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Rosenfeld, H. (1971). A Clinical Approach to the Psychoanalytic Theory of the Life and Death Instincts: An Investigation Into the Aggressive Aspects of Narcissism. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 52:169-178.

(1971). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 52:169-178

A Clinical Approach to the Psychoanalytic Theory of the Life and Death Instincts: An Investigation Into the Aggressive Aspects of Narcissism

Herbert Rosenfeld

When Freud introduced his dualistic theory of the life and death instincts in 1920 a new era in the development of psychoanalysis began which gradually opened up a deeper understanding of aggressive phenomena in mental life. Many analysts objected to the theory of the death instinct and were tempted to discard it as purely speculative and theoretical; however, others soon recognized its fundamental clinical importance.

Freud emphasized that the death instinct was silently driving the individual towards death and that only through the activity of the life instinct was this death-like force projected outwards and appeared as destructive impulses directed against objects in the outside world. Generally the life and death instincts are mixed or fused in varying degrees, and Freud maintained that the instincts, meaning the life and death instincts, 'hardly ever appear in "a pure form"'. While states of severe defusion of the instincts do resemble Freud's description of the unfused death instinct—for example, a wish to die or to withdraw into a state of nothingness—on detailed clinical examination we find that the death instinct cannot be observed in its original form, since it always becomes manifest as a destructive process directed against objects and the self. These processes seem to operate in their most virulent form in severe narcissistic conditions.

I shall therefore attempt in this paper to clarify particularly the destructive aspects of narcissism and relate this to Freud's theory of the fusion and defusion of the life and death instincts.

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