Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. 1922.


FIVE-AND-TWENTY years of intensive work have brought about a complete change in the more immediate aims of psycho-analytic technique. At first the endeavours of the analytic physician were confined to divining the unconscious of which his patient was unaware, effecting a synthesis of its various components and communicating it at the right time. Psychoanalysis was above all an art of interpretation. Since the therapeutic task was not thereby accomplished, the next aim was to compel the patient to confirm the reconstruction through his own memory. In this endeavour the chief emphasis was on the resistances of the patient; the art now lay in unveiling these as soon as possible, in calling the patient’s attention to them, and by human influence—here came in suggestion acting as ‘transference’—teaching him to abandon the resistances.

It then became increasingly clear, however, that the aim in view, the bringing into consciousness of the unconscious, was not fully attainable by this method either. The patient cannot recall all of what lies repressed, perhaps not even the essential part of it, and so gains no conviction that the conclusion presented to him is correct. He is obliged rather to repeat as a current experience what is repressed, instead of, as the physician would prefer to see him do, recollecting it as a fragment of the past. This reproduction appearing with unwelcome fidelity always contains a fragment of the infantile sex-life, therefore of the Oedipus complex and its off-shoots, and is played regularly in the sphere of transference, i. e. the relationship to the physician. When this point in the treatment is reached, it may be said that the earlier neurosis is now replaced by a fresh one, viz. the transference-neurosis. The physician makes it his concern to limit the scope of this transference-neurosis as much as he can, to force into memory as much as possible, and to leave as little as possible to repetition. The relation established between memory and reproduction is different for every case. As a rule the physician cannot spare the patient this phase of the cure; he must let him live through a certain fragment of his forgotten life, and has to see to it that some measure of ascendency remains, in the light of which the apparent reality is always recognised as a reflection of a forgotten past. If this is successfully accomplished then conviction on the part of the patient is attained, and with it the therapeutic result that depends on it.

In order to render more comprehensible this ‘repetition-compulsion’ which appears in the psychoanalytic treatment of neurotics, we must above all get entirely rid of the erroneous idea that in this struggle with resistances we are concerned with any resistance on the part of the unconscious. The unconscious, i. e. the ‘repressed’ material, offers no resistance whatever to the curative efforts; indeed it has no other aim than to force its way through the pressure weighing on it, either to consciousness or to discharge by means of some real action. The resistance in the treatment proceeds from the same higher levels and systems in the psychic life that in their time brought about the repression. But since the motives of the resistances, and indeed the resistances themselves, are found in the process of the treatment to be unconscious, we are well advised to amend an inadequacy in our mode of expression. We escape ambiguity if we contrast not the conscious and the unconscious, but the coherent ego and the repressed. Much in the ego is certainly unconscious itself, just what may be called the kernel of the ego; only a part of it comes under the category of preconscious. After thus replacing a purely descriptive method of expression by a systematic or dynamic one, we may say that the resistance on the part of the analysed person proceeds from his ego, and then we at once see that the ‘repetition-compulsion’ must be ascribed to the repressed element in the unconscious. It probably could not find expression till the work of the treatment coming to meet it had loosened the repression.

There is no doubt that the resistance of the conscious and preconscious ego subserves the pleasure-principle; it is trying to avoid the ‘pain’ that would be aroused by the release of the repressed material, and our efforts are directed to effecting an entry for such painful feeling by an appeal to the reality-principle. In what relation to the pleasure-principle then does the repetition-compulsion stand, that which expresses the force of what is repressed? It is plain that most of what is revived by the repetition-compulsion cannot but bring discomfort to the ego, for it promotes the bringing to light of the activities of repressed impulses; but that is a discomfort we have already taken into account and without subversion of the pleasure-principle, since it is ‘pain’ in respect of one system and at the same time satisfaction for the other. The new and remarkable fact, however, that we have now to describe is that the repetition-compulsion also revives experiences of the past that contain no potentiality of pleasure, and which could at no time have been satisfactions, even of impulses since repressed.

The efflorescence of infantile sex-life was, by reason of the irreconcilability of its wishes with reality and the inadequacy of the childhood stage of development reached, destined to pass away. It perished in most painful circumstances and with feelings of a deeply distressing nature. Loss and failure in the sphere of the affections left behind on the ego-feeling marks of injury comparable to a narcissistic scar, which, according to my experience and the exposition given by Marcinowski, yields the most important contribution to the ‘inferiority complex’ common among neurotics. The sex-quest to which the physical development of the child set limits could be brought to no satisfying conclusion; hence the plaint in later life: ‘I can’t do anything, I am never successful.’ The bonds of tenderness linking the child more especially to the parent of the opposite sex succumbed to disappointment, to the vain expectation of satisfaction, and to the jealousy aroused by the birth of a new child, unmistakable proof as it is of the faithlessness of the loved parent; the child’s attempt, undertaken with tragic seriousness, to produce another such child himself met with humiliating failure; while the partial withdrawal of the tenderness lavished on the little one, the more exacting demands of discipline and education, severe words and an occasional punishment finally revealed to him the whole extent of the disdain which is his portion. Some few regularly recurring types are to be found, according to the way in which the typical love of this period was brought to an end.

