For a change, we are at war...

Image: Lukas Hartmann


Freud sought to understand war and its deep motivations

“What we take away for our immediate purposes, from the preceding statements, is that there is no prospect of being able to abolish the aggressive tendencies of the human being” (Sigmund Freud).

Yes, Martian. For a change, we are at war. In a hypothetical current conversation, in 2022, Rita Lee's extraterrestrial interlocutor should no longer be surprised by this fact that, for us terrestrials, still causes so much astonishment. From a psychoanalytical point of view, it is possible to say that thoughtless repetition has unconscious reasons that our reason, heir to enlightenment, cannot or should no longer ignore.

Published in Paris in 1933 in English, French and German simultaneously, a project carried out under the guidance of the Standing Committee for Literature and the Arts of the League of Nations and sponsored by the International Institute for Intellectual Cooperation (League of Nations), the letters exchanges between Freud and Einstein are disturbing, among other reasons, because they expose the perplexity and impotence of two of the great thinkers of the XNUMXth century in the face of the archaism represented by war. Provoked by Einstein, it fell to Freud to answer the following question: “Why war?”.

It was expected from the greatest intellectual references of the time a more or less convincing answer about the reasons for the War and, more than that, some light on the paths that could lead to the definitive resolution of the state of barbarism (state of exception) that has always been rooted within Western civilization. Freud's answer, while fulfilling the first expectation of explanation - "Why the war?" –, and for that purpose makes use of the theory of drives from the field of psychoanalytic investigation, confers to the second – “What to do…” – a certain pessimism with regard to the establishment of a superior power with functions of regulation and mitigation of conflicts resulting from the irreducible differences between peoples and individuals.

For Freud, the irreducibility of the conflict is the permanent source both of a malaise that acts explicitly or furtively on the psychic life of the subject, generating illness, and of the state of war that becomes a relevant and permanent operator in the set of relations between groups and states.

Freud says to Einstein: “We assume that human instincts are of only two types: those that tend to conserve and unite – we call them erotic, exactly in the sense of Eros, in The banquet of Plato – and those who seek to destroy and kill, which we have grouped together under the name of aggression or destruction instinct. As you can see, this is just a theoretical transfiguration of the well-known opposition between love and hate, which perhaps has a primordial connection with the universally known polarity of attraction and repulsion, which plays a relevant role in your area of ​​study”.

This passage from Freud's letter to Einstein helps us understand the unavoidable presence of malaise in culture, as well as the (im)possibility of thinking about a political arrangement capable of resolving – definitively – problems such as war between individuals , groups and nations. First of all, it is necessary to recognize the presence of conflict and its unavoidable character in human existence, not only as a condition for the possibility of psychoanalytic knowledge, but as an ontological presupposition. The decentralization of the subject operated by psychoanalysis is the result of a look (listen!) attentive to the fractures of subjectivity... In this sense, the Freudian perspective is a bet on the constitutive dimension of conflict at its different levels, whether in the subject's life or broader scope of cultural organization.

Freud's answer could not not take into account this kind of fracture or lag established in the scope of human existence. At its most elementary level, that of psychic life, the theory of drives – represented by the drive duality between Eros and Thanatos – corresponds to the attempt to account for the dynamics that crosses bodies and organizes their relationship with the outside world and with each other. Something, which is of the order of the unspeakable, formless, “What will it be?”, disturbs an inorganic state and triggers (impulses) life… And the “psychic apparatus”, which is perhaps the greatest theoretical fiction freudian, is organized in the most complex arrangements, and can be thought from the topical, economic and dynamic points of view. The “apparatus” makes sense in response to what permanently triggers life, the drive.

Returning to Freud's words, it is worth highlighting the purely intensive aspect of this force without prior evaluative content. Thus Freud defines this operator which is the drive within the scope of subjectivity. He says: "But let us not be too quick to introduce valuations of good and evil." Thus, the nature of the drive is better expressed in terms of physics (attraction/repulsion, flow/stasis, fusion/de-fusion, junction/disjunction) or economy itself (regime of intensities, amount of energy, etc.). It would not fit to qualify it beforehand in “valuations of good and evil”, and it can never be defined also by the characteristics of the objects in which it seeks its satisfaction.

