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  • Maria R. de Almeida

Second topic: " Beyond the pleasure principle" (1920) . Why war? Repetition compulsion.


“Beyond the pleasure principle” is a key text because it is the first time that a very controversial topic is going to be theorised. Many authors have misunderstood this concept and deviated from Psychoanalysis theory : death drive. Extremely relevant topic for Psychoanalysis.

Until this text, Freud had spoken about the self - preservation instintos of the ego, about the self - preservation instincts of the specie, about sexual instincts. However in this text from 1920 it is the first time, he speaks about life drive and death drive. He also differentiated drive and instinct. Death drive is a limit, punctuation needed for life: our life has a limit, we know about that, one day… we will die, we are mortal. Life drive leads to movement, union, grouping … however, limits are also necessary: Imagine two lovers who kiss for 4 hours… they would suffocate. Limits are necessary for life: both, death and life drive, work for life. This is what Freud explains in this text: Eros, life drive and Thanatos, death drive. He also explains the compulsion repetition. All in all, in “Beyond the pleasure principle” Freud finally gave a theoretical explanation of matters he had been studying for almost 20 years (and already mentioned and initiated to work in the Interpretation of the Dreams).

When talking about the human being, we can not strictly talk about “instincts”: because we belong to the human kind, our reproduction is sexual, involving sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. Amoebas reproduced asexually by fission: they divide into two parts and… that is it. . However, human beings as many other animal kinds need to sexually reproduce so that the kind survives. Each of us, we die, but the kind survive. When talking about the human being, we can not talk about instincts because we talk: we have a psychic apparatus. This means that what for other animal kinds is instinctive, for us is pulsional. Human being is led by drives. Freud defined drive as “a mounting through which, sexuality gets involved in our psychic life”. According to Psychoanalysis, sexuality is not only geniality, it is everything which is touch by the word. This is what being a human being implies: our sexuality is involved in our psychic life: that is the drive.

The drive, in order to get involved into the psychic life, needs to be subject to the laws of the significants, of the unconscious. What does this mean? It means that we are touch by the language, our unconscious has the structure of the language. Even more: of poetry: in the unconscious, any word can combine with any word. We inhabit in the language. The theory of the unconscious is there but in order to make ourselves subject of the unconscious, each of us, needs to build our unconscious in our psychoanalysis session. Universities, hospitals… they are there but we need to make the work of conquering them. Any inheritance needs to be conquered: University of medicine is there but… I need to attend classes to conquer it. Same with a book, a bridge… Language anticipates us. Each subject is a significant for another subject: language is always before me: the sentences we say, will represent us in front of other subjects: if we don’t talk, we are not there.

Depending on what we say, we will be one thing or another. Whoever talks, even if we talk nonsense, to psychoanalysis, it is not nonsense… why? Because psychoanalysis does not care about if we talk nonsense or not, he cares about how we talk: how we punctuate the sentences, how we combine the words, where is the accent, why we stop there…: it is not about the content of what we say but about how we say it.

In psychoanalysis there are three dimensions:

  • Topic: How the psychic apparatus is structured, the anatomy. According to the Interpretation of the Dreams: conscience, preconscience and unconscious.

  • Dynamic: Later in the “The Ego and the Id” (1923) , adds some complexity: it is not only conscience, preconscienec and unconscious but: Id, Ego and superego. Each of them will relate to the others and to their conscience and unconscious parts. Dynamic dimension refers to how energy moves in all these relationships. The psychic apparatus becomes more complex.

  • Economic: Introduces the notion of quantity.

In the Interpretation of the Dreams, Freud had set out the first topic of the psychic apparatus: Conscience, preconscience and unconscious. In “Beyond the pleasure principle” and with the death drive, Freud introduced the economic dimension. In this dimension, what is the conscience? It is a perceptual organ, of the stimulus which come from the outside of the psychic apparatus but also from those which come from the inside: memories, phantasies,… If we know about them, is because they have accessed the conscience.

Then there is the preconscience. It is that “part” of our psychic apparatus containing a lot of information. If we make a small effort of attention, they can access the conscience. Where did I leave the keys? Lets see… I make an effort and remember where I was, where I put them… : it access the conscience. Separation between conscience and precosncience is a discontinuous line: it is possible for the information from the preconscience to access the conscience.

