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Our own death cannot be represented, which is obvious since it would require a self-observing consciousness that disappears with death and therefore cannot perceive the death. Any anticipation of our own death as nothingness is therefore impossible. For Freud, this philosophical evidence was reflected in his remarks that "our unconscious . . . does not believe in its own death; it behaves as if it were immortal" (1915b, p. 296) and "it is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators" (1915b, p. 289). These two propositions should not be confused. The second is a logical statement, since in the absence of existence there is no consciousness, while the first refers to the make-up of the unconscious system and especially the fact that it ignores time and its passage, and more radically, negation.

The inability to represent one's own death does not imply that we fail to suffer about the certainty of death. Anxiety about death occupies a central place in our lives, and ultimately it is this that superego anxiety and castration anxiety refer to. Moreover, death is represented in dreams and symbols. Departures and muteness, or the ability to hide from others are oneiric representations of death. Among the typical dream types Freud mentions in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a) is the dream of the death of loved ones.

Perception about the death of the other is a central element in obsessive neurotics. Freud wrote, "these neurotics need the help of the possibility of death chiefly in order that it may act as a solution of conflicts they have left unsolved" (1909d, p. 236). By suppressing an element of indecision, death would allow resolution, but death, and the possibility of escaping it through superstitious magical activities, is associated with their unconscious hatred in the conflict of ambivalence. The idea of death offers a solution in obsessive neurosis, but it is also, for everyone, a value that, by establishing a contrast, exalts the value of life. Freud demonstrates this in relation to transience (1916a [1915]), but he also emphasizes it in relation to the risk of death: "Life is impoverished, it loses in interest, when the highest stake in the game of living, life itself, may not be risked" (1915b, p. 290).

Beyond the impossible representation of one's own demise, there is the question of death as enigma, similar to birth, as the end mirrors the beginning. Freud questions primitive man's attitude to death (1912-1913a) by distinguishing between the triumph before the corpse of the enemy and the pain experienced in the loss of a loved one. Certainly, in these cases identification could lead primitive man to also consider his own death. But Freud introduced an additional idea, that of the ambivalence that would lead to suffering and relief, and considered it to be the root not of the representation of death but of the fact that the disturbance caused by it might have led men to think: "What released the spirit of enquiry in man was not the intellectual enigma, and not every death, but the conflict of feeling at the death of loved yet alien and hated persons" (1915b, 293).

As for children, Freud also felt that the origin of the activity, if not of thought, at least of research, was found in the desire for affection (preserving the love of one's parents without sharing it with younger siblings). In contrast he does not appear to have considered that for children the representation of death and, in particular, their own death, might have constituted an enigma and encouragement for reflection. "Children", he wrote, "know nothing of the horrors of corruption, of freezing in the ice-cold grave, of the terrors of eternal nothingness—ideas which grown-up people find it so hard to tolerate, as is proved by all the myths of a future life" (1900a, p. 254). On the contrary, we can consider that the theories, or myths, that the child creates to explain the origin of life also treat its end, and that both preoccupations are inseparable.

These theories raise the question of the causality of death. We know that the adult, rather than seeing death as an inevitable destiny, will consider the immediate causes, or even look for those responsible (1915b). The child, in a similar position, does not hesitate to make death the result of murder. For here the relationship to death retains its original form, that is, the impulse to kill repressed by an important moral injunction, "Thou shalt not kill." However, there is one area where this impulse can be given free rein: literary fiction, which provides the pleasure of remaining alive and the certainty that we have not killed anyone. "In the realm of fiction we find the plurality of lives which we need" (1915b, p. 291). The fact that so-called "crime" writing has always enjoyed such success attests, as surely as the existence of a moral imperative, to the existence and persistence of this impulse to murder and the enigma contained in this return to death, here couched in playful terms (Mijolla-Mellor, 1995).


death (mort) The term death occurs in various contexts in Lacan's work l. Death is constitutive of the symbolic order, because the symbol, by standing in place of the thing which it symbolises, is equivalent to the death of the thing: 'the symbol is the murder of the thing' (E, 104). Also, the 'first symbol' in human history is the tomb (E, 104). It is only by virtue of the signifier that man has access to and can conceive of his own death; 'It is in the signifier and insofar as the subject articulates a signifying chain that he comesup against the fact that he may disappear from the chain of what he is' (S7, 295). The signifier also puts the subject beyond death, because 'the signifier already considers him dead, by nature it immortalises him' (S3, 180). Death in the symbolic order is related to the death of the Father (i.e. the murder of the father of the horde in Totem and Taboo; Freud, 1912-13); the symbolic father is always a dead father. 2. In the seminar of 1959-60, 'The Ethics of Psychoanalysis', Lacan talks about the 'second death' (a phrase which he coins in reference to a passage from the Marquis de Sade's novel Juliette, in which one of the characters speaks of a 'second life', see Sade, 1797: 772, quoted in S7, 211). The first death is the physical death of the body, a death which ends one human life but which does not put an end to the cycles of corruption and regeneration. The second death is that which prevents the regeneration of the dead body, 'the point at which the very cycles of the transformations of nature are annihilated' (S7, 248). The concept of the second death is used by Lacan to formulate ideas on various themes: beauty (S7, 260] it is the function of beauty to reveal man's relationship to his own death - S7, 299); the direct relationship to being (S7, 285); and the sadistic fantasy of inflicting perpetual pain (S7, 295). The phrase 'zone between-two-deaths' (l'espace de l'entre-deux-morts), which was originally coined by one of Lacan's students (see S7, 320), is taken up by Lacan to designate 'the zone in which tragedy is played out' (S8, 120). 3. Death plays an important role in the philosophical systems of Hegel and Heidegger, and Lacan draws on both of these in his theorisation of the role of death in psychoanalysis. From Hegel (via KojËve), Lacan takes the idea that death is both constitutive of man's freedom and 'the absolute Master' (KojËve, 1947: 21). Death plays a crucial part in the Hegelian dialectic of the master and the slave where it is intimately linked with desire, since the master only affirms himself for others by means of a desire for death (E, 105). From Heidegger, Lacan takes the idea that human existence only takes on meaning by virtue of the finite limit set by death, so that the human subject is properly a 'being-for-death'; this corresponds to Lacan's view that the analysand should come, via the analytic process, to assume his own mortality (E, 104-5). 4. In his comparison between psychoanalytic treatment and the game of bridge, Lacan describes the analyst as playing the position of the 'dummy' (in French, le mort; literally, 'the dead person'). 'The analyst intervenes concretely in the dialectic of analysis by pretending that he is dead . . . he makes death present' (E, 140). The analyst 'cadaverises' himself (se corpsifiat). 5. The question which constitutes the structure of obsessional neurosis concerns death; it is the question 'Am I dead or aliveT (S3, 179-80).

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams, part I. SE, 4-5.
  2. ——. (1912-1913a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.
  3. ——. (1915b). Thoughts for the times on war and death. SE, 14: 273-300.

PAGES 24, 52, 93, drive, 76, 84, 89-90 HOMER.

death, xviii, 92, 107, 223, 241, life and death, 159, 198, 213, 218-220, 255, phantasy of * one's own death, 214-5, sexuality and death, 150, 177, 189, 205, 257 Seminar XI


See Also