Death and Psychoanalysis

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Our own death cannot be represented, which is obvious since it would require a self-observing consciousness that disappears with death and therefore cannot perceive the death. Any anticipation of our own death as nothingness is therefore impossible. For Freud, this philosophical evidence was reflected in his remarks that "our unconscious . . . does not believe in its own death; it behaves as if it were immortal" (1915b, p. 296) and "it is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators" (1915b, p. 289). These two propositions should not be confused. The second is a logical statement, since in the absence of existence there is no consciousness, while the first refers to the make-up of the unconscious system and especially the fact that it ignores time and its passage, and more radically, negation.

The inability to represent one's own death does not imply that we fail to suffer about the certainty of death. Anxiety about death occupies a central place in our lives, and ultimately it is this that superego anxiety and castration anxiety refer to. Moreover, death is represented in dreams and symbols. Departures and muteness, or the ability to hide from others are oneiric representations of death. Among the typical dream types Freud mentions in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a) is the dream of the death of loved ones.

Perception about the death of the other is a central element in obsessive neurotics. Freud wrote, "these neurotics need the help of the possibility of death chiefly in order that it may act as a solution of conflicts they have left unsolved" (1909d, p. 236). By suppressing an element of indecision, death would allow resolution, but death, and the possibility of escaping it through superstitious magical activities, is associated with their unconscious hatred in the conflict of ambivalence. The idea of death offers a solution in obsessive neurosis, but it is also, for everyone, a value that, by establishing a contrast, exalts the value of life. Freud demonstrates this in relation to transience (1916a [1915]), but he also emphasizes it in relation to the risk of death: "Life is impoverished, it loses in interest, when the highest stake in the game of living, life itself, may not be risked" (1915b, p. 290).

Beyond the impossible representation of one's own demise, there is the question of death as enigma, similar to birth, as the end mirrors the beginning. Freud questions primitive man's attitude to death (1912-1913a) by distinguishing between the triumph before the corpse of the enemy and the pain experienced in the loss of a loved one. Certainly, in these cases identification could lead primitive man to also consider his own death. But Freud introduced an additional idea, that of the ambivalence that would lead to suffering and relief, and considered it to be the root not of the representation of death but of the fact that the disturbance caused by it might have led men to think: "What released the spirit of enquiry in man was not the intellectual enigma, and not every death, but the conflict of feeling at the death of loved yet alien and hated persons" (1915b, 293).

As for children, Freud also felt that the origin of the activity, if not of thought, at least of research, was found in the desire for affection (preserving the love of one's parents without sharing it with younger siblings). In contrast he does not appear to have considered that for children the representation of death and, in particular, their own death, might have constituted an enigma and encouragement for reflection. "Children", he wrote, "know nothing of the horrors of corruption, of freezing in the ice-cold grave, of the terrors of eternal nothingnessideas which grown-up people find it so hard to tolerate, as is proved by all the myths of a future life" (1900a, p. 254). On the contrary, we can consider that the theories, or myths, that the child creates to explain the origin of life also treat its end, and that both preoccupations are inseparable.

These theories raise the question of the causality of death. We know that the adult, rather than seeing death as an inevitable destiny, will consider the immediate causes, or even look for those responsible (1915b). The child, in a similar position, does not hesitate to make death the result of murder. For here the relationship to death retains its original form, that is, the impulse to kill repressed by an important moral injunction, "Thou shalt not kill." However, there is one area where this impulse can be given free rein: literary fiction, which provides the pleasure of remaining alive and the certainty that we have not killed anyone. "In the realm of fiction we find the plurality of lives which we need" (1915b, p. 291). The fact that so-called "crime" writing has always enjoyed such success attests, as surely as the existence of a moral imperative, to the existence and persistence of this impulse to murder and the enigma contained in this return to death, here couched in playful terms (Mijolla-Mellor, 1995).

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Beyond the Pleasure Principle ; Castration complex; Certainty; Death instinct (Thanatos); Estrangement; "Mourning and Melancholia"; "On Transience"; Phantom; Suicidal behavior; Suicide; "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death"; "Uncanny, The".


Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams, part I. SE, 4-5.

. (1912-1913a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.

. (1915b). Thoughts for the times on war and death. SE, 14: 273-300.

Mijolla-Mellor, Sophie de. (1995). Meurtre familier. Approche psychanalytique d'Agatha Christie. Paris: Dunod.

M'Uzan, Michel de. (1977). De l'art à la mort. Paris: Gallimard.

Further Reading

Laplanche, Jean. (1976). Life and death in psychoanalysis (Jeffrey Mehlman, Trans.). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.