And finally, the unconscious: the separation between the unconscious and the conscience is continuos: it can not be traversed. The unconscious wish, cannot access directly the preconscious. In order to do that, it has to disguise, transform.. it needs to get a different appearance. There is only one way this unconscious whish can access the conscience: through the psychoanalytic interpretation. In fact, the interptreation in the unconscious wish of that specific person, Maria who is in her session. Remember that those unconscious wishes are: sexual, childish, repressed wishes.

How does the psychoanalytic interpretation operates? It takes the very last effects of the psychic apparatus: slips, symptoms, the speech of the dream.. It takes the effects to rebuild certain operations used by the psychic apparatus to transform the unconscious contents (remember the unconscious contents cannot access directly the conscience, they need to be trasnformed, disguised…) In psychoanalysis, from those last effects of the unconscious, we rebuild the uncosncious operations to be able to interpret the unconscious wish (which was transformed, digitised..).

The psychic apparatus of the first topic, as described in the Interpreation of the Dreams, was governed by the principle: pleasure - displeasure. What does this principle estates? In the psychic apparatus, there is an amount of psychic energy. When that amount is increased, tension appears. This tension generates displeasure. If the tension is very high, it can even generates pain (the case of melancholia, for example). What does the apparatus do when this happens? It discharges energy to reduce tension, displeasure. This mechanism would automatically work to reduce displeasure or generate pleasure. According to this principle, in force in the first topic of 1900, psychic apparatus tends to cero tension, to the minimum tension. However, the minimum tension… is death. That is why, there always be some tension in the apparatus, even when the tendency is to reduce it, otherwise… we will be dead. This is how Freud introduced the economic dimension of the apparatus: it is related to quantity.

Lets now focus on the first topic, governed by the pleasure principle. In 1920, in “Beyond the pleasure principle”, Freud set out that it is not accurate to say that the psychic apparatus is governed by the pleasure principle. If that what the case, most of our psychic processes would look for pleasure but… there are so many contradictions in real life: there is a strong tendency in the soul to seek pleasure, however, there are other forces opposing that tendency which results in the inaccurate fulfilment of the pleasure principle (in reality, there is not such a tendency to reduce the tension in the apparatus). This led Freud to conclude that this principle corresponds with the primary functioning of the psychic apparatus. However, if the psychic apparatus is only governed by the pleasure principle, without taking into account the limits imposed by reality, it could be dangerous (life threatening) for the individual.

It is interesting to note that this text was written in 1920, after the first World war. War might have helped Freud to explain that there must be something else apart from the seek of pleasure. Otherwise, how can we explain… war? A. Einstein once asked Freud in a letter, “why war”1. Freud wrote a text about it, concluding “that is how the human being is”.

Appart from the pleasure principle, the self - preservation instincts of the Ego (protection of the subject from reality) lead the pleasure principle to be completed by the reality principle. What does this principle implies? If we want to achieve certain pleasure, we can not obtain it directly, we need to take a “way around”, we need to postpone the attainment of pleasure to include reality. Example: ” I want to become a doctor”. Ok, you then need to go to the Medicine University, study for 7 years and then pass the exam”. This is the reality principle: without abandoning the seek of pleasure, we need to accept the displacer for some time to be able to achieve the pleasure we are aiming for.

The pleasure principle continues governing the most primitive part of our apparatus, the one related to the sexual instincts (although, remember we have explained before, we can not talk about “instincts” but drive). Sexual drive is difficult to educate and it can end up leading the apparatus, even damaging it. If we are led by these primitive impulses (in the sense of childish)… they need to be repressed, otherwise they can lead an adult to risky situations. This substitution of the pleasure principle by the reality principle, could partly explain displeasure in our every day life. However, another part of displeasure comes from the conflicts we experience in our psychic apparatus: repressed sexual childish wishes and the barriers to those primitive wishes. Most of the energy in our psychic apparatus comes from those impulses arising from different stages in our psychic constitution, childish stages when we are already gone through a process of education, civilisation which has led us to repressed those impulses. However, they do not disappear, they generate the energy of the psychic apparatus and sometimes give place to conflicts.

Because of these aspiration of immediate pleasure, some of the impulses are incompatible with the others. The rest of them, get together and give place to the ego. “I am like this, I am like that”. That is the ego. Those impulses incompatible with the ego are repressed: “no, you can not do that, it is too childish”. They are separated from the ego. If these sexual impulses indirectly meet satisfaction or substitutive satisfaction, for example in a symptom 2 , this will produce certain displeasure in the psychic apparatus. Every time there is a substitute satisfaction and certain jouissance in the symptom, there will be displeasure. What ever is felt like pleasure by the unconscious, it is felt like displeasure by the ego: the same matter can be fullfiling a wish at unconscious level and, at the same time, causing discomfort to the Ego.

