What I love about Freud is that, like Montaigne, he’s just figuring. He doesn’t suggest that he knows all the answers; he’s just throwing out some ideas for consideration:
“We must hold ourselves in readiness to abandon the path we have followed for a time, if it should seem to lead to no good result….I am neither convinced myself, nor am I seeking to arouse conviction in others” (part VI).
Freud leans towards Plato's theories of moderation, equating pleasure with stability or “complete equilibrium” and pain with instability (as opposed to Nietzsche or Mill). This definition helps us understand situations when too much pleasure causes pain, like after a night of heavy drinking.
He says there are two main sources of pain in our lives. First of all, because we have an urge towards self-preservation, we have to repress some of our more pleasurable desires. I can’t watch movies all day because I have to eat to survive, so I have to work to make money to pay bills. That can suck. And sometimes I can't take more than my share because other people will be pissed. The reality-principle frustrates the pleasure-principle. We have to temporarily endure some pain before we can get back to our pleasures.
BUT, sometimes the pleasure-principle wins out – particularly when our “sex impulses, which are not so easily educable” take over “to the detriment of the whole organism” (part I). I messed up my last year of high school because of my obsession with a guy who worked in a bowling alley. Not so easily educable indeed!
So, when we’re practical about things, we lose because we get less pleasure in our lives. And when we’re not practical and let our heart (or groin) lead us astray, we also lose because it totally messes everything up!
Then there’s a whole second major source of pain. There are some things we find pleasurable that we’re not allowed to do, so we repress the feelings: "...particular instincts…are cut off from all possibility of gratification” (part I). Repression changes a possibility of pleasure into a source of pain, which leads to neurotic tendencies. We mainly repress our sexual and violent instincts. A dog in the street can hump or devour your leg until you fight it off, but we stop any urges to join that game. That’s what being civilized is all about! This seems to be his only vaguely implied stance towards morality in this piece - that it's a necessary social convention. It's not something we should try to do for the sake of others, but something we are oppressed into doing.
So then we have this curious way of coping with unfulfilled desires: a repetition-compulsion. We repeat undesirable events over and over as a means of mastering them. He tells a story of a toddler playing “go away”: he’d throw his toys away angrily, then delight in finding them again. Freud figured it was the child's way of coping with his mother leaving. That painful experience was beyond his control, so he turned her leaving into a game that he could control.
This works great for toddlers, but the problem with this coping mechanism is when it takes over our adult lives and we re-live relationships that are reminiscent of our child-parent dynamics.
“Thus one knows people with whom every human relationship ends in the same way, and…far more striking are those cases where the person seems to be experiencing something passively” (part III),like when a woman marries three times, and every one of the men have affairs and leave her for the mistress. Is it victim-blaming to suggest she's somehow enabling the dynamic?
This is a well-known theory of Freud’s that has been hit by a backlash in the past few decades: If you have a series of bad relationships, and notice a pattern, it’s just a coincidence or you’re reading too much into minor connections. Yet it’s striking how often it happens that someone hooks up with person after person who screws around, or who never screws around but steals, or who is a work-aholic or an alcoholic, or is distant, or is clingy. Two people in a row with a similar inclination might be a coincidence. Three feels like there’s something more significant going on.
This is where psychology typically divorces from philosophy. Instead of exploring human nature in universals – live moderately, be prudent, etc. – we are asked to explore our own nature specifically, to turn inward to figure out our own stuff independently. And it starts to feel like naval-gazing. But it gets better.
Freud’s question for us is this: does this theory lead to a good result or should we abandon it? We could claim our previous crappy relationships are all bad luck and jump into another with high hopes, and that might work. But if that one, yet again, goes down the same path, then at some point, if we want more pleasure than pain in life, it might help to check out if we’re stuck compulsively repeating a dynamic.
Freud claims, “It is plain that the compulsion to repeat in the transference the occurrences of his infantile life disregards in every way the pleasure-principle“ (part IV). I’m not convinced it disregards it. Sure it’s not overridingly pleasurable to live through another crappy relationship, yet it seems to follow that it’s all a process of working towards a larger pleasurable experience of figuring it all out! So it’s not that some people don’t want to be happy, or that they’re disregarding their own pleasure, but that they’re working towards a larger pleasure in the long run, and it seems the only route to figuring it all out is to re-live it until they can master it.
The really interesting and uncomfortable part of all this is the idea of transference really messes up how we think about our relationships with others. It suggests that when we have a conflict with another, it’s not just about them and us but about previous relationships that are piggybacking on the current one. So we can never really see other people as they are because our vision will always be coloured by our perception of them as they relate to us. I'm not sure what to do with that except to just float in the recognition of the unknowability of one another. It's helpful to acknowledge if someone's mad at me, that it's their stuff, not me, that's making them nuts. But it's awkward to consider the other way around.
Freud has a really unique theory to explain why anyone would get stuck re-living a painful dynamic: “the first instinct was present, that to return to lifelessness….The goal of all life is death” (part V).
There's a whole section on biology and cellular life forms that help explain that transition, but I just cut to the chase.
Life is a struggle between the ego instincts for that final resting place of perfect stability (and therefore happiness) for us and the sexual instincts directed towards others.
“Our recognition that the ruling tendency of psychic life… is the struggle for reduction, keeping at a constant level, or removal of the inner stimulus tension – a struggle which comes to expression in the pleasure-principle – is indeed one of our strongest motives for believing in the existence of death-instincts” (part VI).We all know that theory too, and I’m not sure it holds up as well, but it’s certainly intriguing.
“The pleasure-principle is then a tendency which subserves a certain function – namely, that of rendering the psychic apparatus as a whole free from any excitation, or to keep the amount of excitation constant or as low as possible. … We note that the function so defined would partake of the most universal tendency of all living matter – to return to the peace of the inorganic world. We all know by experience that the greatest pleasure it is possible for us to attain, that of the sexual act, is bound up with the temporary quenching of a greatly heightened state of excitation. The “biding” of instinct-excitation, however, would be a preparatory function, which would direct the excitation towards its ultimate adjustment in the pleasure of discharge” (part VII).Or, as the French would say, “la petite mort.”
It’s cool how he worked that back around to show that our instinct towards sex is also, or actually, an instinct towards death – a death we can have while preserving our self.
And then he brings up this speech from Plato’s Symposium, suggesting that Plato too recognized a drive to go back to the beginning towards what we once were:
Yet this bit suggests that our attraction to others isn’t about finding someone who can rehash parental conflicts of our youth, but of re-finding someone we bonded with before birth. And that’s a whole different kettle of fish. Somehow, by contrast, Freud seems pretty reasonable!