The Freud Museum

Events Archive

7 December 2002

Eros and Thanatos

Conference Report

The Eros and Thanatos conference, jointly organised with the British Journal of Psychotherapy, brought together eminent psychoanalysts from Britain and France to discuss the theoretical and clinical implications of life and death instincts in psychoanalysis. Freud famously said that "The theory of instincts are, so to speak, our mythology", and one is bound to agree with him when one considers these great metaphysical entities of 'Life' and 'Death' in his mature theory. In her opening remarks Jean Arundale, retiring editor of the BJP and co-organiser of the conference, described Freud's long-standing preoccupation with conflict between 'developmental' tendencies and 'anti-developmental' ones (such as 'regression', 'fixation' and so on). Psychoanalysis, she argued, attempts to free the life forces for the task of development.

Jean Laplanche spoke next. The French psychoanalyst, co-author of the acclaimed Language of Psychoanalysis, and author of Life and Death in Psychoanalysis, pointed out that the word 'Thanatos' never appears in Freud. Simultaneously translating from a French script, Laplanche embarked on a careful archaeology of Freud's texts, comparing the idea of 'sexuality' in The Three Essays to 'Eros' in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. He concluded that 'Eros' does not take over the old 'sexuality'. The latter included a dangerously destabilising ego-dystonic force, whereas 'Eros' took over only the 'binding' aspects of sexuality. Laplanche argued that the 'death drive' is what brought back this destabilising element which Freud found essential to his theory; that is to say, the 'death drive' is itself a part of 'sexuality'.

After the morning break Nicola Abel-Hirsch, a psychoanalyst in private practice and author of Eros in the Ideas in Psychoanalysis series, spoke on 'Lust for Life: Pleasure under the Reality Principle and growth in Eros'. Drawing on an array of fascinating ideas from the psychoanalysis of Bion and the philosophy of Whitehead, she explored the difference between a life-enhancing 'prehended lust' and perverse sexuality in which excitement is generated only to disencumber the individual of anxiety. She illustrated her thesis with reference to a remarkable new British film directed by Penny Woolcock, appropriately called The Principles of Lust.

David Bell also turned to the cultural domain for his paper 'I am the spirit that negates all' - Negation: the active principle of Thanatos. The quotation is from Goethe's Faust - the words of Mephistopheles when he arrives in Faust's study. Faced with frustration and the thwarting of his narcissistic desires, Mephistopheles offers Faust a world of no obstruction where all can be realised. No wonder Freud quotes Goethe's masterpiece continually throughout his work. In affirming Freud's tragic vision Bell assembled a battery of clinical and cultural examples to argue that there is indeed a force in humanity which idealises un-knowing, hates knowledge and seeks to undo development. If life is inseparable from frustration and longing, which Freud certainly believed, then the drive to abolish all frustration is indeed a kind of longing for 'death'.

The discussion throughout the day, and especially the plenary session, was of a very high standard. This was in no small measure due to the thoughtful contributions of the chairperson Catalina Bronstein and her skill in opening up the platform to discussion. Papers from the conference will be published in a forthcoming issue of the British Journal of Psychoanalysis.

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