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Gordon, R. (1961). The Death Instinct and its Relation to the Self. J. Anal. Psychol., 6(2):119-135.

(1961). Journal of Analytical Psychology, 6(2):119-135

The Death Instinct and its Relation to the Self

Rosemary Gordon


CONCERN with death is a feature of many analyses. It may appear directly and overtly or in more or less disguised form. This seems to happen regardless of the age of the patient and, to some extent, regardless of the initial symptom picture. Reflection on this fact has led me to ask myself: what images and what feelings does the phenomenon of death provoke; what symbols express it; and which of our many human experiences issue directly from it?

My present preoccupation with the theme of death necessarily led once more to thoughts about Freud's theory of the death instinct and to reevaluation of it, particularly in the form that it has taken in the Kleinian school; for the Kleinians the death instinct occupies a central position—central to the understanding of anxiety and guilt, and also to the understanding of aggression, which they consider as the manifestation of the death instinct. This idea will be questioned later.

I feel that pulling down barriers between different schools and different frames of reference should open up creative possibilities; it is a sort of intellectual exogamy. The first effect, however, is likely to be confusion. I am not certain that this paper advances very much beyond that phase.

It will naturally be impossible to deal with the problem of death in all its aspects, or to give a comprehensive definition which would do justice to death either as a biological process or as an object of philosophical and theological speculation. This paper is limited to a concern with death as it is experienced in the human psyche through imagery and symbolic forms, as it is reflected in actual psychic mechanisms, and as the analyst encounters it in his patient. As Voltaire has said: “The human race is the only one that knows it must die …”, and such awareness of death goes hand in hand with an increase in consciousness and with individualization. Nor is man spared the experience of death for very long; even the most urbanized and protected child must meet it, be it only in the death of an insect or a pet.

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