeniably far more attached to such a satisfaction than to pleasure. To this day, Freud’s ‘metapsychological imagining’,14 his ‘creationist sublimation’,15 remains infinitely relevant to understanding the human condition – though Lacan’s sober ciphering of the death drive in the formula of the fantasy makes it a less dramatic, more operative concept. For what human institution but psychoanalysis still takes seriously the affirmation that there is happiness in evil/suffering?

Beyond the pleasure principle

What is the pleasure principle, and how does Freud introduce its beyond? A central tenet of Freudian psychoanalysis is that mental life is regulated through the combined operation of the pleasure and reality principles.16 After Lacan’s demonstration in Seminar VII, we can assert that ‘the opposition between the pleasure principle and the reality principle is not founded … since the latter is merely a modification of the former, destined to ensure its success’.17 The pleasure principle, whose aim is also furthered by the reality principle, occupies centre-stage in psychoanalytic theory until 1920. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud is forced to recognize that there also exists a compulsion powerful enough ‘to disregard the pleasure principle’18 in the mental apparatus. Two phenomena, manifest in the analytic experience, had alerted him to the insistence of something disrupting the regulation of psychic life by the pleasure principle in its homeostatic19 mission: the negative therapeutic reaction,20 and repetition-compulsion. These phenomena led Freud to substantially modify his theory of the drives.

Developing his reflection through a series of situations in which people are seen to repeat unpleasurable events – such as traumatic neuroses or the fortda play which repeats the separation from the mother21 – Freud articulates the following hypothesis: ‘we shall find courage to assume that there really does exist in the mind a compulsion to repeat which overrides the pleasure principle’.22 This leads him to redefine ‘an instinct [as] an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things’.23 All instincts therefore tend towards this aim, and the aim of all life is death. Life is an ever-lengthening detour on the way to death.24 In turn, self-preservation is accounted for by the want to return to inorganic life in the way and state that suits the organism. So death commands the pathways of life: ‘the organism wishes to die only in its own fashion’.25 On the other hand, sexual instincts seek to prolong life, so the dynamic of life arises from the struggle between these two instincts: tendency to inorganicity versus survival of the species via the individual (Eros). Later on in the text, Freud supposes that death and life instincts are ‘associated from the first’,26 a key point for his subsequent elaboration. Finally, Freud concludes that since the pleasure principle is actually ‘a tendency operating in the service of a function whose business it is to free the mental apparatus entirely from excitation’,27 the ‘pleasure principle seems actually to serve the death instincts’.28

The dualism of the drives: fusion/defusion

Freud’s drive theory is consistently dualistic, which is logical, since he situates this dualism as the economic root cause of all psychical conflicts. Freud first divided the drives into ‘ego instincts’ and sexual libido, and then into ego instincts and object instincts (to account for the libidinal investment of the ego). In Beyond the Pleasure Principle he once again reconfigures this supposed dualism to account for the subject’s obdurate repetition of unpleasurable experiences, his obscure attachment to his symptoms:

However, this new dualism is tempered by the theory of the fusion of instincts, which Freud returns to in section IV – entitled ‘Two classes of instincts’ – of The Ego and the Id:

This hypothesis [of the dualistic answer to the problem of the goal and purpose of life] throws no light whatever upon the manner in which the two classes of instincts are fused, blended, and alloyed with each other, but that this takes place regularly and very extensively is an assumption indispensable to our conception.30

By fusing with the libido, the death instinct can be diverted away from the individual and on to the outside world, where it manifests itself as an ’instinct of destruction’.31 In this text Freud also suggests that if there is the possibility of fusion, there can also be a ‘defusion’.32 Thus Freud makes of sadism the ‘representative’33 of the death instinct in situations of both fusion and defusion:

The sadistic component of the sexual instinct would be a classical example of a serviceable instinctual fusion; and the sadism which has made itself independent as a perversion would be typical of a defusion, though not of one carried to extremes. … we perceive that for purposes of discharge the instinct of destruction is habitually brought into the service of Eros.34

In other words, in a ‘normal’ individual, Eros and Thanatos are fused in roughly equal proportions: the death drive is integrated in the sexual relation as a sadistic component securing the discharge of the tension that it represents. Sheer sadism, in the form of the instinct of destruction exerted on to another person outside of a sexual relation, would be indicative of a defusion – though not a complete one – between Eros and Thanatos.

