Freudian Death Instinct

‘My attention shifted from secondary narcissism to primary narcissism, which refers to the infantile illusion of omnipotence that precedes understanding of the crucial distinction between the self and it’s surroundings. Returning to Freud’s seminal but confusing paper ‘On Narcissism’ (1914), I found that Freud proposed two different conceptions of narcissism. The first identified it with self-love, a withdrawal of libidinal interest from the outside world, whereas the second seemed to presuppose a state of mind antecedent to any awareness of objects separate from the self. It was his growing preoccupation with narcissism in this ‘primary’ sense, I realised, that pointed Freud toward his controversial hypotheses of a death instinct, better described as a longing for absolute equilibrium – the Nirvana principle, as he aptly called it. Except that it is not an instinct that and it seeks not death but ever lasting life, primary narcissism conforms quite closely to Freud’s description of the death instinct as a longing for the complete cessation of tension, which seems to operate independently of the ‘pleasure principle’ and follows a ‘backwards path that leads to complete satisfaction’.
Narcissism in this sense is the longing to be free from longing. It is the backwards quest for that absolute peace upheld as the highest state of spiritual perfection in many mystical traditions. It’s scorn for the body’s demands distinguishes narcissism from ordinary ego-ism or from the survival instinct. The awareness of death and the determination to stay alive presuppose an awareness of objects distinct from the self. Since Narcissism does not acknowladge the sepperate existance of the self, it has no fear of death. Narcissus drowns in his own reflection, never understanding that it is a reflection. The point of the story is not that Narcissus falls in love with himself but, since he fails to recognize his own reflection, that he lacks any conception of the difference between himself and his surroundings. The theory of primary narcissism makes us see the pain of separation, which begins at birth, as the original source of human malaise. The human infant is born to soon. We come into the world utterly unable to provide for our biological needs and therefore completely dependant on those to take care of us. The experience of helplessness is all the more painful because it is preceded by the ‘oceanic’ contentment of the womb, as Freud called it, which we spend the rest of our lives trying to recapture.’

Pg 240 -241
The Culture of Narcissism
Christopher Lasch

W W Norton & Co Ltd; New edition edition (15 Jan 1979)


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