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Number 12: Summer 2016

Anxiety as Authenticity in the Face of Our Being-Towards-Death

Haya Oakley

Of the many possible interpretations of the story, I favour the version in which the two men recognise that the only ‘knowledge’ worth sharing is that, however vast their expertise of this world and the next, regardless of all the interpretations and permutations of all the texts and of all their dealings with humanity, ultimately they are, like the rest of mankind, imprisoned in a body that acts as a daily reminder of its inevitable finitude. As Aristotle pointed out, as soon as we are born, we are old enough to die.

The questions of our living towards death, of our inevitable anxiety in the face of it and of how this may impact on the meaning of life, have been the subject of much direct deliberation by philosophers and theologians alike. In this paper I wish to explore the notion of the end of analysis and the possibility of the analyst’s authentic being in the consulting room through Heidegger’s concept of our ‘Being-towards-death’. I will claim that there has been a cultural tendency to conflate the concept of the analyst’s authenticity with the notion of who we ‘really are’ leading, amongst other things, to the ethical issue of ‘self-exposure’. My suggestion is that we are often at risk of conflating the disclosure of personal details, of our feelings or innermost thoughts—albeit within the transference—with the universal truth that, as humans, the secret we share is that we live towards our death and that Death is always with us.

Like Poe’s story of The Purloined Letter, the secret is there for all to see, but our pathologies dance around it in a repetitive manner to avoid seeing it. I suggest that we can recognise this amongst our patients’ groups with set reactions to this secret and that we can be seduced into false intimacies with patients in order to mask our own unresolved omnipotence in the face of Death, a sort of ‘cuddling up against the death drive’ as a Fairbairnian colleague once put it.

Freud’s idea that the death drive—the foundation and cornerstone of the drive-related sphere—presides over our aggressiveness, sadism and masochism and dwells beyond the pleasure principle, did not gain much popularity. His followers preferred to attribute those to more benign and presumably more amenable causes such as frustration. Freud’s notion that mental health consists of a fusion between the death and life drives was also unpopular. I find Fairbairn’s objection to Freud’s death drive theory of particular interest because he claims that what Freud is describing is possibly a localised expression of aggression which was due to the infant’s response to neglect and rejection by the primary carer.

In my opinion, this move by Fairbairn underlies what is seen by some as the revolution which planted the seed for the now fashionable Relational movement and by others as the ultimate betrayal of the Freudian project. Either way, it certainly contributed to certain confusion of tongues within the British Tradition. It was Klein who picked up Freud’s concept of the life/death drives and elevated it as the cornerstone of her theory. She gave it a major role from the very early start of the infant’s life, recognising it as a clinical phenomenon to be observed in the consulting room as well as in our intra-psychic life where it plays a most meaningful part.