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Segal, H. (1993). On the Clinical Usefulness of the Concept of Death Instinct. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 74:55-61.

(1993). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 74:55-61

On the Clinical Usefulness of the Concept of Death Instinct

Hanna Segal

At the end of Jack London's Martin Eden(1967), Martin commits suicide by drowning. As he sinks he automatically tries to swim. 'It was the automatic instinct to live. He ceased swimming, but the moment he felt water rising above his mouth his hands struck out sharply with a lifting movement. "This is the will to live", he thought, and the thought was accompanied by a sneer.'

London brings out vividly the hatred and the contempt Martin feels for that part of him that wishes to live. '"The will to live", he thought disdainfully.' As he drowns he has a tearing pain in his chest. '"The hurt was not death" was the thought that oscillated through his reeling consciousness. It was life—the pangs of life—this awful suffocating feeling. It was the last blow life could deal him.'

All pain comes from living. Freud describes the death instinct as a biological drive to return to the inorganic—the organism reacting to any disturbance to the status quo. Freud described the death instinct first in Beyond the Pleasure Principle(1920). He postulated that the life instinct aims at combining elements into bigger units; it aims at life and propagation. (Hence, sexuality is part of it.) The death instinct aims at destructuralisation, dissolution, death.

I think that Freud emphasises the biological aspect which later allowed others, and sometimes himself, to describe his ideas about the death instinct as a biological speculation, partly defensively; he expected that his new idea would be found shocking and meet with great resistance, which, indeed, it did.

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