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Number 14: Summer 2019

Consciousness, Repetition and the Death Drive, 1895 and 1920

Ben Hooson

Beyond the Pleasure Principle published in 1920, is famous as the work where Freud first supposed the existence of a “death drive”, which would be a recurrent theme in his writings from then on. But a reader who comes to Beyond in search of the famous death drive may be surprised to find that the first mention of it, and indeed the first relevant use of the word “death”, does not occur until more than half way through the entire text. Before reaching that point, in sections 1-3, Freud has discussed a “repetition compulsion”, suggested by the dreams of traumatised individuals, who repeat their past trauma in sleep, by the behaviour of a young child, who repeats the going away of its mother in play, and by the behaviour of people undergoing psychoanalysis, who repeat painful experiences of early childhood (the forced abandonment of Oedipal positions) in the course of their treatment and through their relationship with the analyst.

Repetition is not the only thing that Freud discusses in Beyond before he gets to the death drive. In an abrupt departure from the initial theme of repetition, section 4 of the work offers a remarkable account of the phenomenon of consciousness. For several pages the reader is bemused by the direction which Freud’s essay has taken. When Freud finally makes the connection between consciousness and his initial theme of repetition, it is by a strange pirouette.

First, discussing the contrast between consciousness and memory, he sketches the idea (taken straight from the Project for a Scientific Psychology, which he had drafted 25 years earlier, in 1895, and left unpublished), that memories are laid down in the nervous system (or “mental apparatus”)11 by “excitations” arriving from the outside world, apparently (my comparison) in much the same way as vehicles leave tyre-marks on a mud track:

It may be supposed that, in passing from one element to another, an excitation has to overcome a resistance, and that the diminution of resistance thus effected is what lays down a permanent trace of the excitation, that is, a facilitation.
(Freud, 1920g: 26)

  1. It is often unclear in Beyond whether Freud is theorising in the domain of neurology or of psychology. Mainly he is in the latter, and I will use his preferred term, “mental apparatus”.