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Is the Concept of the Death Drive Essential When Speaking of Trauma?

The Letter, Issue 4, Summer 1995, Pages 27 - 43



Aisling Campbell

I put my title in the form of a question initially; that was because there is something about this Freudian concept of the death drive that always raises a question. Do you 'believe' in it or not? Do we really have to think about it, can't we just take the rest of Freud's writings without having to consider the importance of Beyond the Pleasure Principle? [1] The death drive is a point of doubt for many analysts; they can't quite stomach it. It is a spanner in the Freudian works. It doesn't fit in, it doesn't work, so we try to explain it by means of Freud's depression, his grief over his daughter's death, and so on. Well, I am trying to explain also - though I have found that I haven't really succeeded in answering my own question. Yet in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where Freud introduces the idea of the death drive, he discusses some of the most pertinent of clinical questions, in particular two not unconnected topics, trauma and repetition.

Repetition, in the context of analysis, and the human act, is something that is always puzzling; it doesn't make sense and so science is invoked to explain it. the story of the woman who returns again and again to her battering husband, or the man who repeatedly selects women who let him down, all these stories are familiar to the analyst and commonplace in the clinic. One often hears the explanation given 'She learnt it from her father who was a wife-beating alcoholic', 'He learnt it from his mother who abandoned him when he was young', and so on. But it is a mistake to use learning theory in this way, since the acts of the human subject are radically different from the behaviours of animals which are shaped by learning in this way. To illustrate this, I would like to give you two case histories: firstly, the case of my dear tortoiseshell cat who is to be found every morning staring at some distant point under the sofa. She has usually lost her ball and wants it retrieved. Her behaviour is successful because I will invariably rescue it on cue. Because she has learnt that staring at the sofa always gets a response, she keeps on doing it. This is truly learnt behaviour. But in the case of a human subject we must move from under the sofa and onto the couch. Lacan distinguishes the things that humans do as acts and there is a vast difference between act and learnt behaviour. I would like to outline a second case history by way of example.

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