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Halpern, S. (1964). Thanatopsis: Life's Last Stand. Am. Imago, 21(3-4):23-36.

(1964). American Imago, 21(3-4):23-36

Thanatopsis: Life's Last Stand

Sidney Halpern

El men gar zoon etithei nekra eide ameibon.

(For, from living creatures it made dead ones, changing their forms.)


But whate'er I be,

Nor I, nor any man that but man is,

With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eas'd

With being nothing.

—Shakespeare, Richard II, 5.5.38-41.

Freud, so often the revolutionary iconoclast when treating of hallowed doctrine, accepted without his customary critical acumen the conventional version of the origin and destiny of life. We are all familiar with his theory of instincts, how he proclaimed that all life yearns to return again to the inorganic matter whence it had sprung. Freud relentlessly stressed not only that sleep and death constituted efforts to achieve, within the womb, surcease from strife, but that all living creatures are driven by an inexorable instinct, which cannot be overcome, to be restored to the initial starting point, the inorganic. Like the Jewish people which had given him birth, Freud fervently believed and desired that life could go home again and remain there. His concept of inevitable return to the womb, and beyond to inorganic matter, surely derived from his own earliest nurture by a mother from that nomadic race of Jews to whom the great motivating ideal had ever been to locate a resting place and cease their weary wanderings, in some home where they could never be disturbed. Although rejecting Jewish religion, classifying himself as an atheist, Freud nevertheless embraced, as we know, the Zionist Messianic dream of a final, permanent homeland. Nor could he rid himself of the Elohistic dictum, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shall thou return.”2

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