Lets see an example: an obsessive neurotic symptom. One of Freud’s patients, in the introductory lessons in the Interpretation of the Dreams, has a ritual: she wakes up, runs to the adjoining room, call the servant and when the servant arrives, she does not ask her to do anything. She just positioned herself in a way that the servant could see a spot on the table and then asks her to leave. She did this ritual every day. It was not a severe ritual but she had to do it every single day. She began her psychoanalytic therapy and this symptom drew Freud’s attention. He wonder… what does this symptom mean? Psychonalysis allows to decompose the symptom to the point that the woman get to the knowledge she had in herself, this knowledge appears disguised: it was related to the wedding night, when she got married to a husband who was impotent, there was no sexual intercourse and she was very frustrated. Her husband stained the bed with a red ink so that the servant didn’t notice his impotence. Since then, she had a very frustrated relationship with her husband, they did not even live together but her morality did not allow her to divorce him. The symptom told that story, but not only that story: in her symptom, the woman gave back to her husband the so much desired potency he never had. She made the servant watch the red spot on the table but, at the same time, she kept her discomfort. What was pleasant to her unconscious, it was unpleasant to her ego (she kept herself sick and incapable to divorce from her husband and to have an independent life). In the symptom there are two things: the substitute satisfaction and the discomfort (for the ego; being sick).

These impulses always try to show up, that is exactly the main condition of the unconscious: he does not care about (rational) logic, morality or convenience: he just wants to show up. Because he can not show up directly, he does it through symptoms, slips, oversights…that is how the unconscious “talks”. Repression is also part of the unconscious and refrain the unconscious from showing as he is, otherwise it will lead us through primitive, wild and childish roads. Adults will be led to troubled lives or insanity.

At this point Freud was thinking : there might be something else other than the tendency to reduce the tension of the apparatus to cero, which as we know, it is impossible because we would be dead. The apparatus regulates the tension. When the tension increases, it triggers displeasure so the apparatus tends to discharge that tension through an action or psychic elaboration. Every stimulus has to be elaborated somatically and psychically. When there are issues to free up stimulus somatically anxiety neurosis can happen for example. Or if everything is elaborated psychically, melancholia can happen. What does this mean? That all stimulus need to be elaborated both somatically and psychically? It means that the apparatus look for ways to reduce that tension, which elicits displeasure when its quantity increases. This was in the first topic: conscience, preconscience and unconscious. Freud added complexity to the apparatus, he was thinking…: “there must be soemthing else”. At that time, the first war was happening, he was studying the human being. What can lead a human being to war?

He then began to study the traumatic neurosis which happen when someone has an accident , something took him by surprise, he was not ready for it, anxiety is protective: traffic accidents … or other situations in which the individual has faced danger of death. These clinical pictures were similar to hysteria as they showed motive disturbances but they also experience suffering which is more typical from melancholia or hypochondria clinical pictures. All in all, these traumatic neurosis present a mixed clinical picture whose main feature is intense emotional shock: the fright (occasioned by an accident's actual threat to life) has taken the individual by surprise. Fear and anxiety are protective. The difference between health and disease is a difference of quality: anxiety and fear is normal to an extent but when there is too much… it triggers a symptom. Normal is substitution, movement… psychic apparatus is in constant transformation. When libido is stopped, we sicken. in traumatic neurosis, there has not been prior anxiety, it happens all of a suden. In their dreams, which are the royal road to the unconscious, they go back to that situation that caused them the trauma. Example: The patient had a train accident and every night he dreams he is having the accident again. Or soldiers who come back to war and they dream over and over again which that terrible scene in which his friend was killed in front of them. We need to be careful and do not mistake traumatic neurosis with the theory of trauma (which was discarded before the interpretation of the dreams). Dreams have this fixation with the trauma. Hysterical individuals in a way, also experiences reminiscences: there was a second scene which reminds the first scene: it is as if the patient lived again past situations of his life. Since the Interpretation of the Dreams (1900) we know dreams are sexual childish repressed wishes: in the dream the wish is fulfilled, in reality, no. Dream is a very civilised way to fulfil those childish wishes. If this is the case, these patients should dream they were cured but… they dream over and over again with the trauma. Freud wonder… why is this? Maybe is related with the masochist tendency of the ego? He began to study those phenomena but at the same time, he was invited to a house where there was a one and half year old child. Good researcher as he was, Feud observes the child has a game: he throw away all the objects around him and when he throws them he goes: “Oooh..” Sometimes but not always, he pull the cord to have the object back and the goes: “daaa”. (In German “Fort” : out; “da”: here). The child plays this game. Freud was thinking… : “ok, he does the “fort” but to do the “da” because it is what gives him pleasure but then… why would he sometimes only do the first part of the game - which is the painful one- and not the second?

