An Otherwise of Consciousness

Steeped in so much death, did Freud sigh into the mountain that was his soul when he composed section five of Beyond the Pleasure Principle — arriving at the conclusion that pushed past his previous theory of the primacy of the human drive toward pleasure? Given the atrocities of massive world war did it seem perhaps inevitable to conclude that the first drive, the primary drive, is the drive to return to the nonliving? And what to say, then, of the relationship of the death drive to what Freud saw as the “life-preserving sex drive”[1] — of Thantos to Eros? If Eros is biologically and psychologically life-giving, is it not, then, pushing in the opposite direction to everything else in the self, which flows toward death? Freud puzzles over this eternal struggle, looking to the hyperbolic version of sexuality evident in the sadomasochist and masochist, for in these figures Eros and Thantos are entwined as one.

Lingering for a moment over the concept of a “primary masochism,” Freud mentions in a footnote a “rich and thoughtful article, though one that is unfortunately not fully clear to me” by Sabina Spielrein, a Russian physician and one of the first female psychoanalysts, who, Freud writes, “anticipated a significant part of this speculation”[2]. The essay he refers to is a 1912 paper titled “Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being” in which Spielrein proposes that while Freud may well be correct in thinking that the I is based on striving for pleasure and suppressing displeasure, “the personal psyche is governed by unconscious impulses that lie deeper and, in their demands, are unconcerned with our feeling reactions”[3]. These impulses include destruction and a desire for transformation, to be moved and shifted by external experience.

Furthermore, in this paper published eight years before Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Spielrein — who had been a patient, then a student, and an intimate of Carl Jung’s and who would go on to write the first psychoanalytic dissertation by a woman and to be a pioneer of child psychology, and who would be the second woman doctor ever elected to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, and who would found a psychoanalytic children’s nursery and teach in the university until Stalin banned psychoanalysis in 1936, and who would in her hometown of Rostov-on-Don in Russia be shot along with her daughters by Germans for being Jews in 1942 — Spielrein understands in her essay dissolution to be a necessary component of creation. Rather than being pitted in struggle, Spielrein conceives of the sex and death drives as twined conditions necessary for life: “During reproduction, a union of female and male cells occurs. The unity of each cell thus is destroyed and, from the product of this destruction, new life originates”[4]. She notes this destruction in various instances of fertilization and in the moment of sex itself when “the male component merges with the female component that becomes reorganized and assumes a new form mediated by the unfamiliar intruder. An alteration comes over the whole organism; destruction and reconstruction, which under the usual circumstances always accompany each other, occur rapidly”[5].

Spielrein’s “destruction” and “dissolution” propose a state of transformation, of remaking that might leave the individual I behind but is necessary to the process of becoming, which reminds me of the creative state of consciousness, the “over-mind” described by H.D. in her 1919 statement on poetics Notes on Thought and Vision: “That over-mind seems a cap, like water, transparent, fluid yet with definite body … into that over-mind, thoughts pass and are visible like fish swimming under clear water … I visualize it just as well, now, centered in the love-region of the body”[6].

While Spielrein’s process is I-annihilating, it differs from Freud’s death, which is a return to a state of utter nonbeing, as if the self came out of nothingness and must therefore return to nothingness. Furthermore, compare the existential implications of the two views. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud gives us an image of the human as a “living vesicle” which “would be killed by the stimuli coming from these [external] energies if it were not provided with a shield against stimuli”[7], a shield of consciousness. Spielrein in contrast to Freud’s ego-as-manager presents us with permeability — a self written-through with the external world, that reorganizes relationally. She imagines a “female component that becomes reorganized and assumes a new form”[8] in the act of sex and writes that “the depth of our psyche knows no ‘I,’ but only its summation, the ‘We’”[9]. While Freud’s ego-consciousness remains fixed between the unconscious, the superego, and the world, in Spielrein’s picture the parts revolve: the psyche “considers the ego to be an object observed and subordinated to other similar objects”[10]. Loss, and transformation. Loss and transformation and loss. Perhaps in the Fort! Da! game little Ernst’s “o-oo” was not fort but OM, his “da” an AH. Sanskrit seed syllables, moons and suns birthed out of the mouth.

1. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, ed. Todd Dufresne, trans. Gregory C. Richter (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2011), 91.

2. Freud, 91n1.

3. Sabina Spielrein, “Destruction as the Cause for Coming into Being,” Journal of Analytical Psychology 39 (1994): 160.

4. Spielrein, 156.

5. Spielrein, 157.

6. Hilda Doolittle, Notes on Thought and Vision (San Francisco: City Lights, 1982), 18–19.

7. Freud, 68.

8. Spielrein, 157.

9. Spielrein, 160.

10. Spielrein, 160.