Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Cultural embodiments of the life and death instincts in human beings

Since the 19th century, when the heirs of 17th- and 18th-century British empiricism started thinking of the social implications of the empiricist doctrine, that all we know comes from experience, thinkers like Lord Shaftesbury and his ilk have believed that human society was “perfectible”. After all, if society could be arranged in such a way that people are exposed to only “good” experiences, the argument went, an incrementally better society would emerge.

The German philosopher Hegel believed pretty much the same thing, although on different grounds. History, according to him, is the dialectical unfolding of Mind or Spirit, and slowly but surely this process, driven by the negation (and “higher” preservation) of every previous state, would (supposedly) get us closer to the “sittliche Gesellschaft” or “ethical society”, where people would all share the same stage of rational development, including commonly shared ethical principles. Contemporary philosopher Jürgen Habermas although not quite as optimistic as Lord Shaftesbury and Hegel, also believes that the activation of the communicative potential of reason could move us closer to a truly democratic society where the “public sphere” would play a major role in reaching “consensus” on contentious issues.

For my part, I think the belief in the “perfectibility” or the actualisation of a completely “rational” society is a pipe-dream. It rests on the erroneous assumption that human beings can eradicate all traces of irrationality from their psyche once and for all. The thinker who has probably peered most deeply into the human psyche in the history of civilisation, Sigmund Freud, is the authority to who I would appeal in this regard.

In Civilisation and its Discontents (1930), written just before the outbreak of the Second World War, and with the memory of the atrocities of World War I still fresh in his mind, Freud wrote about the combined function of Eros (the life drive) and Thanatos (the death drive or instinct) in the process of civilisation, and posited that these two instincts are inseparable — where the one is, the other will always be found. Moreover, neither of them will ever go away. In Civilisation and its Discontents he sums it up as follows:

“And now, I think, the meaning of the evolution of civilisation is no longer obscure to us. It must present the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species. This struggle is what all life essentially consists of … ”

No amount of “rationalisation” of society will change this, and no amount of theorisation, on the part of someone with an implicit trust in reason, like Habermas, will be able to eradicate the role of Thanatos (the destructive drive) in human culture. His predecessors, Adorno and Horkheimer, were far more on target than Habermas in this respect — one merely has to read their Dialectic of Enlightenment to grasp this (where they show that Enlightenment reason, despite its initial promise of emancipation, has become the source of ever-greater enslavement through technical rationality and the straitjacket of administration).

Furthermore, historical evidence corroborates these insights. For instance, we have just returned from two weeks in Münich, Germany, where I attended a conference on philosophy and psychoanalysis, where some of the papers — for instance a brilliant exposition of the psychoanalytical relevance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, probably his most “violent” tragedy — bore unambiguous testimony to the accuracy of Freud’s findings. To add to this, we used the opportunity to visit the memorial site of the first concentration camp established by the Nazis (in 1933), in a suburb of Münich, namely Dachau, and although we knew what to expect, we were nevertheless completely dumbfounded when confronted by the evidence of the incomprehensible destructiveness of some human beings to others.

In addition to facing the “terrible sublime” of what is known as the “Bunker” at Dachau concentration camp, which served as the punishment facility within the camp (which must surely have been punishment enough already), the most horrific experiences there involved visiting the “old” and “new” crematoria, the latter of which includes the gas chamber. I mention the “terrible sublime” in the sense of something that, although one can “understand” it well enough to know what was done there, the ability to form an adequate mental image of the ineffable suffering keeps on eluding one.

In the “Bunker”, for example, the individual cells where “troublesome” prisoners were kept and tortured address the spectator mutely but eloquently: the very fact of their present emptiness (with the exception of the documentary information provided in the form of photographs of the prisoners and the most notorious SS security personnel, who carried out the interrogations) unavoidably conjures up images of the torments that the inmates were subjected to.

The “new” crematorium (which had to be built because the old one proved inadequate for the number of corpses that had to be cremated) is even worse. Not only do the ovens, designed to accommodate human bodies, seem like unthinkable technical devices; the supreme horror is to stand in the gas chamber and imagine what it was like to be herded in there, the doors being closed and bolted, and to hear the hiss of poison gas escaping from the nozzles in the low ceiling above your head.

The gas chamber was disguised as a shower room — even now there is a sign on the wall next to the door reading “Brauschbad” (or “Brauschenbad”, if I recall the word correctly). Arriving there for a “shower”, prisoners would enter, probably being fooled by the fact that the openings of the gas nozzles are disguised to resemble shower heads, as well as by the drainage grids on the floor, only to have the doors bolted behind them before realising that this was a death chamber.

Keeping in mind Freud’s postulation of two countervailing drives or instincts — the life drive (Eros) and the death drive (Thanatos) — we felt that we had to somehow find something in or around Münich that adequately restored some kind of balance, after witnessing the horrors of Dachau. And what better place to remind one of the creative powers of Eros than the castle built by “mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Neuschwanstein, about two hours by train from Münich among beautiful, snow-covered mountains.

We travelled there in freezing conditions, but not even the sub-zero temperatures could dampen our elation when, after walking up the hill to the castle, we finally beheld it in all its splendour. It will be no surprise to know that the castle emblem of Disney Pictures that always comes up at the beginning of a Disney film is based on the Neuschwanstein castle. Often cited as one of the earliest examples of “historicist” architecture (celebrating the irreducible differences between one historical era and another), this castle was built by Ludwig II to embody his valorisation of the Middle Ages, and its rooms are decorated by wall paintings depicting scenes from Wagner’s operas, which Ludwig revered. (For a look at some of Ludwig’s extravagant castles, click here.) Small wonder he styled himself the “Moon King”, in contrast to France’s Louis XIV, the “Sun King”.

It was an uplifting experience to discover the beauties, natural and cultural, in and around Neuschwanstein, particularly after being exposed to the horrors of Dachau. These horrors will not go away, however — in fact, the recently released “summary” of the report on torture used by CIA agents is eloquent testimony that the destructiveness characteristic of the death drive is still very much with us, even in that supposed “bastion” of human rights, the US.

And lest one be too surprised to find that this death drive operates in your neighbour, and –horror of horrors — in yourself, too, read Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents to prepare yourself for such a discovery (Freud’s complete works are freely available for download online).

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