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


THE FACT that the sensitive cortical layer has no protective barrier against excitations emanating from within will have one inevitable consequence: viz. that these transmissions of stimuli acquire increased economic significance and frequently give rise to economic disturbances comparable to the traumatic neuroses. The most prolific sources of such inner excitations are the so-called instincts of the organism, the representatives of all forces arising within the body and transmitted to the psychic apparatus—the most important and most obscure element in psychological research.

Perhaps we shall not find it too rash an assumption that the excitations proceeding from the instincts do not conform to the type of the ‘bound’ but of the free-moving nerve processes that are striving for discharge. The most trustworthy knowledge we have of these processes comes from the study of dreams. There we found that the processes in the unconscious systems are fundamentally different from those in the (pre)conscious; that in the unconscious ‘charges’ may easily be completely transferred, displaced or condensed, while if this happened with preconscious material only defective results would be obtained. This is the reason for the well-known peculiarities of the manifest dream, after the preconscious residues of the day before have undergone elaboration according to the laws of the unconscious. I termed this kind of process in the unconscious the psychic ‘primary process’ in contradistinction to the secondary process valid in our normal waking life. Since the excitations of instincts all affect the unconscious systems, it is scarcely an innovation to say that they follow the lines of the primary process, and little more so to identify the psychic primary process with the freely mobile charge, the secondary process with changes in Breuer’s bound or tonic charge. It would then be the task of the higher layers of the psychic apparatus to bind the instinct-excitation that reaches the primary process. The failure to effect this binding would evoke a disturbance analogous to the traumatic neuroses; it is only after the binding had been successfully accomplished that the pleasure-principle (and its modification the reality-principle) would have an opportunity to assert its sway without hindrance. Till then, the other task of the psychic apparatus would take precedence, viz. to obtain control of or to bind the excitation, not in opposition to the pleasure-principle but independently of it and in part without regard to it.

The expressions of a repetition-compulsion which we have described, both in the early activities of infantile psychic life and in the experiences of psychoanalytic treatment, show in a high degree an instinctive character, and, where they come into contrast with the pleasure-principle, a daemonic character. In the play of children we seem to arrive at the conclusion that the child repeats even the unpleasant experiences because through his own activity he gains a far more thorough mastery of the strong impression than was possible by mere passive experience. Every fresh repetition seems to strengthen this mastery for which the child strives; even with pleasurable experiences the child cannot do enough in the way of repetition and will inexorably insist on the identity of the impression. This characteristic is destined later to disappear. A witticism heard for the second time will almost fail of effect; a theatrical performance will never make the same impression the second time that it did on the first occasion; indeed it is hard to persuade the adult to read again at all soon a book he has enjoyed. Novelty is always the necessary condition of enjoyment. The child, however, never gets tired of demanding from a grown-up the repetition of a game he has played with him before or has shown him, till at last the grown-up refuses, utterly worn out; similarly if he has been told a pretty story, he wants always to hear the same story instead of a new one, insists inexorably on exact repetition and corrects each deviation which the narrator lets slip by mistake, which perhaps he even thought to gain new merit by inserting. Here there is no contradiction of the pleasure-principle: it is evident that the repetition, the rediscovery of the identity, is itself a source of pleasure. In the case of a patient in analysis, on the other hand, it is plain that the compulsion to repeat in the transference the occurrences of his infantile life disregards in every way the pleasure-principle. The patient behaves in this respect completely like a child, and thus makes it clear to us that the repressed memory-traces of his primitive experience are not present in a ‘bound’ form, are indeed, in a sense, not capable of the secondary process. To this fact of their not being bound they owe their power to weave a wish-phantasy that will be represented in a dream, by adhering to the residues from waking experiences. We frequently encounter the same repetition-compulsion as a therapeutic obstacle, when at the end of the treatment we wish to bring about complete detachment from the physician; and it may be supposed that the vague dread with which those who are unfamiliar with it view analysis, as though they feared to wake what they think is better left to sleep, is at root a fear of the appearance of this daemonic compulsion.

In what way is the instinctive connected with the compulsion to repetition? At this point the idea is forced upon us that we have stumbled on the trace of a general and hitherto not clearly recognised—or at least not expressly emphasised—characteristic of instinct, perhaps of all organic life. According to this, an instinct would be a tendency innate in living organic matter impelling it towards the reinstatement of an earlier condition, one which it had to abandon under the influence of external disturbing forces—a kind of organic elasticity, or, to put it another way, the manifestation of inertia in organic life.

