The Death Instinct: How Alive To Be, How Much Life To Live?

Background Introduction:
This is historically one of the most controversial concepts in psychoanalysis, going back to Freud’s original formal declaration of the life and death instincts in his classic 1920 paper, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” The difficulty lies in part with the natural human wish to see infants, and infancy, as a period of innocence. That infancy is a period of maximal distress, that things can go horribly wrong despite the caregivers best intentions, and stamp a life permanently in a negative way, is too much for some to accept.

Melanie Klein’s student, the extraordinary British psychoanalyst Hanna Segal, makes mention of Klein’s idea that the infant’s need to deflect the ‘death instinct’ to the outside world and take a posture against it. I could never, as a young analyst, quite wrap me mind around that idea until Dr. Segal came to Los Angeles to lecture, and I was able to briefly get a response that redirected my thinking. I realized at that point that I was taking the “death” aspect, in an infant who seemed unlikely to be able to abstract out such a concept, too literally.

What I came to realize was that this had much more to do with an extreme reaction to being born, and was thus more fundamentally related to the concept of being an ‘unborn, inside baby’ than to “death” as an adult might conceptualize it.

The Concept of the Death Instinct:
1 – I can’t see how infants have the conceptual capacity to understand life and death as concepts. I doubt that they know what death means. Having said that, I do think they can have a concept of the terrors of feeling like one is dying even if they don’t understand how that will end.

When you are born you have to do something for the first time that I imagine can be really terrifying even if you don’t know what it is about. I am of course referring to taking one’s first breath. You may be literally drowning in fluids, suffocating, and then finally cold air rushes into your lungs for the first time. Frankly, it sounds terrifying to me. It is that terror and any others that a newborn infant can suffer that can make life after birth a potentially really frightening and awful experience.

2 – But not all infant’s seem to have the same reaction to these traumas. Some seem to avoid dwelling on the situation, if you will, and quickly direct their ‘organ of attention’ on mom and getting things on a positive foothold. For others, I have the impression that looking for the “silver lining” to birth is not so easy. For whatever combination of constitutional predispositions and environmental difficulties, these infants have a much more intense, violent even, reaction to those insults attendant to birth.

3 – What seems to set these babies apart from others is a “hatred” of this state of affairs. This hatred includes hating being in pain, hating being helpless and totally dependent, and even hatred of their organs of perception and their mind for being able to experience such painful realities.

My clinical experience suggests that these intense reactions seem to correlate with individuals who will later in life seem to be intensly predisposed to problematic levels of “unconscious envy”. I cannot give a definitive explanation for this correlation. I can say that it makes sense to me that this hatred of being a helpless baby could be linked to the reactions that some babies seem to have of being outraged that mom gets to be the “big fancy mom” and they have to be the “shitted-up baby”. Whether this hatred means that these are babies that will turn out to be highly envious adults, or whether it indicates the pains of infancy will promote the development of envy, perhaps only future research will tell.

Manifestations of the Death Instinct in Adolescence and Adulthood:
1 – I find it useful to picture these babies as having very intense, violent reactions to the pains of infancy. Later this will often manifest in behaviors, like alcohol and drug use in adolescence, to evade any experience of the baby level mental pains that resurface at puberty. In the most extreme situations, it will manifest in psychotic breakdown with violent attacks on the mental apparatus that can perceive reality and its attendant mental pains.

2 – Any baby who cannot decide if being born has sufficient goodness to warrant staying alive in the outside world is highly likely, without treatment, to remain ambivalent about living for their entire life. This ambivalence may be very unconscious, but it will usually be in evidence somewhere in the individuals behavior and attitudes.

I think of this situation as one of being chronically, unconsciously, “characterologically suicidal”. This is not necessarily someone who ever thinks consciously of suicide. But a careful review of their life history will include episodes of risk taking or actual events that could have, or even should have been lethal. These events will have occurred at times when stresses and mental pains suggest circumstantially that the death instinct was operative.

At minimum, the individual may unconsciously make life choices including career, marital partner, having children, etc. that represents an “attenuation” of how much of the experience of being a separate, living human being in the outside world, vulnerable to mental pain, they will tolerate. The imagery of literature is replete with spinsters, accountants with humdrum lives, etc. Careers in the military, government service, and even large corporations may represent living inside a mental space where nothing changes and everything is prescribed in life.

If the above represent compromises with the death instinct, it will commonly resurface in a more recognizable form when the slings and arrows of life come home to roost in the form of illness or death around the individual. Serious illness in the individual may bring to the surface a lack of desire to confront the situation and a reaction of seemingly “just giving up”.

3 – In the circumstance of suicide, the behavior itself is prima facie evidence of the death instinct in operation. Even if the person didn’t intend to die, it was still evidence of the ambivalence about life that is part and parcel of the death instinct.

4 – Most commonly, the concept of the death instinct seems to match its expected manifestations in a range of more subtle ways. These are in the realm of risk taking behaviors that would suggest ambivalence about preserving life. In this day and age I would certainly wonder about anyone who persists in smoking cigarettes past adolescence or their twenties, where they could still rationalize that they will stop before it could do any harm.

In general, risk taking behaviors exist on a continuum. At the least obvious end of the spectrum, they take the form of behaviors that have a low level of danger but are clearly not healthful. At the increasingly more obvious end, the behaviors start to look like Russian Roulette.

At the lower end, the behaviors have a low level of danger when done responsibly, but become more dangerous under certain circumstances. So for example, snow skiing and scuba diving can be safe and sane activities. They stop being safe and sane if you are drunk, there is an avalanche warning, or you try diving deeper than is recommended, or you go without a buddy diver just in case something goes wrong.

At the other extreme, free hand mountain climbing, hang gliding, and auto racing seem to be on the ragged edge of playing Russian Roulette. The television show “60 Minutes” filmed an episode of men sky diving in body suits and the main diver died in an accident between episodes. You cannot convince me that that man did not have a very intensely active death instinct.

While it may be impossible to say for certain how much the death instinct was operative in a given lethal event, there is a bit of circumstantial evidence that one can obtain fairly readily. That is to ask the following question. “When was that person’s birthday?” You may be astonished at the number of life ending events that occur around someone’s birthday. I always assume the death instinct was in operation under such circumstances because the coincidence with the anniversary of their birth seems too predictable to be a complete accident.

At birth, all babies must decide whether or not they feel that being born and out in the world is “worth it”. If they feel that being outside in the world, separate from mom, is more pain than it is worth, then they will want to be unborn back inside mom. For some, this means an attenuation of that distress and any further vulnerability to the distress of being separate.

For others, in particular those infants who have a particularly violent reaction to birth and its attendant pains to life out in the world, the urge to stop living, having a mind, and feeling any pain is much greater. It then has the potential later in life to lead to potentially life ending behavior, or stamps the personality with a “characterological suicidal” predisposition.

[Parenthetically, if violent criminal behavior is a manifestation of the death instinct in an individual, it seems obvious that the death penalty is no deterrent to someone who does not care about life.]