The whole game is the disappearence - appearance but he does more times the first part: he makes the toy disappear even when the biggest pleasure comes with the appearance of the toy. All this game is related with the cultural function: all human beings need to allow their moms to leave. In this example, the mother of the child had a job and at the same time, take care of the child. In his game, the child was elaborating the absence of his mom, the separation. Detachment from the mother cause displeasure, in some children even pain (some child in fact never manage to detach form their mothers). This is what draw Freud’s attention, if detachment cause displeasure, how does the unpleasant part of the game be aligned with the principle of pleasure? When the child is “abandoned” by the mother, the child plays a passive role. In the game, the child takes an active role: It is no longer the mom who comes and goes, now it is him who make the toys appear or disappear. He is passing from a passive role with his mom to an active role with the objects.

Another example: when children repea when they are playing something that shocked them: they go to the doctor who gives them an injection. When they play they take an active role, led by the wish of being adults, and… they cannot take revenge on the doctor who made them suffer but they can take revenge on their toys or younger brother!

We could also think, that the game does not contradict the pleasure principle because it is a way for the child to elaborate those matters he finds painful (detachment from the mother). Freud kept thinking there was something else apart from the pleasure principle.

Psychoanlaysis, as any other dispciplines, takes time to be aprehended. At the beginning, Freud thought it was about making conscious the unconscious. He also expected the patient to confirm that the interpretation was right. Why? Because remembering is in itself a way to elaborate. Freud is approaching repetition compulsion. There are always resistances to the analysis, what are they? A force against the unconscious contents. Freud realised that patients dont remember all the time: it is not about what happened in reality, it could be something he fantasized about. The thing is that the patient does not remember what made him sick but he does remember his symptom. The technique used on Psychoanalysis is “free association in transference”. What is “transference”? In the relation psychoanalyst - patient, will appear a force field in which, all the matters that happened in the patient’s life: with his partner, friends work colleagues…, sons… will now happen with the analyst.: there has been transference: certain psychic contents such as affects, feelings, memories… which are in the patient’s life, are transferred to the relationship with the psychoanalyst: what happen in the patient’s life, now happens in the relationship with the analyst. This is what we called “transference neurosis”. And in fact, this is exactly what we were looking for: the patient does not longer need this traumatic neurosis or hysteria or obsessive neurosis because he already has one neurosis: The life of the patient is cured and now what is sicken is the body of the transference. It is like an artificial neurosis.

What does the psychoanalysis do? There are matters that anguished the subject because they happened to him when he was still not mature enough. He can remember them in his session and now that he is no longer a child (it seems like the patient is fixed to childhood in certain things) and is ready to face them, taking into account the reality principle and with psychoanalytical interpretation, including new sentences, he will be able to see things different and realise that things were not so scary as he thought. That would be the ideal situation: talk about those matters, elaborate them. Sometimes, transference put some of those things in action: the patient had a peptic ulcer and now he does a whole in the transference relationship and he arrives always 15 mins late to his session - for example. Why does this happen? Because the repressed, returns. Those sexual childish wishes were repressed and are now part of the unconscious. That does not mean that because they were repressed they say there without moving, not at all. Remember that the unconscious only objective is to show up, in any way he can: dreams, lapsus, slips… Sometimes the only way the unconscious has to show up is through a symptom. This is what Freud called “repetition compulsion". In the neurotic patients, there is something which repeats over and over again: the symptom, the melancholia, the obsessive behaviour… There is something that repeats over and over again: Ay… and again… and look I had resolutions not to do that again… This happens to everyone, not only to the neurotic patients. Example: woman who marries three times and all those times the husband gets sick and she has ti take care of him until he dies.

Lets know talk about the second topic, the dynamic one. Now there is Ego conscious and Ego repressed. There is now a part of the ego which is conscious: “I am this, I am that…, I like this…” and another part of the ego which is repressed, that about my ego I dont want to know about. Example: There is someone I dot like at all and it is because I see in him something from myself that I dont like.

