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Number 9: Winter 2013

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

Barry Watt

My thesis is that, in 1915, Freud’s characterisation of the drives can already be regarded as inscribing a thoroughgoing tragic dimension to human life into psychoanalysis at the level of metapsychology. However, this tragic dimension is significantly amplified in 1920 with the introduction of the death drives as the underpinning to repetition phenomena. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud proposes, before elaborating in ‘The Economic Problem of Masochism’, that the fusion of life and death drives in a state of ‘primary masochism’ provides the crucible of libidinal life. Instead of being expelled from the subject outwards towards others, towards the world, in primary masochism atrophying and destructive death drives find routes back toward the subject via their soldering to the life drives. In Thanatos there is, then, for Freud, a force urging the subject toward dissolution and demise, a momentum catapulting them headlong into what is contrary to Eros and against the preservation of life.

This begins to help offer some purchase on the symptoms of trauma, especially in their dramatically repetitive somatic aspects, so contrary to and incomprehensible from the standpoint of the pleasure principle. The Aristotelian framework of misrecognition and reversal and psychoanalytic problems around identification, are deepened by Freud’s thinking on Thanatos, repetition and his postulation of primary masochism. Whereas misrecognition and reversal are descriptive at the level of identity, the drives function below this threshold at the border between psyche and soma, and in the case of Thanatos as a force of misdirection. This occasions the opportunity, then, to read Freudian drive theory as a contribution to that long tradition of thought, beginning with the Greeks, that portrays human existence as shot through with a tragic propensity. Nonetheless, whilst it might well be that Freudian drive theory can be framed as tragic, in accidental trauma this framing obscures how, at least initially with a traumatic incident, it isn’t the tragic compulsion of the subject’s own drives that generates suffering, but rather the tragic impact of the other’s drives upon the subject through their acts of violence.