A paradoxical satisfaction

One year after The Ego and the Id, Freud takes the fusion between life and death instincts to its logical conclusion in The Economic Problem of Masochism (1924) – namely, that self-destruction can be ‘enjoyable’ because discharge of the death drive can be sexualized and so provide a libidinal satisfaction.

This dense, technical text warrants a close reading: not only does it provide Freud’s final position on the organizing principles of psychic life; it also develops a fine classification of the various manifestations of masochism – no longer as a mere vicissitude of the drive, but also as accounting for a satisfaction which the subject values over and above his or her own life: in this text, Freud accepts the existence of a primary masochism.35

The principles of psychic life

Since it is not possible to understand masochism in terms of the pleasure principle – in instances of masochism, the pleasure principle, supposed watchman over our lives, is paralysed – Freud investigates the relationship of the pleasure principle to life/death instincts. He had previously argued that the principle governing all mental processes was a tendency towards stability, or the ‘Nirvana principle’,36 and equated the Nirvana principle with the pleasure principle, stating that it was in the service of the death instincts:37 its function is to guard against the demands of the life instincts, which ‘disturb the peace’. But in The Economic Problem of Masochism Freud changes his position, because not all of pleasure and unpleasure can ‘be referred to an increase or decrease of a quantity’ (as in Beyond the Pleasure Principle): thus there can be ‘pleasurable tensions and unpleasurable relaxations of tension’.38 Pleasure and unpleasure depend, ‘not on a quantitative factor’, but on a relevant qualitative characteristic (e.g. ‘rhythm’ or ‘sequence’). Although the Nirvana principle, ‘belonging as it does to the death instinct’, may have become the pleasure principle in living organisms, they are not to be regarded as one. And the source of this modification can only be ‘the life instinct, the libido, which has thus, alongside of the death instinct, seized upon a share in the regulation of the processes of life’.39

As a result, Freud reformulates his psychic principles as follows. ‘The Nirvana principle expresses the trend of the death instinct’ (the aim of which is ‘quantitative reduction’); ‘the pleasure principle represents the demands of the libido’ (the aim of which resides in ‘the qualitative characteristic of the stimulus’); and the ‘reality principle represents the influence of the external world’ (by organizing the ‘postponement of discharge’).40 These principles coexist, as they have different aims, but the pleasure principle remains the watchman over our lives. The Nirvana and pleasure principles, respective organizing principles of death and life instincts, are, for most intents and purposes, as one. It is the Oedipus complex that will disturb this ‘natural’ harmony by prohibiting aggression and inducing a defusion of instincts via the desexualization of the parental figures.

A metapsychological account of masochism

Freud then considers the puzzling phenomenon of masochism, of which he distinguishes three forms: ‘as a condition imposed on sexual excitation’ or erotogenic masochism; ‘as an expression of the feminine nature’ or feminine masochism;41 and ‘as a norm of behaviour’ or moral masochism. The most ‘incomprehensible’ form, erotogenic masochism (pleasure in pain), lies ‘at the bottom of the other two forms’ and so is the form that requires elucidation.42 To explain the mysterious confluence of pleasure and pain, Freud refers to his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. In the Three Essays Freud had argued that sexual excitation was produced ‘economically’, once a certain threshold of tension due to pleasure was passed.43 By analogy, here he suggests that beyond a certain threshold, the tension due to pain/unpleasure produces sexual excitation. This analogy provides ‘the physiological foundation on which the psychical structure of erotogenic masochism would afterward be erected’.44

But Freud is also after a metapsychological explanation, accounting for the ‘regular and close connections of masochism with its counterpart in instinctual life, sadism’.45 So erotogenic (or primary) masochism is explained by reference to the dualism of the drives: the libido must render the death instinct sufficiently ‘innocuous’ to prolong life. To that effect a portion of death instincts is diverted to the outside world under the form of destructiveness, mastery, will to power and aggression. Another portion is placed directly in the service of the sexual function as sadism. Yet another portion is not taken outwards: with the help of the accompanying sexual excitation, it becomes libidinally bound there as primary masochism:46 it is the residuum of ‘the phase of development in which the coalescence … between the death instinct and Eros took place’.47 So all is ‘well’ prior to the formation of the superego. It is Freud’s analysis of moral masochism that exposes the instinctual impasse of civilized life.