One of the resistances to our analysis is the resistance of the conscious ego. Later, Freud realised there were also resistances of the Id and the superego and also of the unconscious part of the ego. In the analysis we realise, that the same thing can give pleasure to the conscious ego and discomfort to the unconscious ego and the other way round. There are patients who live with pain but at the same time, that symptom is giving pleasure to his unconscious ego. The symptom gives them pleasure, the symptom is the unconscious wish but… disguised. It is not the unconscious wish, it has transformed. We need to interpret it. That is exactly the role of the analyist: being able to interpret that unconscious wish which triggers the symptom and make the patient capable to renounce to that symptom. Help hm introduce the reality principle: “No, I can not now darling, I have to go to work now”.

How can we explain repetition compulsion without contradicting the pleasure principle? Compulsion repetition, most of the time, leads us to repeat annoyance moments. However, now we know that the same thing can give pleasure to one part of the ego and cause pain to the other. So, compulsion repetition does not contradict the pleasure principle.

Infantile sexuality is destined to succumb, we need to humanise: that is what all the oedipal complex is about: human babies cannot do anything alone, their bodies cannot regulate the temperature, their immune system relies on the mother, they can not eat by themselves… the mother function is needed for everything or… we die. Luckily, a third person appears, the father. He says: “ you are two, not only one”. The mother has hobbies, friends, work… thanks to the father who came to set the limits: hostility against the father appears and also the other way round: love for the father and hostility against the mother. It is here were arise all the process that lead the initial situation of crush for the portents have to succumb. We need to go away from family, from those incestuous relationships. The Oedipal complex will provide us with key processes for our psychic apparatus to wish to leave to the world. That childish sexuality is destined to succumb. There is a latency period and after that adult sexuality takes place, genital as we know it.

Exactly the same as the psychic apparatus is not the conscience, infantile sexuality does not happen only when we are children. We have it inside ourselves. Unconsciously, we all continue having a relationship with our parents - not the parents that are at home but that mother and father that become unconscious and are part of the psychic apparatus. Later, they will give place to the superego, inheritor of the Oedipus complex. When we say that infantile sexuality is destined to succumb, it means that it has to become unconscious. That does not mean that it will then have no effects. Exactly because it has become unconscious will have even more effects: it will repeat as a tendency to express unconsciously. When the child lose the love of the parents, he feels it like a failure, abandonment, contempt. At that moment of the constitution of the psychic apparatus, the child experiences true pain even when it is a necessary step for the constitution of the human being. However, in his ego, a narcissist wound remains, like a tear. The Oedipus complex takes place (for the first time) between around three and five years old. However, it repeats many times in life: every time we make an important decision, every time we I fall in love, I get a new job… the unconscious processes we went through in the Oedipus complex will get involved. For example: we need to elaborate “separation”, we can not have an adult relationship if we feel separation as abandonment. It is like a re - edition of the Oedipus complex, it happens for the first time when the psychic apparatus is founded, the unconscious arise, the ego is divided… all the wishes are repressed but it is re-edited many times in life.

Why… these things happen to me and not… others? Because they throb from the unconscious, there is a repetition compulsion and when it is not interpreted it looks for interpretations. Dreams that repeat over and over again for example. That is exactly the aim of the Pyshoanalyisis: interpret. Exactly the same happens with the symptoms, you are trapped on that way you used to solve for the first time matters which are important to you, unless you dont add an interpretation, different sentences, tools… that way you have to solve matters will tend to repeat in yourself over and over again: this way you have to fall in love, to not being able to get along with colleagues at work…

Freud’s key contribution in this text is that what gives pleasure to a part of the psychic apparatus might be offering a substitute satisfaction to other part. That painful symptom, that way of living relationships, for example and...that, the individual, doesn’t know about. It happens to him, he suffers… but he doesnt know why. Remember that a symptom, exactly the same as dreams… are appearance, manifest content. They need to be interpreted to find out the unconscious wish behind it.

Why is there… compulsion repetition? That is a very interesting related topic: death drive. Paradoxically, both life and death drive work in favour of life. But that is big topic that will be addressed in a different writing.

  1. The Einstein-Freud Correspondence (1931-1932) . The letter which Einstein addressed to Freud, concerning the projected organization of intellectual leaders, was sent in 1931 . By the time the exchange between Einstein and Freud was published in 1933, under the title Why War?, Hitler, who was to drive both men into exile, was already in power, and the letters never achieved the wide circulation intended for them. Indeed, the first German edition of the pamphlet is reported to have been limited to only 2,000 copies, as was also the original English edition.

  2. Symptoms are another way to meet those repressed sexual childish wishes


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