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Wallace, E.R. (1982-83). The Repetition Compulsion. Psychoanal. Rev., 69:455-469.

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(1982-83). Psychoanalytic Review, 69(4):455-469

The Repetition Compulsion

Edwin R. Wallace, Ph.D.

Ideas, no less than other human behaviors, are overdetermined. This means that oftentimes they have not only multiple cognitive determinants, but multiple noncognitive, even unconscious, ones. Among Freud's most controversial tenets is the repetition compulsion, broached in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). It was proposed as a superordinated regulatory principle to explain certain unpleasurable repetitive phenomena that Freud felt disobeyed the pleasure principle. Intimately related to the Thanatos (death instinct) concept, it is a foundation stone of Freud's subsequent philosophy. The route by which Freud arrived at the hypothesis stands in marked contrast to his usual sober, scientific methodology and suggests the presence of strong non-cognitive factors. Ernest Jones (1957, p. 266) observed that Beyond the Pleasure Principle was “discursively written, almost as if by free associations,” and felt this indicated that the ideas were transmitted from “some personal and profound source.” Freud (1920 p. 59) himself said, in the very work in which the idea appears, that “each of us is governed … by deep rooted internal prejudices, into whose hands our speculation unwittingly plays.” In fact, Beyond the Pleasure Principle is one of several works—most notably Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism—which have powerful psychodynamic determinants (Wallace, 1976, 1977).

My essay is a brief history of the internal development of the “repetition compulsion” and an attempt to discern its psychodynamic determinants. Let me say at the outset that I am not contending that the sole and sufficient explanation for Freud's hypothesis is a psychological one. He had indeed had cognitive-clinical experiences—including exposure to Nietzsche's concept of the “eternal recurrence of the same,” Fliess's “law of inevitable periodicity,” (Jones, 1957, p. 271), and contact with the repetitive, maladaptive behavior of his

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