Moral masochism appears to have lost all connection with sexuality. In other forms of masochism, the command of the loved one is essential to the fantasy. Here ‘the suffering itself is what matters … the true masochist always turns his cheek whenever he has a chance of receiving a blow’.48 Is this just defused death drive? To answer this question Freud distinguishes moral masochism from ‘unconscious’ guilt (evidenced by a need for punishment) and conscious guilt, where ‘the ego reacts with feelings of anxiety (conscience anxiety) to the perception that it has not come up to the demands made by its ideal, the superego’.49 The superego is crystallized by introjection into the ego of the parental figures, entailing a defusion of instincts, desexualized through the incest prohibition installed by the Oedipus complex. This defusion produces the severity of the superego and it is at this point that Freud states, without further ado, that ‘Kant’s Categorical Imperative is thus the direct heir of the Oedipus complex’.50 By contrast, moral masochism is a re-sexualization of conscience and morality,51 and the moral masochist is caught between the sadism of the superego towards the ego and the masochism of the ego: ‘in order to provoke punishment from this last representative of the parents, the masochist must do what is inexpedient, must act against his own interests, must ruin the prospects which open out to him in the real world and must, perhaps, destroy his own real existence’.52

The Freudian impasse

The Economic Problem of Masochism evidently prefigures Civilization and its Discontents, a text in which Freud argues that the Oedipus complex produces an instinctual impasse for the subject:53 the condition of civilization is incest prohibition, which produces a defusion of the drives through the desexualization of the parental figures. When desexualization fails, the subject is the hapless seat of moral masochism. When it is successful, the subject’s ego is the object of the superego’s sadism in the guise of the – conscious or unconscious – sense of guilt, for the death drive can rarely manifest itself outwards in destruction, mastery etc., at least in times of peace. The double renunciation upon which civilization is premised produces aggression which either feeds the superego or is deployed in sublimation.54 In this perspective, ethics is a cultural solution to the aggression produced, then repressed by the Oedipus:

The cultural super-ego has developed its ideals and set up its demands. Among the latter, those which deal with the relation of human beings to one another are comprised under the heading of ethics. People have at all times set the greatest value on ethics, as though they expected that it in particular would produce especially important results. And it does in fact deal with a subject which can easily be recognized as the sorest spot in every civilization. Ethics is thus to be regarded as a therapeutic attempt – as an endeavour to achieve, by means of the command of the super-ego, something which has so far not been achieved by means of any other cultural activities.55

Conversely, the death drive is the condition of possibility of civilization; once desexualized it provides the instinctual force necessary to sustain ethics. But in the Freudian configuration, happiness can exist only in suffering/evil, as we substitute sadism towards the self (in the guise of the categorical imperative) for sadism towards others (destruction, mastery, etc.).

Lacan’s monism of the drive

What are we to make of Freud’s complex typology of ‘enjoyed’ suffering? First, we note that Freud had to hypothesize the fusion of instincts in order to account for the ‘happiness in evil’ experienced by the subject beyond the pleasure principle. I won’t much develop this point here but it is worth noting that the dualism of the drives is strikingly artificial in Freud’s work, since so many phenomena are only understandable in terms of their fusion. Lacan remarked upon it in Seminar II:

This is why, to quote Miller’s characterization, Lacan substituted a monist concept of the drive for Freud’s strained dualism. In the monist perspective Lacan used the term ‘fantasy’ to ‘concentrate everything that pertains to libidinal satisfaction in Freud’.57 All modalities of libidinal satisfaction (including masochism and sadism) are thus referred to the imaginarized versions of object a organizing the oral, anal, scopic and invocatory drives. This is why Lacan’s reflection on ethics in ‘Kant with Sade’ takes the fantasy as axiom of the subject’s satisfaction.

