War and Death (1914 - 20).

"I do not doubt that mankind will survive even this war, but I know for certain
that for me and my contemporaries the world will never again be a happy place. It is
too hideous. And the saddest thing about it is that it is exactly the way we should
have expected people to behave from our knowledge of psychoanalysis."
- Freud to Lou Andreas-Salome, November 25 1914.

In 1914 Freud published a paper entitled On Narcissism. The concept of "narcissism" was developed from the myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection. The term was first used by Paul Nacke in 1899 and subsequently appropriated by psychoanalysis. Narcissism plays a key role in early infancy, when the baby chooses its love objects (which can include itself), on the basis of the satisfaction that it gains from them, assuming that they have no other purpose but to serve it. In On Narcissism Freud showed that narcissism could occur in maturity too, as the adult's drive for an "ideal" to identify with leads to attempts to return to this infantile stage. The paper also provided a clarification of what happens when the ego turns in on itself and withdraws from the world, which causes illnesses such as paranoid fears of being watched.

When the Great War broke out in August 1914, Freud's three sons immediately volunteered for the army and set off for the Russian Front. Freud was initially patriotic as he believed that the war could have a cathartic effect but soon became disillusioned as it failed to be "over by Christmas" and dragged on and on. Though the war initially harmed the psychoanalytic cause as all the international conferences were cancelled, the flood of "war neurotics" soon began to compensate for the loss of foreign links. The war caused massive inflation and devaluation of currency, meaning that Freud lost all his savings and was left cold and hungry, although he can be considered fortunate compared to the people who were forced to eat their own cats and dogs. Freud wrote a paper entitled Mourning and Melancholia in 1915, which was not published for two years due to the international crisis. In this text he extended the theory of narcissism to show how it could paradoxically lead to self-hatred. A narcissistic person would introject a lost object (such as a parent), whom he concealed feelings of hate for. The object would become identified with his own ego, and thus hate would be misdirected against himself. In Mourning and Melancholia one can detect the beginning of the pessimism that would dominate Freud's later work under the influence of the terrible destruction brought by the war, which changed the structure of European society forever. Some have seen Freud as an inveterate pessimist with a very negative view of humanity, but he liked to call himself a "realist". When one considers the atrocities of the twentieth century, it becomes increasingly evident that he was right.

However, the Freud family proved more fortunate than most with regard to war casualties. Rosa's son Hermann, who had made a brief appearance in Dreams at the age of twenty-two months as the little boy unwilling to give his uncle Sigi his birthday bowl of fresh fruit - "Hermann eaten all the chewwies!" (1) - was their only loss. Ironically, it was after the war that Freud was forced to confront the reality of death all around him. His brilliant young disciple Victor Tausk committed suicide in July 1919, and his wealthy friend and benefactor Anton von Freund succumbed to cancer in January 1920.

Worst of all, just five days after von Freund's death, Freud's favourite daughter Sophie died in the influenza epidemic brought by the disease and famine of the immediate post war years. These tragedies did not curb Freud's intellectual output as he published Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which he considered the place of non sexual instincts within the ego, this year. This was something that Adler had already done more than ten years earlier, as we have seen (2). Freud argued that the purpose of all life is to return to a previous inorganic state (non-life): therefore, the aim of all life is death. He had started work on the text when Sophie was healthy, but there is evidence that he made changes to it after her death. Freud called the force that motivates this move towards death the "death instinct" (or Thanatos), which causes compulsions to re-live traumatic incidents, which are in no way pleasurable (such as wartime experiences), in the mind over and over (called "repetition compulsion"). The death instinct is counterbalanced by the "life instinct" (which includes the sexual instincts, or Eros), and has to struggle against it to achieve its grisly purpose. Wars are the inevitable outward manifestations of this battle within ourselves as we are forced to deflect our self-destructive impulses towards others. The Great War proved what Freud had been arguing all along - that primitive man still lurks within our unconscious and that all humanity contains some measure of evil (as the movie aliens always say, "It is in your nature to destroy yourselves"). The death instinct theory proved notoriously unpopular amongst Freud's own followers, who were perhaps more willing to stress human goodness than the world-weary Sigmund.

After the war the majority of Freud's patients were more "normal" than neurotic, being primarily composed of wealthy Americans who were training to become analysts by being analysed themselves. Most Viennese people could no longer afford psychoanalytic treatment due to the devaluation of the Austrian currency. Freud did not mind the lack of neurotic stimulus as he felt that he had perfected his methods so no longer needed material for case studies.


1) See The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Standard Edition IV, p.131.

2) By this time, however, Adler had abandoned the concept in its original form.


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ã Robin Tamblyn, 2000.

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