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Number 9: Winter 2013

Whose Drive Is It Anyway? Aristotle and Freud on Tragedy and Trauma

Barry Watt

This short clinical extract captures characteristics of misrecognition and reversal Aristotle associates with tragedy. However, what it also highlights are facets of trauma that are not adequately described by Aristotle. Whilst illustrating some features of the repetition phenomena so familiar in trauma, it is far from clear how Aristotelian tragedy might account for what happens to psyche and soma in trauma – this something agonisingly not-me that assumes stewardship of the mind and seizes the body in a cruel vice. Whereas Aristotelian misrecognition draws attention to psychoanalytic problems around identification in trauma – exemplified most famously, for instance, in the now near folk-psychological notion of Stockholm Syndrome, derived from Ferenczi’s and Anna Freud’s ‘identification with the aggressor’ – the symptoms of trauma resist exclusive accounting for by identification, given their primitive, somatic, pre-subjective qualities.


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In order to describe this other face of trauma, not well enough detailed by identification, we have to turn to Freud’s drive theory. Here, I will be concerned with the problem of trauma almost exclusively from the ‘economic’ point of view, touching only upon the dynamic and structural standpoints in passing. Likewise, all important questions pertaining to the nature of remembering, representation and signification in trauma, will also be left unexplored for the purposes of this discussion.

In his 1915 metapsychological paper, ‘Instincts and their Vicissitudes’, Freud described the inherent reversibility of the drives, their plasticity and their propensity to revision. Drives flip into their opposite, turn around against the subject, and are prey to repression and sublimation. It is, however, Freud’s most famous work on the drives, 1920’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which is also his greatest contribution to theorising trauma and where he introduces what is, surely, the most notorious concept of the Freudian oeuvre, the death drive. With this development, Freud takes the malleability of the drives to its logical conclusion. By 1920, it is no longer merely the expression of the drives that are reversible, it is the drives themselves that are subject to inversion, folding inside-out into their opposite. In this new formulation, the drives are characterised as being inherently conflicted, pulling simultaneously towards divergent poles. In one direction, the drives advance toward unity, wholeness, incorporation and growth – this is Eros; in the other direction toward unbinding, fragmentation, separation and atrophy – this is Thanatos.