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How to Look Death in the Eyes: Freud and Bataille

From: SubStance
Issue 119 (Volume 38, Number 2), 2009
pp. 63-88 | 10.1353/sub.0.0046

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Death’s place in psychoanalysis is very problematic. Beginning with Freud, death can be variously said to have been repressed, reduced, pathologized, or forgotten altogether.2 Within Freud’s writings, however, one article stands in contradistinction to this trend, by making a claim for death’s centrality. Although it has received relatively little attention, “Thoughts for the times on war and death,” published in 1915, is a fascinating discussion about our attitudes towards death, which comprise both a “cultural-conventional attitude” that Freud so pertinently, almost wickedly, criticizes, and the attitude common to the unconscious and to primeval man. The cultural conventional attitude is characterized by continual rejection of death: we put it away, refuse to talk about it, attribute it to chance events (“Thoughts” 291–92). For primeval man, and in the unconscious, death is wished for when it is the death of an other but is denied as regards oneself.

However, while it is exceptional in bringing the problem of death to the fore, “Thoughts for the Times” does not constitute a clear-cut alternative to the psychoanalytic sidestepping of death. It is, rather, full of sharp tensions and contradictions. Upon close reading, the text reveals itself to be the compromise formation of two different approaches. Freud’s call, in the final paragraph, “to give death the place which is its due” in psychic life, and his contention that life is impoverished when we fail to do so, simply cannot be reconciled with his stubborn insistence, in the very same paper, that no place within the mind can be allotted to death. Freud insists upon this because death cannot be represented, and because fear of death is always secondary to other psychic factors. His call to abandon the “cultural-conventional” treatment of death in favor of that of primeval man or of the unconscious is found to be devoid of any sense, the latter being no less repressive of death or ignoring it than the former (Razinsky, “A struggle”).

“Thoughts for the times” then, is a major exception, but an insufficient one. One gets the feeling that there is unfulfilled potential for a change here, not theoretically developed, and completely abandoned in later writings. Freud seems to be hampered by certain psychoanalytic presuppositions, reiterating old positions. What seems useful is to divert from the psychoanalytic line of thought, and address the text “sideways” with another line of thought, which will offer a new reading. This is my aim in what follows. This other line of thought will be that of Georges Bataille.

Freud with Bataille? An odd couple. Such a coupling is far from intuitive, juxtaposing as it does two thinkers from separate intellectual spheres, and all the more so with regard to the issue of death: Bataille, so focused on death, and Freud, so reluctant to admit of its psychic influence. In bringing them together we can give a twist to Freud by reintroducing death into his system.

My starting point here is the issue of death’s representability. That death defies representation is the basic tenet underlying Freud’s approach. Yet he seems to accept this without further investigation, and his entire analysis is biased as a result. Although he has strong tendencies in more “existential” directions, it is this proposition—that death cannot be represented—that holds him back time and again. But should it really be so?

In the following pages I will focus on Freud’s paradox of the irrepresentability of death and its consequences, and on our attitude toward it, as depicted in his text. Through a reading of Freud’s text—again, probably the most important psychoanalytic paper on death—I will attempt to demonstrate that it does, in fact, provide us with some clues to a possible way out of the paradox, a praxis with specific structuring elements, but these indications are only dispersed in the text, and have to be put together and interpreted in order for the way out to be clear.

Bataille struggles with similar contradictions, yet recognizes them as crucial and problematic and therefore attempts to overcome them. Interestingly enough, and without any direct link between the two authors, serious resemblances can be found between their...