This conception of instinct strikes us as strange, since we are accustomed to see in instinct the factor urging towards change and development, and now we find ourselves required to recognise in it the very opposite, viz. the expression of the conservative nature of living beings. On. the other hand, we soon think of those examples in animal life which appear to confirm the idea of instinct having been historically conditioned. When certain fish undertake arduous journeys at spawning-time, in order to deposit the spawn in certain definite waters far removed from their usual habitats, according to the interpretation of many biologists they are only seeking the earlier homes of their kind, which in course of time they have exchanged for others. The same is said to be true of the migratory flights of birds of passage, but the search for further examples becomes superfluous when we remember that in the phenomena of heredity and in the facts of embryology we have the most imposing proofs of the organic compulsion to repetition. We see that the germ cell of a living animal is obliged to repeat in its development—although in a fleeting and curtailed fashion—the structures of all the forms from which the animal is descended, instead of hastening along the shortest path to its own final shape. A mechanical explanation of this except in some trifling particulars is impossible, and the historical explanation cannot be disregarded. In the same way we find extending far upwards in the animal kingdom a power of reproduction whereby a lost organ is replaced by the growth of a new one exactly like it.

The obvious objection, that it may well be that besides the conservative instincts compelling repetition there are others which press towards new formation and progress, should certainly not be left unnoticed; it will be considered at a later stage of our discussion. But we may first be tempted to follow to its final consequences the hypothesis that all instincts have as their aim the reinstatement of an earlier condition. If what results gives an appearance of ‘profundity’ or bears a resemblance to mysticism, still we know ourselves to be clear of the reproach of having striven after anything of the sort. We are in search of sober results of investigation or of reflections based upon it, and the only character we wish for in these results is that of certainty.

If then all organic instincts are conservative, historically acquired, and are directed towards regression, towards reinstatement of something earlier, we are obliged to place all the results of organic development to the credit of external, disturbing and distracting influences. The rudimentary creature would from its very beginning not have wanted to change, would, if circumstances had remained the same, have always merely repeated the same course of existence. But in the last resort it must have been the evolution of our earth, and its relation to the sun, that has left its imprint on the development of organisms. The conservative organic instincts have absorbed everyone of these enforced alterations in the course of life and have stored them for repetition; they thus present the delusive appearance of forces striving after change and progress, while they are merely endeavouring to reach an old goal by ways both old and new. This final goal of all organic striving can be stated too. It would be counter to the conservative nature of instinct if the goal of life were a state never hitherto reached. It must rather be an ancient starting point, which the living being left long ago, and to which it harks back again by all the circuitous paths of development. If we may assume as an experience admitting of no exception that everything living dies from causes within itself, and returns to the inorganic, we can only say ‘The goal of all life is death’, and, casting back, ‘The inanimate was there before the animate.’

At one time or another, by some operation of force which still completely baffles conjecture, the properties of life were awakened in lifeless matter. Perhaps the process was a prototype resembling that other one which later in a certain stratum of living matter gave rise to consciousness. The tension then aroused in the previously inanimate matter strove to attain an equilibrium; the first instinct was present, that to return to lifelessness. The living substance at that time had death within easy reach; there was probably only a short course of life to run, the direction of which was determined by the chemical structure of the young organism. So through a long period of time the living substance may have been constantly created anew, and easily extinguished, until decisive external influences altered in such a way as to compel the still surviving substance to ever greater deviations from the original path of life, and to ever more complicated and circuitous routes to the attainment of the goal of death. These circuitous ways to death, faithfully retained by the conservative instincts, would be neither more nor less than the phenomena of life as we now know it. If the exclusively conservative nature of the instincts is accepted as true, it is impossible to arrive at any other suppositions with regard to the origin and goal of life.

If these conclusions sound strangely in our ears, equally so will those we are led to make concerning the great groups of instincts which we regard as lying behind the vital phenomena of organisms. The postulate of the self-preservative instincts we ascribe to every living being stands in remarkable contrast to the supposition that the whole life of instinct serves the one end of bringing about death. The theoretic significance of the instincts of self-preservation, power and self-assertion, shrinks to nothing, seen in this light; they are part-instincts designed to secure the path to death peculiar to the organism and to ward off possibilities of return to the inorganic other than the immanent ones, but the enigmatic struggle of the organism to maintain itself in spite of all the world, a struggle that cannot be brought into connection with anything else, disappears. It remains to be added that the organism is resolved to die only in its own way; even these watchmen of life were originally the myrmidons of death. Hence the paradox comes about that the living organism resists with all its energy influences (dangers) which could help it to reach its life-goal by a short way (a short circuit, so to speak); but this is just the behaviour that characterises a pure instinct as contrasted with an intelligent striving.

