Sigmund Freud and the Bataillean Interpretation of Death

Sigmund Freud and the Bataillean Interpretation of Death
© Photograph by Mathilde Timmermans

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 Sigmund Freud so pertinently, almost wickedly, criticizes, and the attitude common to the unconscious and to primeval man. The cultural conventional attitude is characterized by a continual rejection of death: we put it away, refuse to talk about it, attribute it to chance events (‘Thoughts’ 291-92). For the primaeval man, and in the unconscious, death is wished for when it is the death of another 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. Sigmund 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. Sigmund Freud insists upon this because death cannot be represented and because the fear of death is always secondary to other psychic factors. His call to abandon the “cultural-conventional” treatment of death in favour of that of primaeval 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. Sigmund 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 Albert Maurice Victor Bataille.

Sigmund Freud with Georges Albert Maurice Victor 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: Georges Albert Maurice Victor Bataille, so focused on death, and Sigmund Freud, so reluctant to admit of its psychic influence. In bringing them together we can give a twist to Sigmund 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 Sigmund 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 following articles, I will focus on Sigmund 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 Sigmund 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.

Georges Albert Maurice Victor 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 texts on death. This article aims to display these resemblances and to offer, in addition to a Bataillean interpretation of Sigmund Freud’s text, an exploration of basic psychical dynamics regarding death. The three questions that it attempts to answer are: Can we or can we not grasp death? If we cannot, how can the knowledge of our future death gain access to our life? And, concerning the implications this impossibility or possibility may have on life itself, is there a moral to handling death or integrating it in our life?

Also published on Medium.

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