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Schmalhausen, S.D. (1925). Psychoanalytic Studies. Psychoanal. Rev., 12(3):295-315.

(1925). Psychoanalytic Review, 12(3):295-315

Psychoanalytic Studies

Samuel D. Schmalhausen

I. The Nihilist Instinct in Man

Two instincts promote our dramatic interest in life. The instinct of self-continuance and the “instinct” of self-annihilation. Embodied in the first instinct are the instincts of preservation and of reproduction. Embodied in the second “instinct” are the instincts of curiosity and vanity. The driving force of the instincts of self-continuance is Fear; the fear of death. The driving force of the instincts of self-annihilation is discontent; discontent with life.

If Curiosity were uncontrollably stronger as an instinct than its counter-mate Preservation, destruction and death would be the goals of evolution! If preservation were the overwhelmingly deeper instinct, monotony and the vegetative life would be the goals of evolution. As it is, the perilous and crucial interplay of both instincts guarantee, as the aims of evolution, the dramatic possibilities of variety, spontaneity, recordable research and progress, interest, and the numerous differentiations peculiar to the human organism. Not to overlook the marvelously stimulating interaction of the several urgent instincts.

The child plays with fire. Some instinct within impels it to experiment with curious situations, promising thrill and novelty. The child, full-grown, attends the circus, the vaudeville, the theatric exhibition of “stunts” and special feats, and with savage delight responds to any “hair-raising” performance involving the see-saw of life and death. The young man, warned away from danger, cannot restrain his mad desire to plunge in where wiseacres fear to experiment. The swimmer must go beyond his depth; the automobilist must shoot headlong at breakneck speed; the trapeze “artist” must risk yet another desperate leap; the runner must breast the tape though the effort break him—these are a few of the commonest experiences attesting the presence of a suicidal “instinct.”

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