All these undesired happenings and painful affective situations are repeated by neurotics in the ‘transference’ stage and re-animated with much ingenuity. They struggle to break off the unfinished treatment, they know how to re-create the feeling of being disdained, how to force the physician to adopt brusque speech and a chilling manner towards them, they find suitable objects for their jealousy, they substitute for the ardently desired child of early days the promise of some great gift which becomes as little real as that was. Nothing of all this could ever have afforded any pleasure; one would suppose it ought to bring somewhat less ‘pain’ if revealed as memory rather than if lived through as a new experience. It is a question naturally of the action of impulses that should lead to satisfaction, but the experience that instead of this they even then brought ‘pain’ has borne no result. The act is repeated in spite of everything; a powerful compulsion insists on it.

That which psycho-analysis reveals in the transference phenomena with neurotics can also be observed in the life of normal persons. It here gives the impression of a pursuing fate, a daemonic trait in their destiny, and psycho-analysis has from the outset regarded such a life history as in a large measure self-imposed and determined by infantile influences. The compulsion which thereby finds expression is in no way different from the repetition-compulsion of neurotics, even though such persons have never shown signs of a neurotic conflict resulting in symptoms. Thus one knows people with whom every human relationship ends in the same way: benefactors whose protégés, however different they may otherwise have been, invariably after a time desert them in ill-will, so that they are apparently condemned to drain to the dregs all the bitterness of ingratitude; men with whom every friendship ends in the friend’s treachery; others who indefinitely often in their lives invest some other person with authority either in their own eyes or generally, and themselves overthrow such authority after a given time, only to replace it by a new one; lovers whose tender relationships with women each and all run through the same phases and come to the same end, and so on. We are less astonished at this ‘endless repetition of the same’ if there is involved a question of active behaviour on the part of the person concerned, and if we detect in his character an unalterable trait which must always manifest itself in the repetition of identical experiences. Far more striking are those cases where the person seems to be experiencing something passively, without exerting any influence of his own, and yet always meets with the same fate over and over again. One may recall, for example, the story of the woman who married three men in succession, each of whom fell ill after a short time and whom she had to nurse till their death. Tasso gives a singularly affecting poetical portrayal of such a trend of fate in the romantic epic: ‘Gerusalemme liberata.’ The hero, Tancred, has unwittingly slain Clorinda, the maiden he loved, who fought with him disguised in the armour of an enemy knight. After her burial he penetrates into the mysterious enchanted wood, the bane of the army of the crusaders. Here he hews down a tall tree with his sword, but from the gash in the trunk blood streams forth and the voice of Clorinda whose soul is imprisoned in the tree cries out to him in reproach that he has once more wrought a baleful deed on his beloved.

In the light of such observations as these, drawn from the behaviour during transference and from the fate of human beings, we may venture to make the assumption that there really exists in psychic life a repetition-compulsion, which goes beyond the pleasure-principle. We shall now also feel disposed to relate to this compelling force the dreams of shock-patients and the play-impulse in children. We must of course remind ourselves that only in rare cases can we recognise the workings of this repetition-compulsion in a pure form, without the co-operation of other motives. As regards children’s play we have already pointed out what other interpretations its origin permits. The repetition-compulsion and direct pleasurable satisfaction of impulse seem there to be inextricably intertwined. The transference phenomena obviously subserve the purpose of the resistance made by the ego persisting in its repression: the repetition-compulsion is, as it were, called to the aid of the ego, which is resolved to hold fast to the pleasure-principle. In what one might call the destiny compulsion much appears capable of rational explanation, so that no need is felt to establish a new and mysterious impulse. The least suspicious case is perhaps that of the shock-dream, but on closer examination it must be admitted that in the other examples too the state of affairs is not completely explained by the operation of the motives known to us. There remains enough over to justify the assumption of a repetition-compulsion, and this seems to us more primitive, more elementary, more instinctive than the pleasure-principle which is displaced by it. But if there is such a repetition-compulsion in psychic life, we should naturally like to know with what function it corresponds, under what conditions it may appear, and in what relation it stands to the pleasure-principle, to which we have heretofore ascribed the domination over the course of the processes of excitation in the psychic life.