This fundamental inadequacy between drives and objects, a constitutive gap, is a kind of engine of life, its condition for constant movement, the matrix of desire… in the words of Riobaldo/Guimarães Rosa, life made “strand matter”. For all these reasons, it is worth thinking that the desire for permanent stabilization of this force in an object relationship capable of depleting or definitively neutralizing its intensity and appeasing the nature of being lacking that constitutes us, can only be realized in the encounter with death itself, an inorganic state where nothing pulsates.

In another part of Freud's letter, attention is drawn to the theoretical centrality of drive dynamics for understanding the “phenomena of life”, in view of the author's assumption of an irremediable state of conflict constituting psychic life and its consequences for culture: “Each of these instincts is as indispensable as the other, it is from the joint or contrary action of both that the phenomena of life arise. It seems that almost never the instinct of a species can act in isolation, it is always linked - amalgamated, we say - with a certain amount of its counterpart, which modifies its goal or, occasionally, allows it to reach it. […] The difficulty of isolating the two kinds of instincts in their manifestations is what prevented us from knowing them for a long time”.

It follows from the hypothesis of the amalgamation of the life and death drives that the resolution of the conflict between the aggressive (destructive) and erotic (conservative) tendencies would not take place in a kind of de-fusion of the drives, something certainly impossible to imagine not to be in fictional, utopian terms, that is, a kind of political/cultural paradise, a place free of hostile relations between people. And, here, we observe the extent to which Freud's answer seems to frustrate the expectation launched by Einstein that a certain political configuration, an arrangement arising from a new technology of power, could put an end to the state of war. For Freud, not only does such a de-fusion of drives become unthinkable in political terms, either in the establishment of a superior power capable of absorbing all the hostile and disruptive tendencies constant in the coexistence between individuals; and in psychic terms, with the possibility of liberation from the malaise arising from the internalization of aggressiveness in his superegoic register.

However, despite the impossibility of an “eternal peace” between peoples (a curious expression that is so successful in the business of funeral plans), Freud advocates cultural evolution as the only appropriate destination in the fight against war. Although, among its advantages, there are also certain dangers: “The psychic changes that accompany the cultural process are evident and unequivocal. They consist in the progressive displacement of instinctual aims and the restriction of instinctual impulses. Sensations that were unpleasant for our ancestors have become indifferent and even unpleasant for us; there are organic reasons why our ethical and aesthetic ideals have changed. Two seem to be the most important psychological characteristics of the culture: the strengthening of the intellect, which begins to dominate instinctual life, and the internalization of the tendency to aggressiveness, with all its advantageous and dangerous consequences.

(No) there is much to do… The negative in parentheses may be a way of relativizing Freud's pessimistic tone regarding the possibility of a solution to war conflicts. Far from thinking of magical answers to an insoluble question, the eternal combat between the two “heavenly powers”, Freud remains faithful to his realistic view by proposing that the way out of the end of destructiveness can be in the link of one force over the other. , in order to modify the goal of the drive. But there is no guarantee... Even if the conflict does not materialize in practical forms of destruction, fear, distrust, restlessness continue to be sources of unhappiness. Your last words in the essay Discontents in Civilization are significant: “It is now up to hope that the other of the two 'heavenly powers', the eternal Eros, undertakes an effort to assert itself in the fight against the equally immortal adversary. But who can predict success and denouement?”

In terms of political organization, the centralization of power – and consequently the coercion of violence by a higher body – and the institution of affective ties (identifications) around something in common can indeed be a way to found and maintain the community. The nature of the “Common” – or, in other words, of what “makes a bond” – between subjects, for Freud, takes place around the elements of culture, within which the inhibition of aggressive impulses must be present as a precondition for its effectiveness. But nothing is that simple in Freudian thought... Group psychology and the analysis of the ego, for example, the election of external enemies and the possibility of channeling aggressiveness and hostility towards the community's enemies is a propelling factor of the affective and political bond between its collaborating members. And for that, strengthening ties based on the identification of members becomes fundamental.

Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nanci, in rehearsal the nazi myth (Illuminations), carry out an analysis of the formation and elaboration of the Nazi myth, an “identification device” responsible for the regimentation of a political-social body destined both to celebrate essentialist roots of a certain German tradition (based on the idea of ​​Aryan blood, the land common to Germanic peoples and language), as to persecuting and destroying what would be a kind of Aryan anti-type, the Jew. And as another in-forme, the Jew should be extinct, because he directly threatens what the Nazi myth intends to build and preserve: “the Jew is not the 'antipode' of the Germanic, but his 'contradiction', which without doubt means that it is not a question of an opposite type, but of the very absence of the type, as a danger present in every becoming a bastard, which is also always parasiticity”.

