The death drive or death instinct is misunderstood. Often it is confused with a simple unconscious desire to die. It is in fact part of a more general regressive tendency or impulse towards repetition of patterns. The broader category of self-destructive behaviours of which the todestrieb belongs to is confused. It’s energy is not necessarily destructive. The problematic feature of the impulse is that people don’t sit with the impulse and just experience it without action.
Without properly experiencing these thoughts and behaviours they can be confused with simple self-loathing. In my experience the self-destructive impulse is not concerned with just one death but two. The behaviour is often an attempt to escape one form of death to another. Sometimes the acting out or self-destructive behaviour acts as a way to break a pattern which is but another form of death. Other times it serves simply to confirm the pattern.
Additionally human relationships always involve symbolic forms of death. As people we crave fusion with others which results in the loss of our identity and a form of death. We also crave separation, boundaries and individuation, to protect our identity and ‘life’ but in that we experience another death as a result of social isolation. Any healthy relationship will involve a constant movement between these two symbolic deaths in an effort to remain alive. Furthermore the fact that oftentimes relationships seem to be carried out largely with introjected objects or through a fog of transference can remove another layer of vitality from so called ‘life’.
The proposition then is a simple one. The desire to die is also an attempt to escape from death.This is borne out by my dreams where escape from one form of death to another is a regular staple. One dream of mine features punching my way out of coffin, despite its comfort, to go to the airport to get a plane with no money. The feeling of dread, (but also freedom), that accompanied being in the airport in my dream made it clear to me that this was but another form of death. In another dream though it is the public transport that I had to escape from to another form of death. In that dream I was travelling the wrong way on a train, both backwards and forwards at the same time, in the dark. It was in that dream that a black jeep with tinted windows drove up to drive me anywhere I wanted to go. To me it was a very obvious version of the ‘Death Drive’ rescuing me from the confusion and death of ‘life’.
In a more general sense too though the self-destructive impulse is not necessarily harmful. It can be be conceived as neutral energy and as a resource that can be diverted to ethically diverse aims. It is an inherent tendency which cannot be eliminated, but can be diverted or sublimated in activities such as art or dance. An attempt to repress it may actually make it more dangerous. As it is split of from the rest of experience it may become more like the stereotype of the death drive.
In Stephen Mitchell’s Relational concepts in psychoanalysis he talks about a different subject ‘narcissistic illusions’. He says of ‘narcissistic’ illusions that the determinative factor in terms of psychopathology is the attitude towards these ‘illusions’. In the same manner with self-destructive thoughts it is the attitude towards these self-destructive thoughts. Like with the shift of object relations that occurs between a person’s everyday and sexual object relations the interplay between destructive forces and creative forces can be perfectly healthy.
The death drive is better in the background
The self-destructive impulse is not very interesting if it just manifests as repeated attempts at suicide. If someone actually ends their life then the impulse produces nothing interesting just tragedy. The impulse is better off when manifested indirectly. This may seem paradoxical given that I have already argued that it is better to consciously appreciate the impulse as ethically neutral energy. It is not paradoxical, however, because you can consciously recognise the impulse and place it in the background where it can be much more effective. The impulse is like a blackhole we only see a blackhole by the gravitational effects it exerts on other things around it. The abyss actually doesn’t allow any light to escape and that the singularity of death would similarly present an end to experience and creativity.
Self-destruction is sometimes interesting and useful through its indirect effects on other behaviours. If we take a few examples of characters from television and film I hope we can illustrate this point. John Luther in the television show Luther is a troubled police detective. After the death of his wife he plays a game of Russian Roulette with himself, he stands on the edge of the police building roof and contemplates jumping off and he frequently goes into situations with deranged murderers, unarmed, to talk them down. In my experience of the show directly suicidal impulses are avoided or given some sort of interesting treatment. Like the suicidal gesture of playing Russian Roulette. It meant that Luther had a one in six chance of killing himself. It is not so much that he wants to kill himself but that he wants the chance of dying. He wants to experience of death as it can exist when one is alive.
The idea of Russian Roulette and chance is so compelling that they revisit it at least twice. Once where Luther is trying to talk down a soldier, turned murderer, who plays Russian Roulette between the two of them. The murderer here is letting chance decide who will get shot. Then in the final episode of Luther the murderer, who plays role playing games that involve dice and chance, enters into a game of chance with Luther. It is a 50/50 bet. If Luther wins the murderer disarms the bomb and if the murderer wins he gets to set Luther on fire. Now while Luther puts himself on the line by dousing himself in petrol and entering into a game of chance with the murderer he also does something else. The moment he sees an opportunity to kill the murderer he drops the game and does his job brilliantly. The self-destructive impulse is interesting in that it allows him to be a brilliant detective and save dozens of people from a bomb.
In another scene we see the see the Alice the first murderer of the series, described as a malignant narcissist, saying something to Luther that is informative regarding this impulse. She urges Luther to kiss her, kill her or at the very least do something. She does not want to die she just wants something to happen.The self-destructive impulse often features an inclination towards spontaneity, impulse and aggression. It involves a feeling like you want to consume everything; all of the substance of life. If we take a film like Black Swan. Authenticity and commitment to her work brings her to the depths of madness and self-destruction It finally ends with her a perfect performance of Swan Lake and killing herself. I think that that her killing herself was unnecessary but even that self-killing was not a simple desire to die actually she thought she had killed Mila Kunis’ character.
Before we leave this subject it is worth looking at the actual suicidal impulses that bring about completed suicides. These are what the self-destructive impulses can eventually become if not integrated properly. It is worth also looking at what are the biggest predictors of suicide. The first research I will turn to Lesage’s Canadian New Brunswick suicide study.
Lesage, et al, examine 102 suicides. 102 of the 109 suicides over 14 months between April 1, 2002 to May, 2003. So what does the study turn up. It turns up that 42% had concurrent mood and substance-related disorders.
L Sher suggests that impulsivity and aggression are strongly implicated in suicidal behaviour.
Sher further says that studies have consistently demonstrated that constructs related to aggression and impulsivity confer additional risk for suicidal behaviour among persons with alcohol dependence and other substance misusers. Acute alcohol use is associated with suicide. High (33-69%) of positive blood alcohol concentrations have been found among suicide completers. Alcohol intoxication increases suicide risk up to 90 times, in comparison with abstinence. Sher offers that the disinhibition produced by intoxication probably facilitates suicidal ideas and increases the likelihood of suicidal thoughts being put into action, often impulsively.
What makes alcohol so dangerous in terms of the self-destructive impulse is that it combines a lowering of cognition and rational thought with a general disinhibition. In short it can produce the perfect conditions for ‘real’ suicidal thoughts. One does not think ‘Oh a desire to destroy oneself what an interesting and multifaceted impulse that speaks to both death and life’. One thinks ‘Oh I must want to destroy myself because I have no worth and nothing has any meaning.’ The impulse is better reflected upon and placed into the background. It is a vague comment about fire being both creative and destructive or the skulls on a t-shirt print.
Let’s leave you with some examples.