But we must bethink ourselves: this cannot be the whole truth. The sexual instincts, for which the theory of the neuroses claims a position apart, lead us to quite another point of view. Not all organisms have yielded to the external compulsion driving them to an ever further development. Many have succeeded in maintaining themselves on their low level up to the present time: there are in existence to-day, if not all, at all events many forms of life that must resemble the primitive stages of the higher animals and plants. And, similarly, not all the elementary organisms that make up the complicated body of a higher form of life take part in the whole path of evolution to the natural end, i.e. death. Some among them, the reproductive cells, probably retain the original structure of the living substance and, after a given time, detach themselves from the parent organism, charged as they are with all the inherited and newly acquired instinctive dispositions. Possibly it is just those two features that make their independent existence possible. If brought under favourable conditions they begin to develop, that is, to repeat the same cycle to which they owe their origin, the end being that again one portion of the substance carries through its development to a finish, while another part, as a new germinal core, again harks back to the beginning of the development. Thus these reproductive cells operate against the death of the living substance and are able to win for it what must seem to us to be potential immortality, although perhaps it only means a lengthening of the path to death. Of the highest significance is the fact that the reproductive cell is fortified for this function, or only becomes capable of it, by the mingling with another like it and yet different from it.

There is a group of instincts that care for the destinies of these elementary organisms which survive the individual being, that concern themselves with the safe sheltering of these organisms as long as they are defenceless against the stimuli of the outer world, and finally bring about their conjunction with other reproductive cells. These are collectively the sexual instincts. They are conservative in the same sense as the others are, in that they reproduce earlier conditions of the living substance, but they are so in a higher degree in that they show themselves specially resistant to external influences; and they are more conservative in a wider sense still, since they preserve life itself for a longer time. They are the actual life-instincts; the fact that they run counter to the trend of the other instincts which lead towards death indicates a contradiction between them and the rest, one which the theory of neuroses has recognised as full of significance. There is as it were an oscillating rhythm in the life of organisms: the one group of instincts presses forward to reach the final goal of life as quickly as possible, the other flies back at a certain point on the way only to traverse the same stretch once more from a given spot and thus to prolong the duration of the journey. Although sexuality and the distinction of the sexes certainly did not exist at the dawn of life, nevertheless it remains possible that the instincts which are later described as sexual were active from the very beginning and took up the part of opposition to the role of the ‘ego-instincts’ then, and not only at some later time.

Let us now retrace our steps for the first time, to ask whether all these speculations are not after all without foundation. Are there really, apart from the sexual instincts, no other instincts than those which have as their object the reinstatement of an earlier condition, none that strive towards a condition never yet attained? I am not aware of any satisfactory example in the organic world running counter to the characteristic I have suggested. The existence of a general impulse towards higher development in the plant and animal world can certainly not be established, though some such line of development is as a fact unquestionable. But, on the one hand, it is often merely a question of our own valuation when we pronounce one stage of development to be higher than another, and, on the other hand, biology makes clear to us that a higher development in one particular is often purchased with, or balanced by, retrogression in another. Then there are plenty of animal forms the youthful stages of which teach us that their development has taken a retrograde character rather than otherwise. Higher development and retrogression alike might well be the results of external forces impelling towards adaptation, and the part played by the instincts might be confined in both cases to retaining the enforced changes as sources of pleasure.

Many of us will also find it hard to abandon our belief that in man himself there dwells an impulse towards perfection, which has brought him to his present heights of intellectual prowess and ethical sublimation, and from which it might be expected that his development into superman will be ensured. But I do not believe in the existence of such an inner impulse, and I see no way of preserving this pleasing illusion. The development of man up to now does not seem to me to need any explanation differing from that of animal development, and the restless striving towards further perfection which may be observed in a minority of human beings is easily explicable as the result of that repression of instinct upon which what is most valuable in human culture is built. The repressed instinct never ceases to strive after its complete satisfaction which would consist in the repetition of a primary experience of satisfaction: all substitution- or reaction-formations and sublimations avail nothing towards relaxing the continual tension; and out of the excess of the satisfaction demanded over that found is born the driving momentum which allows of no abiding in any situation presented to it, but in the poet’s words ‘urges ever forward, ever unsubdued’ (Mephisto in ‘Faust’, Act I. Faust’s study). The path in the other direction, back to complete satisfaction, is as a rule barred by the resistances that maintain the repressions, and thus there remains nothing for it but to proceed in the other, still unobstructed direction, that of development, without, however, any prospect of being able to bring the process to a conclusion or to attain the goal. What occurs in the development of a neurotic phobia, which is really nothing but an attempt at flight from the satisfaction of an instinct, gives us the prototype for the origin of this ostensible ‘impulse towards perfection’ which, however, we cannot possibly ascribe to all human beings. The dynamic conditions are, it is true, quite generally present, but the economic relations seem only in rare cases to favour the phenomenon.