Second, when Freud apprehends the ethical concepts of conscience and morality, he does so in connection with the beyond of the pleasure principle. In so doing, he demonstrates the equivalence between the superego and the moral law, which are modalities of jouissance. In Lakant, Miller summarizes the import of The Economic Problem of Masochism as follows:

We recall the thesis according to which moral masochism has no erogenous zone because moral conscience itself is erogenized. Moral conscience, a product of so-called renunciation, cannot impose renunciation to the drive, which enjoys its very renunciation. I therefore had to demonstrate that the superego, the law, is nothing other than a strategy of the drive, a concealment of the drive.58

In the last analysis, The Economic Problem of Masochism demonstrates that the rationalization intrinsic to moral law acts as a ‘concealment of the drive’.

‘Love thy neighbour’ and the position of the analyst

The Economic Problem of Masochism is Freud’s metapsychological contribution to the question of ethics and morality. In Civilization and its Discontents Freud describes human relations in very Sadean terms. And in Reading Seminars I and II, Miller argues that Lacan’s ‘Kant with Sade’ is a ‘rewriting’ of The Economic Problem of Masochism.60 The very titles of the great psychoanalytic writings on ethics signal clearly enough the surprising connection, first voiced by Freud, between ethics and sadism/masochism, and so between ethics and perversion. Thus Roudinesco, in her book on perversion, phrases the Freudian contribution as follows:

[Freud] conferred an essentially human dimension on the perverse structure – [as] jouissance in evil/suffering, the eroticization of hatred, but not as a defect, degeneracy, an anomaly … This is how Freud introduced what one could call a universal of the perverse difference in the psyche: every human being is inhabited by crime, sex, transgression, madness, negativity, passion, égarement, inversion etc. … By showing that the perverse disposition is specific to man, that each subject carries a potential for it within himself – and so that pathology clarifies the norm – Freud affirmed that the only limit to the abject deployment of perversion came from a sublimation incarnated in the values of love, education, Law and civilization.61

So morality is sustained by a sublimation of the attraction for sin/fault. For Lacan this connection between sublimation and perversion, between ethics and desire, is more than sufficient to question the very possibility of a psychoanalytic ethics. If ethics is of the order of desire, then what could its object-cause be?

The fallacy of moral satisfactions

Until Lacan, the post-Freudian doctrine of counter-transference62 was considered sufficient to deal with the position of the analyst, problematized only as an occasional entanglement with the patient’s unconscious. However Lacan, taking Freud seriously, started to push the question of the analyst’s position as early as in his Seminar I. To provide a quick characterization of what is at stake here, we must distinguish psychoanalysis from other forms of social bond. According to Brousse,63 and unlike in other modalities of the social bond (i.e. other modalities of transference), the analyst eventually unveils the mechanism of the transference itself, as this is the only way to free the analysand from the repetition of his or her pattern of alienation in the Other. The analyst’s direction of the treatment is thus devised to disable the root cause of the Other’s power on the analysand – which, with Lacan, we know to be the fantasy.

So what could possibly lead anyone to want to occupy such a ‘selfless’ position, a position in which there should be nothing to gain at the level either of narcissism or of perverse jouissance? Indeed, since Freud, we can no longer be blind to the ‘fallacy of the satisfactions said to be moral’, as Lacan put it in his Seminar on transference (a year after the Ethics):

If we are to take seriously Freud’s denunciation of the fallacy of the satisfactions said to be moral, in so far as there is aggressiveness hidden there which succeeds in stealing the jouissance of the one who exercises it at the same time as it inflicts the consequences of its misdeed on his social partners [ … then] we have to wonder in what ways we can operate honestly with desire. That is to say – how to preserve desire in the act, the relation between desire and the act?64

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