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Nachman, L.D. (1981-82). Our Mortal Dress: Sigmund Freud and the Theme of Death. Psychoanal. Rev., 68(4):547-560.

(1981-82). Psychoanalytic Review, 68(4):547-560

Our Mortal Dress: Sigmund Freud and the Theme of Death

Larry David Nachman, Ph.D.

Shortly after the First World War, Sigmund Freud elevated death to the status of an instinct. Death, he had come to believe, was there with Eros, its partner and opponent, at the beginning of the life of the human being as it was with all living organisms. Their contention is the drama of human life. This apotheosis of death in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and The Ego and the Id constituted a significant revision of Freud's fundamental theory of the human personality. Moreover, these puzzling works laid the basis for much of the political and historical speculation of the last period of his life.

Yet the formulation of the death instinct appears less startling when one discovers that there is a coherent theme of death in Freud's works from the very beginnings of his psychoanalytic theory. This theme, to be sure, does not have the prominence of those major concepts, the unconscious and infantile sexuality, upon which Freud had established his psychoanalytic theory. But the theme of death does have a demonstrable significance for Freud's general view of the human condition.

Towards the end of the sixth chapter of The Interpretation of Dreams, “The Dream-Work,” Freud examines the subjects “Absurd Dreams,” “Intellectual Activity in Dreams,” and “Affects in Dreams.” As always, Freud richly illustrates these topics with dreams and interpretations drawn from his practice and his self-analysis. Curiously, the illustrations he uses in these sections often have death in their latent and manifest contents. Yet there are no apparent connections between these processes of the dream-work and the question of death. It is as if the latter had insinuated itself into the text and would not be denied its place.


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