Even though there is no opposition between individual psychology and social psychology, it is worth noting the importance of cultural elements and their formations in the specific scope of the subjects' psychic life. It can be said that the analytical space is a privileged place where the clash between the powers of life and death is observed. In this space, the “desire to live”, crossed by the psychic forms of life impulses, makes good use of the word and culture as “bridges of connection” to the other. According to Radmila Zygouris, in life instincts (Listens), “the desire to live does not necessarily manifest itself through a “true” demand for analysis. To do so, not only must the patient's condition allow it, but also that he has a “certain culture”. Without it, it manifests itself in a desire to speak, a desire to be understood, helped, understood. It is, in fact, impressive to see the extent to which this desire to live, when taken into account, not only leads towards the word and the desire to know, but also towards an open mind towards the oddities of the unconscious. Desire, speak, think, dream, do. All of this implies the impulses of life, it implies the act of being face to face with another, of going towards the other and opens a way to establish a relationship with the other, an object relationship as it is called”.

In his letter, Freud emphasizes the nature of the amalgam established between the drives, as well as pointing to some of the characteristics of their fused mode of functioning. It is important to observe carefully when he says: “almost never the instinct of a species can act in isolation, it is always found linked – amalgamated, we say – to a certain amount of its counterpart, which modifies its goal or, occasionally, allows it to reach”. -there".

According to Freud, in Instinct and its vicissitudes, “the goal of an instinct is always satisfaction, which can be achieved only by suppressing the state of stimulation at the source of the instinct. But although this final goal remains unchanged for every instinct, different paths can lead to the same final goal, so that an instinct can have several close or intermediate goals, which are combined or exchanged for each other”.

Taking into account what Freud says in the passages above about the modification or deviation of the drive's goal as a result of a certain arrangement or link between the drives, we can think that in the same way that the death drive colonizes the life drive and leads it to forms of satisfaction based on the destruction of all difference, as in the Nazi myth, for example, one can also recognize the possibility of a link between the death drive and forms of life imprisoned in fixed relationships or asphyxiating erotic units (because totalizing/synthesizing ), allowing its destabilization and consequent transformation into more libertarian ways of life.

Finally, if Freud sees in “cultural evolution” the possibility of permanent work against war (“everything that promotes cultural evolution also works against war”), in his letter addressed to Einstein it is clear, it is worth repeating, the idea of an impossibility of resolving the instinctual conflict through the acquisition of objects, values ​​and cultural goods.

By pointing out the threshold relationship between law and violence, Freud is in line with the thinkers of the Frankfurt School, who doubted reason and denounced its destructive power. The assumption of a link between the drives, the “amalgam” that sustains the drive dualism of his theory, is also constituted as a critical device in permanent vigilance against any form of tyranny disguised as cultural elevation.

Freud tells Einstein: “If you follow me a little further, I will tell you that human acts also bring a complication of another kind. Rarely is an action the work of a single instinctual impulse, which in itself must already be composed of Eros and destruction. […] …when men are incited to war, they have a whole range of motives to respond in the affirmative, noble and low, some openly declared, others silenced. […] Pleasure in aggression and destruction is certainly one of them; the countless cruelties that we see in history and in everyday life confirm its existence and its strength. The mixture of these destructive impulses with others, erotic and ideal, naturally facilitates their satisfaction. Sometimes we have the impression, when we learn of cruel acts that have happened in history, that ideal motives have only served as pretexts for destructive appetites; at other times, in the case of the atrocities of the Holy Inquisition, for example, we find that the ideal motives imposed themselves on consciousness, while the destructive ones brought them conscious reinforcement. Both things are possible”.

For all these reasons, Freud's work and the issues with which he struggled should make us alert. It is a possible path instead of just being amazed at new wars and others not so new.

*Joao Paulo Ayub Fonseca is a psychoanalyst and doctor in social sciences from Unicamp. Author of Introduction to Michel Foucault's analytics of power (Intermediate).


See this link for all articles