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Freud on Death

by Ana Drobot

Death, 'the great Unknown', 'the gravest of all misfortunes', has also been called by Freud 'the aim of all life', something we should all be consciously aware of. After all, 'everyone owes nature a death'.

We react in various ways towards death, in various situations, and our attitudes or reactions may have different results.

  • Our own death: in our unconscious, we are immortal

'It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death.' Because, as Freud goes on, '[...] whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators'. In fact, we could say that we assist at our own death, as if the one who dies in our imagination were a different person. We can't imagine how we would be like dead, without being able to think or see, for example. We can't accept our own death, 'at bottom no one believes in his own death'. As Freud claims, 'in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality'. There is no sense of the passage of time; time does not work chronologically in our unconscious.

This unconscious belief that nothing can happen to us may be seen as 'the secret of heroism'.

  • Fear of death

Since we haven't gone through the experience of death (we've never died before) and since death doesn't exist in our unconscious, we can't actually fear death itself. When we say we are afraid of death, according to Freud, we may fear something else - such as abandonment, castration, various unresolved conflicts, or otherwise fear of death may be the outcome of a sense of guilt. Yet Freud also specifies that fear of death 'dominates us oftener than we know'.

  • Death of another

Usually we are cautious about speaking of someone's death when the respective person 'under sentence' can hear us, we feel wicked, or cold at the thought of someone else's death, even more so if we were to gain something from a person's death. However, children may 'unashamedly' threaten someone else, even close ones, with the possibility of dying.

When someone dies, we usually try to reduce death to a 'chance event', by blaming it on accidents, age, illness, etc.

We also tend to have a certain attitude towards a person who has died, 'something almost like admiration for someone who has accomplished a very difficult task', as Freud states, and even treat dead person with more consideration than we treat the living.

  • Death of strangers and enemies

Primitive man would simply have no problem with someone else's death or with killing those he hated; he would just follow his instinct.

Except for our becoming scrupulous about performing the killing, we accept the death of strangers and enemies, and sentence them to death 'quite as readily and unhesitatingly' as primitive man did.

  • Death of someone close

As a reaction to the death of someone close, the primitive man invented other forms of existence, spirits, etc. The conception of life after death was created due to our 'persisting memory of the dead'.

The belief of primitive men that the dear ones became demons after their death resulted from death being 'commonly regarded as the gravest of all misfortunes' and thus the dead were thought to be 'dissatisfied with their fate'. Death by magic or by force would 'make the soul revengeful and ill-tempered'. Fear of death and fear of the dead would turn in this case the 'disembodied soul' into something evil.

The creation of religion was attributed by Freud, among other causes, to the illusions projected outward by those living in the face of death.

  • Denial of death

The beliefs in previous lives, transmigration of souls, reincarnation are products of the denial of death.

  • Ambivalence to the death of loved ones

Man may feel ambivalent towards the death of loved ones, as he may see them as 'an inner possession', but also as partly strangers or enemies. With very few exceptions, a little hostility leading to an unconscious death-wish is present in our closest relationships.

Such ambivalent feelings may provoke neurosis. Freud gives the examples of worrying too much over the well-being of closed ones, and of unfounded self-reproaches about the death of someone dear.

  • Death-wish

Although civilized man's unconscious does not carry out the killing, it thinks and wishes it, and this is significant enough. The reason for death-wishing is to get rid, in our unconscious, of anyone who 'stands in our way, of anyone who has offended or injured us'. Freud gives the example of the expression 'Devil takes him!', the devil being the equivalent of death. Our unconscious, 'like the ancient Athenian code of Draco', 'knows no other punishment for crime than death'.

  • Suicide

Those neurotics who seem to go for self-destruction may form the category of those who end up committing suicide.

Suicide is not the same as the death instinct. The death instinct may not necessarily express itself in suicide. Moreover, the death instinct is natural in the development of the human being.

  • Death instinct

Death instinct, this destructive instinct, has as an aim 'to lead what is living into an inorganic state'. Freud offers an explanation for this: it is because living things came later than inanimate ones and arose from them, and thus instincts tend towards a return to an earlier state. Any modification imposed on the course of an organism's life is accepted by the conservative organic instincts and stored up for further repetition. Those instincts are bound to give the illusion of forces tending towards change and progress, when they are trying to reach an ancient goal. 'It would be in contradiction to the conservative nature of the instincts if the goal of life were a state of things which had never yet been attained.'

Even though death is something natural, we do try to deal with it in various ways, and we react to it differently. Our different attitudes towards death may account for the existence of various behaviors, for the creation of beliefs such as those in life after death. Of course, it is our unconscious that is the cause of most of our beliefs and behaviors, or even feelings in relation to death.

References
S. Freud, An Outline of Psychoanalysis (1940)
S. Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920)
S. Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900)
S. Freud, Thoughts for the Times on War and Death (1915)
S. Freud, Totem and Taboo (1912-1913)

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