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De Masi, F. (2015). Is the Concept of the Death Drive Still Useful in the Clinical Field?. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 96(2):445-458.

(2015). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 96(2):445-458

Is the Concept of the Death Drive Still Useful in the Clinical Field? Language Translation

Franco De Masi

(Accepted for publication 29 October 2014)

The issue of the death instinct versus the life instinct has been extensively discussed with conflicting opinions in the course of the development of the analytic thinking. The view I suggest in this paper is that postulating the existence of an innate force to explain destructiveness is not necessary in the clinical field. It is more useful to relate the destructiveness in many severe patients to infantile trauma, particularly the trauma from an abiding lack of affect. When the relationship of dependency on the primary object is failing or produces severe frustrations, the infant can develop psychopathological structures against life and human relations. Destructiveness towards the good objects would be a by-product of trauma, as it is fuelled by traumatic anger and anti-relational omnipotence. However, the trauma-destructiveness sequence is neither linear nor strictly consequential and requires a careful reconstruction during the analytic treatment. It mostly develops in deeply affect-lacking children through pathological identifications with destructive figures and mental withdrawal dissociated from psychic reality. As this kind of phantasies creates pleasure, a cold destructiveness distant from all passions emerges, showing a dependency on pathological constellations that fuel one another constantly.

Aggression and Trauma

Although psychoanalytic thought has long concerned itself with aggression and destructiveness, it has never achieved a unified conception of this subject, but has instead formulated a variety of contrasting theories. Issues which permeate the literature include many questions:

-    whether aggression is an autonomous drive or is a reaction to a narcissistic injury

-    the conceptualization of an autonomous drive that implies the notion of a death instinct

-    the connection between aggression and a pattern of ‘transmission’ in the environment (Perelberg, 1995).

Three basic positions can be distinguished.

1 According to the first, aggression, hate and destructiveness form part of the human instinctual endowment. The champions of the first position include Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein.

[This is a summary excerpt from the full text of the journal article. The full text of the document is available to journal subscribers on the publisher's website here.]

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